Compact cameras for advanced shooters (roundup)

Are you ready to step up to a more sophisticated model or are you thinking about stepping down to something smaller than a dSLR? These are for you.

Editors' note: This story was originally published on November 21, 2011, but gets updated frequently to reflect more-recent reviews and announcements. The latest update incorporates the Olympus Stylus XZ-2.


It's a common complaint: You want the photo quality of a dSLR but find you're leaving the camera at home because it's so large.

The compromise is a compact camera with a sensor larger than a typical point-and-shoot's -- sometimes even the same size as a consumer or midrange dSLR, raw file support, and sufficient manual control over aperture and shutter speed to allow for a measure of the creativity to which you're accustomed. What you sacrifice is the speed of a dSLR's faster phase-detection autofocus, and more often than not, the improved shooting experience delivered by a through-the-lens optical viewfinder.

These dSLR complements come in two versions: ones with the traditional larger-than-average point-and-shoot design, and the interchangeable-lens models, which attain a more-svelte-than-dSLR profile by jettisoning the mirror and prism optical path, which is one factor that keeps dSLRs so large. Of course, once you start adding on to the latter models, like tacking on an EVF and even a modest zoom lens, they start to get pretty big. Still, equipped with a kit pancake prime lens like the 17mm (Olympus) or 14mm (Panasonic), they remain quite pocketable. But they also tend to be quite expensive compared with the all-in-one models.

Relative sensor sizes

There are always new wrinkles in the enthusiast compact segment. With the debut of the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, the first full-frame compact-ish camera, we have a new definition of best photo quality. At more than $2,500, the RX1 is out of the reach of most buyers, though Leica bests it at redefining "high price" with its new Vario X, an APS-C model with a slow but unique (on an APS-C model) zoom lens. Then there's the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10; though it has the body of a megazoom, with the RX100 II's 1-inch sensor and an 8.3x f2.8 lens it has the spirit of a compact and a $1,300 enthusiast-only price.

And then there are the oddballs, like the Sigma dp series. With the new version of the Foveon sensor, Quattro, and a big, almost noncompact design, I suspect this won't be the model to break the dp out of its niche.

Still to come: the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II, Sigma dp1, dp2 and dp2 Quattro, Canon PowerShot S120, Nikon P7800, Fujifilm XQ1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, Samsung EX2F, Ricoh GR, and Leica Vario X.

Here's my take on how the fixed-lens models stack up.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II
Sony bests itself with a camera that surpasses the DSC-RX100 for best overall model: the RX100 II. It's fast and compact with a nice lens and excellent photo quality. However, it's relatively expensive, more so than all but the Canon PowerShot G1 X and Ricoh GR, so it's not necessarily the right pick for everyone. If you want second best, the less expensive (but still not cheap) RX100 also leads the rest of the class, as long as you don't miss the tilting LCD and Wi-Fi connectivity, and don't start pixel-peeping comparisons between the siblings.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Olympus Stylus XZ-2 iHS
It debuted at about $600, which was a pretty steep price for a camera with a 1/1.7-inch BSI sensor. Now that the price has dropped to $299.99, though, it merits a shoutout as the best deal in this category. Unfortunately, its JPEG processing isn't very good, but if you're willing to shoot raw it's a great bargain.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Canon PowerShot S110
If you want the smallest model, the Canon PowerShot S110 packs a fast-ish, wide-angle lens and a relatively large 1/1.7-inch sensor with a nice manual control ring into a pretty small 7-ounce frame. It's a little faster than the S100 it replaces, but neither delivers notably better photo and video quality than the much older S95. The S100 had geotagging, which the S110 replaced with lackluster support for Wi-Fi uploading. It's been replaced by the S120, which has supposedly better Wi-Fi support and faster performance. If you're looking for something a little more stylish in this class with a better lens -- albeit a little larger -- the Fujifilm XF1 might suit. It's also more of a point-and-shoot than enthusiast compact, and from that perspective the as-yet unreviewed Fujifilm XQ1, which incorporates the company's X-Trans CMOS II, has better cred.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Canon PowerShot G16
If you need a viewfinder, "reasonably" priced choices range from $400 to $800, and trade-offs abound. For optical viewinders, the Fujifilm FinePix X20 is the fastest performer of the group, and is capable of producing nice, though not best-in-class images. Canon has two models in this class, the current Canon PowerShot G1 X and the PowerShot G16, though the older G15 is still widely available at a lower price of about $360. While the G1 X has arguably the best photo quality of the group, it's also slow and expensive, and the lens aperture narrows so fast as you zoom out that it can be frustrating to use.

The G16, on the other hand, has a great, fast lens and improved (but still not great) performance, but it lacks the articulated display of the other two, and its photo quality isn't significantly better than the last couple of predecessors. Nikon dropped an optical viewfinder entirely for last year's P7700, but predecessors Nikon Coolpix P7100 and the even older P7000 are still around and both are at the cheaper end of the price range. This year's P7800 incorporates an electronic viewfinder, as does the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, which I think is probably a better way to go for cameras in this class.

I think the G15's lens makes it edge out the competition slightly because of the shooting flexibility it provides -- fast with a slightly broader zoom than the X20 -- but none of these cameras inspires an unqualified recommendation. However, earlier this year Canon announced the G1 X's sucessor, the G1 X Mark II, which sounds like it finally has a respectable 24-120mm f2-3.9 lens. Stay tuned for that review.
Read the full review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Olympus Stylus 1
Olympus conquers this class with the longest zoom range -- 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) -- and doesn't sacrifice the aperture to get there; it delivers a constant f2.8. It also performs pretty well for this crowd. But its relatively small 1/1.7-inch, low-resolution sensor produces images that might please snapshooters but don't really stand up for demanding pixel peepers given its $700 price tag. The only potentially close competitor is the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 with its shorter, 8.3x lens (as yet unreviewed), but that camera has a larger sensor that delivers better photos.
Read the full review.


Fujifilm FinePix X100S
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Fujifilm FinePix X100S
If you want the best photo quality under $1,500, the Fujifilm FinePix X100S delivers it. Plus, it has a very nice hybrid viewfinder that switches between optical and electronic. However, it's kind of big to think of as a compact, the main back control dial can be very irritating, and while it's great for manual focusing, the autofocus can be quirky. It also has a fixed focal-length lens with some wonkiness at f2 -- which is partly responsible for the high photo quality, but which makes also it less flexible for some shooters.

The Canon PowerShot G1 X also has excellent photo quality with a zoom lens, but I found the limitations of the lens too frustrating given its relative price, between the RX100 and the X100S. At $1,100, the Nikon Coolpix A is a few hundred cheaper than the X100S and delivers excellent photos, but if you like a viewfinder it's worth the extra cost for the X100S. And if you're that price sensitive you might want think about the Ricoh GR, which offers extremely similar specs and features to the Nikon, but costs a lot less. That price sandwich leaves the Coolpix A in an odd competitive position. Leica offers its X2 for about $2,000, which is relatively expensive; the company's new Vario X is even more expensive at $2,850, though it's the first APS-C compact with a zoom lens. The lens is pretty slow, however (it hits f6.4 at 70mm). While I haven't yet officially tested the similarly priced RX10, I have shot with it a bit and from an image-quality perspective I think the X100S still fares better.
Read the full review.


Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
If money is no object and you simply want the best photo quality, the RX1 delivers that, hands down. It lacks some amenities offered by the cheaper X100S, including a built-in viewfinder, but the amazing Zeiss 35mm lens and excellent full-frame sensor slightly soften the sticker shock of this expensive but ground-breaking camera. It now has a sibling, the RX1R, which has the same full-frame sensor but no optical low-pass filter, intended to produce sharper photos for folks who photograph highly detailed still subjects.
Read the full review.

 

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