Pick the perfect premium compact camera

DSLRs are great and all, but if there’s one thing the smartphone-photography boom has made clear, it’s that portability can trump performance. If you want a camera that’s easier to carry around than a DSLR but offers better image quality and more-granular controls than a smartphone or basic camera, a premium point-and-shoot fits the bill.

These cameras all have manual exposure controls, aperture- and shutter-priority modes, physical knobs and buttons that give you quick access to settings, and wider maximum apertures than your average compact camera. A few of them have standout video capabilities, compatibility with external flashes and microphones, and large sensors; in general, you’ll pay a whole lot more for a larger sensor.

Picking the right fit depends on what you’re looking for beyond the promise of very good image quality and manual controls. Though these are all performance-minded cameras, they vary greatly in terms of physical size, price, optics, and specialties. The first thing to decide is how big—or how small—you want to go.

Camera size (smallest to largest)
Canon PowerShot S100 3.9” x 2.3” x 1.1” Pocketable
Nikon Coolpix P310 4.1” x 2.3” x 1.3” Pocketable
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 4.0” x 2.3” x 1.4” Pocketable
Samsung EX2F 4.4” x 2.4” x 1.1” Semi-pocketable
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 4.3” x 2.6” x 1.8” Semi-pocketable
Canon PowerShot G12 4.4” x 3.0” x 1.9” Not pocketable
Nikon Coolpix P7100 4.6” x 3.1” x 1.9” Not pocketable
Fujifilm X10 4.6” x 2.7” x 2.2” Not pocketable
Canon PowerShot G1 X 4.6” x 3.2” x 2.5” Not pocketable

Here’s what the current field of premium compacts (and not-so-compacts) looks like.

The truly pocketables

Nikon Coolpix P310

The contenders: Canon PowerShot S100, Nikon Coolpix P310, Sony Cyber-shot RX100

All three competitors in this category look similar on the outside: They’re small black boxes that fit easily in a pants pocket, representing the ultimate blend of performance and portability. However, you’ll see some big differences when it comes to price, sensor size, and in-camera features.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 ($650) is a big deal for a few reasons. Despite having one of the smallest bodies in the premium point-and-shoot class, it also has one of the biggest sensors of any fixed-lens camera. Its 13.2mm-by-8.8mm CMOS sensor is bigger than that of any camera in this roundup except for the Canon PowerShot G1 X, which is a much larger camera.

Sensor size (largest to smallest)
Canon PowerShot G1 X 1.5-inch type
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 1-inch type
Fujifilm X10 2/3-inch type
(tie) Canon PowerShot G12 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Canon PowerShot S100 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Nikon Coolpix P7100 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Samsung EX2F 1/1.7-inch type
Nikon Coolpix P310 1/2.3-inch type

Another key trait is the RX100’s bright F1.8 aperture at its wide-angle end. The RX100 also has best-in-class video specs (1080p at 60fps) with manual exposure controls while filming, in addition to Sony’s usual array of innovative modes for low-light shooting, panorama shots, and portrait composition.

It’s also really expensive, with a $650 price tag that rivals that of an entry-level DSLR. And like the other two premium cameras in the pocketable realm, you won’t get much in terms of expansion options; the Cyber-shot RX100, PowerShot S100, and Coolpix P310 don’t have hot shoes for external flashes, mic-in ports, optical viewfinders, or adjustable LCD screens.

Canon PowerShot S100

Sensor size isn’t everything, especially if you want to save a bit of money. The PowerShot S100 ($430) and Nikon Coolpix P310 ($330) are both excellent little cameras with a few notable differences. The PowerShot S100 has a RAW-shooting mode, a built-in neutral density (ND) filter, and a lens with a longer zoom range (5X; 24mm to 120mm). For $100 less, the Coolpix P310 lacks the RAW mode, the ND filter, and a bit of the zoom range (4.2X; 24mm to 100mm), but it does have an F1.8 lens.

Buying advice: If you can afford it, the Sony is the clear-cut winner when it comes to sensor size, video specs, and shooting modes. If you have less money to spend and want to shoot RAW, get the PowerShot S100. Otherwise, the Coolpix P310 is a really good bargain and a superb entry-level option in the premium realm.

The sort-of-pocketables

Samsung EX2F

The contenders: Samsung EX2F, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7

Depending on the size of your pockets, either of these cameras might be able to squeeze in there, too. That said, both the Samsung EX2F and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 might be better off in a bag or on around your neck.

Both of these cameras share a common distinguishing trait: an F1.4 maximum aperture at the wide-angle end, which is the brightest lens you’ll find in the world of fixed-lens cameras.

Maximum aperture
F1.4 Panasonic Lumix LX7 and Samsung EX2F
F1.8 Nikon Coolpix P310 and Sony Cyber-shot RX100
F2.0 Canon PowerShot S100 and Fujifilm X10
F2.8 Canon PowerShot G1X, Canon PowerShot G12, and Nikon Coolpix P7100

These two cameras have the same size sensor: 1/1.7-inch-type CMOS imagers that are about average size for the premium compact class. They both come with RAW shooting modes, hot shoes for external flashes, built-in ND filters, and quick access to controls via front-mounted, index-finger-operated control dials.

Panasonic Lumix LX7

Beyond that, there’s a solid dividing line between these two cameras. The Samsung EX2F is the only camera in the premium category with built-in Wi-Fi, and it also has a tilt-and-swivel AMOLED screen and a mic-in jack. The Lumix LX7, on the other hand, has excellent video-capture specs (1080p at 60fps) with manual exposure controls while shooting. Like most premium compacts, both cameras have limited optical zoom ranges: the Samsung EX2F’s 3.3X lens reaches from 24mm to 79mm, while the Lumix LX7 offers a 3.8X (24mm to 98mm) lens.

Video features
Panasonic Lumix LX7 1080p/60fps with manual exposure controls and hot shoe
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 1080p/60fps with manual exposure controls
Samsung EX2F 1080p/30fps with adjustable LCD, mic input, and hot shoe
Fujifilm X10 1080p/30fps with hot shoe
Nikon Coolpix P310 1080p/30fps
Canon PowerShot G1 X 1080p/24fps with adjustable LCD and hot shoe
Canon PowerShot S100 1080p/24fps
Nikon Coolpix P7100 720p/30fps with adjustable LCD, mic input, and hot shoe
Canon PowerShot G12 720p/30fps with adjustable LCD and hot shoe

Buying advice: Both of these cameras have very fast F1.4 lenses, expansion options via their hot shoes, built in neutral density filters, and good physical controls for manual-minded shooters. The Samsung EX2F is the pick for you if you value Wi-Fi sharing features and an adjustable AMOLED screen. The Lumix LX7 looks like the better pick if you want to shoot a lot of video.

The non-pocketables

The contenders: Canon PowerShot G1 X, Canon PowerShot G12, Nikon Coolpix P7100, Fujifilm X10

Canon PowerShot G1 X

If you invest in one of these cameras, you’ll also want to invest in a neck strap. They’re significantly bigger than a pocket camera, but that extra room is used for things like an optical viewfinder, dedicated knobs and buttons for ISO and exposure compensation, and sizeable hand grips. These cameras feel like cameras.

The most-expensive camera is the Canon PowerShot G1 X ($800), which is also the biggest camera with the largest sensor in this roundup; its 1.5-inch CMOS sensor is only a bit smaller than the APS-C size sensor found in many DSLRs. Its range of features includes a hot shoe, a tilt-and-swivel LCD, an optical viewfinder, a built-in ND filter, and compatibility with Canon’s Speedlite flashes.

The Canon PowerShot G12 ($500) and Nikon Coolpix P7100 ($500) are similar-looking cameras, but they’re both a bit smaller and much cheaper than the PowerShot G1 X. The main reason for the price difference is the smaller sensors found in these two cameras; they’re also the only CCD-sensored cameras in the current field of premium cameras, with 10-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch imagers.

Despite the sensor-size differences, the PowerShot G1 X, PowerShot G12, and Coolpix P7100 are practically triplets when it comes to features and controls. They all have adjustable LCDs, ND filters, hot shoes, and maximum apertures of a relatively narrow F2.8. However, there are some key differences in terms of zoom range and video capture. The Coolpix P7100 has the farthest-reaching optics in this roundup, with a 7.1X-optical-zoom lens (28mm to 200mm), while the PowerShot G12 has a 5X zoom lens (28mm to 140mm) and the PowerShot G1 X has a 4X zoom lens (28mm to 112mm). Because the PowerShot G12 and Coolpix P7100 use CCD sensors, their video-capture abilities are a bit limited, as well: the G12 and P7100 capture 720p video at 24fps, while the G1 X captures 1080p video at 24fps. Only the Nikon Coolpix P7100 has an external microphone jack, however.

Fujifilm X10

If you’re looking for a camera with a brighter lens, your pick in this size range should be the Fujifilm X10 ($600), which also has one of the bigger sensors in the fixed-lens realm (a 2/3-inch-type CMOS sensor). This is a retro-looking camera with skills to back up its photogenic looks, thanks to an F2.0 lens (4X; 28mm to 112mm), an optical viewfinder, a hot shoe, and 1080p video recording at 30fps. It doesn’t have an adjustable LCD screen like the other cameras in this category, however.

Price (lowest to highest)
Nikon Coolpix P310 $330
Canon PowerShot S100 $430
(tie) Samsung EX2F $500
(tie) Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 $500
(tie) Canon PowerShot G12 $500
(tie) Nikon Coolpix P7100 $500
Fujifilm X10 $600
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 $650
Canon PowerShot G1 X $800

Buying advice: The more you pay, the bigger sensor you’ll get. The $800 Canon PowerShot G1 X will give you an imager nearly the size of the one you’d find in a DSLR. If you’re looking for a combination of a big sensor and a fast lens, the F2.0 Fujifilm X10 is the best fit in this category. The Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100 are basically twins, and although they have smaller sensors, they’re still excellent cameras that scored well in PCWorld Labs’ image tests. Their CCD sensors capture good-looking photos, but they’re probably not the best options for those who want to shoot a lot of high-definition video.

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