Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top 10 compact digital cameras of 2011 (Holiday Gift Guide)

Picking a list of the 10 best compact digital cameras at any given moment is as hard as pinning a tail on a moving donkey (make that 10 moving donkeys).  With camera vendors vying to capture every potential buyer with a perfectly suited camera, there’s a constant glut of new models hitting the market. At last January’s CES 2011 alone, manufacturers trotted out new cameras practically by the dozen, debuting a whopping 60 compact models. With new announcements coming every month throughout the rest of the year, the compact camera market has seen well over 130 new additions this year. The good news is that you’re sure to find a perfect camera for absolutely anyone on your holiday shopping list this year. And you’ll find some fantastic deals as camera vendors try to clear the decks for a new batch of spring models coming at next year’s CES, which will be the first to include the “colocated” PMA (Photo Marketing Association) trade show. To help you narrow down the options, here’s my list of the top 10 compact digital cameras currently on the market. Suggested list prices range from $430 to $1,200 for the first four cameras (on this page) down to to $110 for the least expensive (on page 3), though you’ll likely find lower street prices for many of these cameras. [See also my list of Top digital SLR cameras of 2011.]

Image Gallery: Check out photos of the Top 10 compact digital cameras of 2011.Fujifilm FinePix X100

1. Canon PowerShot S100
The chart-topping Canon PowerShot S90 from my mid-year top 10 compact cameras of 2010 was everyone’s favorite until the camera was updated by the S95 in August of last year. This fall’s Canon PowerShot S100 improved upon the previous two models with a complete overhaul of the innards, though the super-compact body design remains very similar (save for the welcome addition of a small grip, as well as a new silver color option). With a whole new imaging system (including a faster processor and a completely new CMOS sensor), the S100 also brings a wider and longer 5x zoom lens (24-120mm equivalent, f/2.0-5.9). A built-in GPS receiver enables automatic geotagging and location logging for photos and videos, and the ability to zoom while shooting video is a nice addition too. Having just hit the market in November, the S100 may be hard to find in stores (and certainly not at a discount). But you can find great deals on the S95, which is still an awesome camera in its own right.

[See a gallery of sample photos shot with the S100.]

[Read review] [Check prices]

2. Olympus XZ-1
The first high-end compact point-and-shoot to be released by Olympus in almost a decade, the Olympus XZ-1 was a standout out among the CES crowd early this year. Though it’s not quite as tiny as Canon’s S100 and S95, it’s still relatively trim — a touch bigger than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, which I’ve also included on this list. Low-light shooting is a priority with the XZ-1: The bright 4x zoom lens (28-112mm equivalent) has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide angle and f/2.5 at telephoto, and a dedicated low-light mode automatically adjusts ISO sensitivity up to ISO 3200. There’s also an Autofocus Illuminator to assist with focusing in dark environments. The XZ-1’s high-resolution 610,000-dot, 3-inch OLED display, also stands out from the crowd, enabling deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios than more typical TFT screens. One of my favorite features was cribbed straight from Canon: A control ring around lens works much like the one Canon originally introduced in the S90 (and still has on the S100). Combined with the wheel controller on the back of the camera, the control ring lets you easily access all manual settings on the fly.

[See a photo gallery of the XZ-1 and gallery of sample photos shot with the XZ-1.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
Released in August 2010, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 can still hold its own among newer competitors like the S100 and XZ-1. Plus, being the oldest camera on this list, it can be found at greater discounts (for example, Amazon recently offered a one-day deal on the LX5 for just $269) . Like the S100, its ultra-wide-angle 24mm equivalent lens has a bright f/2.0 maximum aperture, and delivers impressive image quality in low light with a sensitivity range up to ISO 12,800 (in high-sensitivity mode). Like the XZ-1, the LX5 includes a hot shoe for adding an external flash, and it also accepts an optional electronic viewfinder. Ultimately, though, it’s the impressive image quality and better-than-average performance of the LX5 that keeps it in the running despite newer entries with more advanced technology.

[See a photo gallery of the LX5.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

4. Fujifilm FinePix X100
After a huge build-up and much buzz and ballyhoo, the Fujifilm FinePix X100 started shipping in March of this year, only to be thwarted by earthquake and tsunami damage to production facilities. But, as they say, good things come to those who wait and for the lucky folks with 1,200 smackers to drop on it, the X100 delivers. Not only is it a thing of rare beauty — out-styling all but possibly Leica cameras in its retro appeal — but it’s also a photo enthusiast’s dream with a full-SLR-sized sensor (APS-C) and innovative features such as its hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. Of course for that kind of coin you can get yourself a more flexible interchangeable lens compact (ILC) camera (or a decent digital SLR for that matter), but if money is no object, the X100 may be the camera of the year.

[See a photo gallery of the X100 and gallery of sample photos shot with the X100.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

Go to numbers 5 through 7: Top midrange cameras »

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