Best budget compact system camera: 6 tested
3rd Feb 2012 | 14:39
Six of the best budget CSCs tested
Budget CSCs explained
There's nothing subtle about a full-sized DSLR. Walk around with a hefty camera and lens combination hanging from your neck and it's a clear signal of your intentions. It's not a problem most of the time but, when you're trying to take candid shots without drawing attention to yourself, smaller is better.
For those of us without a black belt in karate, there are also times when a high-value DSLR resting against your chest can feel like you're wearing a T-shirt with 'Mug Me' printed on it.
With their mirror-free shutter release and their ability to turn off autofocus beeps and other sound effects, compact system cameras (CSCs) are very quiet in operation. You can whip one out of your pocket, take a couple of shots and nobody need be any the wiser.
They're great in situations where security may be a little sensitive; nobody usually minds people snapping away with mobile phones or compact cameras, but eyebrows are raised when a full-blown DSLR comes into view.
If you're using a zoom lens rather than a 'pancake' wide-angle prime, the overall size of a CSC becomes larger. Even so, the big bonus is that, just as with a DSLR, you can fit the best lens for the task at hand. Like for like, CSC lenses can be rather smaller than their DSLR counterparts, but a lot depends on the size of the image sensor.
Both the Nikon J1 and Nikon V1, the latter of which boasts an electronic viewfinder, higher-resolution LCD and a bit more sophistication, have image sensors that measure just 13.2x8.8mm. This results in a crop factor of 2.7x.
The Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 use a larger Four Thirds sensor with a 2x crop factor. The APS-C (Advanced Photo System - Classic) format sensors in the Samsung NX11 and Sony NEX-C3 are the same size as those used in most DSLRs, so the crop factor is just 1.5x.
The upshot is that to get a typical 'standard' zoom range equivalent to around 27-82mm on a full-frame camera, the Nikon 1 J1 only needs to use a small 10-30mm lens, whereas the Samsung and Sony need a bigger 18-55mm zoom.
Indeed, fit the kit 18-55mm zoom lens on the extremely compact Sony NEX-C3 and it feels a bit like the tail's wagging the dog.
A drawback of physically smaller sensors is that the individual pixels are also likely to be smaller, so gather less light. There's therefore the danger of increased image noise, especially when shooting in dull lighting conditions and at higher ISO settings.
Despite all CSCs having larger sensors than regular compact cameras, Nikon limits its J1 and V1 cameras to just 10.1MP. For CSCs with larger sensors, you can expect higher resolution. The 16MP Panasonic G3 and 16.2MP Sony C3 lead the way.
The majority of CSCs don't come with viewfinders, with images having to be framed using their large rear screens. Being able to see what you're doing when bright light is bouncing off the screen can be an issue, placing high demands on the clarity and non-reflective properties of LCD panels. Also, to fend off camera shake at slow shutter speeds, locking a viewfinder into your face might not be comfortable, but it does make for more stable handheld shooting.
In both respects, the Panasonic G3 and Samsung NX11 have the advantage of a built-in electronic viewfinder, which offers an alternative to framing shots on the LCD screen – or the AMOLED (Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) that's fitted to the NX11.
Not to be outdone, the Panasonic G3 is the only camera in the group to feature a fully pivoting screen, and it's also touch-sensitive for easy poke-and-prod menu navigation. The baby Panasonic GF3 also sports a touchscreen and, in both cases, there's a useful option to release the shutter with a tap of the screen rather than using the shutter button.
There's no pivot facility on the GF3; next best is the Sony C3's screen, which at least has a tilt mechanism, along with a class-leading resolution of 921k pixels. In all the other cameras, the LCD screen is completely fixed.
For further defence against shake, image stabilisation is a key benefit. Only the Olympus E-PM1 features built-in sensor-shift stabilisation, which works with any lens. All other manufacturers have opted for optical stabilisation on a lens-by-lens basis.
Naturally, there's less need for stabilisation with fast-aperture prime lenses, or with wide-angles where camera-shake is less of an issue, but it's increasingly necessary at longer focal lengths and relatively 'slow' kit zoom lenses that usually have a maximum aperture of f/3.5-5.6 as you extend through the zoom range.
Key compact system camera features
Look out for these key features when buying your compact system camera (CSC):
This gives quick access to PASM shooting modes and a variety of scene modes, but is usually omitted on compact-style CSCs due to lack of space, so you'll have to use on-screen menus instead.
A hotshoe enables an external flashgun to be fitted and in some cases it's combined with an 'accessory port'. The port enables connection of a miniature flash and other essential accessories.
A built-in electronic viewfinder is usually a key difference between compact-style and mini-DSLR CSCs. In some cases, an optional electronic viewfinder can be attached via the accessory port.
One drawback to downsizing is the loss of direct controls for important shooting parameters. Mini-DSLR styled cameras give a little more space for functions such as auto exposure lock. Samsung's innovative i-Function system also lets you change key settings via the focusing ring of suitable lenses.
In physical size, they're typically much larger than the zoom lenses fitted to regular compact cameras. Pancake prime lenses are smaller, but the lack of zooming versatility can feel like a backwards step.
Most CSCs in this price bracket have a 3-inch LCD screen with a reasonable resolution of 460k pixels. The LCD is usually fixed, but some models have a useful tilt function or fully pivoting facility.
A four-way control pad typically offers quick access to functions such as white balance, metering mode, ISO and drive mode, along with a menu or OK confirmation button at the centre.
Nikon 1 J1
Nikon 1 J1, 10-30mm - £450
A late arrival on the scene, Nikon has finally introduced its CSCs more than three years after the Panasonic G1 made the first splash. But Nikon is more than dipping its toe in the pool with the J1 and pricier V1. They launched with four new '1 Nikkor' format lenses, plus an adaptor that can be used to attach regular Nikon-fit DSLR lenses.
The new CX-format image sensor is the smallest of any camera in this group and also has the lowest resolution of 10.1MP. However, it's coupled to a super-fast EXPEED 3 image processor. Featuring dual engines, it enables some crafty trickery when it comes to shooting modes. For example, the camera can start taking pictures before you even fully press the shutter button, firing off a burst of shots then whittling them down to just a handful of best images for you to select.
There's also super-slow-motion video shooting at up to 1,200fps, and the ability to combine short video clips with a still image in a Motion Snapshot file. If you can live with autofocus being fixed throughout a burst of shots, the maximum drive rate is a blistering 60fps (or 10fps with focus tracking).
The Nikon J1 is the slimmest camera in the group at just 30mm thick but it lacks a viewfinder (only fitted to the Nikon V1) or sculpted hand grip. Handling can be a challenge, and you need to resort to long-winded menus to adjust shooting parameters like ISO and white balance. This makes the J1 feel more of a point-and-shoot camera than a tool for advanced photographers.
Typical of Nikon's current cameras, image quality is crisp, vibrant and richly saturated. Outright resolution is limited by the 10.1MP sensor, but shots look sharp enough even in large prints. Noise is fairly restrained too, especially if you don't push sensitivity above ISO 1600.
Outdoor image test
Colours are well saturated and there's plenty of detail in the highlights of the sky, despite the overall brightness of the exposure.
ISO 200 at 100%
Despite its small-format, relatively low pixel-count sensor, resolution holds up fairly well in raw mode but is bottom of the group for JPEGs.
ISO 200 at 100%
ISO 1600 at 100%
Image noise is slightly noticeable even at ISO 200, but good in-camera smoothing makes for acceptable results right up to ISO 1600.
The J1 seems to aim for bright and breezy images and, while colour accuracy is pretty good, blues and greens can be a little pale.
Image test verdict
Typical of Nikon's current cameras, image quality is bright and vibrant. Dynamic range is impressive and noise levels reasonable in low light.
Read the full Nikon 1 J1 review
Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1
Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1, 14-42mm II - £400
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Nikon J1, the super-slim Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 has a flat frontal area with no handgrip protrusion, giving it a streamlined appearance. Around the back, it's even more simple than the Nikon, with the minimum of controls. The trade-off is that nearly all the shooting controls are menu-based, although the menus themselves are intuitive and straightforward. Most of the space is taken up by the LCD, which has a fairly typical 460k resolution. It proved quite reflective in our tests, making it hard to use in bright light.
Like the Nikon, the kit zoom lens collapses down to a short length for carrying around, so it's extra compact when not in use. Extended for active duty, with an effective 28-84mm zoom range once you take the 2x crop factor into account, it's slightly smaller than Panasonic's 14-42mm lens. This is partly due to there being no optical stabilisation. The Olympus features in-camera, sensor-shift stabilisation instead, which proved slightly less effective in our tests.
Unlike the Nikon J1, there's no pop-up flash, but you do get a hotshoe as well as a tiny clip-on flash that connects via the accessory port. You can also plug in an optional EVF, but it's typically expensive, at around £165.
In good light, the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 boasts very speedy autofocus that's capable of tracking fairly fast-moving targets, although it slows noticeably in low-light conditions. The camera's shiny plastic coating makes it feel a bit slippery in the hand, but at least there's a small, rubberised corner at the back that falls under your thumb.
Image quality is crisp and lifelike, with reasonably low noise at low and medium ISOs. The simple controls are best suited to beginners, but there are some useful advanced menu-based options if you scratch the surface.
Outdoor image test
Exposure is good overall but, as is often the case, the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 bumps up red hues, as shown in the autumn leaves.
Resolution is very good at the base sensitivity and up to ISO 800, but nosedives at the top end of the extended sensitivity range.
Graininess is quite well contained up to ISO 1600 but plummets beyond this, with the ISO 12800 expanded setting being all but unusable.
Saturation is a bit on the heavy side and there's a noticeable tendency towards a warm colour shift, with strident reds.
Image test verdict
Colour rendition is rich but red hues are often accentuated. This is not helped by inconsistencies in auto white balance during our tests.
Read the full Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, 14-42mm - £380
About the same size as other super-slinky rivals in this group, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is very much a compact-style camera rather than a mini-DSLR. Like the Nikon J1, it manages to squeeze in a pop-up flash, which launches out of the camera with the vigour of a Jack-in-a-box. However, there's no accessory port or hotshoe.
Direct access buttons are on hand for AF area/point selection, exposure compensation, white balance and drive mode, and there's also a Quick menu/Function button, as well as a dedicated iA button for switching to the iA+ (intelligent Auto plus) mode. This analyses the scene and adjusts the picture mode automatically, for optimum results. It even increases the ISO to avoid motion blur if the camera detects subject movement.
There's always a danger that such a compact camera will bury important adjustments in arcane menus, putting them out of reach, but the brilliant touchscreen gives near-instant access to everything you need. And for those with a pathological fear of leaving smeary finger marks on touchscreens, a fingernail will work just as well.
Handling feels the most natural of any of the compact-style cameras in this group and, in use, the touchscreen makes a huge difference. We love the way you can frame a shot and point to the area you want to focus on, and the autofocus responds amazingly quickly for a contrast-detection AF system.
In Touch Shutter mode, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 takes the shot after focusing on the point you've touched on the screen. In Pinpoint AF, the display zooms in automatically for a visual focus check.
Image quality is excellent, and the not-too-high resolution of the camera's Four Thirds sensor helps to enable good dynamic range and noise suppression throughout the sensitivity range.
Outdoor image test
A practically perfect exposure, the GF3 delivers clarity and detail from dark lowlights and bright highlights, along with very natural colour.
You can eek out a little extra resolution by shooting raw files. In JPEG mode it's merely average, but is very consistent up to ISO 800.
Images are very smooth at ISO 100 but a little grainy at ISO 1600, although camera processing retains plenty of detail.
Colour rendition is pretty accurate across the spectrum and there's an inviting liveliness that gives pictures a punchy quality.
Image test verdict
The GF3 handles metering extremely well, even in tricky conditions, while colour rendition is natural and high-sensitivity shots are very detailed.
Read the full Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 review
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3, 14-42mm - £470
The chunkiest model in this group, Panasonic gives an official depth measurement of 47mm from front to back. However, this doesn't include the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3's built-in, non-removable electronic viewfinder, which boosts the overall thickness to 60mm. That's twice as deep as some of the compact-style cameras we've tested and, in the hand, it doesn't feel all that much smaller than a 'proper' (and cheaper) lightweight DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 1100D.
The bigger body pays dividends in handling, though, and the G3 feels a better balanced proposition than the slimline Panasonic GF3 with its 14-42mm lens. Other luxuries include a mode dial with direct access to PASM modes, scene modes, creative imaging controls and two custom modes.
You also get a second Fn button in addition to the Q.Menu/Fn button (as featured on the GF3), and a button for switching between the LCD and the electronic viewfinder.
The quick-acting, intuitive touchscreen goes one better than the GF3's in that it has a full pivot facility. This makes the option of tapping the screen for releasing the shutter even more of an advantage than it is on the GF3. Shooting from odd angles has never been easier.
When it comes to handling, the G3 feels more of a 'real' camera than the compact-style models, and boasts performance to match. Picture quality proved excellent in our tests and resistance to noise is impressive at medium to high ISOs, especially considering the high 16MP resolution for a Four Thirds sensor. The EVF comes into its own for sunny-day shooting and is jitter-free when panning, although it's not perfect.
Overall, the G3 is an excellent option for photographers who want advanced features in an upsized body.
Outdoor image test
A little on the dark side; foliage in the trees in the background looks a bit dull and murky, but the grass is still quite vibrant.
JPEG resolution is very impressive throughout the entire sensitivity range and is even a match for raw mode at ISO 160.
There's a little more smoothing in evidence in high-ISO JPEGS compared with the GF3, but images look nice and clean.
A little muted compared with the GF3. Colour accuracy is very good, but images can appear slightly lacking in saturation.
Image test verdict
In some conditions, midtones are a little muddy, but overall image quality is very good, with very pleasing results straight from the camera.
Read the full Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 review
Samsung NX11, 18-55mm - £340
The mini-DSLR style Samsung NX11 is similar in dimensions and weight to the Panasonic Lumix G3, although the EVF doesn't extend so far from the rear. The EVF features a proximity sensor, so the display automatically switches from the LCD to the viewfinder as you put your eye to the eyepiece, but it's much more jittery when panning than the Panasonic's viewfinder.
Continuing the upsized theme, the image sensor is also larger than those of the Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic cameras in this test, and is matched only by the Sony in its APS-C dimensions. Image resolution is a respectable 14.6MP, although the maximum video resolution is relatively disappointing at just 720p.
The Samsung NX11 features an AMOLED screen rather than a conventional LCD, which is clear, bright and reasonably unreflective, but lacks the touchscreen facility of the Panasonic GF3 and G3. As a substitute, direct-access control buttons are plentiful, but this makes the camera quite cluttered around the back.
Another neat twist, literally, is the i-Function system, which enables you to alter shooting parameters via the focusing ring of compatible lenses. Pressing the button repeatedly cycles through options such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and exposure compensation, depending on what shooting mode you're using. The shooting mode dial offers a wealth of options from 'smart' automatic scene selection to dedicated scene modes and PASM shooting.
Handling feels quite natural, thanks in part to the newly designed handgrip. The larger than average body feels balanced when using the 18-55mm kit lens. Optical image stabilisation works well and image quality is good, although dynamic range falls off quite noticeably when you push the sensitivity to its higher settings.
Outdoor image test
White balance is a little off, giving this landscape scene a slightly cool look, but exposure levels are pretty much spot on.
Despite the NX11's higher-resolution APS-C sensor when compared with the GF3, the benefit is only really apparent in high-sensitivity JPEGs.
Despite its comparatively large APS-C sensor, JPEG images from the NX11 are particularly noisy at high sensitivity settings in low light.
A little too restrained, the NX11 often delivers dull, muddy-looking colours that can make images look a bit gloomy.
Image test verdict
Good metering isn't matched by accurate AWB, making colour rendition a moveable feast. High ISO shots in low light are disappointingly noisy.
Read the full Samsung NX11 review
Sony NEX-C3, 18-55mm - £390
Putting the 'compact' into compact-style, the Sony C3 body is remarkably slimline, especially considering its oversized APS-C sensor, which has a class-leading resolution of 16.2MP. The tightness of the package is maintained if you fit Sony's E-mount 16mm pancake lens, at a cost of £200, but the body is dwarfed by the kit 18-55mm lens.
With most of the package being 'out in front', the camera has odd looks and strange handling. Indeed, shooting with the Sony NEX-C3 feels a bit like you're holding the lens and just using the body as an attached shutter button. The minimalist control panel adds to the effect. All you get around the back is a circular jog dial that encircles a main selection button, although it also acts as a four-way pad with customisable right and left buttons. A pair of additional context-sensitive buttons has varying functions, but the net result is that you're heavily dependent on menus.
The menu system is colourful and self-explanatory. Shooting modes include 'intelligent auto' for automatic scene selection, as well as regular scene modes, picture effects and trick modes like anti-motion blur, sweep panorama and 3D sweep panorama (compatible with 3D TVs).
In the absence of an electronic viewfinder, one redeeming feature is the LCD, which has a class-leading resolution of 921k pixels and is very easy on the eye. It also has a tilt facility, which is good for shooting from very high or low angles.
Image quality is good overall, and the optical image stabilisation does well to fend off camera shake. Pictures can look a little bland in standard mode but scene modes can improve results. Despite its comparatively large APS-C sensor, noise is quite noticeable at high ISOs, although dynamic range is pretty good.
Outdoor image test
As with the Nikon J1, the default exposure is rather on the bright side, but in this case, there's a slight loss of highlight detail in the sky.
The C3's high pixel-count sensor doesn't bring any noticeable advantage to detail resolution, even at lower sensitivity settings.
There's a good compromise between sharpness and noise suppression up to ISO 3200, but higher settings are best for emergency use only.
The Sony has made a good job of this test chart but, in everyday shooting, colours can look a bit bland and insipid.
Image test verdict
Many of our test shots were overly bright and, with a slight lack of saturation, images can look faded. High-sensitivity results are good up to ISO 3200.
Read the full Sony NEX-C3 review
Under lab conditions, we shoot three charts with each camera to assess sensor performance with visual and computer analysis. Dynamic range and noise are measured with the DxO transmission chart. Images of this chart are processed in DxO Analyser.
Colour error is measured using the X-Rite ColorChecker chart. We also shoot a resolution chart, indicating the detail each camera is able to record in LW/PH.
Dynamic range result: The E-PM1 produces consistently high dynamic range. The GF3 and Samsung NX11 lag behind the rest of the group at higher sensitivities.
Verdict: best budget compact system camera
Compact system cameras have proved more popular in Japan and the UK than in most other countries. They have become a viable stepping-stone between regular compact cameras and DSLRs but, ultimately, when it comes to deciding if a CSC is really for you, image quality is key.
It's not just about the quality of the lenses, image sensors and processing engines. Equally vital is whether or not these cameras enable you to take creative control over the finer points of shooting parameters, and to react quickly before fleeting shooting opportunities are long gone. With all this in mind, our tests prove that Panasonic leads the way.
Despite its lack of an electronic viewfinder or pivoting LCD screen, we quickly fell in love with the Panasonic GF3. The camera is perfectly pocketable with a 14mm pancake lens and still nicely balanced when fitted with a 14-42mm zoom. The touchscreen literally keeps you in touch with all sorts of shooting options and is a joy to use.
The Panasonic G3 feels every inch a 'photographer's camera' but, where compactness is key, it has rather more inches than most. The Olympus E-PM1 is an attractive, immensely stylish proposition at the price but, like the similarly small Nikon J1, handling feels flawed. The new J1 itself packs some neat tricks into its diminutive shell, but some of these smack of gimmickry.
The Samsung NX11 is a more serious mini-DSLR style camera, but is a bit less refined than the Panasonic G3.
The Panasonic GF3 is our top budget CSC. For a small, take-anywhere camera that's big on versatility, this camera can't be beaten.
A near-perfect blend of compactness and easily accessible advanced shooting options, the GF3 is significantly smaller than any DSLR yet packs a powerful punch. From the ultra-simple intelligent auto (iA) mode to creative manual options, everything works beautifully.
Liked this? Then check our Best Compact System Camera 2012: 18 reviewed and rated
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