Best compact system camera 2014: the top models reviewed

24th Jan 2014 | 13:00

Best compact system camera 2014: the top models reviewed

Get the best compact system camera for your budget

Introduction

DSLRs have long-held the title as the most versatile cameras on the market, capable of delivering the highest quality images, robust build quality and advanced functionality, not to mention speed.

With compacts and bridge models providing a set of stepping stones up to the traditional DSLR, manufacturers noticed a gap in between that was waiting to be filled: the CSC (Compact System Camera) was born.

Fast forward to today and we have an ever-increasing array of CSCs available with varying levels of functionality. Quickly carving out their own hierarchy within the wider camera market, CSCs have now developed to form their own entry, mid and pro-level sub-categories, many of which are starting to see some overlap with previously unrivalled DSLR format cameras.

To sum up the essence of a CSC: it's a camera that strives to take as many of the desirable attributes of a DSLR as possible and shoehorn them all into a neater, more portable package.

Recent incarnations of the main manufacturer's offerings are closer than ever in terms of operability, performance and image quality to that of a DSLR, with APS-C sized sensors, Full HD movie recording and connectivity features like Wi-Fi and NFC becoming increasingly commonplace among new launches.

Improvements in image quality, noise suppression, AF speed and overall handling means that some CSCs now provide a viable alternative − and not just a backup − to your traditional DSLR, particularly when recent advancements in EVF and 'hybrid' viewfinder technology are taken into account.

While we wouldn't go so far as to say that the CSC is a 'DSLR killer', the latest petite powerhouses to come to the market are certainly capable of giving their larger brethren a run for their money. The upshot is an increasing array of options open to photographers, with some impressive offerings that successfully combine the versatility of having interchangeable lenses with the portability that comes from having a smaller camera body and matching accessories.

We've gathered our pick of the best CSCs in each category of the market to give you an overview of what's available to suit your needs and budget: read on to discover your perfect pocket-sized partner.

Entry-level CSCs

Sony NEX-3N

Key specs: 16.1mp APS-C sensor, 3-inch 180° tiltable LCD, Full HD video

Price: US$562 / £349 / AU$597 (with standard zoom lens)

Best compact camera system 2013

Making its debut earlier this year, the Sony NEX-3N took the title as the world's smallest and lightest CSC to sport an APS-C sized sensor − equivalent in size to that of a DSLR.

The entry-level model to Sony's CSC range cuts a sleek silhouette, particularly when coupled with the 18-55mm power zoom lens that comes bundled with it as standard.

Aside from its large 16.1mp sensor, the NEX-3N's other standout features include a Full HD movie recording mode and a very versatile 3-inch LCD that can be tilted through 180-degrees. Flip the screen into this position and the built-in Self Portrait mode that's on board is automatically activated: a nifty feature that's a bonus for social snappers that don't want to be left out of the frame.

Pros:

  • 180-degree tilting screen
  • Full HD movie mode
  • Large APS-C sized sensor
  • Faithfully-coloured, clean images

Cons:

  • No touchscreen
  • Lacks advanced features
  • Some operational niggles

Fujifilm X-A1

Key specs: 16.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, tiltable 3-inch LCD, Full HD movies, Wi-Fi

Price: US$804 /£499 /AU$854

Best compact camera system 2013

Another APS-C sensor-toting CSC, the Fujifilm X-A1 is a stylish-looking camera that's based around the prestigious design that wowed us all at the launch of the higher-end X-Pro1 and X-E1 before it.

The entry-level X-A1 inherits the award-winning build and accessible interface of its predecessors, sporting a light and compact body and a comprehensive range of controls that cater for more advanced users as well as beginners.

Its 3-inch 920k-dot LCD is tiltable for added versatility and displays live view images and HD video in wonderful detail.

Built-in wireless connectivity is another asset this camera has to offer, providing scope for instant image sharing.

Pros:

  • Large APS-C sensor
  • Twin command dials for manual control
  • Wi-Fi connectivity
  • High-resolution tilting LCD

Cons:

  • No touchscreen
  • No viewfinder

Panasonic Lumix GM1

Key specs: 16mp Live MOS MFT sensor, 3-inch touchscreen, Full HD movies, Light Speed AF, Wi-Fi

Price: US$1,014 / £629 /AU$1,077 with 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens

Best compact camera system 2013

This palm-sized Micro Four Thirds CSC almost defies logic when comparing its featherweight 204g mass and tiny body to the amount of technology Panasonic has managed to cram inside.

The Lumix GM1 is currently still a new kid on the block; however, early testing suggests that it's every bit as good as its extensive specs promise.

The high-resolution touchscreen the GM1 offers is superb, delivering a responsive performance when navigating menus and settings, with the added bonus of enabling the AF point to be precisely positioned and/or the shutter to be fired instantly on-screen.

Good looks, great build quality and handling plus a host of technologies like Full HD movie recording and built-in Wi-Fi all add up to a very appealing pocket-sized prospect.

Pros:

  • Very compact
  • Touchscreen
  • Wi-Fi connectivity
  • Built-in digital filters

Cons:

  • No viewfinder
  • No integral hotshoe
  • Manual functionality lost when digital filters used

Canon EOS M

Key specs: 18mp APS-C CMOS sensor, Full HD movies with AF-C, 3-inch touchscreen, DIGIC 5 processor

Price: US$724 / £449 /AU$767 (with EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM)

Best compact camera system 2013

It's worthwhile noting that − following a firmware update − the EOS M's performance has been much improved since our initial assessment of Canon's diminutive DSLR alternative.

The EOS M packs in plenty of impressive features, not least an 18mp APS-C sized CMOS sensor, DIGIC 5 processor, a good quality Full HD movie mode with the added bonus of Continuous AF available while shooting, and a very responsive touchscreen − to name a few.

With the latter on hand for fast navigation and an equally as intuitive set of physical controls on hand for traditionalists, the EOS M offers easy operability for beginners and more advanced users alike.

Pros:

  • Large 18mp APS-C sensor
  • DIGIC 5 processor
  • Robust build quality
  • Top-notch touchscreen

Cons:

  • Lacks a decent grip
  • No optional EVF
  • No built-in flash

Mid-range CSCs

Fujifilm X-E2

Key specs: 16.3mp X-Trans CMOS II sensor, EXR Processor II, Fast AF, Full HD movies, EVF, Wi-Fi

Price: US$999 /£769 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013

Updated camera group testNot just an update to the X-E1, this new camera also boasts some desirable enhancements compared with the older and more expensive X-Pro1. A newer generation X-Trans image sensor includes phase-detection autofocus as a supplement to regular contrast-detection AF, it has a faster burst rate of 7fps compared with the X-Pro1's 6fps, and a higher-resolution 2,360k pixel electronic viewfinder. It also has Wi-Fi connectivity which, again, is lacking in the X-Pro1. There's a pop-up flash as well as a hot shoe, and the whole package is physically a little smaller and noticeably lighter in weight. A further refinement is the new Lens Modulation Optimizer, which can be switched on in the shooting menus to flatter the performance of Fujinon X mount lenses.

Similarities between the two cameras include 16.3Mp image resolution and a very like-minded control layout. Again, the shutter speed dial and lens-based aperture ring are well implemented and, this time around, the neatly positioned exposure compensation dial offers up to +/-3EV of bias, instead of the X-Pro1's +/-2EV. We found the X-E2's lack of an optical option for the viewfinder display no drawback whatsoever. The same variety of film emulation modes is nice to have, again with bracketing availability for hedging your bets. Given the comparative newness of the X-E2, the lack of a touchscreen LCD is a little frustrating but the Quick menu system makes for easy adjustments to most shooting settings.

Performance

Autofocus isn't blindingly fast but it's a step up in speed from the X-Pro1, as well as adding the bonus of off-centre AF in continuous autofocus mode. There's practically nothing to choose between the two cameras in terms of image quality, making the X-E2 look rather better value. It's not only cheaper to buy but the various enhancements and improvements are well worth having.

Pros:

  • 2,360k EVF
  • 920,000-dot LCD
  • Improved AF

Cons:

  • No touchscreen
  • Fixed screen
  • Advanced Filters JPEG only

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7

Key specs: 16mp Live MOS sensor, flip-up EVF, 3-inch tilting LCD, built-in flash, Full HD movies, Wi-Fi, NFC

Price: US$899 / £700 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact system camera

Whereas Panasonic's own GH3 is the biggest CSC in the group, the GX7 is one of the smallest and lightest. Coupled with similarly diminutive Micro Four Thirds lenses, it really is a very compact package. An improvement over the GH3 is that the GX7 features a newer generation of image sensor. It's not a backlit sensor, but the amount of micro-circuitry has been significantly reduced. This enables greater light-gathering potential for each and every photosite.

Another new advance in the GX7 is Panasonic's 'Light Speed AF'. This aims to give faster performance for tracking moving objects. There's also a Low Light AF function, which is intended to improve autofocus in dark shooting environments. The only real downside for shooting in near darkness is that the Bulb exposure mode has a maximum limit of two minutes.

Despite its small size, handling feels natural and the sculpting on the finger grip is rather more generous than on the two Fujifilm cameras. That said, control buttons around the back of the camera are rather cramped, but at least there's quick access to pretty much any shooting parameters you need to get your hands on in a hurry. A further boost comes from the touchscreen for quick and easy navigation of menus. Yet more design flourishes include the fact that both the viewfinder and LCD screen have tilt facilities, making it easy to shoot from high or low angles, or around corners in portrait orientation. Resolution of the EVF and LCD are both impressive, at 2,765k and 1,040k respectively, again significantly beating the older GH3.

Performance

True to its claims, the GX7 has faster autofocus and better high-ISO image quality than the GH3. However, AF can still struggle to keep up with moving objects in action photography. With its impressive enhancements and considering that the GX7 is so much smaller than the GH3, it's a clear case of 'less is more'.

Pros:

  • Fast contrast detection AF system
  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Pop-up EVF
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

Cons:

  • Screen not fully articulated
  • Tracking AF is sluggish
  • Viewfinder refresh rate needs improvement

Sony NEX-5T

Key specs: 16.1mp APS-C sensor, Hybrid AF, tiltable touchscreen, Wi-Fi, NFC

Price: US$965 / £599 /AU$1,027 (with standard zoom lens)

Best compact camera system 2013

If connectivity's your thing then the Sony NEX-5T should be on your shortlist.

Following in the footsteps of last year's NEX-5R − the first Sony CSC to feature Wi-Fi − the NEX-5T boasts well-implemented wireless and NFC connectivity options.

This not only means that you can instantly upload and share your Full HD movies and 16.1mp stills shot using the camera's excellent DSLR-sized sensor and control the camera remotely, but there's a growing range of downloadable apps available from the Sony PlayMemories store, too.

The 921k-dot touchscreen is responsive and tiltable through 180-degrees − a useful feature for self-portraits - plus the Bionz processor that drove the 5R is also inherited by the newer 5T, assuring decent low-light performance throughout its ISO 100-25,600 sensitivity range.

Pros:

  • High-resolution touchscreen
  • Wi-Fi and NFC
  • DSLR-sized sensor
  • Compact dimensions

Cons:

  • Currently limited options on PlayMemories Store
  • No built-in flash
  • Non-standard hotshoe attachment

Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5

Key specs: 16.1mp 4/3" (MFT) Live MOS sensor, TruePic VI processor, Full HD Movies, Art Filters, tiltable touchscreen

Price: US$886 / £549.99 /AU$945 (14-42mm FlashAir Kit)

Best compact camera system 2013

Headlining this pint-sized powerhouse's feature-set has to be its 16.1mp sensor, which it inherits from the acclaimed Olympus OM-D.

Coupling powerful image capture technologies with the user-friendliness and compact design that's synonymous with the PEN series cameras proves to be a winning combination, with the small, lightweight E-PL5 managing to pack in all of the essential 'must-haves' like a tilting touchscreen, rubberised grip, Full HD movies and an intuitive user interface.

Like the rest of the Micro Four Thirds range, the E-PL5 boasts an updated selection of Olympus's coveted Digital Art Filters: a plus for creative snappers and HD videographers alike, plus you get Wi-Fi connectivity using Wireless LAN FlashAir memory cards.

Pros:

  • Same sensor as the OM-D
  • Extensive range of lenses available
  • Responsive touchscreen

Cons:

  • Currently no remote camera control with FlashAir
  • Screen isn't fully articulated
  • No EVF

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6

Key specs: 16.05mp Live MOS sensor, Venus Engine processor, Light Speed AF, 1440k-dot OLED LVF, Wi-Fi, NFC

Price: US$1,014 /£629 / AU$1,080 (with 14-42mm lens)

Best compact camera system 2013

Panasonic's MFT standard format means it's compatible with a wide array of lenses − not just from the company's own range − but Olympus MFT and a selection of Sigma optics, too.

This means there's plenty of scope for creativity when opting for the 16.05mp G6, enhanced further by some of its other specifications, such as its fully articulated touchscreen that can be manipulated into all manner of awkward angles for total freedom of expression.

Its up-to-date Venus processor delivers continuous shooting speeds of up to 7fps as well as a faster AF system than that of its predecessor's (the G5).

It also boasts an updated 1440k-dot OLED EVF that's clear and bright, along with advanced controls, RAW support and on-board connectivity features including Wi-Fi and NFC.

Pros:

  • Fully articulated screen
  • Superb touchscreen
  • Filters can be used with RAW
  • Viewfinder

Cons:

  • Outdated 16mp sensor
  • Creative Control options not available in advanced modes

Advanced CSCs

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Key specs: 16.3mp 4/3' Live MOS sensor, TruePic VII, Dual Fast AF, 2360k-dot EVF, tilting touchscreen, weatherproof, Wi-Fi

Price: US$2,096 / £1,300 /AU$2,233 (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013

Updated camera group testThe OM-D E-M5 has found great favour with photographers all around the world, but isn't above criticism. One particular bugbear is that autofocus is very slow when using regular Four Thirds, rather than Micro Four Thirds lenses. The new E-M1 joins the line-up as Olympus's flagship CSC, and a key enhancement is its 'Dual Fast AF', which delivers hybrid phase/contrast-detection, making it similarly speedy on both types of lens. Furthermore, both detection systems are available in continuous AF for stills shooting, helping the camera to track fast-moving targets. Action heroics in autofocus speeds are backed up with a fast maximum shutter speed of 1/18000th of a second, plus a rapid burst rate of up to 10fps.

As in both Fujifilm cameras and the Sony A7R that are also on test, the anti-alias filter is omitted to enable maximum sharpness. This is further reinforced by a new generation of image processor, which aims for greater fine detail in images, while also correcting for lateral chromatic aberrations in own-brand Olympus lenses.

The electronic viewfinder delivers 1.48x magnification along with an excellent resolution of 2,360k pixels, making shot composition very easy on the eye. The LCD is equally adept in the shooting stakes, thanks to its well implemented tilt and touchscreen facilities.

One thing from which there's no escape is that the Four Thirds format sensor is significantly smaller than the APS-C format sensors of the Fujifilm cameras, and quite tiny compared with the Sony A7R's full-frame sensor. On the plus side, it means that lenses also tend to be very compact, in keeping with the downsizing philosophy of CSCs.

Performance

Performance is enhanced by wonderfully natural handling, despite the touchscreen facility not extending to menu navigation. Instead, there are plenty of direct access buttons and customisable function buttons as a feast for the fingers. Image quality is sublime, with excellent colour rendition and superb retention of fine detail.

Pros:

  • Weather sealed body
  • Plenty of physical controls
  • Top-notch EVF
  • Superb image quality

Cons:

  • Screen not fully articulated
  • Expensive
  • Some operational niggles

Sony Alpha A7R

Key specs: 36.4mp full-frame sensor, built-in EVF, 3-inch 1,230,000 screen, Full HD movies, Wi-Fi and NFC

Price: US$2,298 / £1,700 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013

Think of a high-res, full-frame camera and you're probably imagining a big and beefy SLR like the Nikon D800. Sony redressed the balance by launching the world's first full-frame compact cameras, in the diminutive shape of the RX1 and RX1R. The Sony A7 and A7R do the same for the CSC market, the latter boosting resolution to a whopping 36.4Mp while also omitting the low-pass filter. This enables optimum sharpness, the A7R aiming to make the very most of all the fine detail that a fitted lens can throw at it. The sensor is backed up by a new-generation image processor, which is claimed to be three times faster than its predecessor. It's a welcome bonus, with so many pixels to process.

Despite its class-leading image sensor size and resolution, the A7R body is even smaller and more lightweight than the Olympus EM-1. However, at any actual Vs effective focal length, the Sony's E-mount lenses are likely to be rather larger. We say 'likely' because the A7R's biggest current criticism is a relative lack of E-mount full-frame lenses, although more are promised. In the meantime, APS-C format E-mount lenses can be used in crop mode.

Autofocus in the A7R relies purely on contrast-detection, whereas the more standard 24Mp A7 (which includes a low-pass filter) has a hybrid contrast/phase-detection system. The high-res 2,400k OLED viewfinder is a treat for the eyes and the 921k LCD screen has a useful tilt function, but no touchscreen facility. The provision of direct access controls is fairly generous, including three customisable function buttons plus a quick shooting menu. Front and rear command dials are fitted, as well as a similar exposure compensation dial to that featured on the Fujifilm cameras.

Performance

Autofocus can be a bit sluggish, especially under dull lighting, and the maximum burst rate is only 4fps. However, image quality is punchy and retention of fine detail is every bit as good as you'd expect from a 36.4Mp full-frame camera.

Pros:

  • High resolution sensor
  • No AA
  • Filter
  • Full-frame
  • Built in Wi-Fi

Cons:

  • Poor battery life
  • No touchscreen
  • Currently few directly compatible lenses

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Key specs: 16.3mp 4/3' Live MOS sensor, TruePic VII, Dual Fast AF, 2360k-dot EVF, tilting touchscreen, weatherproof, Wi-Fi

Price: US$1,198 / £830 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact system camera

There's an argument that, while small cameras are easier to carry around and to stow away, handling qualities can be impaired. It's an accusation that certainly can't be levelled at the Panasonic GH3, which is the biggest and bulkiest camera in the group, by quite a margin. As we've mentioned, it's almost the same size and weight as the Canon 100D SLR but the trade-off is that it feels very natural when shooting, even in a big pair of hands.

The GH-3 is aimed at enthusiast photographers and, as such, puts its extra real estate to good use with a plethora of direct access controls. There are no less than five customisable function buttons, in addition to a dedicated drive mode wheel and buttons for white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus modes and more besides. It's also the only camera in the group to feature a fully articulated LCD, which comes complete with a touchscreen facility. Unlike with the Olympus E-M1, touch control is available for menu navigation instead of being limited to touch-and-point autofocus.

Like the Olympus, the GH3 uses the Micro Four Thirds format, along with a similar 16Mp image resolution. Image noise at high ISO settings is a danger but, in this camera, Panasonic has added crafty multi-stage noise suppression in the image processor, which aims to deliver smooth shadow tones.

Performance

While the GH3 lacks the hybrid phase/contrast detection AF system of the Olympus EM-1, autofocus is pretty quick nonetheless. AF speed holds up fairly well even in very dull lighting conditions but it's often not fast enough to track moving objects effectively. The 'Intelligent Auto' shooting mode does well to deliver very pleasing results in wide-ranging conditions, making the GH3 a useful camera for beginners, but its advanced controls are more suited to experienced photographers.

Pros:

  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Quick and easy controls
  • Wi-Fi built-in
  • Remote control app

Cons:

  • Social integration poor
  • No focus peaking
  • No image rating

Fujifilm X-Pro1

Key specs: 16.3mp APS-C X-Trans CMOS, dual AF mount, Hybrid viewfinder, Full HD movies

Price: US$1,078 / £830 /AU$999 (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013

Fujifilm certainly hit the ground running with the launch of its first CSC, the X-Pro1. Highlights include an X-Trans image sensor, which uses a 6x6 filter array pattern. It's designed to avoid the risk of moiré interference and bypasses the need for an anti-alias filter, bringing the potential for sharper, more detailed images.

The retro chic design isn't a case of style over substance. The old-school shutter speed dial on top of the camera, coupled with an aperture ring at the rear of the lens, make for quick and easy exposure adjustments in shutter-priority, aperture-priority and metered manual shooting modes. There's no PASM dial as such, the camera using 'automatic' positions in both the shutter speed and aperture selectors instead. There are no scene modes either, which is a clear indication of the 'enthusiast' aspirations of the camera. Instead, there's another nod to bygone days in a variety of film emulation modes, including Provia, Velvia and Astia. If your photographic memory doesn't stretch that far back, think in terms of standard, vivid and soft.

The slightly odd hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder is much more useful in electronic mode, where it benefits from a fairly high 1,440k pixel resolution. Around the back, the 1,230k pixel LCD is also high-res, although it lacks a touchscreen facility, or any articulation. A good Quick menu system helps to offset the lack of touchscreen availability, speeding access to creative shooting settings. Handling is good overall, although the finger grip is much less sculpted than on most competing cameras.

Performance

Image quality looks very natural, especially in the standard, Provia colour mode, with rather more vibrancy being delivered in Velvia mode. Retention of fine detail is impressive, at least at low ISO settings. When using high sensitivities, image noise is kept well under control at the expense of fine detail and texture being smoothed out. Autofocus speed is a little pedestrian but not overly sluggish.

Pros:

  • High quality, film-like images
  • Buttery smooth bokeh
  • Excellent hybrid viewfinder
  • Plenty of advanced features

Cons:

  • Manual focus with EVF could be slicker

Sony NEX-7

Key specs: 24.3mp sensor, Full HD movies with AF Tracking, OLED Tru-Finder, 10fps burst mode, built-in flash

Price: US$1,369 / £849 /AU$1,458 (body only)

Best compact system camera

This svelte CSC packs plenty of functionality into its tiny frame, with lots of high-end specifications that are worth shouting about.

In addition to its excellent 24.3mp DSLR-sized sensor, the NEX-7 is equipped with the means to shoot Full HD movies with AF Tracking and full manual control over settings while filming.

Fast, continuous shooting at 10fps and an array of accessible manual controls and customisable function buttons make the NEX-7 a camera that's as quick to respond as it is simple to use.

The built-in OLED EVF is a further standout feature, plus there's a hotshoe and a jack for attaching an external mic: all welcome additions that bolster this camera's appeal to advanced enthusiasts.

Pros:

  • Decent built-in EVF
  • Large, high-resolution sensor
  • Lots of manual functionality
  • Advanced videography features

Cons:

  • Low-light AF performance is sluggish
  • Fewer optics on offer compared to competition
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