Choosing and buying a compact digital camera can be a bewildering process. In fact, besides selecting a hot beverage from one of those fancy high street coffee shops, I can't think of a more decision-heavy purchase.
In a market that's saturated with jargon and marketing blurb, it's easy to see why so many people equate the quality of a digital camera with the number of megapixels it can capture. Sales statistics confirm that megapixels are a major purchase consideration for most people, second only to price. And this makes sense. After all, megapixels are easy to understand: the more you have the better the definition, right?
Not necessarily. It pays not to be seduced by the promise of more megapixels. The best cameras are designed around balanced specifications, made with components of a similar level of quality. There's little benefit to having a 10Mp camera with a lens like a milk bottle.
With each new generation of digital camera, the technology is improving. Even today's budget digital cameras are capable of surprising quality, generally on par with mid-range cameras of just a couple of years ago.
However, I advise you to stick with well-known brands. Be cautious of any camera claiming megapixel capabilities excessively beyond its price tag – you get what you pay for.
Most cameras range from 5Mp to 8Mp. These capture enough detail to produce a print that looks good at A4 or even A3 size, although you'll want quality inks and photo paper.
There are many electronics manufacturers that would love to sell you a digital camera, but not all know more than how to assemble the necessary parts to create a functioning device. For this reason, I suggest you stick to the well-known, well-respected brands if you want to avoid disappointment.
If you're tempted by an apparent bargain, verify its credentials. First, check whether the model in question has been heavily discounted having been around for a while. Many of the cameras I feature in this round-up are new models but, as you'll see from the manufacturers' price and the online prices we've quoted, once a camera has been around for a few months, its price plummets.
Demand for compact cameras is very strong, making for both competitive pricing and rapid innovation. According to Sony, the worldwide digital camera market has grown from 5.09 million sold in 1999 to likely sales of 84.9 million this year – most of which is accounted for by compact cameras.
Camera makers tend to refresh their product ranges twice a year, so if you wait a few months before snapping up the model everyone has been talking about, you'll save a tidy pile. Check PC Advisor's online reviews to ensure it's not going cheap because it didn't live up to the hype, though.
Features such as face detection and antishake are useful additions to the latest compact cameras and may make the difference between a great shot and one that disappoints. Flaws such as too much or too little light, obstructions and red-eye are defects that can be fixed – often with a single click in a photo-editing application. Blurred faces or shots can't be rescued in the same way.
Bells and whistles?
Compact cameras generally fall into two distinct categories. The smaller point-and-shoot models are great for slipping into a handbag or pocket, ready for a night out. The larger SLR-styled alternatives tend to boast greater optical magnification and a plethora of manually controlled goodies.
Don't be seduced by magnification claims. You should expect a 3x-to-10x optical zoom, which is the 'real' rating. While a digital zoom can augment this, it does so in an artificial manner.
SLR-styled models demand a higher price tag and generally cost £250 or more. Smaller compacts occupy an increasingly competitive segment of the market, with models available from big names at just £100.
In an attempt to shed some light on what's available to you we've sifted through models from the 10 main brands, at both the entry-level £150 and below price bracket and the up to £250 mid-range model bracket.