A great compact digital camera combines intuitive auto settings with comprehensive manual controls. PC Advisor tests eight big-name models to find the right one for you.

Digital cameras used to be luxury items; these days, we take it for granted that we'll be able to record every special occasion with photos, video or both. Even the cheapest digicam now has a video-recording mode, while cheap flash-memory camcorders also allow you to snap still photos.

Cameraphones have caught up with compact cameras in terms of the nominal amount of detail they capture, but compacts have made great strides of their own. If you want to capture consistently great shots in all lighting conditions, there's no substitute.

The continuing popularity of digital cameras means the features that were once found only on high-end models are now de rigueur on any new model, regardless of its price tag.

Image stabilisation, burst mode, face recognition, large ISO ranges, support for RAW files and extensive manual controls are almost prerequisites. Automatic modes and presets are fine but, once you've got to know your camera, you'll want to experiment and find out what it can really do.

The models we've selected for our group test this month all offer strong point-and-shoot features. Beyond this, they distinguish themselves from one another in how they deal with challenging conditions, such as taking sharp shots in low light or when the subject is moving rapidly.

How well they fare when the zoom is maxed out is also important, as is the ability to capture fine detail at close quarters: macro photography demands far more than simply cramming in additional megapixels.

Index:

  1. The best compact cameras, tried and tested
  2. Digital cameras: how we tested
  3. Digital camera reviews
  4. Digital cameras: the conclusion

NEXT PAGE: how we test

Visit Photo Advisor for the latest reviews of digital photography and video hardware and software, cameras and accessories. PLUS: get tips and tricks to improve your photos

A great compact digital camera combines intuitive auto settings with comprehensive manual controls. PC Advisor tests eight big-name models to find the right one for you.

Digital cameras: how we tested

We've kept the upper price limit at £200, and the four older models reviewed here fall below £100. We've tried to balance value against the megapixel rating, which we know many people see as an important measure of a camera's worth. Ease of use and intuitiveness of menu and button layout were also considered.

When it came to the photos themselves, we tried each camera's auto and semi-automated settings for a range of scenes and shots, then compared these with their manually set-up counterparts.

We also tested functions such as image stabilisation - you can edit many aspects of a disappointing photo, but you can't make a blurry shot sharp. This is often an issue where light is low, so we paid particular attention to how well each model fared in the gloom - it's not always appropriate to switch on the flash and hope for the best.

An extensive ISO range doesn't automatically mean a camera copes well with low light; many cameras simply introduce grain and image noise. That's also an issue at the extremes of a camera's zoom capabilities.

We considered intelligent-shuttering features such as face and smile detection, support for video recording and the maximum capacity of the memory cards each camera took.

Each models' looks and build quality, along with battery life, were also considered, as were onboard editing functions and any software that came with the camera.

NEXT PAGE: digital camera reviews

Index:

  1. The best compact cameras, tried and tested
  2. Digital cameras: how we tested
  3. Digital camera reviews
  4. Digital cameras: the conclusion

Visit Photo Advisor for the latest reviews of digital photography and video hardware and software, cameras and accessories. PLUS: get tips and tricks to improve your photos

A great compact digital camera combines intuitive auto settings with comprehensive manual controls. PC Advisor tests eight big-name models to find the right one for you.

Digital camera reviews

NEXT PAGE: digital cameras, the conclusion

Index:

  1. The best compact cameras, tried and tested
  2. Digital cameras: how we tested
  3. Digital camera reviews
  4. Digital cameras: the conclusion

Visit Photo Advisor for the latest reviews of digital photography and video hardware and software, cameras and accessories. PLUS: get tips and tricks to improve your photos

A great compact digital camera combines intuitive auto settings with comprehensive manual controls. PC Advisor tests eight big-name models to find the right one for you.

Digital cameras: the conclusion

Digital cameras are extremely price-sensitive and it’s not uncommon for their retail prices to drop by 20 percent or more just a few weeks after they first go on sale. So it proved with many of the models we’ve reviewed here.

We deliberately chose some slightly older models to see what you could get for your money, but even these discounted prices dropped between us first requesting them for review and going to press around six weeks later. We’re sure the credit crunch and the January sales also made a difference – as does colour. Amazon.co.uk is selling the silver Sony T77 for £166, whereas the pink version we reviewed is still £179 and the green pricier still, busting our Valentine’s Day/Mother's Day premium theory.

All this made it tricky to judge each camera’s merits, since the value score depended largely on how long ago each model had launched. Canon’s A590 IS is now a year old and sits safely in our sub-£100 category, but has a serious shortcoming in that it uses fast-draining, non-rechargeable AA batteries. The slightly cheaper Panasonic, meanwhile, has batteries that last and last. It also now costs less than £100 and packs a superb Lumix lens that captures 8.1Mp of detail and can distinguish between 15 subjects in a frame. This model took our Best Buy award for overall performance.

In the upper price category, there were some seriously clever cameras. These offered good manual controls but were intelligent enough to read the lighting conditions and adjust their exposure times and focus without prompting. The Ricoh was the stand-out model here, being the model that proved most adept in the widest range of lighting conditions.

Index:

  1. The best compact cameras, tried and tested
  2. Digital cameras: how we tested
  3. Digital camera reviews
  4. Digital cameras: the conclusion

Visit Photo Advisor for the latest reviews of digital photography and video hardware and software, cameras and accessories. PLUS: get tips and tricks to improve your photos