This time last year we noted that of the major players in the camera industry, only Canon and Fujifilm were yet to deliver a compact camera with a large sensor and interchangeable lens that could challenge the digital SLR (DSLR) for supremacy when it comes to taking more professional looking pictures and, increasingly, video. 

With the release of the Canon EOS M and the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and slightly cheaper Fuji X-E1, all that has changed however. In fact there are now eight manufacturers – add Panasonic, Sony, Pentax, Samsung, Olympus and Nikon to our list – battling it out to grab the cash of anyone trading up from a simple point and shoot; leaving more choices than the space to cover six models we have here. 

To help you focus on your options – and before we examine how each camera actually handles and performs – it’s first worth pointing out the overall differences and benefits of rival compact system camera (CSC) systems. When the first CSC’s appeared back in late 2008/early 2009, photo purists argued that they could not be a serious alternative to a DSLR because they still featured smaller sensors – the camera component that actually captures the image in the same way a frame of film used to – than those traditionally bulkier cameras. That’s no longer the case, as the Canon EOS M, Fujifilm X, Sony NEX and Samsung NX systems feature an APS-C sized sensor of the same physical dimensions as those found in entry and mid-range DSLRs. Which incidentally cost a similar amount.

In their defence, rivals in Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and Panasonic argue that yes, they may have smaller sensors, but this has enabled the production of smaller optics too. The proximity of lens to sensor is also such that they offer a focal range that at one time would have demanded much physically larger lenses. So, for example, a 14-42mm lens on an Olympus Pen or OM-D, or Panasonic G series compact, will offer double the equivalent of a lens on a 35mm camera: so 28-84mm. Nikon also argues that its ‘1’ system – its J2 recently reviewed in these pages as a standalone product – is the best compromise of a large-ish sensor with a small-ish body, at one inch, as opposed to the two thirds of an inch found in most snapshots. 

In other words, what you may very slightly sacrifice in quality due to a smaller sensor, you make up for in portability and convenience. So it’s a case of deciding what works for you personally: either a physically smaller camera and lens that will still knock spots off your average pocket snapper and phone, or a slightly larger model with a bigger sensor for (theoretically) larger prints.

In conclusion, while there are certain compromises inherent in the production of all of the cameras here as they trade off between sensor size and form factor, we’ll be examining which seems to have compromised the least and has produced the best performance, most practical package and value for money overall.

Featured cameras

Canon EOS M

Canon’s compact camera system debut has been an absolute age coming and, as the 18 megapixel EOS M arrives a full four years after some rivals’ first, it has high expectations to fulfil. Though the compact immediately ticks one box in featuring a large APS-C sized sensor for theoretically better image quality than a typical pocket snapper, design wise it owes more to a consumer-end Canon PowerShot than an EOS DSLR. Read the full review

Fujifilm X-Pro1

Rather than aim for a mass-market camera, Fuji has gone niche for its first ever CSC in the 16.3 effective megapixel X-Pro1. With a DSLR-sized CMOS sensor it is pitched at enthusiasts and professionals and was joined in the dying stages of 2012 by a little brother in the X-E1, marginally smaller yet with the same APS-C sensor and lens mount. Read the full review

Olympus E-PL5

Successor to the E-PL3 we reviewed this time last year, the E-PL5 has skipped a number to become the fourth generation interchangeable lens Micro Four Thirds system compact from Olympus (the same technology the Panasonic G5 uses). Also known as the ‘Pen Lite’, this model sits in between the cheaper E-PM2, or ‘Pen Mini’, and the range topping OM-D E-M5 costing a grand, while featuring technology trickled down from that flagship retro-styled camera. Read the full review

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5

In terms of CSCs, Panasonic has its Lumix GF line up resembling super-sized compacts, plus its G and GH models, which, as with the 16 megapixel Micro Four Thirds system G5 here, appear as if shrunken digital SLRs. The advantage of these slightly larger cameras over rivals here is that they find room for an electronic viewfinder (EVF), switched on automatically via eye sensor, in addition to a regular LCD that can be tilted and swivelled rather than just angled up or down. Read the full review

Samsung NX210

The Korean electronics giant’s most current CSCs are the trio of the NX1000, NX210 and NX20, which are respectively the entry level, mid range, and flagship model.  We’ve previously been very impressed with the value for money and image quality of the NX1000, which shares the same APS-C sensor size as this, the NX210, and very similar body proportions, while both cameras feature Wi-Fi connectivity too. Read the full review

Sony NEX-C5R

The third generation of Sony NEX cameras to feature the same large APS-C sensor as found in its Alpha DSLRs, the NEX-5R brings with it new wireless transfer abilities and compatibility with downloadable Sony ‘apps’, plus not only a back screen that can be angled down or up to such an extent that it can face the subject, but also one that is now a touch screen. Read the full review

Macworld buying advice

Last year Olympus’ E-PL3 hoisted our Editor’s Choice trophy, but 12 months is a long time in the tech world and there have been some significant new entries to the compact system camera market in that time, while it’s become more crowded overall. However the latest Olympus in the E-PL5 does have the advantage of use with older Four Thirds system Olympus DSLRs via adapter, just as the Sony NEX can use Alpha DSLR lenses via its own optional interface and Canon’s EOS M can use EF lenses if again you shell out extra for a unit to make them fit. 

This will have additional appeal to anyone looking to down-size their current DSLR kit for a more portable system camera, though in truth there are now adapters available via third party manufacturers for most if not all the cameras rated here, allowing lenses of almost any brand and any description to be used with almost any model. There are not just Chinese firms but also UK engineers producing them too, such as SRB-Griturn. This inevitably widens the whole market, which is exciting. On the flip side it makes the purchase choice of one particular CSC over another more difficult than ever however. 

Don’t forget too that the prices given here are the manufacturers suggested ones and street prices can be up to £150 cheaper in some cases – so those quoted are the very top end. In this respect the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 looks like as good – possibly better – value than the Olympus E-PL5 with which it shares a price tag, particularly as the Panasonic’s cost has fallen considerably since it was first announced at the start of the summer. In fact in preset company, given the feature set, and of course, if you’re not off-put by the DSLR styling, the G5 could be considered something of a best buy. 

While the Fujifilm X-Pro1’s price tag and construction in present company places it in a category of its own, and it makes even Canon’s slightly over-priced EOS M seem inexpensive, it is the only one here making a claim for being a professional tool, and next to a Leica M or pro DSLR costing up to four or five grand, is actually fairly reasonably priced. Thus it remains an object of desire for the deep-pocketed. Also look at Olympus’ OM-D if you really do want retro styling and pro-like features.

This just leaves the Samsung NX210, which doesn’t really do enough for us to stand out (and so we’d direct you to the NX1000 as better value overall from that brand), and the Sony NEX-5R. While the latter isn’t perfect in every area, it comes sufficiently close in present company to see it crowned our CSC of the moment for Christmas 2012.