Top 10 compact digital cameras of 2011 (Holiday Gift Guide)

With over 130 new compact digital cameras announced this year, there are models to suit all budgets and tastes. Here are my top picks to help you zoom in on the best options for everyone on your holiday shopping list.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive on

Picking a list of the 10 best compact digital cameras at any given moment is as hard as pinning a tail on a moving donkey (make that 10 moving donkeys).  With camera vendors vying to capture every potential buyer with a perfectly suited camera, there's a constant glut of new models hitting the market. At last January's CES 2011 alone, manufacturers trotted out new cameras practically by the dozen, debuting a whopping 60 compact models. With new announcements coming every month throughout the rest of the year, the compact camera market has seen well over 130 new additions this year. The good news is that you're sure to find a perfect camera for absolutely anyone on your holiday shopping list this year. And you'll find some fantastic deals as camera vendors try to clear the decks for a new batch of spring models coming at next year's CES, which will be the first to include the "colocated" PMA (Photo Marketing Association) trade show. To help you narrow down the options, here's my list of the top 10 compact digital cameras currently on the market. Suggested list prices range from $430 to $1,200 for the first four cameras (on this page) down to to $110 for the least expensive (on page 3), though you'll likely find lower street prices for many of these cameras. [See also my list of Top digital SLR cameras of 2011.]

Image Gallery: Check out photos of the Top 10 compact digital cameras of 2011.
Fujifilm FinePix X100

1.Canon PowerShot S100
The chart-topping Canon PowerShot S90 from my mid-year top 10 compact cameras of 2010 was everyone's favorite until the camera was updated by the S95 in August of last year. This fall's Canon PowerShot S100 improved upon the previous two models with a complete overhaul of the innards, though the super-compact body design remains very similar (save for the welcome addition of a small grip, as well as a new silver color option). With a whole new imaging system (including a faster processor and a completely new CMOS sensor), the S100 also brings a wider and longer 5x zoom lens (24-120mm equivalent, f/2.0-5.9). A built-in GPS receiver enables automatic geotagging and location logging for photos and videos, and the ability to zoom while shooting video is a nice addition too. Having just hit the market in November, the S100 may be hard to find in stores (and certainly not at a discount). But you can find great deals on the S95, which is still an awesome camera in its own right.

[See a gallery of sample photos shot with the S100.]

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2. Olympus XZ-1
The first high-end compact point-and-shoot to be released by Olympus in almost a decade, the Olympus XZ-1 was a standout out among the CES crowd early this year. Though it's not quite as tiny as Canon's S100 and S95, it’s still relatively trim -- a touch bigger than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, which I've also included on this list. Low-light shooting is a priority with the XZ-1: The bright 4x zoom lens (28-112mm equivalent) has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide angle and f/2.5 at telephoto, and a dedicated low-light mode automatically adjusts ISO sensitivity up to ISO 3200. There's also an Autofocus Illuminator to assist with focusing in dark environments. The XZ-1’s high-resolution 610,000-dot, 3-inch OLED display, also stands out from the crowd, enabling deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios than more typical TFT screens. One of my favorite features was cribbed straight from Canon: A control ring around lens works much like the one Canon originally introduced in the S90 (and still has on the S100). Combined with the wheel controller on the back of the camera, the control ring lets you easily access all manual settings on the fly.

[See a photo gallery of the XZ-1 and gallery of sample photos shot with the XZ-1.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
Released in August 2010, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 can still hold its own among newer competitors like the S100 and XZ-1. Plus, being the oldest camera on this list, it can be found at greater discounts (for example, Amazon recently offered a one-day deal on the LX5 for just $269) . Like the S100, its ultra-wide-angle 24mm equivalent lens has a bright f/2.0 maximum aperture, and delivers impressive image quality in low light with a sensitivity range up to ISO 12,800 (in high-sensitivity mode). Like the XZ-1, the LX5 includes a hot shoe for adding an external flash, and it also accepts an optional electronic viewfinder. Ultimately, though, it's the impressive image quality and better-than-average performance of the LX5 that keeps it in the running despite newer entries with more advanced technology.

[See a photo gallery of the LX5.]

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4. Fujifilm FinePix X100
After a huge build-up and much buzz and ballyhoo, the Fujifilm FinePix X100 started shipping in March of this year, only to be thwarted by earthquake and tsunami damage to production facilities. But, as they say, good things come to those who wait and for the lucky folks with 1,200 smackers to drop on it, the X100 delivers. Not only is it a thing of rare beauty -- out-styling all but possibly Leica cameras in its retro appeal -- but it's also a photo enthusiast's dream with a full-SLR-sized sensor (APS-C) and innovative features such as its hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. Of course for that kind of coin you can get yourself a more flexible interchangeable lens compact (ILC) camera (or a decent digital SLR for that matter), but if money is no object, the X100 may be the camera of the year.

[See a photo gallery of the X100 and gallery of sample photos shot with the X100.]

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Go to numbers 5 through 7: Top midrange cameras »

5. Canon PowerShot SX230 HS

Though the Canon S100 does make my wallet itch, when it comes to coughing up my own cash, I tend to gravitate toward compact megazoom cameras. In fact, the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS is the camera I actually recommended to my brother when he asked me for a $300 point-and-shoot. I'm an avid traveller and don't mind carrying a bit more heft to get the flexibility of a long zoom. The SX230 delivers excellent image quality for its class and sports a relatively wide-angle 14x zoom lens (28-392mm equivalent, f/3.1-5.9). Add to that a backside illuminated CMOS sensor (for good low-light performance), great video options (including super-slow-motion recording), and a built-in GPS receiver for geotagging, and you've got a good all-around travel shooter. Plus, since it's likely to get updated for spring 2012, you can find great deals on it now (it's selling for $200 on Amazon as I write this).

[See a photo gallery of the SX230 HS and a gallery of sample photos shot with the SX230 HS.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

6. Nikon Coolpix S9100

Another good compact travel zoom, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 is a great option if you're looking for more shooting flexibility and are willing to sacrifice GPS functionality. Similar in age and price to the Canon SX230 HS, the S9100 offers a wider and longer 18x zoom lens (24-450mm equivalent, f/3.5-5.9). It's a little bulkier than the SX230 and offers fewer video shooting options (though it does shoot full 1080p HD at 30 fps), but sports a gorgeous, high-resolution (921,000-dot) 3-inch LCD. Though I tend to prefer the mix of features on the SX230, the S9100 is a pretty close second, and depending on your own preferences (or those of your gift recipient), it might even be the better pick.

See a gallery of sample photos shot with the S9100.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

7.Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3
Besides a compact megazoom, my next favorite type of point and shoot is the rugged/waterproof camera. The current generation of waterproof models don't look all that different from a standard point-and-shoot, being slimmer and often based on the design of ultracompact cameras. I'm a big fan of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 -- though I included its predecessor, theDMC-TS2on my list ofTop 10 compact digital cameras of 2010, I didn't like Panasonic’s choice to cram 14 megapixels on its tiny sensor. With the TS3, though, Panasonic dropped back down to 12.1 megapixels, which resulted in better low-light image quality. And it doesn't just take good pictures: The TS3 is waterproof down to 40 feet and features a wide-angle, 28-128mm 4.6x optical zoom lens and is shockproof to 6.6 feet and freezeproof to14° F.  Add to that 1920×1080 HD AVCHD video recording and a built-in GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer, and you've got a truly flexible point-and-shoot suitable for all occasions.

See a gallery of sample photos shot with the TS3.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

Go to numbers 8 through 10: Top budget cameras »

8. Canon PowerShot A1200 I can't usually provide individualized buying recommendations to readers who email me (or I'd have no time to do much else), but this summer I got a great letter from a bride-to-be who wanted to user her photo budget to buy digital cameras for her guests and have them shoot candids rather than hiring a pro. She had a budget of about $100 per camera and without hesitation I recommended the Canon PowerShot A1200 (which I also picked as a good college student's camera in my Back to School 2011 guide to Top digital cameras for kids under $110). The A1200 delivers surprisingly good image quality, is super easy to use, and offers an impressive range of features for such a low price, including 720p HD video recording, an optical viewfinder, and in-camera special effects filters (e.g., fish-eye, sepia, and posterized). I also like that it uses standard AA batteries, so you don't have to carry a charger around when you travel.

[See a photo gallery of the A1200 and a gallery of sample photosshot with the A1200.]

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9. Sony Cyber-shot W570 Another great deal of a camera is the Sony Cyber-shot W570. It was priced at $180 when it was first released at CES 2011, but by now the list price has dropped to $130, and you'll find it for even less on the street. Unlike the somewhat bulky Canon A1200, the ultracompact W570 doesn't look like a budget shooter. It has classic Sony styling and comes in four body color options including purple and pink. Image quality is pretty good, if not as fine as the A1200.  That's not such a surprise considering the W570 crams 16 megapixels on a same-size (read: tiny) sensor vs. the A1200's 12 megapixels. It has a wider and longer zoom lens (25-125mm equivalent, f/2.6-6.3), though, and offers 12 scene modes as well as 720p HD video recording.

[See a gallery of sample photos shot with the W570.]

[Read the review] [Check prices]

10. Canon PowerShot Elph 300 HS

If you're willing to spend a little bit more, you can pick up the Canon PowerShot Elph 300 HS, a significantly better ultracompact that will probably set you back only another $60 or so (despite the $230 list price). Canon added backside illuminated CMOS sensors to all the new models in its Elph line, which has improved overall performance and value.  As with most Canon point-and-shoots, the image quality of the 300 HS is good for its class. It sports an impressively wide 24-120mm equivalent, f/2.7-5.9 5x zoom lens and shoots full 1080p HD video at 24fps as well as super-slow-motion video. Plus, it's smart Auto system makes it a no-brainer to shoot with.

[See a photo gallery of the 300 HS and a gallery of sample photos shot with the 300 HS.]

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Return to numbers 1 through 4: Top enthusiast compact cameras »

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