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

Check out our list of the top 10 compact digital cameras on the market (as of December 2011).
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By Janice Chen, Inactive on
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1 of 10 Janice Chen/ZDNet

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. Check out our list of the Top 10 compact digital cameras on the market today (as of December 2011).

Canon PowerShot S100
This fall's Canon PowerShot S100 improved upon its wildly popular predecessors with a complete overhaul of the imaging system, 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). The S100 sports a wider and longer 5x zoom lens and includes a built-in GPS receiver to enable automatic geotagging. The ability to zoom while shooting video is a nice addition too.

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The Olympus XZ-1 is the first high-end compact point-and-shoot to be released by Olympus in almost a decade. Though not quite as tiny as Canon's S100, it’s still relatively trim. 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. The camera's high-resolution 610,000-dot, 3-inch OLED display is also a standout.

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The elder statesman of the group, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 can still hold its own among newer competitors like the S100 and XZ-1.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.

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After a huge build-up, the Fujifilm FinePix X100's launch was thwarted by earthquake and tsunami damage to production facilities back in March. But, it was worth the wait: Not only is the camera's design appealingly retro, but the X100 is also a photo enthusiast's dream with a full-SLR-sized sensor (APS-C) and innovative features such as its hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. Though you can buy a more flexible interchangeable lens compact (ILC) camera or a digital SLR for the same price, if money is no object, the X100 may be the camera of the year.

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The Canon PowerShot SX230 HS 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.

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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.

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The current generation of waterproof compact cameras -- including the Panasonic Lumix TS3 -- don't look all that different from a standard point-and-shoot, often being based on the design of ultracompact cameras. Though its predecessor, the DMC-TS2, crammed 14 megapixels on its tiny sensor, with the TS3, Panasonic dropped back down to 12.1 megapixels, resulting in better low-light image quality. Additionally, 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 to 14° F.  Add to that 1920×1080 HD AVCHD video recording -- not to mention a built-in GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer -- and you've got a truly flexible point-and-shoot suitable for all occasions.

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The Canon PowerShot A1200 (which also makes an appearance on our Back to School 2011 guide to Top digital cameras for kids under $110) 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). It also uses standard AA batteries, so you don't have to carry a charger around when you travel.

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Unlike the somewhat bulky Canon A1200, the ultracompact Sony Cyber-shot 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.

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If you're willing to spend a little bit more on a budget shooter, 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 over the Canon A1200 or Sony W570. 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.

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