Compact System Camera roundup

With Canon's launch last month of the new EOS M compact system camera, all the main manufacturers have now climbed aboard the fast-moving mirrorless interchangeable-lens bandwagon. As I'm sure everyone knows by now, the first mirrorless system camera was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, launched in 2008 as the first generation model of the popular G-Micro system, although it wasn't until the launch of the Olympus PEN E-P1 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 the following year that it became apparent which direction this new type of camera was going. Both cameras had compact, sleek bodies with no viewfinder, Olympus following the path of fashion with its retro styling, and Panasonic going the way of practicality with a more functional design. Both systems sold extremely well, the PEN system in particular helping to lift Olympus out of a difficult slump.

Naturally it wasn't too long before the other camera manufacturers sought to emulate this success, and 2010 saw Samsung introduce its ambitious NX system with the launch of the NX10 in January, followed by the NX 11 and NX100 in September. In the meantime Sony launched its compact NEX system in May 2010, kicking it off with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 models.

One unusual addition to the interchangeable-lens market was Ricoh, always one of the industry's great innovators, with its unique GXR system. It too was introduced in 2009, but unfortunately hasn't proved to be such a big hit as the other compact systems launched that year. The GXR system consists of a body unit carrying the battery, monitor and controls, into which camera units combining lens, sensor and processor are mounted. The system does have some advantages, but the camera units are expensive and there aren't many to choose from.

2011 saw Pentax launch its tiny Q camera, a truly compact system using a 1/2.3in sensor, and Nikon introduced the first two models of its Nikon 1 system. In January of this year Fujifilm presented its beautiful but expensive X-Pro1 digital rangefinder camera, and then in February Pentax launched its second mirrorless system camera, the distinctively-styled K-01, and Olympus introduced its OM-D system with the impressive-looking E-M5 camera. Finally last month Canon popped its CSC cherry with the launch of the much-anticipated EOS M system I mentioned at the start. There are still a few camera manufacturers that don't offer a CSC, most notably Casio, Kodak and Leica, but all the DSLR manufacturers are now on board.

If you've been adding up on your fingers for the last few paragraphs you'll realise that there are 10 mirrorless camera systems now available from nine manufacturers, all with different specifications, and all with their own set of pros and cons. If you're looking to buy a compact system camera you have a difficult choice ahead of you. Let's take a look at the various systems and see if we can help you to make a decision.

Next Page > Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung and Sony

Panasonic G-Micro system

As the pioneer of the format, Panasonic had to play it by ear with its design decisions, but happily it managed to get most of them right. The G-Micro system uses the Micro Four-Thirds sensor and lens mount format developed by Olympus and Panasonic specifically for this type of digital camera. At 225 square millimetres the Four-Thirds sensor is quite a lot smaller than the 370 square millimetre APS-C sensors that are found in most digital SLRs. The advantage of this is that the system lenses can be smaller than comparable DSLR lenses, but the disadvantage is that to achieve comparable resolutions the sensor photocells must be smaller, resulting in less colour depth and dynamic range, and greater risk of noise at higher ISO settings.

As the longest established system, Panasonic has had time to build by far the largest dedicated collection of system hardware, with 20 lenses currently available including a unique twin-lens 3D adapter, as well as several flashguns, clip-on electronic viewfinders, microphones, carrying cases and other accessories. It also has the largest range of cameras, with seven models currently available.

G-Micro cameras aren't the smallest CSCs on the market, but they generally have a good range of features including excellent video recording, and Panasonic's build quality and handling are second to none. Prices tend to be towards the high end, ranging from the entry-level DMC-G3 at around £410 to the new DMC-G5 at around £800. The most compact is the mid-range DMC-GF5 at around £440. If the advantage of a large and versatile system is more important to you than having the ultimate in image quality and portability then the G-Micro system is certainly worth looking at.

Olympus PEN and OM-D

If you're looking for a little more style with your photography, then maybe the Olympus PEN system is for you. In terms of specification the PEN system is very similar to the Panasonic G-Micro system, using the same Micro Four-Thirds sensor and lens mount format with the same advantages and disadvantages. The design of the first camera in the series, the PEN E-P1, was loosely based on the original Olympus Pen, a popular half-frame compact camera from the 1960s, although the more recent models have moved away from this retro style toward a more contemporary look, with some models available in multiple colours. There are currently seven models in the PEN range, with prices ranging from £285 for the entry-level E-PM1, to around £630 for the E-P3, which makes them generally cheaper than Panasonic.

Olympus has maintained excellent design and build quality across the range, and has achieved some excellent reviews, not least for its superb contrast-detection autofocus system.

The OM-D E-M5 is a new camera, but Olympus has again opted for retro styling, this time taking its cue from the fondly remembered OM 35mm SLR system that was discontinued in 2002. The OM-D system can share lenses and accessories with the PEN system, but is aimed at more serious photographers. The E-M5 camera is a lot more expensive than the PEN models, currently selling for around £1,000 body-only.

The Olympus PEN system is the second oldest, and has also built up a substantial collection of accessories, including 13 lenses, five flashguns, a range of underwater cases, custom straps and other accessories such as filters and handgrips. An adapter is available to allow old OM system lenses to be used with the PEN or OM-D cameras, although only with manual focus.

Samsung NX

Following the success of the G-Micro and PEN systems it was inevitable that other manufacturers would follow suit, but nobody was expecting that Samsung would be the first one out of the gate. The NX system has some similarities to Panasonic's G-Micro system in that it has both SLR-style and compact bodied cameras, but it also has significant differences, not least Samsung's decision to use the larger APS-C sensor format. This immediately gives the NX system an important advantage over its two older rivals, since it can potentially offer exactly the same image quality as the majority of DSLR cameras. The downside to this is that NX system lenses are somewhat larger, but Samsung has managed to offset this to some extent by using lightweight materials and clever lens design.

There have been eight cameras in the NX range so far (although the NX5 was only available in a few territories), with three models in the current line-up. Prices range from £500 for the NX1000, to £800 for the NX20, which makes them rather expensive. Although the cameras have received good review scores, Samsung's build quality isn't quite up to the high standard set by Panasonic and Olympus, and neither is its autofocus system, particularly in low light. Nonetheless the cameras offer a good range of features and have generally provided excellent image quality.

The NX system isn't as well established as the Olympus and Panasonic systems and doesn't offer as many lenses or accessories. There are currently eight lenses available including zooms and high-quality primes, and there are a number of adapters available to allow the use of Pentax K-mount, Nikon F-mount, Canon FD and other third-party lenses, which adds some welcome versatility. The list of other accessories is still rather small, with one flashgun, an electronic viewfinder, a GPS module and a couple of cases and ND filters available. No doubt there will be more in the future, but at the moment the NX range is still growing.

Sony Alpha NEX

Sony's Alpha NEX system is superficially similar to Samsung's approach, using as it does a new shallow lens mount, compact-sized camera bodies and an APS-C sensor. The NEX system was also designed to integrate still and video cameras, with a range of interchangeable-lens camcorders that can use the E-mount lenses.

Sony also makes a successful range of full-size DSLRs, so the NEX still cameras have all been extremely compact rather than straying into DSLR territory like the others. Nonetheless the E-mount cameras can use the full-size Alpha A-mount lenses including full AF operation via an adapter, giving the NEX series access to a large and growing catalogue of high-quality Sony Alpha glassware, including Carl Zeiss T* optics. There are currently only six dedicated E-mount lenses available, plus two adapters and two extension lenses. Sony also makes several compatible flashguns, a couple of high quality video microphones and some carrying cases.

At the moment there are three still cameras in the NEX range; the entry-level NEX-F3 priced at around £380 with an 18-55mm lens, the mid-range NEX-5N at around £420, and the fantastic NEX-7 that I fell in love with a few weeks ago, priced at a hefty £950 including a lens.

The NEX-7 is arguably the best compact system camera currently available, with image quality and performance that can blow some full-size DSLRs out of the water, but it is very expensive. However, if you're looking for a well-designed, well-made CSC with a large range of features and state-of-the-art image quality it's definitely the one to go for.

Next Page > Ricoh and Pentax

Ricoh GXR

The Ricoh GXR is quite possibly the most bizarre camera system ever devised. Rather than opting for the camera body with interchangeable lenses like everyone else, Ricoh came up with the idea of combining the lens, sensor and primary image processor into one sealed unit, with a separate body unit carrying the battery, controls, monitor, card slot and output processor. The theory was that the design would avoid the problem of dust getting onto the sensor when changing the lens, and would mean that the sensor and lens could be perfectly matched. The first two camera units introduced in 2009 were an f/2.5 50mm prime lens with an APS-C sensor, and a 24-72mm powered zoom with a 1/2.3in compact camera sensor, which may not have been the best marketing decision in history, since neither really showed the system's potential. Picture quality was very good for the 50mm lens module, but the 10-megapixel zoom module proved to be disappointing, and there were also problems with the AF system.

Although unquestionably a revolutionary concept, and despite having a few advantages over conventional designs, the GXR has not been a big success. This hasn't deterred Ricoh though, and new lens/camera units are still being launched, including a lens mount module for Leica lenses last year, and a promising 16.2-megapixel APS-C 24-85mm zoom module earlier this year.

The main problem for the GXR system is its price. The camera body unit costs around £240 on its own, and the new A16 24-85mm f3.5-5.5 lens/camera unit costs around £420. It's not much cheaper buying them as a bundle either. Even the Leica lens adapter is around £440, and that's without a lens. At those kind of prices the GXR system is never going to be able to compete with Olympus or Samsung.

Pentax Q

Although the term "Compact System Camera" seems to have taken hold (along with a few other appellations), not many of the models we've looked at so far have been really all that compact. One system that definitely meets the size criteria, however, is the tiny Pentax Q. Launched in June last year the system currently consists of just one camera, five lenses and a clip-on optical viewfinder.

The secret of the Q's compact size is its use of a compact-camera-sized 1/2.3in 12.4-megapixel CMOS back-illuminated sensor, as well as a newly designed lens mount. The result is a camera not much bigger than a typical compact, and the only CSC that you could comfortably carry in your pocket with the lens attached.

Despite the diminutive size the Q is a well made little thing, with a tough magnesium alloy body, well designed controls and a big 7.6cm (3in) monitor. It also has an innovative pop-up flash on an extending linkage, which can be used whether up or down. It performs and handles well, and the picture quality is, as you'd expect, about the same as a high-end compact camera.

Again the main stumbling block for the Q system is price. It's available either with an 8.5mm prime lens at £350, or as a twin-lens kit with a 5-15mm zoom lens for £500, and at those sort of prices it's going to have a hard time competing with its larger rivals. If you have a pressing need to own the smallest system camera on the market then go ahead, but otherwise there are cheaper alternatives.

Pentax K-01

Having given us the smallest mirrorless system camera on the market, Pentax has now also given us the largest. The K-01 is roughly the same size as a normal entry-level DSLR, thanks to its use of Pentax's venerable K-mount, which requires the same body depth as a conventional camera. The obvious advantage of this is that it gives the K-01 access to 40 years of Pentax lenses, plus hundreds of third-party lenses and accessories made for Pentax-compatible film and digital SLRs. The downside is of course that it's enormous when compared to other CSCs, with chunky handling to match. The body is also rather distinctive to say the least. Created by Australian designer Marc Newson, it's one of those things you'll either love or hate, especially if you go for the bright yellow version seen here.

The K-01 offers outstanding image quality thanks to its 16-megapixel APS-C sensor and high-quality processor, although some reviewers have marked it down for poor low-light focusing. If you're looking for a CSC that has the widest possible range of accessories the K-01 is unbeatable in this respect, since it can use anything that Pentax's DSLRs can use, and may even be better with manual focus lenses. It is a bit expensive compared to some of its rivals, costing £600 with an 18-55mm lens, but that's not a bad price compared to a DSLR.

Next Page > Nikon, Fujifilm and Canon

Nikon 1

It was an open secret last year that Nikon was working on a compact system camera, but nobody was sure if it would follow Samsung and Sony and opt for the APS-C sensor size, or if it would follow Pentax and use a compact camera sensor. In fact, Nikon did neither; instead it chose a completely new sensor and lens mount which it's calling the CX format. The CX sensor measures 13.2 x 8.8mm, giving it a little over half the surface area of a Four-Thirds sensor, and less than a third of the area of a typical APC-C sensor. This of course means that the cameras and their lenses can be smaller, although in fact the size advantage over the Micro Four-Thirds system isn't as great as you might hope.

There are currently three cameras in the Nikon 1 range, the, J1, J2 and the V1, all of which have similar features including a 10.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, EXPEED 3 image processor and full HD video recording, but the V1 adds a high-definition electronic viewfinder. Oddly though both the J2 and V1 cameras are currently selling for about the same price, £500 including the 10-30mm kit lens.

At first glance, you might think that the much smaller lens format will make it impossible for the Nikon 1 to be compatible with Nikon's huge catalogue of high-quality DSLR lenses. However, Nikon does make a lens adapter (known as the FT1) which enables you to do just that. As for dedicated Nikon 1 lenses, there are currently only five. None of the current cameras have a hot-shoe as such, so fitting an external flash directly is not possible. I say as such because the V1 can be equipped with Nikon's multi-accessory port adapter, which enables the user to attach Nikon's SB-N5 flash unit (pictured above) - all are optional accessories though.

Although the potential for image quality is limited by the sensor size, my review of the Nikon 1 J1 demonstrated excellent image quality, especially at higher ISO settings. The highlight of the Nikon system however is its fantastic hybrid adaptive AF system, arguably the best on any compact system camera. If you're looking for a good compromise between size, performance and image quality, the Nikon 1 system is certainly worth looking at.

Fujifilm X-Pro1

I'm not going to say much here about the Fujifilm X-Pro1. It's not so much a compact system camera as it is a digital rangefinder camera aimed at the professional and advanced enthusiast market. It is extremely expensive, costing £1,200 for just the camera body, and only three prime lenses so far are available for the system, all of which are well over £500 each.

With a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor utilising some unique Fujifilm technology it's certainly capable of producing fantastic image quality, but it's well outside the needs or the budget of most users. I'm hoping to get one in for review in a few weeks, so I'll look at it in more detail then.

Canon EOS M

Canon was the last major manufacturer to launch a compact system camera, but finally took the plunge in July of this year, and the result has certainly been worth waiting for. Like Samsung and Sony, Canon has opted for the APS-C sensor format, specifically the same 18-megapixel CMOS sensor as the new EOS 650D digital SLR, which I'll be reviewing next week. The EOS M shares many features with the 650D, including its DIGIC 5 image processor and 7.7cm (3in) 1,040k dot monitor. In fact, it could be fair to describe it as an EOS 650D in a compact body.

Despite its large sensor and lens mount the new EOS M is smaller than the Sony NEX-7, the Samsung NX210 and even the Olympus E-PL3, and lighter than the Sony and Olympus cameras too. It has a stainless steel and magnesium alloy body, so it's going to be tougher than some of its plastic-bodied rivals too.

The EF-M lens mount that the EOS M uses is new, and there are only two dedicated lenses in the format so far, but there is also an adapter that lets the EOS M use any of Canon's huge range of EF and EF-S lenses. This is a wise move on Canon's part, and vastly increases the appeal of the new system. It will need that extra appeal though, because despite the money Canon must have saved by raiding the 650D parts bin, the EOS M is very expensive compared to its major rivals, selling at £770 with an 18-55mm lens, or nearly £1,000 for a twin-lens kit.

Conclusion

As we've seen, there is as much variation between CSC designs as there are manufacturers making them. They all have advantages and disadvantages, so deciding which one is right for you depends on what sort of photography you want to do, as well as your own personal taste. If your priority is maximum image quality then the Sony NEX-7, the Fuji X-Pro1, the Pentax K-01 or the new Canon EOS M will be the best option, although naturally they are the most expensive models. If compact size is more important then the tiny Pentax Q or the Nikon 1 J2 might be more suitable, despite the limited number of lenses available. If on the other hand system versatility floats your boat, then your only sensible choices are the Pentax K-01, the Sony NEX range, the Panasonic G-Micro system or the Canon EOS M. As with many things in life there is no right answer, but we can be sure that the compact system camera is here to stay, and that future developments are sure to be interesting.