Compact system cameras have proved more popular in Japan and the UK than in most other countries. They have become a viable stepping-stone between regular compact cameras and DSLRs but, ultimately, when it comes to deciding if a CSC is really for you, image quality is key.
It's not just about the quality of the lenses, image sensors and processing engines. Equally vital is whether or not these cameras enable you to take creative control over the finer points of shooting parameters, and to react quickly before fleeting shooting opportunities are long gone. With all this in mind, our tests prove that Panasonic leads the way.
Despite its lack of an electronic viewfinder or pivoting LCD screen, we quickly fell in love with the Panasonic GF3. The camera is perfectly pocketable with a 14mm pancake lens and still nicely balanced when fitted with a 14-42mm zoom. The touchscreen literally keeps you in touch with all sorts of shooting options and is a joy to use.
The Panasonic G3 feels every inch a 'photographer's camera' but, where compactness is key, it has rather more inches than most. The Olympus E-PM1 is an attractive, immensely stylish proposition at the price but, like the similarly small Nikon J1, handling feels flawed. The new J1 itself packs some neat tricks into its diminutive shell, but some of these smack of gimmickry.
The Samsung NX11 is a more serious mini-DSLR style camera, but is a bit less refined than the Panasonic G3.
The Panasonic GF3 is our top budget CSC. For a small, take-anywhere camera that's big on versatility, this camera can't be beaten.
A near-perfect blend of compactness and easily accessible advanced shooting options, the GF3 is significantly smaller than any DSLR yet packs a powerful punch. From the ultra-simple intelligent auto (iA) mode to creative manual options, everything works beautifully.