Best compact camera 2015: which type should you buy?

Discover the latest and best compact cameras and what they do

If you just want a camera that's small enough to slide in your pocket and simple enough to take care of all the technicalities, a regular point and shoot compact camera is ideal. These range from the cheap and cheerful but perfectly adequate, right up to stylish fashion accessories.

But it's these regular compact cameras, particularly the cheaper ones, that are facing the biggest competition from smartphones. After all, you've always got your phone with you, and it takes perfectly good snaps – so why would you carry a separate camera?

Compact cameras vs smartphones

The image quality from a smartphone is often perfectly adequate, and you get the added convenience of instant sharing via the cellular network. Many compact cameras have wi-fi which connects to a smartphone, but they still rely on the smartphone for sharing pictures with the wider world.

The other advantage of smartphones is that they can run a wide range of applications. They can shoot a photo, edit it, apply a wide range of special effects and share it with others really easily.

Apple iPhone 6
Smartphones can take great pictures and can share them in an instant.

Sony HX60
But compact cameras have zoom lenses, bigger sensors and are easier to use as cameras.

But compact cameras still have some advantages. One of the biggest is a zoom lens – smartphones often offer digital zooms, but this reduces the picture quality. Even a cheap compact camera, on the other hand, might have a 5x or even an 8x zoom to get you much closer to your subject.

Compact cameras are also a little bit easier to handle. Smartphones have the perfect shape for phone calls but a tricky one for photography. It's easy to leave your finger over the lens by mistake, and the wide, thin shape doesn't give you much of a grip.

And the fact is that many people prefer to keep different devices for different needs. Some people would rather carry a camera for photography and a smartphone for socialising.

Point and shoot compacts: what to look for

Most point and shoot compact cameras use tiny 1/2.3-inch sensors, so there aren't too many differences here. These are large enough to give them a quality advantage over smartphones for the most part, though the gap is shrinking.

Some regular compacts have larger sensors than this, and the 2/3-inch sensor in the Fuji XQ1 is a good example, at twice the size of a point-and-shoot camera sensor. Larger-sensor compacts cost more, but you do see an improvement in picture quality.

Fuji XQ1
Bigger sensors are better. The 2/3-inch sensor in this Fuji XQ1 is roughly twice the size of a point and shoot camera's.

The other thing to look for is the lens's zoom range. Most have a 4x zoom range or thereabouts, offering a wideangle view at one end of the range and a modest telephoto effect at the other. Some go to 5x, 8x or higher, even at the cheaper end of the market – and any extra zoom range is worth having.

If you think you might need a longer zoom range still, take a look at the page on travel/long zoom compacts – these are a very popular alternative to the regular point-and-shoot camera and offer a much bigger step up from a camera phone.

Sony W830
Bigger zooms are better. The Sony W830 has an 8x zoom but doesn't cost the earth.

Don't worry too much about megapixels. In the early days, when compact cameras had just 8-10 megapixels, it might have made a difference. But cramming more and more megapixels hasn't worked. It sells more cameras, but any increase in sharpness is offset by increased noise (random speckling) and image smoothing (to get rid of it).

Back-illuminated sensors are a useful recent development that helps reduce noise, though only to a degree. They make the best of a small sensor size, but it's not the same as having a bigger sensor.

The better point-and-shoot compacts do now have much of the tech you see in smartphones, such as touch-screen control, built-in wi-fi and even GPS. You should expect to get full HD movie modes, too.