DSLRs have long-held the title as the most versatile cameras on the market, capable of delivering the highest quality images, robust build quality and advanced functionality, not to mention speed.
With compacts and bridge models providing a set of stepping stones up to the traditional DSLR, manufacturers noticed a gap in between that was waiting to be filled: the CSC (Compact System Camera) was born.
How to use your new digital camera
Fast forward to today and we have an ever-increasing array of CSCs available with varying levels of functionality. Quickly carving out their own hierarchy within the wider camera market, CSCs have now developed to form their own entry, mid and pro-level sub-categories, many of which are starting to see some overlap with previously unrivalled DSLR format cameras.
To sum up the essence of a CSC: it's a camera that strives to take as many of the desirable attributes of a DSLR as possible and shoehorn them all into a neater, more portable package.
Recent incarnations of the main manufacturer's offerings are closer than ever in terms of operability, performance and image quality to that of a DSLR, with APS-C sized sensors, Full HD movie recording and connectivity features like Wi-Fi and NFC becoming increasingly commonplace among new launches.
Improvements in image quality, noise suppression, AF speed and overall handling means that some CSCs now provide a viable alternative - and not just a backup - to your traditional DSLR, particularly when recent advancements in EVF and 'hybrid' viewfinder technology are taken into account.
While we wouldn't go so far as to say that the CSC is a 'DSLR killer', the latest petite powerhouses to come to the market are certainly capable of giving their larger brethren a run for their money. The upshot is an increasing array of options open to photographers, with some impressive offerings that successfully combine the versatility of having interchangeable lenses with the portability that comes from having a smaller camera body and matching accessories.
We've gathered our pick of the best CSCs in each category of the market to give you an overview of what's available to suit your needs and budget: read on to discover your perfect pocket-sized partner.
Key specs: 16.1mp APS-C sensor, 3-inch 180° tiltable LCD, Full HD video
Price: US$562 / £349 / AU$597 (with standard zoom lens)
Making its debut earlier this year, the Sony NEX-3N took the title as the world's smallest and lightest CSC to sport an APS-C sized sensor - equivalent in size to that of a DSLR.
The entry-level model to Sony's CSC range cuts a sleek silhouette, particularly when coupled with the 18-55mm power zoom lens that comes bundled with it as standard.
Aside from its large 16.1mp sensor, the NEX-3N's other standout features include a Full HD movie recording mode and a very versatile 3-inch LCD that can be tilted through 180-degrees. Flip the screen into this position and the built-in Self Portrait mode that's on board is automatically activated: a nifty feature that's a bonus for social snappers that don't want to be left out of the frame.
- 180-degree tilting screen
- Full HD movie mode
- Large APS-C sized sensor
- Faithfully-coloured, clean images
- No touchscreen
- Lacks advanced features
- Some operational niggles
Key specs: 16.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, tiltable 3-inch LCD, Full HD movies, Wi-Fi
Price: US$804 /£499 /AU$854
Another APS-C sensor-toting CSC, the Fujifilm X-A1 is a stylish-looking camera that's based around the prestigious design that wowed us all at the launch of the higher-end X-Pro1 and X-E1 before it.
The entry-level X-A1 inherits the award-winning build and accessible interface of its predecessors, sporting a light and compact body and a comprehensive range of controls that cater for more advanced users as well as beginners.
Its 3-inch 920k-dot LCD is tiltable for added versatility and displays live view images and HD video in wonderful detail.
Built-in wireless connectivity is another asset this camera has to offer, providing scope for instant image sharing.
- Large APS-C sensor
- Twin command dials for manual control
- Wi-Fi connectivity
- High-resolution tilting LCD
- No touchscreen
- No viewfinder
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Key specs: 16mp Live MOS MFT sensor, 3-inch touchscreen, Full HD movies, Light Speed AF, Wi-Fi
Price: US$1,014 / £629 /AU$1,077 with 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens
This palm-sized Micro Four Thirds CSC almost defies logic when comparing its featherweight 204g mass and tiny body to the amount of technology Panasonic has managed to cram inside.
The Lumix GM1 is currently still a new kid on the block; however, early testing suggests that it's every bit as good as its extensive specs promise.
The high-resolution touchscreen the GM1 offers is superb, delivering a responsive performance when navigating menus and settings, with the added bonus of enabling the AF point to be precisely positioned and/or the shutter to be fired instantly on-screen.
Good looks, great build quality and handling plus a host of technologies like Full HD movie recording and built-in Wi-Fi all add up to a very appealing pocket-sized prospect.
- Very compact
- Wi-Fi connectivity
- Built-in digital filters
- No viewfinder
- No integral hotshoe
- Manual functionality lost when digital filters used
Canon EOS M
Key specs: 18mp APS-C CMOS sensor, Full HD movies with AF-C, 3-inch touchscreen, DIGIC 5 processor
Price: US$724 / £449 /AU$767 (with EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM)
It's worthwhile noting that - following a firmware update - the EOS M's performance has been much improved since our initial assessment of Canon's diminutive DSLR alternative.
The EOS M packs in plenty of impressive features, not least an 18mp APS-C sized CMOS sensor, DIGIC 5 processor, a good quality Full HD movie mode with the added bonus of Continuous AF available while shooting, and a very responsive touchscreen - to name a few.
With the latter on hand for fast navigation and an equally as intuitive set of physical controls on hand for traditionalists, the EOS M offers easy operability for beginners and more advanced users alike.
- Large 18mp APS-C sensor
- DIGIC 5 processor
- Robust build quality
- Top-notch touchscreen
- Lacks a decent grip
- No optional EVF
- No built-in flash