What is a compact system camera?

Sony nex-7

A variety of compact system camera (CSC) models target the different market sectors. Don't forget that the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor from Panasonic and Olympus models may not quite match their competitors for low light image quality performance, but the smaller MFT sensor means smaller lenses – and that's important if you intend to keep your kit as miniature as possible.

Of the current models available, there are three main sectors that divide: DSLR replacement, style and mini options.

The larger-bodied CSC models, including the Samsung NX11 and Panasonic GH2, offer lots of button-based controls and built-in electronic viewfinders. These are often known as DSLR replacement models.

Samsung nx11

Medium-sized models are often design or style-focused, such as the Olympus PEN E-P3. This doesn't have a viewfinder but the inclusion of a hotshoe means an optional one can always be added at a later date. This is also the case for other similar models.

Olympus pen e-p3

Mini models do away with viewfinders altogether and, in some cases, no hotshoe means these cameras are more akin to step-up compacts with changeable lenses. The Panasonic GF3, Olympus PEN E-PM1, Sony NEX-C3 and Samsung NX200 are great examples that tend to come bundled with prime pancake lenses to keep the overall size down (add a big lens and you may defeat the object of buying into a small system). Provided you are happy with a smaller sensor the Nikon V1, Nikon J1, and Pentax Qare also making there way into the shops.

Olympus pen e-pm1

Despite the wide range of choice, there's no Canon model in the compact system camera market. Rumours are rife that a model is forthcoming – but with another lens mounts, that'll only spread things out yet further.

For the time being, manufacturers are trying hard to get the public on board to buy into their systems. Once that happens, and when lens ranges expand, there will be natural growth and more pro-spec models are likely to become a reality. Ultimately, the CSC market could see a huge chunk of the DSLR sector eaten up in the not too distant future... Watch this space.

Top compact system cameras

Now for our mini guide to our favourite compact system cameras (CSCs) and the CSC models available at the moment, to help you choose the right one for you.

Most pocketable: Panasonic GF3

Panasonic gf3

This teeny tiny compact-like model is just about as small as they come - without using a very small sensor, and has a built-in flash

Read our Panasonic GF3 review

'Mini DSLR': Panasonic Lumix G3

Panasonic g3

Super-fast autofocus and touchscreen controls in a small and capable package

Read full Panasonic Lumix G3 review

Best image quality: Samsung NX11/Sony NEX-5N

Samsung nx11

Sony nex-5n

It's a toss-up between these two APS-C models, because both compact system cameras produce cracking images

Read our Samsung NX11 review

Read our Sony NEX-5N review

For the fashionistas: Olympus PEN E-P3

Olympus pen e-p3

The Sony NEX-7 is set to be available in November 2011, it's a beautifully crafted camera with Sony's game-changing EVF built-in

Sony nex-7

Buy this in white and wear it like a handbag; its touchscreen enhances use too

Read our Olympus PEN EP-3 review

Current compact system camera models

Panasonic Lumix: the range with the Micro Four Thirds standard

Panasonic Lumix G3: super-fast autofocus in a small, DSLR-like body with touchscreen controls

Panasonic g3

Read full our Panasonic Lumix G3 review

Panasonic Lumix GF2: the GF3's older brother

Panasonic gf2

Read our Panasonic Lumix GF2 review

Panasonic Lumix GF3: as small as they come with built in flash, also has touchscreen controls

Panasonic gf3

Read our Panasonic Lumix GF3 review

Panasonic Lumix GH2: top-spec model with 1080p HD video

Panasonic gh2

Read our Panasonic Lumix GH2 review

Olympus PEN: the series using the Micro Four Thirds standard

Olympus PEN E-P3: one for the style-conscious, a unique looking Micro Four Thirds model with touchscreen

olympus pen e-p3

Read our Olympus PEN EP-3 review

Olympus PEN E-PL3: similar spec to E-P3 in a slimmed-down plastic body

Olympus pen e-pl3

Read our Olympus PEN EP-L3 review

Olympus PEN E-PM1: the 'mini' version

Olympus pen e-pm1

Read our Olympus PEN E-PM1 review

Samsung: APS-C sensor, using an NX lens system

Samsung NX11: the most DSLR-like model produces (arguably) the best image quality of any CSC

Samsung nx11

Read our Samsung NX11 review

Samsung NX200: super-high 20.3MP sensor in this mini model

Samsung nx200

Read our Samsung NX200 review

Sony: APS-C sensor, using an E-mount lens system

Sony NEX-7: 10fps and a 24.3MP sensor

Sony nex-7

Read our Sony NEX-7 review

Sony NEX-5N: 10fps and a 16.1MP sensor

Sony nex-5n

Sony NEX-C3: boasting a 16.2MP sensor for great image quality

Sony nex-c3

Read our Sony NEX-C3 review

Pentax Q: APS-C sensor, using a Q-mount lens system

Pentax q

Pentax Q: the first model in Pentax's range