Compact system cameras (CSC): Which mirrorless system camera is best for me?

Compact system cameras. No, wait, mirrorless interchangeable cameras. Or is it digital single lens mirrorless? It's no wonder that the onslaught of this relatively new camera market has caused its fair share of confusion.

The announcement of the Canon EOS M has seen the final major manufacturer reveal its CSC cards. But that means there are no fewer than eight of them in the running, producing kit that encompasses seven different lens-mount standards. And that's why we're here at Pocket-lint to help sift the wheat from the chaff so that you can figure out which CSC is best for your needs.

General introduction

Hello. Nice to meet you. First, a bit of housework. What is a CSC? It's a near-compact-sized camera with a larger-than-compact-camera sensor that includes an interchangeable lens mount.

There are a few mainstays to consider when buying into a compact system camera. You'll want to think about the size of the body and lenses that you want to carry around, and this is something that's dictated by design and, importantly, sensor size. The bigger the sensor size, the larger the lenses and, usually, the camera's body too. But also the bigger the sensor size the better - again, usually - that image quality will be. Your classic trade off, really: which is largely what the CSC represents - a trade off between your DSLR and compact camera.

And yet image quality isn't the be all and end all of a camera experience. You might want good quality, but not care if a camera's scored slightly lower on some boring chart on a foreign website if such results can't really be seen in the real world. You might just want an easy-to-use camera that suits your needs for family snaps and is built to last a long time.

On the other hand, you might be a more capable photographer that's all but done with taking that huge, professional DSLR camera kit out on the town. Here you'll want to think about future-proofing, largely based on available lenses and accessories, how responsive and accurate a focus system is, and whether the sensor is up to the job in standard and low-light conditions.

Bearing that in mind, decide whereabouts you fit on the user spectrum and read on for our compact system camera round-up arranged in sensor size order from smallest to largest.

Pentax Q

The smallest of the bunch, the Pentax Q is a bit of an oddity. It's got a sensor no larger than you'd find in a basic point-and-shoot camera, and that helps to explain why its teeny form factor looks rather toylike.

Indeed Pentax has even released what it calls "toy lenses" to accompany the release. Although they're cheap to invest in, the manual-only focus and poor resulting quality don't make them all too attractive a purchase. You're better off sticking with the better-quality zoom and 8.5mm prime lenses. But that's all there is available, a paltry five lenses in total.

All this costs a fair whack too. We prefer to think of the Q as a fun collectable rather than a serious bit of photography kit.

Sensor crop factor: 5.6x approx (ie, 50mm = 280mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Well built, teeny form factor

Cons: Teeny form factor, poor lens selection, small sensor, poor overall image quality (though better than a compact camera, it can't match up to the competitors listed in this round-up)

Pentax Q review

Nikon 1

The Nikon 1-series has been backed up by a wash of TV advertising and squarely aimed at the modern family. Which is the best place for it really. The J1 and V1 models are laid out with point-and-shoot snappers in mind.

The small, 1-inch sensor size is capable but, ignoring the Pentax Q, also the weakest overall performer of this group. If you're gung-ho about your image quality and want something more DSLR-like, then look further up the range. But if you want a simple, point-and-shoot style camera with interchangeable lenses and the ability to capture frames before even firing the shutter (yep, the ads are true!) then this could be up your street.

Sensor crop factor: 2.7x (ie, 50mm = 135mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Small lens factor, point-and-shoot ease, shoot before you shoot (no really!)

Cons: Lack of higher-spec user control, small sensor lacks top-end image quality

Nikon 1 J1 review

Nikon 1 V1 review

Panasonic/Olympus (Micro Four-Thirds)

Where it all began and, arguably, the category leader. The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) range - which is shared by both Panasonic and Olympus, so lenses from both manufacturers are interchangeable - doesn't have the biggest sensor, but this translates to sensible body and lens sizes.

As both companies have had plenty of time to explore and advance their ranges, however, the latest MFT cameras are extra quick off the mark. The likes of the Olympus OM-D, for example, is among the fastest contrast-detect autofocus system of any on the planet.

The amount of choice may seem a little confusing, however. Panasonic has its G-series, which is sub-divided into GF, G and GH, while Olympus has its PEN range and the latest - and higher-end - OM-D E-M5. That does mean that there's something here for everyone, whatever your ability, and plenty of prospect for lens and accessories expansion too.

Sensor crop factor: 2x (ie, 50mm = 100mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Broadest range of interchangeable lenses, fastest autofocus systems (OM-D and GF5), sensible body and lens sizes

Cons: Image quality won't beat a larger-sensor competitor (but it's not that far off)

Olympus OM-D EM5 review

Panasonic Lumix GF5 review

Canon EOS M

It's here. It has arrived. Canon has been tight-lipped about its compact system camera reveal, but what it has announced was no big surprise. Our first impressions are that it's a lot like a Canon EOS 650D DSLR compressed into a PowerShot-like body size. In fact it's rather like a Sony NEX-5N.

The EOS M's at your fingertips. However, we've not yet got our hands on one for an extended play, so we can't comment on just how good this system will be, nor how well it will stand up against the competition. On spec, though, we're quite excited.

Sensor crop factor: 1.6x (i.e. 50mm = 80mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Flash included in the box, image quality should be DSLR-matching (much like Sony's NEX series), super-high resolution touchscreen.

Cons: No built-in flash, it sounds rather pricey to us, new lens mount means a lack of EF-M lenses (initially, though we're sure this'll change), touchscreen won't suit all tastes, not yet clear how the shallow flange-back distance (18mm) will affect final image quality compared against Canon's EOS DSLR range

Hands-on: Canon EOS M review

Samsung NX

We tend to think of Samsung's NX-series as the most DSLR-like of all the compact system cameras. It's not big by any means, but it's less shrunken than many of its competitors.

This is, in part, down to the camera's design. The flange-back distance (ie, the distance from the rear of the lens to the sensor) is 25.5mm - deeper than any other system listed in this round-up. While this means it might make for slightly larger models in the case of the NX20, for example, that's not always a negative: there's plenty of room to get your hands around without it feeling too small. Should you want a more compact, stripped-down version then the latest NX210 will do you justice.

But the Samsung-made sensor is its unsung hero and the range of lenses coming out of Samsung's doors is nothing short of impressive. If high resolution is what you're after, then the Samsung NX series certainly delivers. It's a serious DSLR alternative, but the battery life needs to be improved.

Sensor crop factor: 1.5x (ie, 50mm = 75mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Decent image quality, high-resolution sensor, plenty of decent lenses available

Cons: Battery life tends to be poor, larger than its competitors, less support via online and retail stores, built-in Wi-Fi a little cumbersome (nice idea though)

Samsung NX20 review

Sony NEX

Sony was one of the first to start firing in the compact system camera war and managed to cram a DSLR-sized sensor into a smaller form factor before any other company had.

The NEX system is great for less knowledgeable snappers for simple point-and-shoot work, but does also offer full manual control. The problem is, with the exception of the high-spec NEX-7, you'll need to do a fair amount of menu-digging for manual shooting. Sony has released software updates to make the cameras more user-friendly, but the NEX-series' one big downside is its user interface.

Ignore that and this small package has a great bunch of lenses on the market, an accessory OLED electronic viewfinder that's among the best going, and captures fantastic image quality whatever your level.

Sensor crop factor: 1.5x (ie, 50mm = 75mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: Small package, great image quality, decent selection of lenses coming through

Cons: Complex user interface (it's been improved and NEX-7 has a different design, though)

Sony NEX-7 review

Fujifilm X-Pro1

The clue here is in the name. Fujifilm's retro-styled system is built on not only top-glass prime lenses (no zoom lenses to date, though there will be at least one added to the range), but it's also got some seriously clever technological engineering.

First up is its hybrid viewfinder, similar to that found in the X100. This fusion of optical and electronic viewfinder is unlike anything else out there. It feels a little different from a normal camera, and does suffer from what's known as parallax error that you'll need to learn to correct for. But that's how traditional cameras worked, and Fujifilm embraces that here.

Without going too deeply into the nuts and bolts, the X-Pro1 doesn't have a usual colour grid pattern over its surface to decode accurate colour. It has one that's far larger, which means a layer in front of the sensor - known as the anti-aliasing filter - isn't necessary in its design. The result? Extra sharp, tip-top image quality that, the company has claimed, will match a full-frame sensor DSLR. We don't disagree.

Sensor crop factor: 1.5x (ie, 50mm = 75mm in full-frame equivalent)

Pros: excellent image quality, great prime lenses, revolutionary viewfinder, super-high-res rear LCD screen, luxury build quality, classic Fujifilm film "emulsions", forthcoming Leica adapter means compatibility with insanely good (and expensive) Leica glass

Cons: complex for beginners, expensive, only prime (not zoom) lenses to date, AF isn't the fastest, parallax error

Fujifilm X-Pro1 review

Leica X2 review

Canon EOS 650D review



>