You're looking to buy a compact system camera (CSC) but don't know what to go for? Perhaps the term alone confounds: we've seen plenty of names being thrown around of late, from simple "mirrorless" through to terms such as "digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM)".
Whatever you choose to call them, we're not going to get hung up about it. You're probably interested in such cameras because they offer image quality well above a compact camera and the ability to change between lenses to offer different views on to the world for more creative control.
Compact system cameras are, as that name suggests, a whole camera system that, in many respects, are comparable to DSLR equivalents. The key difference, in most cases, is that they're smaller - because there's no mirror box in the build - and, therefore, more manageable to cart around. Some have electronic viewfinders, others just a rear screen for preview so you can use them like an upscale digital compact.
READ: Best DSLR cameras
In this best-of feature, we round up the best mirrorless system cameras of 2013 to suit all tastes and abilities. Whether that's based on budget or size for a first time buy, we've got the goods for beginners or aspiring pros; for those who want a point-and-shoot solution, through to an all-in-one solution with viewfinder, or those who seek a truly expandable system as a DSLR alternative.
Whatever your level, we'll guide you through the hottest products available - and only models that we've reviewed in full - to save you time when it comes to working out what the best options are for your needs. We'll be regularly updating this feature to keep it up to date with the latest and greatest models.
A quick lesson in lenses
First thing's first: cameras don't work in a one-size-fits-all way. Brands like to keep their own heritage and, as such, manufacturers tend to have individual lens mounts.
The exception is Micro Four Thirds which is supported by both Panasonic Lumix G and both Olympus Pen and Olympus OM-D models. Elsewhere there are a whole host of considerations, each tied to their respective manufacturers: it's E-mount for Sony NEX Alpha, XF-mount for Fujifilm, NX-mount for Samsung NX, 1-mount for the Nikon 1-series, EF-M for Canon EOS M, and Q-mount for Pentax Q.
Each of those companies also makes or had made DSLR cameras, so don't fall into the trap of buying a lens just because the manufacturer name matches up. It's the mount that's key.
Focal length equivalent
Each lens will have a "mm" marking on it, such as 12-24mm, to convey the angle of view it will deliver. The lower the number the wider the angle of view, so more will "fit in" to a scene.
It's a bit more complex than that as different camera systems have different sensor sizes that give different focal length equivalents, but stick to that rough rule above and you'll have an approximate bearing on what you're getting. If you want to know more, bring it up in the comments below and people can help your grasp of what means what.
Best pocketable / budget mirrorless camera
There are only so many that can fit into this category and, indeed, literally fit in your pocket. We could pick the Pentax Q, but we don't think its small sensor is up to the job at hand. There are other forthcoming models too, such as the Panasonic Lumix GM1 which we're yet to test in full.
Some current models have had a fair few months of shelf life before their prices plummeting. There are plenty of good options available out there, from the Nikon 1 S1, to the Canon EOS M, but each has their own individual issues. With those considerations out of the loop, our current preference goes to:
Panasonic Lumix GF6
The Lumix GF6 ticks the box for both pocketable and budget. Pop a small lens on the front - whether a power zoom that collapses when switched off, or a decent quality prime (ie, with no zoom) - and you can literally fit it into a bag or pocket and barely notice it. The impact on your wallet is none too bad either at this price.
But it doesn't scrimp on the quality front, despite its affordable price point. The GF6 produces decent quality images from its 16-megapixel sensor, has very fast autofocus, easy auto or manual shooting modes, and an LCD screen that can flip all the way up to face forward for selfies.
The GF6 is one of those "here it is" kind of solutions - there's no hotshoe so you can't expand into a viewfinder or flash, but as a step up from a compact camera it's ideal.
PRICE: £359 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The GF6 handles like a super-fast compact camera. It's small, pocketable, affordable, and yet doesn't cut back on being a top performer. Battery life is a little limited and Wi-Fi adds further to this battery drain, but otherwise it's a top pick.
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GF6
Best first compact system camera
You know you're interested in a system camera. You want something small, but something that you can grow with too - whether that's buying into lenses, wireless flash, or other accessories and beyond. You want to pick a system that you'll stick with; one that's established and reliable. There are different options from all the brands, so it's a hard call. You could go Samsung NX300 or Sony NEX-5R if you want a large-sensor system for the utmost image quality. You could option for the Nikon 1 series as it's super small and super fast, but has among the smallest of sensor sizes and compromises image quality in low-light. All possible conclusions but, for us, the best size to quality balance - and the camp with the largest number of available lenses - goes to Micro Four Thirds.
Olympus Pen E-PL5
Whether you want point-and-shoot or full manual control, the E-PL5 has it all on hand. It's easy to use, or more complex if you dig in deep - there are even features such as four-channel off-camera flash available for those clever enough to manipulate the light.
There's a lot of range in this camera, and for the price point it's a total bargain. Good quality build, decent image quality, great autofocus, and a huge lens system to expand into too. It'll last you for a good length of time and gives the flexibility to progress onto a more advanced Lumix G or Olympus OM-D model at a later date without needing to ditch any lenses.
It might lack some of the more modern stuff such as Wi-Fi connectivity, but we really don't think many will care too much.
PRICE: £479 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: Olympus has hit the nail on the head with this one. The E-PL5 delivers exceptional image quality at a reasonable price point, but also delivers in its build, features and performance stakes too. Our moans are very few and far between. The E-PL5 is a compact system camera as it should be.
FULL REVIEW: Olympus Pen E-PL5
Panasonic Lumix GM1
To look at you'd think the Lumix GM1 was a compact camera, not part of a full-on interchangeable lens system. It's that small. In many ways it sits on the fence - it feels like a high-end compact camera and thanks to that small, collapsible lens we're not sure we'd ever swap it out for anything else.
Super-fast autofocus, a responsive touchscreen, and that small size make it a winner. You can't add on a viewfinder as there's no hotshoe, but that just isn't this camera's point - it's going head-to-head against the likes of the Fujifilm X20 and Sony Cyber-shot RX100.
Given the choice of a GM1 or a similar price high-end compact camera we don't even need to think for a second about which we'd go for. The GM1 wins out every time. It's a product that sits in a special place, and we think it's an utterly brilliant little camera.
PRICE: £629 with 12-32mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The GM1 is a shrewedly positioned little camera that we can't help but think big, wonderful things about. If there was a second spare battery in the box for the list price we'd already be heading to the shops to buy one.
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GM1
Best mirrorless cameras with built-in viewfinder
It's got the rear screen for compact-like use, but there's also a built-in viewfinder in tow too. It's the all-in-one experience and we have two current favourites:
Sony Alpha NEX-6
The NEX-6 was the first CSC with a built-in electronic viewfinder that truly impressed us. It did away with any DSLR-like stylings and squeezed that viewfinder in to the rear with minimal disruption to design. Great work.
For us the NEX-6 epitomises what compact system cameras are all about: small, light, easy to use and well built. Autofocus isn't class leading, however, but for the price point it's a fair balance.
PRICE: £589 with 16-50mm power zoom lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The NEX-6 is our favourite model in the series yet. Some autofocus shortcomings, battery life ailments and sloppy Wi-Fi do give rise to some issues and competitors also give Sony a run for its money. But it's the mix of decent 16-megapixel image quality and the built-in viewfinder make it a winner.
FULL REVIEW: Sony NEX-6
Panasonic Lumix GX7
The Lumix GX7 is bursting with features, including a built-in tilt-angle electronic viewfinder to the rear that, when faced front-on, you'll barely notice. It's the only CSC to have a built-in EVF that can be physically tilted. Very cool.
This camera is a pleasure to use and produces excellent shots. Pro-spec features such as a 1/8000th sec maximum shutter speed further bolster the package deal that, straight of of the box, is unlike anything else out there on the market.
In true Panasonic fashion the GX7 ticks plenty of boxes. But beyond feeling solely functional, this Lumix has soul too; it successfully flirts with the current design trends and pulls it all off with elegance.
PRICE: £899 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The GX7 is the package deal: it's got everything on board and everything is covered well. It's luxury, it's exciting, it delivers on deserved hype and despite so-so battery life and image quality that can't outshine the Olympus E-M5 we've found it to be one of the modern greats in the compact system camera world.
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GX7
Best luxury / style mirrorless camera
Olympus Pen E-P5
A hotly contested category, no doubt. But one we knew the answer to in a heartbeat.
There's something about the E-P5 that's unlike any other compact system camera out there. You need to only look at the picture to see that.
The black-finish E-P5 model that arrived at Pocket-lint Towers may not have the same striking character of the silver and white body options, but the metal body design delivers a premium feel in the hand. That's where a chunk of the price comes from - and it's not cheap - but other features such as the same sensor as found in the top-spec OM-D E-M5 also supports its price position.
Substance and style meld into one excellent camera. If you're after a compact system camera without a built-in viewfinder then the E-P5 is as good as they come.
PRICE: £999 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The price might be a bit of a hurdle, and there are some small niggles that hold it back from perfection, but otherwise the E-P5's combination of top notch build quality and equally top notch image quality make it not only the best Olympus Pen, it's one of the best compact system cameras yet. It oozes quality.
FULL REVIEW: Olympus Pen E-P5
Best image quality mirrorless camera
Another hotly contested category, and one that's likely to shift as new cameras continue to launch with new innovations. Typically larger sensors produce better quality images, assuming they're paired with decent optics and the megapixel count isn't too high.
Sensor size order drifts upwards from 1/2.3-inch Pentax Q, to 1-inch Nikon 1, the 2x crop factor of Micro Four Thirds, the 1.6x APS-C format of Canon's EOS M, then the slightly larger 1.5x APS-C formats of Samsung NX, Fujifilm and Sony. Larger still full-frame models, such as the Alpha A7, are also imminent.
Of all the options out there it's the Fujifilm X-Trans CMOS sensor that wins out for us. Not only is the large, APS-C size sensor able to deliver glorious shallow depth of field, its design is different to any other compact system out there - and that's integral to the resulting quality.
Unlike most conventional sensors, Fujifilm has done away with the low-pass filter which leads to sharper results and the Japanese company has also implemented a unique colour filter array that you won't find outside of this brand. It's all very complex, but all very clever. All you really need to know is that results are top notch.
However, there are potential issues with moire - that criss-crossy fuzzy pattern that appears as rainbows of colour - so if you're looking to shoot pin-stripe suits day in, day out, then this might not be the option for you. Other Fujifilm models, such as the X-Pro1 are equally impressive, while the forthcoming X-E2 should be a grade above the X-E1 yet again - something we hope to test out soon.
The Fujifilm XF-mount has all manner of top notch optics too. They're not small and they're not cheap, but the results from the likes of the 60mm macro lens are incredible.
PRICE: £889 with 18-55mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The autofocus speed isn't going to see off its nearest competitors at all, but the X-E1 is a tool that never takes its eye off the image-quality ball, all wrapped up into a super chic retro-styled body. It looks great, its images look even greater, and that's where this retro snapper wins.
FULL REVIEW: Fujifilm X-E1
Best enthusiast mirrorless camera
Olympus OM-D E-M5
The out-and-out DSLR replacement, the Olympus Pen OM-D E-M5 isn't only exceptional in every way, it was the camera to push style and technology to the fore in the compact system camera market.
It's not a budget offering by any means, but this relatively dinky mirrorless model has everything going for it. It pushed Micro Four Thirds image quality to another level, there's a "floating sensor" image stabilisation system that's awesome, all kinds of accessories to expand into and, as we say, it's a visual treat to the eyes.
The OM-D E-M1 is forthcoming, which steps things up a notch in the pro market, but for now OM-D remains king.
PRICE: £949 with 12-50mm lens (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: Sleek, stylish and classy: the E-M5's design, fast autofocus, innovative image stabilisation system and rugged body are all high points. It's only the relatively poor battery life that lets it down, something the optional battery grip can help out with. We like it, we like it a lot.
FULL REVIEW: Olympus OM-D E-M5
Best full-frame mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha A7
The Sony Alpha A7 is unlike any other compact system camera - because it has a full-frame sensor. But that big point of interest doesn't make it a huge camera: it's small in scale and, at £1,299 for the body only, is the most affordable pathway into full-frame.
We're excited about it, as are the industry and the public: the A7 beat off quality competition to be crowned the Best System Camera 2013 in the Pocket-lint Gadget Awards.
It's a great first step, but there are areas that need to be improved - battery life is poor, and the 28-70mm kit lens isn't great. Grab a couple of spare batteries (or the optional battery grip if you don't mind the additional scale) and the 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss lens and it's stunning though.
The Alpha A7 is a camera out there all on its own. It doesn't feel quite comparable to a full-frame DSLR, but we mean that as a positive. It's a different system, with a different ethos and, combined with the right gear, it'll bring you one thing that's the same as any other system worth its salt: glorious full-frame pictures.
PRICE: £1299 (body-only)
QUICK VERDICT: The Sony Alpha A7 is a mini marvel with a big point of interest: that full-frame sensor. At £1,299 for the body only, this is as affordable as large-sensor snapping can get, and it could open up a whole new set of interest from more casual photographers, as well as pros looking to obtain a smaller system to work with. You will need spare batteries though.
FULL REVIEW: Sony Alpha A7 review