The compact camera market certainly can't be accused of lacking both variety and options of where to direct your hard-earned cash, but what should you be looking for?
Point and Shoot
Most of us want a portable camera that will slot into a trouser or shirt pocket for spur-of-the-moment snaps, and work out for itself the best focus and exposure. Budget models with fewer features such as these tend to have the lowest resolution on offer, but that's sufficient quality for photo-realistic prints at regular postcard or A4 sheet size. When buying a snapshot camera, opt for a major brand, and don't spend much less than £100.
If style is important to you then there is a bewildering array of cameras to choose from. The camera's body will be fashioned to a greater degree from metal rather than plastic, and of course the price reflects this. Still, you'll typically have a resolution of between 8 and 10 megapixels, often with an internally stacked zoom lens and, increasingly, WiFi capabilities.
Another way in which manufacturers are attempting to differentiate their compacts is by giving them sealed weatherproof or waterproof bodies, some are also marketing them as shockproof. So if you like adventure sports or you're simply butter-fingered - check out those that will bounce back for more.
A camera that may require a steep learning curve for the beginner, but which offers plenty of manual control. It may not feature a huge zoom capacity but is nevertheless stacked with real photographic features. As such, enthusiast models set themselves up as ideal back-up cameras for those who already own a DSLR, but want something more portable for that spur-of-the-moment picture-taking opportunity.
The optical zoom capability offered by these enthusiast-targeted models will come in handy for those wanting such a range in a small package - the theory being that they offer so much control, the user won't actually need an SLR. The downside is that superzooms are bulkier than other types of ‘compact', and ideally need a decent image-stabilisation system when shooting at the telephoto end of the zoom to prevent blurry images.
Key features of compact cameras
Today's compacts incorporate between 10MP and 18MP, though those with particularly saturated sensors often struggle to control noise and dynamic range.
Compacts with backlit sensors often perform better here.
Cameras with particularly high ISO settings are useful when light levels fall, although noise is common to every digital camera and at high ISO options such as 12,800 and 25,600 this effect becomes particularly problematic.
This comes in three forms: optical, sensor based and ISO based. The first compensates for camera shake by shifting elements within the lens, the second works by shifting the sensor, and the third by adjusting the sensitivity (ISO setting).
Most cameras offer a zoom lens, which allows the focal length to be varied. The range varies between models, with superzoom cameras stretching to as much as 42x. Some enthusiast compacts have fixed lenses instead.