I hope someone could give me a little advice. I am a definitely a beginner when it comes to photography, with only several little compacts and a bit of a point and shoot habit to my name. I am happy with what this can offer me the majority of the time, something handy to slip in my bag and take on a nights out etc., but I am after something that will allow me to take a step up and get a little bit more involved in photography, learn a bit more and take some superior photos all at the same time. I am aware I could try and move into DSLR territory but am worried that this is too much of a step up for me and don't think my budget will stretch that far without some serious saving. Plus I am after something a bit more compact as I am not keen on the idea of lugging around a large camera and equipment, especially as I am an architecture student and would probably be carting it around trying to take arty photos of buildings, scenery etc.

I had been looking at some slightly higher end compact cameras, but came across the Compact System Camera and wondered whether this might be a better option. I have read they are a good choice for any amateurs looking to get a bit more into photography, as they bridge the gap between a compact and a DSLR, and the fact they have interchangeable lenses might make any eventual move into DSLR less painful. However, I am a little bit blinded by science with the various terms (MILC, EVIL????), and the differences between these types of camera.

I suppose this is down to personal preference, but does anyone have an opinion on what makes and models might be good for someone in my position, or whether this is a road I just should not veer down. Right now I am keen on a couple of the Olympus EPLs (I like the price, the good reviews for relative amateurs and the retro PEN styling, but am unsure about the slightly "plastic-y" body and lenses), or the Sony NEX 3 (again, seemingly good reviews, is small and looks good, but have heard the lenses can be very pricey), but I still really have no idea and am completely undecided. Hence I am desperate for some decent advice to help put an end to my constant internet wandering, as I'm just ending up more and more confused.

My budget is 250 - 350, with the possibility of stretching a little further if something was absolutely ideal (I don't want to end up disappointed for the sake of 20 or 30 quid), but can't really go too much beyond and I know there'll likely be extras like cases and memory cards to buy too. Saving much more isn't really an option with being a "poor" student at the moment, and I am relying mostly on birthday funds here!!! So for this I am after something that will help me to learn a little bit more about photography (on a gentle learning curve), take better quality and more artistic photos (probably mostly buildings), and finally something compact, preferably under 350. I hope this isn't too much to ask!

Apologies for the long post, but any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated.