4. Pentax X-5, £185
The most affordable model here, the X5 is built around a 16MP backlit sensor. Its 26x optical zoom has the joint narrowest range, although it starts from the widest focal length, equivalent to 22.3mm, before finishing at 560mm. Around the back there's an EVF and a 3in LCD – the only one of the group's which can be articulated – while on the inside full HD video recording and three Shake Reduction technologies feature. AF is dependable while the LCD displays very good detail and contrast, and there's plenty to like with images too: colourful and detailed, with excellent telephoto sharpness, although the AWB can be a little too warm.
Pros - Very good detail; Excellent telephoto performance; Decent electronic viewfinder
Cons - AWB a little too warm; Joint shortest zoom; No Aperture/Shutter Priority modes
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Sensor - 16MP 1/2.33in CMOS
Lens - 23.3-560mm f/3.1-5.9
File formats - JPEG, MOV
Screen - 3in LCD, 460k dots
Weight - 599g (batt and card)
Dimensions - 86.5 x 120 x 106.5mm
5. Sony Cyber-Shot H200, £200
Although the H200 shares a 26x optical zoom range with the X5, it starts at a longer 24mm and culminates at 633mm. Its 20.1MP sensor is the most populated of the five, and it matches the others in providing a 3in LCD with 460k dots. 720p HD videos can be recorded, while Sweep Panorama and Optical SteadyShot technologies also feature. Autofocus is impressive in low light and good in finer conditions, but the LCD isn't as clear as the others. Images can be a little soft and lacking in contrast, and noise and noise reduction are both problematic. Highlights also blow easily, but detail is generally good.
Pros - Decent detail in images (but images are soft); Decent AF performance; Easy operation
Cons - Mode dial only half full; Soft, processed images; No Aperture/Shutter Priority modes
Sensor - 20.1MP 1/2.3in CMOS
Lens - 24-633mm f/3.1-5.9
File formats - JPEG, MP4
Screen - 3in LCD, 460k dots
Weight - 530g (batt and card)
Dimensions - 122.9 x 83.5 x 87.2mm
Although these five appear similar on paper, they are separated by very different performances. Thanks to its clear menu system, detailed LCD and the refined operation of its zoom, the Olympus SP-820UZ presents the finest user experience, while the fully-featured mode dials and plethora of direct controls around the bodies of the Pentax X5 and Fujifilm SL8200 make these the best choice if you're after a DSLR-like user experience.
The larger body of the H200 makes this an excellent choice for the larger handed, while the diminutive Canon SX500 IS is by far the best choice for those with smaller hands. Sadly, both are let down by poor-quality LCDs, which is particularly disappointing considering that neither camera offers a viewfinder.
It's pleasing to see that none of the five significantly distort at their telephoto settings, although chromatic aberrations are an issue with the SX500 IS throughout its zoom range, and also the Sony H200 at telephoto.
Trying to pick a winner is challenging, although if a shortlist needs to be drawn it should perhaps include the Pentax X5, Olympus SP-820UZ and Canon SX500 IS. The SP-820UZ delivers lovely images and is a wonderful camera to use, while the SX500 IS has its small size, light weight and highly detailed images to recommend it.
Overall, though, the Pentax X5 is perhaps the best all-round performer, which is surprising when you consider that it's also the cheapest option. True, it may not have the 40x reach of some of the others, but the combination of its sound image quality, DSLR-like controls and both an articulated LCD and a decent EVF certainly make it the most appealing.