Compact cameras with interchangeable lenses strike a middle ground: Unlike point-and-shoots, you can swap lenses, but without all the bulk of a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. Olympus and Panasonic use a standard called Micro Four Thirds, while Samsung and Sony have proprietary systems.
The best ones deliver photos nearly as good as a DSLR's in professional tests -- and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (*Est. $1,100 with kit lens) is the very best, experts say. To get much better photos, "you'd have to step up to a full-frame DSLR," says Mark Goldstein at PhotographyBlog.com.
It's svelte, quick and weather-sealed, too, earning the Olympus top honors from both experts and owners. It's built tougher and offers a far better lens selection than its closest runner up, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 (*Est. $1,200 with kit lens).
The Sony does have a bigger image sensor with more megapixels (24.3, versus 16.1 for the Olympus), but testers say its mediocre lenses don't do it justice. Both cameras handle dim light admirably, but the Olympus holds the edge, delivering a nice 5-by-7-inch print at its ISO 25,600 limit in Imaging-Resource.com's test (the Sony maxes out at ISO 16,000). The Olympus autofocuses faster in low light, too. The Sony NEX-7 has one more big flaw: It can overheat and shut down after shooting just a few minutes of video, a problem Sony acknowledges but hasn't solved.
For fantastic video, experts recommend the 16-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 (*Est. $1,300 body only). "The GH3 was designed for video and boy does it deliver," says T.J. Donegan at DigitalCameraInfo.com, with sharp full HD footage and the best video feature set of any interchangeable-lens camera at any price. Built-in Wi-Fi and intuitive touch-screen controls make it a pleasure to use, but testers say it can't quite keep up with its rivals in low light. It's substantially bulkier than other mirrorless cameras, too -- as big as a compact DSLR.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 (*Est. $800 with kit lens) is smaller and less expensive than its big brother, with quick reflexes and good image quality that make it a top pick at PhotographyBlog.com and another top testing organization. The cheaper G5 loses a bunch of features, though (it gets no Wi-Fi, no weather sealing, a more basic video mode and less upscale touch screen), and its different 16-megapixel image sensor can't handle dim light as well. Testers run into grainy image noise around ISO 1600.
The Samsung NX20 (*Est. $900 with kit lens) has one marquee feature: fantastic Wi-Fi. In fact, it's one of the best Wi-Fi cameras ever, according to both Imaging-Resource.com and PCMag.com. "Sharing photos and video via Facebook, Picasa, YouTube or even email was a snap," says Dan Havlik at Imaging-Resource.com. The NX20 plays nicely with iOS and Android devices, too -- you can even use your phone or tablet as a big viewfinder. But although the NX20's 20.3-megapixel photos and full HD videos look good, tests show they aren't as clean, sharp and detailed as the Olympus and others mentioned here. Sluggish speeds (especially at startup, or after shooting a high-speed burst of photos) frustrate Havlik and Jim Fisher at PCMag.com, too.
Fujifilm grabs critics' attention with its beautiful -- but flawed -- compact system cameras. The Fujifilm X-Pro1 (*Est. $1,400 body only) delights testers with its throwback rangefinder design and glorious photo quality ("astounding," "dazzling" or "gorgeous," depending on the expert) thanks to its unique 16.3-megapixel sensor design. Critics loved it even more when Fujifilm introduced a smaller, cheaper version, the Fujifilm X-E1 (*Est. $1,400 with kit lens). Unfortunately, both cameras suffer from slower autofocus, shoddier video and weaker bodies than the Olympus, which most experts ultimately prefer.