Stuff a monster zoom into a tiny, pocket-sized camera, and something's got to give -- usually image quality. But the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS (*Est. $230) manages the rare triple feat, experts say: a whopping 20x zoom, impressive photo quality and a super-small body about the size of an iPhone, only twice as thick.
Owners generally praise this take-everywhere camera. It's the best-selling ultra-zoom at Amazon.com, and it's one of the highest-rated. "Sometimes it's just more convenient and spontaneous to use a point and shoot than a full-blown SLR [single-lens reflex camera]," writes one owner, who zoomed past the crowds at New Orleans' Jazzfest to grab close-ups of the performers. Another dubs it the "almost perfect travel camera" after taking it on a trip to southeast Asia, and still another wishes he had taken the SX260 on his trip to China, instead of wrestling with a big digital SLR, a bunch of lenses and a separate camcorder.
"It's the camera you'll want to take on vacations, keep on hand for barbecues and parties, and even use to stalk wildlife and hyperactive kids in their natural habitats," Imaging-Resource.com experts say of the Canon SX260, their favorite travel ultra-zoom.
Best-in-class photo quality separates the Canon SX260 from the pack. Critics do find common ultra-zoom flaws like purple fringing and blown-out highlights, but the 12-megapixel Canon captures more detail than the runner-up Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 (*Est. $305) in a head-to-head test at DPReview.com.
Travelers like the Canon's built-in GPS. Experienced photographers appreciate its robust array of manual controls, although you can still go totally point-and-shoot with Auto mode.
There's no room for a viewfinder or hot shoe, and no RAW mode on these little cameras. You'll be using the pop-up flash and bright, clear LCD screen instead, and you'll be shooting JPEGs only -- the price of pocketability.
Slow autofocus and mediocre HD video are the Canon's two main flaws in reviews. Otherwise, "I honestly had trouble finding bad points of this camera," says Joshua Goldman at CNET, where the Canon SX260 earns the only ultra-zoom spot on the Best 5 Digital Cameras list.
The closest runner-up in this category, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 (*Est. $305) , barely misses the top spot. It's quicker to autofocus and has features the Canon lacks, like a touch screen and smoother HD video. "If you're looking for a compact camera for both photos and videos, this is a good choice," Goldman says -- unless you plan to print photos bigger than 8.5 by 11 inches. (Imaging-Resource.com puts the limit at 11 by 14 inches.) Images look too noisy and soft if they're printed much bigger than that, critics say. The Canon does better, making a nice 16-by-20 print, say reviewers at Imaging-Resource.com.
The luxury-priced Leica V-Lux 40 (*Est. $700) is basically a re-badged Panasonic ZS20 with a longer warranty (two years versus one) and $170 worth of bundled Photoshop video and photo editing software. It performs identically to the Panasonic in tests, but some owners prefer the Leica for its heftier warranty and prestigious logo.