What's your budget? For a little more than $200, you can get the top-rated pocket ultra-zoom with robust manual controls, full HD video and a 20x zoom lens. Longer zooms, more advanced features and better photo quality can drive the cost up to $400 or $600.
How much zoom do you really need? 20x to 24x strikes a sweet spot in reviews: It's long enough to zoom in really, really close (for example, you'll be able to sneak close-ups of shy songbirds from dozens of yards away) while still preserving image quality. Mega-zooms up to 50x are fun -- you'll be able to shoot photos literally from a mile away -- but image quality suffers.
Do you want a pocket-sized zoom? Compact ultra-zoom cameras squeeze long-zoom lenses (up to 24x) into tiny bodies little more than an inch thick. You'll have to forego niceties like a viewfinder and hot shoe, though. Ultra-zooms with those features are too big to pocket, so you'll need to carry them on a neck strap or in a shoulder bag.
Do you want a viewfinder? Holding an ultra-zoom camera up to your eye can help steady the shot. Full-sized ultra-zooms usually include an electronic viewfinder, but tiny pocket zooms don't have space for this feature. All ultra-zoom digital cameras have an LCD screen on the back, so you can frame your shot that way, too.
How many megapixels do you really need? The top-rated ultra-zoom camera in our report has a modest 12-megapixel image sensor. This allows the sensor to capture more light for better photos in dim situations (a notorious weakness for ultra-zooms). More megapixels theoretically promise sharper detail, but in tests with ultra-zooms, it doesn't work that way.
Do you shoot fast action? The best ultra-zoom cameras can fire off 10 full-resolution frames per second (fps) or more. But numbers don't tell the whole story: Only hands-on tests can show which cameras autofocus promptly, minimize shot-to-shot delays and other tasks that separate the snappy shooters from the sluggish.
Do you want to shoot RAW files? Pocket-size ultra-zooms shoot only JPEG image files, which are pre-processed in the camera. The best full-size ultra-zooms can shoot both JPEG and RAW files, which you can process later on your computer (sharpening edges, smoothing away grainy image noise, etc.) for maximum editing control.