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My now old compact camera died of a lens failure, so I'm in the market for a replacement. What I'd do if I were looking for a new SLR/mirrorless-esque camera would be to go and read the thorough reviews all over the web and make an informed decision - but that level of detail just doesn't exist for the cheaper end of the market.

However, one thing which is pretty much true for the interchangeable lens cameras is that there's not really a significant difference the image quality from similar cameras by different manufacturers - the entry level model from Canon will produce pretty much the same images as the entry level model from Nikon, Pentax, Sony or anyone else, and this hasn't really changed for a good few years. Does the same thing apply to small sensor cameras, in which case the answer is pretty much "buy whatever I can get the best deal on" or are there non-trivial differences between the image quality of similar cameras from different manufacturers?

Note 1: I'm not looking for recommendations of which camera to buy - that's off-topic here.

Note 2: I'm well aware that the image quality from small sensor cameras isn't going to match up to that from an SLR. I own an SLR and use it - but sometimes it's too big to carry around. I'm looking for something really small here, but which does better than my phone.

  • You might want to specify whether you're planning to shoot RAW, that is, whether to factor the camera's JPEG engine into the evaluation. – junkyardsparkle Jun 8 '15 at 21:35
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There can be significant image quality differences between similar small-sensor cameras. While it's true that brand may not have a significance (a lot of makers use sensor hardware from Sony) beyond processing algorithms, there are two factors that can have a significant difference in the image quality the camera produces, and both of these may not necessarily be easily revealed by the type of camera or looking through the specs.

Lens

The lenses can vary widely both in capability and quality on small-sensored compacts. Some go for superzoom performance, but have limited low-light capability, while others can sacrifice zoom range for fast max. apertures. While two small-sensored compacts may look similar, they may have very different lenses (e.g., the Olympus XZ looks like a Canon Powershot S. But the XZ's lens is 28-112mm eq. f/1.8-2.5. The most current Powershot S's lens is a 24-120mm eq f/1.8-5.7. That makes a difference for low light, zoomed in shots.

Sensor technology/age

The other big difference that can show up in image quality is sensor technology. While two cameras may both be small compacts, an older model will nearly always have an older sensor with worse high iso noise performance. My old Canon Powershot S30 had (for me) unacceptable noise above iso 400. My Canon Powershot S90 worked well for me up to iso 1600. I'd posit that today's S120 is even better. Knowing the age of the model is key. Not all the currently offered models are necessarily the latest model, and if you're shopping used, this can make a huge difference between what spec out as nominally similar cameras.

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