The Canon S95 is the smallest of the three. If you know what you’re doing photographically, you’ll love the big, clicky ring around its lens barrel. It lets you make quick adjustments without burrowing into menus. Which adjustment? That’s up to you. With one button press, you can redefine the ring’s function: zoom, manual focus, exposure adjustment, white balance, ISO (light sensitivity), shutter speed or aperture.
The S95 also has a few ingenious improvements on the standard self-timer. There’s Smile Shutter (waits to snap until you smile), Wink Shot (waits two seconds after you wink) and Face Detect (waits two seconds after a new face enters the frame — yours, that is, after you’ve set up the shot and rejoined the group).
The photos are almost universally fantastic, indoors and out, and so is the hi-def video. A shame about the feeble battery life: only 200 shots a charge.
That’s half what you get from the Panasonic LX5. The LX5 is a bigger, heavier camera, too. And it has a detachable lens cap, which you’ll lose.
But this camera, too, has some fine features. For example, it has an especially wide lens, capable of capturing much wider vistas than its rivals. The dedicated video button lets you record hi-def movies without wasting time changing modes. It has a satisfying physical on-off switch, and the built-in flash pops up only when you push another switch. The hot shoe on top accommodates a more powerful flash or an eyepiece viewfinder.
The Samsung TL500 is bigger yet. At 4.5 by 2.5 by 1.1 inches, it’s halfway into the size/weight territory of the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000 — big black things loaded with controls but heavy as bricks in your pocket.
This camera has a lot in common with the Panasonic: hot shoe, detached lens cap, superwide-angle lens. The best part, though, is the huge, bright and clear OLED screen. It flips and pivots away from the back so you can shoot over your head, down at knee level or even forward, so you can frame a self-portrait without guessing.
Unfortunately, the Samsung records only standard-definition video. The zoom is 3X (the Canon and Panasonic manage 3.8X). And in too many shots, the Samsung’s white-balance setting is off, giving photos a weird color tinge. Note, too, that you must charge the battery inside the camera, so you can’t charge a spare while shooting.
Now, a real S.L.R. is still superior in many ways — no shutter lag, interchangeable lenses and easier background-blurring. But if you want pocket-size, these three remarkable models stand head, shoulders and torso above the typical $200-ish compacts.
Here, then, are two New Year’s resolutions. For the camera companies, clean up your deceptive, lazy sensor-measuring act. There’s no measurement as important as the sensor dimensions, and the public deserves to know what it’s buying.
And for you, the consumer, consider what you really want. If the answer is better pictures, start saving up. There’s still no such thing as an S.L.R. in your coat pocket, but there’s now something that comes breathtakingly close.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.