If 2011 has taught us one thing, it's that you no longer need to spend a week's wages to bag yourself a high-res camera. While 16 megapixels would once have marked out a device as being for pros, today you can get that spec for under £200.
At the same time, the last 12 months have proved once and for all that super-high pixel counts are far from being all that matters. In truth, they're a marketing hook that manufacturers are starting to turn their backs on.
Nikon's latest premium models boast 10.1 megapixels apiece. Panasonic has set a 12.1-megapixel limit on its FZ48 superzoom and Canon is promoting high sensitivity over high resolution.
That's good news for all, as it means manufacturers can now spend more of their time packing in features and focusing on quality than chasing an arbitrary number.
As 2011 draws to a close, we look back on the 10 best cameras of the last 12 months. With compacts, superzooms, interchangeable lenses and dSLRs going head to head at prices from £160 to £660, there's something for everyone.
10. Samsung WB700 (£160)
The boxy body and budget price do little to hint at the WB700's power, but the 18x zoom would take you from 24mm to 432mm on a 35mm camera. When combined with 16 photo modes and four for movies, it becomes one of the most versatile sub-£200 cameras on offer.
Colours are bright, detail is sharp and for budding Spielbergs, the movie soundtrack -- many a compact's Achilles heel -- is clean and clearly recorded. Some clipping on highlights aside, it's a great camera for very little money indeed.
- Read our Samsung WB700 review.
9. Nikon 1 J1 (£550)
The best-looking interchangeable lens compact yet produced, the Nikon 1 J1 has a simple, classy body and short lenses for those who want to travel light while still being able to swap between wide-angle and long-zoom attachments.
Its resolution is just 10.1 megapixels, which allows for larger photosites and better low-light performance without grain, even at fairly high sensitivities. The camera and dual-lens bundle is a bargain at £550, making it one of the most desirable interchangeable lens kits yet released -- at least until Panasonic ships the Lumix GX1 in mid-December.
- Read our Nikon 1 J1 review.
8. Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR (£240)
A camera and tour guide in one, the F600EXR has a built-in GPS receiver and database of local points of interest. Not only will it take super-sharp shots of your holiday sights, it'll tell you where to find them too.
Maximum sensitivity is an impressive ISO 12,800, and if you set it to automatic shooting it's smart enough to clip the size of your pictures from 16 megapixels to a more manageable 8 when it needs to up the sensitivity to reduce potential grain. The lens is sharp, colours are vivid and detail is finely rendered for a sterling performance all round.
- Read our Fujifilm FinePix F600EXR review.
7. Nikon Coolpix P7100 (£349)
Like the J1, Nikon's P7100 has just 10.1 megapixels to call on, but uses every one of them to produce consistently sharp, vibrant pictures. With a positive arsenal of buttons and switches dotted about its body, Nikon has moved as many of the functions as it can out of the menus and onto the physical body, so whatever settings you need you'll find them quickly and easily.
The screen is articulated so you can tilt it for low-level or overhead shooting, and the lens has a bright maximum aperture of f/2.8 for shallow focus on portraits.
- Read our Nikon Coolpix P7100 review.
6. Sony Alpha NEX-5N (£660)
With a tiltable touchscreen to the back and an interchangeable lens at the front, Sony's NEX-5N combines the best of Nikon's P7100 and J1 in a smart, compact body. The 16.1-megapixel sensor made great use of the available light throughout our tests, packing every frame with fine detail, right into the corners.
Macro performance with the bundled 18mm to 55mm kit lens is first class, with a sharp subject and swift fall-off in the focus to really draw the eye. Fun to use and comfortable to carry and hold through extended shooting expeditions, you can rely on the NEX-5N to consistently produce results you'll be proud of.
- Read our Sony Alpha NEX-5N review.
5. Canon PowerShot SX40 HS (£380)
Canon has thrown everything it's got into the SX40 HS, with a 35x optical zoom, fold-out lens and 8fps burst mode. The lens alone would cost you £11,500 on a regular dSLR. Here it produces sharp, detailed results full of realistic colour, crisp contrasts and smooth transitions between areas of similar tone. Its macro mode is the best we've used as it's able to focus on subjects pressed right against the lens.
The camera is packed with scene modes and creative filters that emulate everything from a fish eye to tilt-shift effects in both stills and video shooting, complete with live previews. It's one of the most creative, versatile cameras we've used this year.
- Read our Canon PowerShot SX40 HS review.
4. Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ48 (£270)
At just £270, the FZ48 is nothing short of a bargain. With a 12.1-megapixel sensor and 24x zoom, it'll get you close to the action and still leave you sufficient spare pixels to crop down your shots to bring out their true potential. The Leica-built lens keeps everything bright and sharp at all zoom levels and free from vignetting at even the maximum zoom.
Results in our still-life test were among the best we've seen. Although it's a chunky beast, its fat grip feels good in your hand, while the stubby barrel very efficiently sucks up that monster zoom so you can fit it into a surprisingly compact camera bag.
- Read our Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ48 review.
3. Canon EOS 600D (£550)
The latest in a long line of consumer dSLRs, the EOS 600D builds on the success of the still-current 550D with a fold-out screen and both 1080i and 720p video at 30, 25 and 24fps. It remains fairly compact, with a generous APS-C-sized sensor packing 18 megapixels at the heart of its specs. This is alongside a 3.7fps burst shooting mode, great low-light performance and maximum sensitivity touching ISO 12,800. Even at ISO 800, our test shots were noise-free, crisp and detailed.
For high-performance, no-nonsense and not-too-expensive semi-pro shooting, this is a first-class option. It has a great pedigree and plenty of legacy lenses to choose from.
- Read our Canon EOS 600D review.
2. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V (£250)
Sony's earned itself second place in the top three with what we called 'one of the most fun cameras we've tested in a long time', and 'the camera against which rivals should be judged for months to come'. It looks good and feels great to hold, with well placed controls and a sharp lens that matches 25mm to 250mm on a regular 35mm camera.
Countryside scenes were packed with colour in our tests. When we moved indoors to tackle our still-life arrangement, the intelligent auto mode was smart enough to keep everything in focus, where some rivals chose to switch to macro. It's great in almost every respect and is only just pipped to the top spot by...
- Read our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V review.
1. Canon IXUS 230HS (£180)
The best camera of 2011 doesn't have an interchangeable lens, a tilting screen or even a particularly high resolution. What the IXUS 230HS does have is Canon's high-sensitivity HS system. This consistently shot well balanced exposures and vibrant colours in all lighting conditions throughout our tests. It's small enough to slip into a pocket, with buttons moved onto one end of the body rather than the back plate.
It comes with a 12.1-megapixel sensor and 8x zoom. We were bowled over by the results, with super-accurate focusing, skilful sensor noise control and excellent video performance pushing it to the top of our chart. At the time of our review, we recommended holding out until the price fell below £200. Well, your patience has paid off, as it's now retailing in some outlets at around £180. Go buy.
- Read our Canon IXUS 230HS review.