The average compact camera packs a 3x zoom, while anything larger than 10x qualifies as a superzoom. But there's a growing number of cameras in the 3-10x hinterland that combine compact portability with distant-shooting goodness.
The size of a zoom lens is determined by the focal length of the camera. Because different cameras have different focal lengths and different-sized image sensors, a standard measurement is used that expresses focal length as the equivalent to a 35mm film camera.
The sensor takes the place of the film in digital cameras, with an image recorded when light comes through the lens and falls on to the sensor. A single 35mm film frame in a film camera is the same size as a 'full-frame' image sensor, but most compacts have smaller-sized sensors. The 35mm equivalent is the actual focal length multiplied by the difference in size between that small sensor and a full frame, to give a standardised figure.
Confused? Don't worry. All you really need to know is that most compacts have a wide-angle focal length -- equivalent to a 35mm camera -- of 35-38mm. The lower the number is, the wider the picture is and the more you can cram in. More and more compacts are now getting wider angles -- as much as 28mm. Panasonic has even introduced the Lumix DMC-FX35, which has a 25mm equivalent.
The 10-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS5 is a sleek compact with a 4x optical zoom, and a nicely wide 28mm equivalent. Panasonic has also been adding a handy 'easy zoom' button to its latest cameras, which allows the zoom to spiral out to its full extension with one press. Another press brings the zoom back to the wide angle.
Larger zooms don't have to mean larger lenses. The design of non-protruding lenses lends itself to larger zooms. The lens is turned sideways in cameras with lenses that don't poke out from the body. The lens is often covered with a sliding faceplate. This isn't our favourite form factor, but one of the most fun implementations is the 8-megapixel Fujifilm Finepix Z100fd, with its unusual diagonally sliding front and 5x zoom.
If you want a larger zoom but also want the user-friendliness of a compact, the Ricoh R8 boasts a 7x optical zoom. If you're not sold on its retro, boxy looks, then try its surprisingly differently-styled predecessor, the R7.
Want to take charge of your pictures? The Canon PowerShot A650 IS is packed with manual controls and features alongside its 7x lens. The 'IS' stands for image stabilisation. Longer zooms magnify the effects to camera shake, so image stabilisation that adjusts the sensor to compensate for jitters is a must.