Most cameras are bought on the basis of price, not specs. If you wanted the smartest shooter around, you'd have to set aside an ever-expanding budget. No matter what you chose you could always get something better for a little bit more cash.
So, if you're shopping with a set price in mind, we're here to help with three top choices to suit any budget.
If you need to spend less than this, check out the end-of-line cameras at your local retailer, where even this tight a budget should swing you a choice of 12-14-megapixel devices from the leading names' spring 2011 collections. The 14-megapixel Samsung ES75 is a great choice. It's knocking on for a year old so you can pick one up for £75.
If you can bust the £100 budget by £20, though, check out the ultra-compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W570. It's approaching the limits of comfortable miniaturisation, but that makes it all the better for slipping in a pocket or beach bag. It earns bonus points for being light -- at 100g it's not going to spoil the cut of your suit.
Despite its small size, it packs a 16-megapixel sensor and 5x optical zoom; it has an impressive maximum aperture of f/2.8 for bright, sharp images and shallow depths of field. It has a great sweep-panorama mode that stitches together a scene as you pan the lens across it. There's also an optional waterproof housing on offer for braver, more creative photographers -- or anyone off to Center Parcs.
Up to £250
Canon's IXUS 230HS is our favourite mid-range compact of the last few months. It may sport just 12.1 megapixels, but every one of them is a winner. The underlying HS -- 'high sensitivity' -- processor packed into this compact body makes great use of low light for punchy, well-balanced colours and plenty of grain-free detail.
It ships in a choice of six colours, with an 8x zoom around the front and a 3-inch screen covering almost the whole of the back. In a smart bit of tidying up, Canon has shifted the menu and mode buttons around the corner and lined them up on one end of the case to help slim down the body.
The IXUS 230HS has a sharp lens, proper high-definition video recording at 24 frames per second, 1080p resolution and bags of options for creative shooting. We think it's close to a bargain as recent reductions have brought it down to less than £200 online.
Up to £500
With dSLR looks and performance, minus the price, Sony's £440 Alpha SLT-A35 is technically a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses -- precisely the format that's set to dominate the year ahead.
Behind the bundled 18-55mm kit lens there's a 16.5-megapixel sensor. This feeds its output to an impressively fine digital viewfinder in addition to the regular rear-mounted LCD. It feels great in your hand, with a fat manual focus ring at the front of the lens and a well-balanced body behind.
Sensitivity tops out at ISO 12,800 for effective low-light performance. The results are useable but a little grainy at this level, so the multi-shot combo option is a welcome addition. This shoots 10 frames in quick succession and combines them for optimum, cleaner results.
Well built, carefully designed and consistently dependable, it's an impressive package all round at a very tempting price.