If you're like many people, the convenient, always-available camera embedded in your iPhone, Galaxy S4 or favorite brand of smartphone is the only device you ever need to snap and share photos with friends and family. So why would you consider buying a stand-alone compact camera when your smartphone does it all?
Because, photographically speaking, smartphones don't do it all. For instance, most phones don't come equipped with optical-zoom lenses, so they're useless if you're shooting hungry lions or just your kids playing soccer or baseball. Also, good point-and-shoots will also easily beat most smartphones in low light, whether you're shooting with or without a flash. These four point-and-shoot cameras take your photography a notch above smartphone cameras while still being easily pocketable.
Best Basic Point-and-Shoot Camera: Nikon Coolpix S31 ($99)
With a colorful plastic design (available in yellow, pink or blue), this very affordable point-and-shooter blends just the right combination of controls and features to produce a satisfactory shooting experience. Nikon's 3X zoom lens, built-in flash and 10-megapixel image sensor help produce higher-quality still images and video clips than your average smartphone. This camera is also easy to operate, because there are just a few control buttons, but they're large and easy to push. You can even splash and swim with this camera down to 16 feet (5 meters), and it survives knocks and falls to about 4 feet (1 m).
Olympus' Tough TG-2 iHS is designed from the ground up for adventure or adversity — anytime, anyplace. Its rugged, handsome hard-shell case is shockproof (can survive a drop of up to 6 feet, or 2 m); dustproof; freezeproof (down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 10 degrees Celsius); and waterproof down to a depth of 50 feet (15 m). This camera features built-in GPS, a compass and an altimeter, making it perfect for taking off the grid and into the wilderness.
It gets better. The Tough can be tricked out for serious scuba diving by adding an optional external housing that allows it to dive to 147 feet (45 m). It also takes auxiliary fish-eye or telephoto lenses to expand on the capability of its built-in 4X zoom lens. The lens's f2.0 aperture, the brightest of any ruggedized compact, enables great low-light photos.
Best Social Point-and-Shoot: Canon PowerShot N Facebook Ready Cam ($299)
The 2.8-inch (7 cm) tilting touch screen grabs your attention, but that's not the best feature on Canon's PowerShot N Facebook camera. So what is, then? The dedicated button that automatically connects to your iPhone or Android smartphone, and sends your pictures and videos directly to your Facebook friends. What's more, you can easily add comments or captions, and even spiff up your images with special effects and custom frames. The Canon PowerShot N's, 12.1-MP CMOS censor, 8X zoom lens (with true wide-angle coverage); its ability to shoot objects as close as 0.5 inches, or 1.3 cm, away); intelligent image stabilization for rock-steady pictures; face-recognition capability; and a variety of popular program modes give it a leg up over smartphone cameras.
Kids, animals, sports — Casio's EX-ZR400 is a fast-shooting, fast-operating camera for catching high-velocity subjects. This is far and away the fastest point-and-shoot on the market, with its near-instant startup, virtually imperceptible DSLR-like shutter lag, quick autofocus, shutter speeds up to 1/25,000 of a second, an incredible still-image burst mode of 30 fps and super-slow-mo video at up to 1,000 fps. What's more, the EX-ZR400's low power consumption extends shooting capacity up to 515 shots per charge — about twice that of its competitors.
In addition to using auto mode, you can set the aperture or shutter, or go all manual. You can also use a bevy of program modes and in-camera editing functions. High Dynamic Range mode captures better pictures in low light. A 12.5X optical zoom and 16-MP image sensor capture high detail near and far.
Perhaps the ultimate expression (or last gasp) of digital-camera evolution isn't exactly a smartphone-camera hybrid but an innovative gizmo that preserves each device's strengths. Sony's "lens-style" QX10 camera utilizes an entirely separate lens and electronics package that clips onto (or is remotely controlled by) any iPhone or Android smartphone equipped with Sony's free app. The QX10's components communicate via Wi-Fi. The smartphone's touch screen doubles as its viewfinder, and it offers an array of popular camera functions and features.
The $250 DSC-QX10 comes equipped with a 10X zoom lens and a larger-than-average 18.9-MP image sensor, allowing it to take much-higher-quality images and videos than can be captured by even the best smartphone. (Sony also offers the $500 DSC-QX20 lens-style camera, which combines a 3.6X zoom lens with a much larger, higher-quality 20-MPl DSLR-type image sensor.)
Daniel Grotta has been covering digital photography since its infancy. You can follow him at the DigitalBenchmarks Lab Notes Blog on Grotta.net, on Twitter @TeamGrotta, on Google+ and on Facebook. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.