We think a compact camera should be easy to use in any situation, fast to react and if it can make a camcorder redundant, so much the better. Sony's DSC-HX20V does all of that, building on the success of the HX9V. The range now includes the HX10V (very close in spec to the HX20V but lighter with a lesser zoom) and the forthcoming HX30V, which adds Wi-Fi.
It's certainly not the most compact compact. It can be stuffed into the back pocket of a pair of jeans for short spells really it wants to be tucked into a bag or hand held if you're on the move. It has a useful rubbery grip and generally well laid out controls with no touchscreen nonsense to trip you up. Talking of screens, this one is a beauty. Dig into the settings and turn it up to maximum brightness for a zesty, colourful preview of your shots.
The headline-grabber is the 20x optical zoom. In a camera this size that's impressive, but what really makes it special is the optical image stabilisation. Zoom in to 20x magnification and as you'd expect, camera wobble is amplified hugely, but as soon as you half press the shutter, a magical calmness falls upon your image as those wild jitters are replaced with a serene and gentle floating motion that's easily steadied.
If you scrutinise the 18MP images on a computer you'll notice that at extreme zooms and in lower light settings there's a kind of watercolour effect going on, but in reality this doesn't show up or blight your stills when viewed or printed at typical sizes.
in the dark
But we're not the pixel police. What's more important is how well it shoots in the real world. At its wide-angle setting the lens works well indoors, and the Superior Intelligent Auto mode is keen to use its multiple shot stacking tricks instead of the flash if there's not much light. That's very effective too, maintaining high shutter speeds even in gloomy conditions. Otherwise you can use the alternative (not Superior) auto mode which is more keen to pop up the light for a flash.
Autofocus is very quick in most circumstances. Even if you don't have your finger on the shutter button, the camera is constantly adjusting its focus, so more often than not it's already focused before you press the shutter, in which case you get zero shutter lag. It's only when the autofocus assist light is called upon that you might have to wait a second.
And then there's the video, which is unrivalled by any non-Sony compact. It shoots 1080p at 50fps, and the footage is very smooth and sharp, aided by that image stabilisation. You get access to the zoom and the handful of retro-style special effects in video mode too, so there's a lot of creative potential as well as all-round practicality.
You also get GPS tagging (you might rather turn that off to extend the battery life), a 40x digital zoom on top of the 20x optical zoom (just stick to the optical range), and Sony's excellent sweep panorama mode and pseudo 3D stills.
It's very hard not to like the HX20V very much. Its size will be more than some are prepared to pocket and serious camera types might prefer the retro charms of the Fujifim Finepix X10, but otherwise you'll have to go a long way to find a better all-round compact.