It’s not hard to understand why compact digital cameras are so enduringly popular with creatives: they slide easily into your pocket or bag, ready for when a great shot comes to you – unlike with a digital SLR where you have to go looking for the shot.

Compact cameras’ main flaw has tended to be low capture quality, largely due to small sensors and zoom lenses that lack the glassware for great shots. The latest generation, though, ramps up the feature sets. Whether with longer, better-quality lenses within slimmer bodies, or new sensor technology with improved light-gathering capacity, compact camera makers are offering digital SLR-like image quality and features.

The advantage is clear: you get professional-looking photos without the bulk (or expense) of a digital SLR and its extra lenses. Manufacturers claim that you can now shoot a professional-level image that’s good enough to be incorporated into high-end digital artworks with a camera that you can pop into a pocket. The models we’ve looked at don’t put the digital SLR out of business just yet – but they’re certainly impressive.

Quality doesn’t come cheap, however. Four of our cameras here – from Canon, Panasonic, Ricoh and Sigma – nudge or exceed what you’d expect to pay for an entry-level digital SLR with a standard zoom lens. We’ve also looked at a couple of sub-£300 options from family-focused brands Fujifilm and Kodak, for those who want a feature-packed quality camera, but aren’t so bothered about manual controls.

So what should you be looking for in a high-end compact? A physically larger sensor and dedicated, specialist lens are a start, as provided by the Ricoh and Sigma offerings – bigger chips and brighter lenses give the camera better light-gathering properties and so better photos.

One of the advantages of the digital SLR is its flexibility. But here, too, high-end compacts are catching up, with features such as adjustable LCD and zoom (in the Canon G11) and changeable lenses (the Panasonic GF1). For those who find both these models bulkier than they’d like, the Kodak and Fujifim compacts provide a 10x zoom with control over shutter speed and aperture, HD video, and low light and dynamic range boosting modes respectively – and they’ll still fit in your pocket.

Can any of these models truly substitute for a digital SLR, or are they simply an able alternative for those times when lugging around a lot of kit is impractical? Read on to find out...