Call this the season of the 10-megapixel digital single lens reflex camera. By the time Santa appears in the Thanksgiving Day parade, enthusiasts will have four 10MP D-SLRs to choose from. In this quartet are the Sony alpha DSLR-A100, the Nikon D80, the Pentax K10D and the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. Three of the cameras are available now; the K10D is due in November. That said, we decided to review the new Canon and compare it to the Sony since they are so similarly priced. The Nikon is a bit loftier and will set you back $999 for the body alone, $1,299 for a kit with an 18-135mm DX Nikkor zoom lens. By comparison, the Sony is $999 for the camera and an 18-70mm zoom (list price not real world which is more like $899). That’s 400 clams more for the “honor” of using a Nikon in the case of the Sony and the newest Rebel. That’s a lot of green, no matter how you look at it even if they’re not quite red apples-to-apples comparisons. Let’s charge the Sony and the Canon and see how they perform.
Features and Design
The Canon Digital Rebel is a very compact, sturdy D-SLR. Available in all-black or silver accented trim, the XTi is just slightly smaller than the 8MP XT, measuring 4.98 x 3.71 x 2.56 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 28.4 ounces with lens and battery. Since the Sony has a bigger body and a larger zoom, it tips the scales at 33 ounces fully loaded. The front of the XTi has the basic D-SLR look and is dominated by the lens mount. The camera accepts all EF and EF-S lenses and—due to the digital factor—boosts any lens 1.6x. That means the supplied 18-55mm lens is actually 28.8-88mm, a decent range but lacking a bit on the telephoto end. The Sony kit lens translates to 27-105mm, giving the alpha the edge.
Also on the front is the lens release button, a depth-of-field preview key and a red-eye reduction/self-timer light. There are subtle EOS and XTi logos giving the camera an elegant look (we had an all-black model). The Sony looks pretty cool, too.
As noted the Rebel XTi is a 10-megapixel camera offering 3904 x 2598 pixel resolution. Make sure you buy at least a 1GB, high-speed CompactFlash card since a single RAW file can hit 30MB. It uses an APS-C size CMOS sensor compared to the Sony’s APS-C CCD imager. Canon claims CMOS delivers better images and efficiency. We’ll deal with image quality in a bit but the Sony takes 750 shots on a charge compared to 500 with the XTi. Ring up another one in the Sony column.
Canon is touting the fact the Rebel XTi has a self-cleaning imaging sensor. It works automatically every time you power the camera on and off. What this does is prevent specs of dust from settling on the sensor the show up as annoying specs on your prints. I can see this as an issue for shutterbugs who change lenses as often as they take a breath. Most folks who snap the lens into position and never remove it won’t find it the greatest thing since sliced you-know-what. The Sony also has an image sensor cleaning system but where the alpha trumps the XTi is its Super SteadyShot image stabilization that helps you shoot in available light with less chance of blur. To get this with the Canon system you have to buy very expensive image stabilized lenses. Score another one for Sony.
The top of the Rebel is straightforward. There’s an on/off switch, a mode dial, a hot shoe for accessory flashes and the main flash itself which is auto pop-up type. You have to raise the flash manually on the Sony. This is a matter of taste but I prefer the auto pop-up just for quick convenience. The mode dial gives you fast access to the various scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Macro, High-Speed Shutter (Sports), Night Portrait and No Flash. Turn the dial past Auto and you enter the various manual options including aperture- and shutter-priority as well as A-DEP. The last one is auto depth of field which ensures everything within the nine auto focus points will be in focus. On the top of the pistol grip is the shutter and a jog wheel to make menu adjustments. The Sony has a similar arrangement but since it’s a larger camera overall, the grip is bigger. I liked it better but that’s just me—that’s why it’s absolutely imperative you physically handle any camera or camcorder before you buy it.
The rear of the Rebel XTi won’t surprise anyone who has looked at the back of a D-SLR in recent days. Along with the viewfinder with diopter adjustment, most of the real estate is taken up by a nice 2.5-inch LCD screen rated 230K pixels, the same as the Sony alpha. For this camera when compared to the XT, Canon eliminated the LCD info display above the screen in order to give you a larger screen, an excellent tradeoff, in my opinion. As with most D-SLRs—other than the Live Preview editions from Olympus and Panasonic—the LCD is for reviewing your images and dealing with menu changes. The Canon menu system is very clean and straightforward—and doesn’t take a degree in quantum mechanics to navigate. The same holds true for the Sony. The Rebel XTi offers a few more options for the budding digital photographer than the Sony. As a trickle-down from its more expensive siblings, this camera has Picture Styles that adjusts the “feel” of a photo, depending on the subject. You can adjust sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone.
Surrounding the LCD are dedicated buttons for Print/Share, Display, Menu, Jump, Playback, Delete, Av (+/-), and Continuous Shooting/Self timer. There’s the ubiquitous four-way controller with center set key. The four keys give you access to ISO (1600 maximum), AF type, White Balance and Metering mode. On the top right are buttons to enlarge images during playback to check your focus. On the right of the camera is the slot for the CompactFlash card, the left has a video and USB outs as well as an input for an optional remote control. They’re covered by a rubber door that fits snuggly. On the bottom you’ll find the tripod mount and battery compartment. It’s a logical design but nothing we haven’t seen a million times before.
The Canon Rebel XTi has a decent kit. As noted, the basic lens that’s supplied is 18-55mm that’ll leave you wanting more on the telephoto side. Also this is not Canon’s finest piece of glass. You really need to buy higher-quality lenses to step up image quality. Consider the kit lens a place setter as you get more comfortable with the whole interchangeable lens world. You’ll definitely want another—or three. The camera comes with all the requisite accessories other than a CompactFlash card (go for a high-speed edition). There’s a nice 180-page owner’s manual, neck strap, lens caps, cables, battery/charger and two software CD ROMs. One has imaging software for PC and Mac and the second has operating instructions for the programs.
With batteries charged and cards in place, it was time to see how the XTi performed and compare it to the alpha.
Image Courtesy of Canon USA
Like any D-SLR worth its pixels, the Canon started up in an instant (less than two seconds). Other D-SLRs are a shade faster since the anti-dust system has to kick in. This response time—start-up and image capture—as well as access to a sea of interchangeable lenses are what separates these cameras from the 300-plus point-and-shoot digicams available. Yes, they cost more but anyone who has a missed a picture waiting for cheaper camera to save a shot will appreciate this speed.
As always, I began in Auto then moved to the many manual options available, taking hundreds of shots. A two-gig Kingston Ultimate card holds 447 hi-res JPEGs or 202 RAW files so I didn’t have to worry about running out. Another difference between the two cameras is the fact the Sony can also use Memory Stick Duo cards with the supplied adaptor. A 2GB MS Pro Duo card was used in that instance.
It was the first days of Fall so leaves were turning some nice shades of red and gold while mums of various colors were out in bloom, a good test for overall color quality and detail. Fluffy cats and art pottery were the challenges for indoor images.
I have to admit that I really enjoyed shooting with the Rebel XTi. Even though the grip is smaller than the Sony, it felt right. Also the camera is a speed demon. There was virtually no shutter lag or wait time as the camera saved the large files. One of the biggest differences between the XTi and the XT is continuous shooting—the XTi can peel off 27 JPEGs in a burst; the XT did 14. The Sony alpha does 3 frames per second up to amount of memory left on the card. The XTi captures up to 10 RAW images while the alpha stops at 6; hats off to Canon here.
Canon also gets a tip of the hat with digital noise—or lack thereof. You really don’t see it tearing apart an image at 800—beyond that stick to snapshot-sized prints. By comparison, noise rears its ugly head with the Sony at 400 and over.
I also enjoyed shooting with the Sony alpha. It’s more substantial and the grip is larger than the Canon. I didn’t find the extra weight to be a problem but I wasn’t trekking in the Rockies, either. Having dials on the top of the camera to quickly get to a function (ISO, Dynamic Range Optimizer and so0 on) and make changes was very convenient. The XTi lets you do that too so it’s not a make or break feature in either case. What was clearly better was the supplied kit lens. I know Canon is looking for profits but they really should upgrade the supplied 18-55mm lens so it at least matches the Sony’s range (18-70mm). I found myself walking toward my subjects with the Canon whereas I stayed in place with the alpha.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Now for the true proof of the pudding—8.5×11 prints with no editing whatsoever. Downloading images to my Dell Dimension with built-in card reader was effortless. Using a middle of the road Canon 5-cartridge printer and Canon Photo Paper Pro, I made prints of similar images taken with both cameras. And the winner was…in fact, there was no clear cut champ with the prints made. I liked the Canon images for overall color accuracy and shadow detail; the Sony’s were a bit sharper and I credit that to the image stabilization system. By themselves, you’d be happy with the results from either one but placing the prints side-by-side the Canon won out. I even gave the prints to an unofficial observer and she picked the prints from the XTi.
Image Courtesy of Canon USA
This one is a toughie. Usually your intrepid reviewer has no problem calling winners and losers. Here there really aren’t any losers in the negative sense—there are trade-offs. The Sony has the heft and features including image stabilization for every lens. This makes it easier to shoot in available light with less chance of blur. And the Sony has a more powerful kit lens. Even though the Canon doesn’t have IS, it has better noise handling capability so shots taken at ISO 800 are much more useable. In general, the Canon delivered slightly better images although like wines, you could lean to one over the other simply as a matter of taste. A quick search found the Sony alpha kit going for the same as the Canon–$899. If you have Canon lenses in your closet, there’s no issue—buy the Digital Rebel XTi. If you own any Konica Minolta lenses, buy the Sony alpha DSLR-A100 since it uses a KM mount. If you don’t have either one, the Canon takes it but just barely. It all came down to the prints–and the Canon won by a Jessica Simpson-sized nose.
• Very nice photos and prints
• Excellent LCD screen/menu system
• Rapid high-speed shooting
• Weak kit lens
• Below average battery life