We all know you can spend big bucks for a digital camera. We also know many folks don’t have money to burn when gas is three bucks a gallon. Fortunately there many cameras from the top companies that do a good job and don’t break the bank. And please don’t even think about going really cheap with digicams from folks like Vivitar or GE –they’re awful. Canon’s A series is aimed for buyers who don’t want to spend a lot yet want decent quality. The A series has models ranging from the hundred-dollar 5-megapixel A460 up to $399 USD for the 12MP A650 IS. The $249 USD A720 IS tested here is an 8-megapixel model with a potent 6x zoom and a 2.5-inch LCD screen. The camera also has the much preferred optical image stabilization to help eliminate blur in low-light situations. It even runs on a pair of simple everyday AA batteries as do all of Canon’s A series cameras rather than expensive proprietary lithium ion rechargeables. A quick tour of the ‘Net found this camera for less than $225 USD from reputable sites. Now lets see if it’s worth the money…
Features and Design
The 8-megapixel PowerShot A720 IS is a boxy looking camera without any of the panache of the company’s Digital ELPH series. That’s not to say it’s ugly just that the Made In China digicam won’t win any beauty contests. The plastic and metal body is primarily silver colored with dark accents on the grip which is very substantial compared to other point-and-shoot models since it holds the two batteries. This one feels right when you pick it up. The camera weighs 7 ounces without batteries and SD card. It measures 3.83 x 2.64 x 1.65 (WHD, in inches) so don’t expect to slip this into a tight pocket as you can with an ELPH.
The front is dominated by the 6x optical zoom which is more powerful than the typical 3x or 4x. This is equivalent to 35-210mm in 35mm terms which is nice on the telephoto end but as from my review of the SD870 IS, you know I prefer a wider-angle option (28mm). Along with the flash, mic holes, AF Assist lamp and viewfinder porthole, there are a few relatively tame decals and logos. On the bottom right next to the lens is a ring release button that lets you attach accessory converter lenses (wide angle, telephoto, close-up).
On the top of the A720 IS is the mode dial, on/off key, speaker and shutter with surrounding zoom control. The dial offers a lot of options not typically found on affordable point-and-shoots—aperture- and shutter-priority as well as full manual. Granted you don’t have all the options of a D-SLR but this camera lets you spread your photographic wings if you want to move beyond Auto or the many scene modes available (portrait, night portrait, landscape and so on). This camera has 12 modes total, a lot less than Olympus or Casio digicams and the menus are rather rudimentary but they get the job done. Canon should really upgrade its menu system to be more helpful for beginners and replacement buyers.
The rear is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD rated a so-so 115K pixels. The screen worked OK indoors but there was some smearing as you moved from subject to subject. This is one of the key differences between lower-priced cameras and their more expensive brethren since they’ll have 230K pixel screens and faster refresh rates. As for shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, the LCD held up well and I never needed the viewfinder.
Also on the back are the usual controls found on almost every point-and-shoot digicam. On the top right is the mode slider switch to move between capture and playback. You’ll also find a Delete key that also helps you move through manual adjustments, a Direct Print button, Display and Menu. Display lets you get rid of onscreen icon clutter, add grid lines or whatever your heart desires. Menu takes you to the camera’s basic settings. The four-way controller with center Function/OK button lets you adjust the flash (on/off), get into macro and adjust the settings. This layout is straight forward and functional, like zillions of other digicams.
On the bottom you’ll find a compartment for the AAs and SD/SDHC card slot along with a tiny slot for the date/time battery. The left side has a compartment for DC-in, USB and A/V out.
The Canon PowerShot A720 IS comes with everything you need to get started including a pair of batteries, cables, a huge 210-page owner’s manual, software starter guide and Canon’s Digital Camera Solution CD ROM ver. 31.0. The disk has ZoomBrowser EX 6.0, PhotoStitch 3.1 for panoramas, EOS Utility 1.1a and drivers for PC users. Mac heads get ImageBrowser 6.0, PhotoStitch 3.2 and EOS Utility 1.1. Since the camera has no internal memory, Canon supplies a puny 16MB SD card. Of course, you’ll need to budget $20 USD for a 1-gig card as well as NiMH rechargeables for Mother Earth.
After popping in the supplied batteries and 2GB card, it was time to give the A720 IS a workout.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Testing and Use
As mentioned earlier, the A720 IS feels fine when you’re shooting. It’s big enough with the large hand grip so it naturally fit as I put it through its paces. Starting off in Auto at maximum resolution and least compression (3264 x 2448 pixels, Super Fine) I shot a variety of scenes indoors and out, trying to see how well the camera captured bright fall foliage and some still lifes in available light. For the most part, the camera focused and captured images quickly. Where the camera tended to drag was indoors with the flash. It took some time to recharge and save the photo. This is to be expected with a low-cost camera since in order to reach a price manufacturers have to cut down on processing power. It’s just a fact of digicam life. That said I didn’t find it too annoying but it was annoying none the less.
What really bothered me was the amount of digital noise when shooting in available light. Taking shots of flower arrangement in a dark corner with the flash off, the digital noise was very noticeable—in the Auto ISO and High settings. Don’t expect to make 8.5×11 prints with an ISO of 400 or above (1600 is the max setting). This was disappointing. When I took some shots of my Maine Coon cat in a room with more sunshine (using the Daylight white balance setting), the prints were much better. The optical image stabilization did a good job eliminating blur; always look for true OIS if you have the option.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Shooting outdoors the photos were spot on. Colors were very accurate with barely a spec of noise. The shots had the “Canon” feel I like so much. There was little purple fringing of tree branches against a bright blue sky. Macro shots of some of the last hydrangeas of the session were especially vibrant and lifelike.
Although I shot primarily in Auto, I did use the manual options to adjust the shutter speed and aperture. It’s very easy to do with the controls. Moving in for manual focus you have to hit another key but a window pops up on the LCD to help you make the sharpest adjustments.
For around $225 USD, this is a solid-yet-not-great camera. Christmas didn’t come early so you can’t expect a camera for this price to have the response and low-noise capability of a $1,000 D-SLR! If you can spare the extra money, I’d still go the SD870 IS but a hundred bucks is still 30 gallons of gas. The PowerShot A720 IS is a fine performer outdoors but has its faults in low light and it is a little pokey when you use the flash. It’s not a slam dunk winner but neither is it a dog—it’s a compromise. And compromises rarely make everyone jump for joy.
• Very nice natural photos outdoors
• Wide focal length (35-210mm)
• Optical image stabilization
• Uses AA batteries
• Very noisy in low light
• LCD screen could be better
• OK menu system needs updating