“That’s not a camera, that’s a toy!” That was the initial reaction we got when we pulled Canon’s PowerShot N ($300) from our pocket to show it off. Indeed this small rectangular shooter is a departure in camera design for Canon (at least in recent memory). The PowerShot N is aimed toward the millennial generation – a camera that’s connected, with an emphasis on fun – but we wonder if Canon went far enough to attract this user.
Features and design
If you didn’t notice the front lens or the Canon name on top, you may not recognize the 12.1-megapixel PowerShot N as a camera just by looking at the 2.8-inch display on the back. You would be forgiven if you thought it was a small digital photo frame or some sort of newfangled Tamagotchi. The well-constructed white plastic and silver metal body gives it a quality finish, reminiscent of a white high-end smartphone or a small bar of soap (although there seems to be an inordinate amount of small screws holding the thing together). Two strap mounts, one on each side, lets you attach a wrist strap or a lanyard around your neck – think of it as a piece of jewelry or Flavor Flav-esque accessory (alas, there’s no digital clock function).
The camera is small, measuring approximately 3.1 x 2.4 inches (width x height), but it’s a bit chunky at 1.2 inches thick. It’ll fit within the palm of your hand, but you may not enjoy having it inside your pant pocket (note: the instruction manual dissuades you from putting it inside your clothing pockets, as a magnet inside the camera might demagnetize the cards in your wallet). One thing you’ll notice is that it’s heavy, or heavier than what its size would suggest. It weighs more than an iPhone 5, and it weighs nearly as much as the feature-rich PowerShot S110.
Despite its size, Canon managed to pack in an 8x optical zoom with lens-shift image stabilization (28-224mm, 35mm equivalent). There’s a Canon High-Sensitivity CMOS sensor and DIGIC 5 image processor inside. Shutter speed is 1-1/2000th of a second, with a max aperture of f/3-5.9. ISO ranges from 80 to 6,400. Don’t expect fast continuous shooting at 2.3 shots a second. Movies are recorded at up to 1920 x 1080 at 24 frames per second (fps), with a Super Slow Motion Movie mode that captures slo-mo footage at 640 x 480 at 120 fps or 320 x 240 at 240 fps. A big change for this PowerShot is the use of the Micro SD format, those tiny storage cards that are difficult to insert and easy to lose.
As for design, the PowerShot N doesn’t operate like most cameras. There aren’t a lot of buttons to press: Besides power, a shooting mode switch, playback button, and mobile device connect button, everything else is handled through the touchscreen. To operate the zoom and shutter, you use two rings surrounding the lens. The inner ring operates the zoom simply by twisting left or right, while the outer ring handles focusing and shutter by either pressing down on the ring or pushing it up from below. The idea here is that, no matter how you hold the camera (on its side, upside down), you can easily operate the camera.
The PowerShot N is a good attempt toward the right road, but in the wrong direction.
The capacitive touchscreen is highly responsive and operation is fluid, so those used to using a smartphone will feel at home. You can easily slide between menus and photos by swiping your finger, and in playback mode you can call up often-used functions like erase, slideshow, send to smartphone, or tag as favorite simply by using finger gestures. Rated at 461,000 dots, the display is suitably bright with nice color saturation, although you’ll encounter a bit of display latency in low light.
The PowerShot N, in essence, is a simple point-and-shoot that’s best used in full auto or creative modes. It does have a program mode, but we found it a bit tedious to go through the various layers of touchscreen menus to make adjustments to ISO or exposure compensation. Times like this is when you long for physical buttons. We wish Canon had implemented a quick menu function in program mode akin to the one in the EOS M. Because the camera is so compact and the screen takes up the entire back, it’s too easy to accidentally touch the screen; we inadvertently hit the record button too often, and it’s a reason why we had touch shutter turned off.
The ability to share photos is one reason why smartphone photography is so popular. The PowerShot N has Wi-Fi built in, however, it’s the same Wi-Fi implementation Canon has in its other Wi-Fi-equipped cameras, and it isn’t something we’re fond of. (Click here to read more about our impressions.) It would have been great if Canon had launched a completely new Wi-Fi system that would appeal to the target demographic. One nice feature is the mobile device connect button for quick pairing to your smartphone or tablet.
The PowerShot N has a Creative Shot mode that you enter by flipping the switch on the side. In this mode, the camera automatically shoots five types of artistic photos – sepia, black and white, and other exposure effects – in addition to a normal full auto shot, all with one shutter press. Think of it as the Instagram effect, but unlike the popular smartphone app that lets you choose the filter you want applied, the PowerShot N does it for you. In addition, you will find miniature, toy camera, soft focus, monochrome, and fish eye effects in the regular shooting mode, as well as a slo-mo option for bringing fast action scenes to a crawl.
What’s in the box
At first glance the packaging is also a bit of a departure for Canon. It’s colorful and, upon opening, there are directions on how to use the camera in different ways. It shows that Canon wants to emphasize the fun aspects of the camera, however, once you get past that it’s like any Canon camera packaging. Inside you’ll find the camera, battery (NB-9L), power adapter, USB interface cable, wrist strap, a disc containing software and full manuals, and a basic starter’s guide. It’s too bad Canon didn’t create an instruction manual that’s fun and easy-to-read to complement the camera. There’s no external battery charger (optional) as the battery is charged in camera.
Performance and use
Maybe because this reviewer has large hands, we found using the camera to be unwieldy and frustrating. Because there isn’t any space to properly grip onto the camera, we found ourselves losing hold of the camera often, especially if we have the display flipped open. There were times where we didn’t really know how to hold the camera properly to get the unique angles we wanted. (Having the screen flipped open 90 degrees was a nice way to shoot video, however.) We found that our knuckles either kept hitting something on the screen that we didn’t want, like the video record button, or pushing down on the shutter ring. We also kept confusing the two rings, often mistaking the zoom ring with the shutter ring. Using this camera requires patience and finesse – and lots of it. It’s best to take your time to compose and shoot the image, so no fast-moving scenes. The instructions recommend using the fingers of both hands, but, surprisingly, we found one-handed operation to be the most effective. Plus, expect a lot of finger smudges on the screen.
The PowerShot N has a good startup time of about a second, with a shutter lag of about 1.5 seconds. Autofocus is fast under normal lighting conditions, although expect a longer wait time in low light, generally around 2 seconds. We noticed that in low light, the AF assist beam (which doubles as the flash) was so bright that it brought us a lot of unwanted attention inside a darkened restaurant (millennials want their food photos posted on Facebook, dammit!).
With Canon PowerShots we generally expect great-to-excellent photo and video quality, and the PowerShot N does well for the most part. Under normal lighting conditions photos shot were clear with good color reproduction, if a bit underexposed. When we blew some of the photos up to view in actual size, there was noticeable noise and some lost details, even at ISO 400, but still very usable; it could also be that because the camera is so unwieldy, the image stabilization may have had a hard time compensating. During a nighttime shot with plenty of street and building lights the camera handled well, but when shooting inside a restaurant with minimal lighting, the camera stumbled a bit, with noisy, blurry photos (that was to be expected as few point-and-shoot cameras can perform well in extreme low-light situations). We played around with the Creative Shot mode, and while it’s interesting, it doesn’t match the comprehensive level of Instagram filters. As for video, the PowerShot N does an OK job with few obtrusive artifacts and lag (not to say there weren’t any), but not as sharp and detailed, as we’d like; it tends to be noisy in low light, and image stabilization doesn’t seem to compensate well. Overall, it’s fine for online viewing in small size, but not for a big HDTV. The Super Slow Motion mode does the job, but the resolution is so small and the quality mediocre that it’s more novelty than useful.
As mentioned, the PowerShot N uses Micro SD cards for storage. We found this to be a nuisance because we believe, for image transfers to a computer, it’s far easier to remove the card and pop it into the onboard card reader on a computer. There were times when we didn’t have an SD card adapter handy, which mean dragging out the USB cable to hardwire the connection. We can use Wi-Fi, but Canon’s Wi-Fi setup isn’t the most pleasurable.
As for battery life, the PowerShot N is rated for around 200 shots, which isn’t great. There’s a battery-saving mode that will yield 280 shots. If you have Wi-Fi on, you’ll get considerably less. We found that casual on-and-off use got us a little over two days with the eco mode enabled.
With smartphones taking over on the low-end point-and-shoot segment, we have always said that camera makers need to come up with something attractive or exit the business. The PowerShot N is a good attempt toward the right road, but in the wrong direction. We can’t say it’s a must-buy camera for every-day use or for travel because it’s too awkward to use for most folks, and the price is a bit high for what it is. A better option would be Canon’s PowerShot S110 or higher-end ELPH.
As for the young ones, the camera is an intriguing concept and Canon had a good opportunity to create something fun that kids wouldn’t mind bringing to parties in addition to their phones, but misses the mark by a long shot. There aren’t enough creative filters to go against Instagram, Wi-Fi needs to be better, and it can’t take self-portraits – the epitome of fun youth photography. Plus, there are no color options, which young people find appealing. The PowerShot N has certain features we like, and it’s good that Canon is trying to innovate outside the box. While we think the N series has potential, it’s a half-baked idea in its current form that Canon needs to expand on further.
- Intriguing concept
- Responsive, fluid touchscreen that tilts
- Can be awkward to use
- Mediocre Wi-Fi experience
- Needs more youth-oriented features