Hybrids aren’t just on the highway – they’re moving to the camera aisle in a big way. One of the newest is Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS, an expensive 10-megapixel digicam with the ability to record full 1080P video clips – a cut above 720P. Until the introduction of this model, only high-priced DSLRs such as the Canon 5D Mark II could capture 1080P at 30 fps. The more affordable Canon EOS T1i only shoots 1080P at 20 fps, and Nikon DSLRs shoot 720P. Along with the higher-quality movies, the SX1 IS has a potent wide-angle 20x with a focal range of 28-560mm, and a swing-out 2.8-inch widescreen LCD.
Features and Design
A quick glance at the black-bodied Canon PowerShot SX1 IS and you’d swear it was a entry-level DSLR. Although it may resemble a Nikon D60 or Olympus E-450, there’s no mirror assembly or, more importantly, the quick response of a digital single lens reflex camera. However it does have a built-in 20x zoom and you’d have to spend a small fortune to get a 28-560mm focal length with add-on DSLR lenses. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the bulk and weight of that type of glass collection. At 20x, the SX1 IS can safely be called a mega-zoom camera, but for the record, the 12MP $449 Olympus SP-590UZ is the most powerful with a whopping 26x lens (but has no HD video capability). The SX1 IS measures a very DSLR-like 5 inches wide, 3.5 tall, and 3.5 deep, while tipping the scales at 24 ounces with the batteries. It’s a bit of a bruiser, and you can’t just slip it into your pocket.
Obviously the lens is the dominant feature on the front. It has our “favorite” feature, a separate lens cap that’s sure to get lost, since there’s a clip attachment on the cap itself, rather than a connecting string (which is still a pretty funky arrangement, but all mega-zooms have this issue). Also on the front are right and left stereo mics, an AF Assist lamp, and a remote sensor. Logos are low key and unobtrusive on the front fascia, but Canon went a bit over the top on the lens itself, touting Image Stabilization, Full HD, 20x and so on. Calm down, boys.
On the top, you’ll find a flash and mic key, a hot shoe on top of the built-in manually-operated flash, mode dial, power switch and shutter, surrounded by the wide/tele control on a sturdy pistol grip. The dial gives you access to your camera settings including auto, program AE, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual and custom. There’s also access to four common scene modes, 12 more of them under SCN, stitch assist (panorama) and movie. Surprisingly the camera doesn’t have the Smart Auto feature found on other new PowerShots, which allows the camera to scientifically guess the scene in front of it and make the proper adjustments.
Indicative of its high-def video feature, the camera has an articulating 2.8-inch widescreen LCD rated 230K pixels. The screen smears a bit, and a camera at this price should have an enhanced display (460K). However it can be twisted into a variety of positions, and even turned inwards to protect the screen when not in use. Like other mega-zooms, the SX1 IS has an electronic viewfinder with diopter control to use in case the LCD wipes out. A rubber eyecup helps prevent banged foreheads. Electronic viewfinder (EVF) quality is O.K., but the pixel count should be raised here as well (it’s 140K).
There are a variety of buttons on the back including direct print, aspect ratio (4:3, 16:9), movie, playback, exposure compensation and delete. The four-way controller with center function/set button has a surrounding jog wheel to move through menus and options. The points on the controller offer direct access to ISO, burst mode, macro and manual focus. Display and menu buttons round out this surprisingly weird layout. You’ll definitely need to do some homework before you feel totally comfortable with this one. For example, to switch between aperture and shutter speed while in manual mode, you have to hit the exposure compensation button. It’s just not as seamless as it should be.
The right side has compartments for optional SDHC cards, USB, mini HDMI and A/V outs, as well as DC-in for an optional accessory. The left has a speaker while the bottom of the Made In Japan SX1 IS has a tripod mount and compartment for four AA batteries.
The SX1 IS comes with everything you need other than an SDHC card and mini HDMI cable. You get the camera and four alkalines, but you should use them for flashlights and opt for rechargeables in the cam, since they’ll last for 420 shots instead of 160 for standard batteries. You also get USB and A/V cables, a remote, and lens hood. It also comes with a 306-page owner’s manual, as well as direct print user and software starter guides. The included software CD has ZoomBrowser EX 6.2, PhotoStitch 3.1 and Digital Photo Professional 3.6 for PC as well as ImageBrowser 6.2, DPP 3.6 and PhotoStitch 3.2 for Mac to handle images and develop RAW files.
With rechargeable NiMH batteries loaded, along with a 4GB Class 6 SDHC card, it was time to take this hybrid for a test drive.
Performance and Use
The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS has a 10-megapixel CMOS sensor, a first for the company’s compact camera line-up; Its DSLRs have used CMOS sensors for years. The benefit—in theory—of this type of imaging device is faster response and lower noise. We’ll see soon enough if that’s the case.
We first used the hybrid camera as – surprise! – a camera in order to see how well it captured stills. It was set to RAW+JPEG with all settings default auto (ISO, white balance), continuous optical image stabilization, continuous AF and i-Contrast engaged. As usual, we started in auto, moved through the manual options, then added some scene modes to the mix.
Having just reviewed one of Canon’s better aim-and-forget digicams, such as the $399 SD970 IS we have to say we were disappointed by the LCD screen. Although we liked the flexibility, we would have preferred a higher-quality fixed-position display. There was a definite lag moving from position to position, and the detail just wasn’t there. Trying to give this a “camcorder-like” screen for shooting videos was a good thought, but the execution was weak. Canon camcorder screens have controls on the bezel, making them a breeze to use. That’s not the case here, and it’s a bummer for a $600 camera.
In general use, the SX1 IS was fairly responsive, even saving RAW+JPEGs, but this was definitely no DSLR, since it could only save slightly more than 1 fps in continuous AF mode; Any decent DSLR does 3 fps. However, if you shoot bursts with fixed focus, it’ll capture 4 frames per second – much better than the competition. The camera focused quickly with little grabbing, while the focal length was a blast. Moving from the nice 28mm for scenery then zooming in to birds on faraway tree branches is definitely one of this digicam’s best attributes.
As for the menu system and general operations (taking pictures, shooting movies) the camera doesn’t feel very intuitive. You’ll need to keep the owner’s manual handy as you walk through various tasks. It’s not rocket science, and you’ll get it down relatively quickly, but Canon engineers should’ve stepped up to the plate for this expensive digicam. The manually-operated flash stands as another demerit on this cam, which really should have an auto pop-up type.
Shooting high-def movies is a snap—just switch the aspect ratio to widescreen, then hit the red record button. If you keep it in 4:3, you’ll only record SD. You can use the 20x optical zoom while shooting, which is a very good thing. Another note to Canon: Why have a movie setting on the mode dial when there’s a big red button on the back offering access to video mode? Another SX1 IS idiosyncrasy.
Once done with our photo and video jaunts, it was time to make prints, examine files on a monitor, and review them on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI. Overall, the SX1 produced a mixed bag with the occasional flash of brilliance. First the bad news: At default settings, the camera doesn’t take quality shots indoors in available light. Focus wasn’t sharp, and neither was detail or color. It was surprisingly poor for a Canon. When we adjusted exposure compensation, the results were more accurate, but we expected better. In our ISO test shots, digital noise showed up at 400 and was very noticeable at 800, but useable for a small print. ISO 1600 looked bad. Native ISO ranges between 80-1600, with a special setting for 3200 at lower resolution.
When the camera had enough light, it produced the excellent results we expect from the company. The color in macro photos of summer flowers was spot on, with excellent detail. It was so good, we even spotted a small bee in a flower when we enlarged it on the monitor. The OIS did a fine job keeping things steady. Another pleasant surprise was the lack of purple fringing on extreme telephoto images, such as the tips of evergreen branches. It just wasn’t there, and this is typically a problem with competing mega-zooms.
As for the 1080P video, the movies taken with this camera are far better than competitors, with fine colors and quick focusing. That said, it was still not as good as an HD camcorder, which typically produce rock-solid results. When you pan with the SX1 IS, there’s a wavy effect—some call it a Jell-O effect. However, you don’t see it while zooming directly on a subject. Since this is not a DSLR, there was no need to go into Live View modes and contend with focusing issues. Also good is the quiet operation of the lens. Even with extensive zooming, there was no noise on the sound track. Cool stuff.
The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS has a lot going for it, as well as some drawbacks. After testing it we really can’t wait for the 2010 version of this camera as Canon takes care of the issues we – and other reviewers – have detailed. In the meantime, this is an excellent mega-zoom for the photographer willing to learn its idiosyncrasies, take the time to master its capabilities, and spend $600.
- 20x wide-angle zoom
- Good 1080P video at 30 fps
- Fine photos with enough available light
- Very effective OIS
- DSLR price, no DSLR response
- Steep learning curve vis a vis other point-and-shoots
- High noise at ISO 800
- No auto pop-up flash
- Disappointing LCD screen
- No Smart Auto