Canon PowerShot S80 Review

Photo quality is quite good with very accurate colors, something you expect from Canon cameras.
Photo quality is quite good with very accurate colors, something you expect from Canon cameras.
Photo quality is quite good with very accurate colors, something you expect from Canon cameras.

Highs

  • 8-megapixels; nice zoom range

Lows

  • So-so LCD screen; expensive

Summary

The 8MP Canon PowerShot S80 is the latest iteration of the company’s “Goldilocks” cameras. It’s not a simple point-and-shoot digicam neither is it as complicated as a D-SLR. It’s supposed to be just right, targeted to the photographer looking for a high-quality camera that’s easy to use but has enough tweaks to keep dial spinners happy. This compact camera is the replacement for the soon-to-be discontinued 7.1MP S70. Among the good features of the S80 are a wide focal length (28mm), higher movie clip quality, a real-time histogram and enough shooting modes to handle almost anything you can throw at it. It is a bit on the expensive side ($549 list, under $500 real world). Now how does it work in the real world?  And are you a Momma, Papa or Baby Bear?

Features and Design

The S80 has an attractive faceplate with a piano-black finish. This finish is a real finger-print magnet so prepare to buff it up if you want to impress your friends. To power it up, you simply slide a panel to the left and the lens extends out. Although it’s fairly compact it’s no Canon Digital ELPH or Sony T series so forget about putting it in your shirt pocket. It measures 4.1 x 2.2 x 1.5 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at 9.6 ounces with battery and SD card. The camera does have a nice solid feel but it’s a bit narrow.

When you slide the panel, the lens pops out and stares you in the face. It’s an f/2.8 28-100mm 3.6x optical zoom using Canon’s UA lens technology found on many of its PowerShots. I like the wider focal length compared the typical point and shoot but you definitely lose something on the telephoto end. Canon’s A620 4x optical zoom is more typical at 35-140mm. I prefer the wider option for portraits, group shots and landscapes but that’s my preference. The camera accepts conversion lenses that let you take even wider and more  zoomed shots but these options cost a tidy sum (around $250). Surrounding the lens is the built-in flash, an AF Assist lamp (one of my favorite features), and the window for the viewfinder. As always we urge you to handle a camera before you buy, trying out the zoom and general feel. What I like and your taste can be miles apart. Diff’rent Strokes as they say in TV Land.

The rear of the S80 has a silver finish and is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD rated a so-so 115K pixels. Above it is the viewfinder peep hole to use in case the screen wipes out in bright sunshine or it’s too dark. Unfortunately, there’s no diopter adjustment. The placement of the wide/tele switch and mode dial is a bit different on this one. The zoom toggle rests under your thumb as your index finger is on the shutter. Also the mode dial is on the right hand side of camera rather than on top and it too can be adjusted with your thumb. These aren’t negatives, just different ways of doing business. The controller is also a bit unusual. Instead of the typical four keys and OK button, it’s a jog wheel for scrolling through the onscreen menus. By pressing the four points of the compass get you to the flash, macro, ISO and manual focus adjustments. There are also keys for Menu, Display, Delete, Exposure compensation, burst mode, playback and so on…nothing a digicam owner hasn’t seen zillions of times. One negative is the flimsy door on the right side for the A/V out and USB 2.0 Hi-Speed ports.

The camera comes with a solid kit. The Canon Digital Camera Solution disk V26.0 has an extensive software bundle for the PC and Mac including ArcSoft PhotoStudio. You’ll find a small 32MB SD card so expect to budget for a 512MB high-speed card for around $60. There’s also all the usual stuff such as wrist strap, battery/charger and cables. There’s no separate Quick Start sheet but Canon supplies a Basic Camera User’s Guide to get you started along with a 162-page Advanced User Guide as well as 104-page Software Starter Guide to turn those 8MP files into prints. And if you buy a Canon printer with Direct Print capability, a 72-page manual (in English) helps you there. The manuals are decent but they aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners.

After charging the battery, which is rated an O.K. 200 shots with the LCD on, loading it and a 2GB Kingston high-speed card, it was time to start using this baby.

Canon PowerShot S80
Image Courtesy of Canon

Performance

Once you slide the front panel back, the camera jumps to life in less than two seconds. This is great for anyone who wants to grab a quick snap. The camera immediately asks you to set the date/time and the jog wheel makes this adjustment as simple as can be. The onscreen menus are very legible and fairly well designed. Like all Canons, the key mode dial is broken into a Creative Zone and an Image Zone. Creative is for manual options like aperture- and shutter-priority, Program AE, full manual and custom for your individual preferences. The Image Zone lets you choose between 12 Scene modes with such things as Fireworks, Portrait, Snow and so on. There’s also a stitch assist for panoramas, My Colors to change the overall hue of an image and the movie mode. This is more than enough firepower for the vast majority of photographers. There is no RAW setting, however.

I took a number of shots of a beautiful blooming Christmas Cactus with myriad purple flowers. Shooting Super Fine 3264 x 2448 pixel files in Auto, Manual Focus and a variety of other settings I was very pleased with the 8.5×11 prints turned out by a Canon Pixma MP780 printer. They were picture post card pretty. I also liked the response of the camera as there was very little shutter lag or grabbing to focus the subject, even the thin, inner flower pistils. That was definitely a shortcoming with recently reviewed Olympus SP-500. Auto focusing was quick and on target. A quick move into Manual Focus brings up an enlarged frame so you can really zero in on your subject. The camera uses Canon’s nine-point AiAF as a default but by using the FlexiZone option, you can choose from over 200 points in the frame on which to focus. I did find the LCD screen to be a bit lacking, especially indoors even with the built-in gain up. And the refresh rate needs improvement as images blurred as the camera was moved from one scene to the next.

As noted, the S80 is very responsive but it’s here that its lack inner firepower shows up. The camera is rated 1.8 frames per second which is decent for a point-and-shoot but poor compared to a D-SLR rated a minimum of 3 fps for affordable models such as the Canon Digital Rebel XT or Nikon D50. This is not a big-time knock for the S80, just us pointing out this camera may not be just right for you if sports photography is a key interest. But realize a D-SLR will set you back several hundred clams versus this PowerShot.

Digital noise is better than some of the other compact 8-megapixel cameras out there and it’s noticeable at 200 ISO and above. This is fairly typical (ISO range is 50-400). Noise quality of D-SLRs is much better though.

The Canon S80 is the first camera to offer an XGA movie mode with sound and it’s rated of 1024 x 768 pixels at 15 frames per second; most other quality digicams offer 640 x 480 at 30 fps. Using a 512MB card you can record about 4 minutes of video at the top end. Although the resolution is better the frame rate is somewhat of a bust. It would be great if they could bump it up to 30 the next go-round. Still the quality is good with nice contrast but you won’t mistake it for MiniDV footage. To me the movie mode on a digicam is a nice gimmick and good for taking a quick clip, nothing more. For the record: D-SLRs do not capture video clips in any way shape or form. If you record at the highest quality (1024) you cannot use the zoom while recording but you can in 640 x 480; it’s a 4x digital zoom though, not optical. After shooting some clips, they were viewed on a 4:3 Toshiba digital TV through the front A/V inputs. Results were a bit jerky in high rez but again this isn’t a MiniDV camcorder. For fun clips, it’s just fine. And if you do capture something great as a video, the camera lets choose a frame so you can make a print.

Canon PowerShot S80
Image Courtesy of Canon

Conclusion

I liked this camera. Although a bit bulkier than many point-and-shoot digicams on the market, it’s small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. And at 9.6 ounces, it won’t weigh you down. Photo quality was quite good with very accurate colors, something you expect from Canon cameras. Focusing and response time were excellent. I enjoyed the wide angle but definitely found myself hungering for a bit more on the telephoto side, especially since I had just spent some time with the 24-120mm Sony DSC-R1, a great camera that costs twice as much. Still the PowerShot S80 has a lot going for it. Other than the issues detailed here, it was “just right.”

Pros

     

  • Captures accurate colors
  • Very responsive
  • Good wide angle option
  • Acceptable noise until 200 and above

Cons

     

  • Battery life could be better
  • Same with the refresh rate on the LCD screen
  • No RAW mode
  • Expensive
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