Canon PowerShot SD630 Review

Canon PowerShot SD630

“Using this digicam is like riding a bicycle”
  • Compact; high-quality 6MP digicam with 3x optical zoom; 3-inch LCD screen
  • Limited manual adjustments

Summary

Three of the biggest trends for 2006 are digicams with more potent 6-megapixel imagers, larger 3-inch LCD screens and higher sensitivity (ISO). For those not swimming in the digital camera sea every day, 6MP imagers are the new sweet spot for most manufacturers, up from 5 last year and 4MP the in 2004. Since next year is 2007, will 7MP be new standard at that time? Who cares? We’ll deal with what’s currently in our hands–which are cameras with ever higher resolution. The move to even larger LCD screens is another major trend and almost all the big companies offer them such as the recently reviewed HP Photosmart R927, the Fujifilm FinePix V10, Nikon Coolpix S6, Sony DSC-N1 and others. The pluses of big screens are many giving you a larger palette to frame your shots and making it easier for you and your friends to review your images. On the other hand higher ISOs are a mixed bag. Although it lets you shoot in available light without a flash, the old bugaboo of digital noise tends to raise its ugly head. Now did Canon put all three of these pieces together creating a terrific little camera–or a pocket-sized bust? We’ll try it and see…

Features and Design

I’ve always like the styling of the Digital ELPH. About the size of a deck of cards, the front has a nice brushed metal finish plus there’s an embossed metal ring around the lens. While not the flashiest camera around, it’s sophisticated and compact, at home in a Louis Vuitton handbag or a jeans pocket. And it has a nice substantial feel. The SD630 measures 3.6 x 2.2 x .8 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 5.8 ounces with battery, memory card and wrist strap.

The front of the 6-megapixel SD630 is as basic as can be featuring the lens, flash, AF Assist lamp and a tiny mic along with the usual self-aggrandizing logos and nomenclature. The lens retracts into the body when powered down and it has a built-in cover. It’s rated 35-105mm, the traditional 3x optical zoom range. The top has a basic mode slider switch (still, video and playback), power button, shutter, zoom toggle switch and speaker. There’s no Scene Mode dial; you have to go into the menus to change them. The right side features a small door covering the USB and A/V out ports. The bottom has the battery/memory card compartment door and a tripod mount.

We’ve saved the best for last which is the rear of the camera and its 3-inch LCD screen. Although rated 173K pixels, the quality is good, not great. A better spec of 230K pixels like that of the HP Photosmart R927 would’ve been nice but you can live with it. Since this is a very compact camera, there’s not much room for other controls other the usual suspects–keys for menu, display, direct transfer of images and a four-way control with center function/set key. Although there’s nothing really new here, Canon did go a step further with the ergonomics of the controller, giving you the option of making it a Touch Control. When you enable this function, a large display of the function you press (such as ISO or flash) appears on the LCD screen. It’s nice eye candy in record mode. When you’re in playback, it transforms into an iPod-like scroll wheel so you can spin through the images. This was a very pleasant surprise and fun to use.

Canon supplies a solid kit including a rechargeable lithium ion battery/charger rated a so-so 160 shots, the downside of a large LCD screen. You’ll get a wrist strap, USB and AV cables, a basic 26-page manual, a more in-depth 138-page owner’s manual and a multi-lingual Direct Print User Guide to help you turn your files into snappy prints. Canon also supplies a 16MB SD card so expect to budget another $40 for a one-gig card. The company also supplies its Digital Camera Solution Disk (ver. 28.0) with ArcSoft PhotoStudio 5.5 and several Canon utilities. It’s a good bundle, about all the average photographer needs.

After charging the battery, inserting it along with a 2-gig SD card it took just a few moments to set the date/time and check the settings to ensure image quality was at the max (2816 x 2112 pixels). Then it was time to start snapping in earnest.

Canon SD630
Image Courtesy of Canon

Performance

The Canon SD630 is ready to go almost instantly (about two seconds), most of that time spent waiting for the lens to extend. Since it was the first bloom of spring, new flowers immediately drew me toward them, camera in hand. Initially shots were taken in Auto, then macro and other settings for the available light.

At 6MP the camera was very responsive with very little lag between shots. The SD630 has Canon’s DIGIC II chip to speed things along. The SD630 has the options of grid lines to help you frame your subject and keep it level. This is one of my favorite displays and it would be nice if all cameras had it but what can you do? Although responsive, the SD630 is no D-SLR, taking a maximum of 2.1 frames per second in burst mode. Shutter speed is good, ranging from 15 to 1/1500th of a second.

Using this digicam is like riding a bicycle–it’s very intuitive and a breeze to operate. The onscreen menus are decent, nothing exceptional like the HP R927 or Kodak EasyShare editions. I did have one knock. As mentioned, there’s no Scene Mode dial so in order to get to Fireworks or whatever you need to drill into the menu system. Instead of having all the options on one level, you have to hit the menu key to reach all of them after Portrait, Night Snapshot and Kids&Pets. Hit the menu key and you’ll reach Foliage, Indoor, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Underwater, Color Accent and Color Swap. It’s not the end of the world but it can and should be done better. The rest of menu system is straightforward and easy to operate. In Manual you can adjust Exposure Compensation, white balance, color (such as Vivid or Sepia) and metering modes. You can’t adjust the aperture or shutter speed; the camera does that for you as you switch modes.

The LCD screen–which is such a key feature–works well in almost all instances. I took shots with the sun directly hitting it and I could see the subjects fairly well (after adjusting the brightness). The screen automatically brightens in a dark room. This may be sacrilege but I really didn’t miss a small viewfinder.

After shooting loads of tulips, forsythia, weeping cherries and the like I also took a number of shots indoors, using the full gamut of ISOs available (the max is 800). I was pleasantly surprised noise levels at 400 were relatively under control while it was quite noticeable at 800.

Images were turned into 8 ½ x 11 prints using Canon Photo Paper Pro paper and a Canon Pixma MP780 printer. Overall the results were quite good–the flowers were pretty as, well flowers on a spring day. Colors were very accurate–red tulips were as they should be, red. Macro images were impressive but I was less thrilled with the digital macro setting which had trouble grabbing focus (traditional macro did not have a problem). Photos taken indoors were also good although there was some delay between flash shots. As noted, noise was acceptable even at 400 but 800 was stretching it way too far.

Image Sample 1
Yellow Flower


Click for a larger image (warning: large file size)

In keeping with the overwhelming trend to widescreen TVs, the SD630 lets you take 16:9 format stills at 2816 x 1584 pixels so you give up some resolution to fill the width of the screen. The camera takes decent videos at 640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps. There’s a 4x digital zoom in the video mode so there’s no sound as you zoom but the quality is poor which is why I always recommend against using a digital zoom unless you absolutely have to–no matter if in still or movie mode.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed shooting with the Canon SD 630 Digital ELPH. It takes very nice photos with colors that are spot on. The compact camera feels right and can be easily carried for the spur of the moment snapshots. It’s designed for the point-and-shoot crowd or someone who just wants a shade more options in their photographic arsenal. Anyone who wants to adjust the aperture or shutter speed should look elsewhere. Although a solid camera I did find myself wishing for optical image stabilization since the camera is so small, it’s hard to hold rock steady. For less than $400, that’s too much to ask for. If you want it, Canon has the new $499 6MP SD700. That said anyone who picks this baby will be happy with the decision.

Highs

  • Large, bright 3-inch screen
  • Very accurate color
  • No purple fringing
  • Noise relatively under control

Lows

  • LCD quality could be better
  • Few manual adjustments
  • Onscreen menus should be improved
  • Optical image stabilization would be icing on the cake