Picking an Editor's Choice recipient is never easy, and for the month of May this was especially true. While the Canon Rebel XSi ultimately came out as the most well-rounded performer among the cameras we looked at this month (for reasons that I'll lay out momentarily), it would be an injustice to Olympus if the SP-570 UZ didn't at least earn an honorable mention for showing the most all-around improvement over its fairly bland and clunky predecessor.
In contrast to the latest Olympus SP camera – which went from mediocre in one generation to quite good in the next – the progression that resulted in the Canon Rebel XSi has been a much more consistent one. The first Canon Digital Rebel was nothing short of a technological revolution. Building on generations of Canon consumer DSLR development, the XSi isn't nearly so audacious: its praiseworthiness lies not in changing the market, as the first Digital Rebel did, but in changing the Rebel's overall image and position within this market.
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Interestingly, the most important fall-out from the release of this highly competent $900 kit may not come where you'd initially expect it. Part of a larger upward motion in the consumer DSLR space, the XSi has pushed the boundaries of what can fairly be termed an "entry-level" camera. So much so, in fact, that the European press group TIPA chose to recognize the XSi with the organization's first-ever "Best Advanced DSLR" award – effectively building a new recognition category between previous awards for true entry-level models and what the group terms "expert" (or advanced amateur) cameras.
Positioned toward the top of the pure consumer class in terms of price and features, the full impact of the XSi's extremely well-rounded performance will likely be felt as much in the advanced amateur space as in the entry-level market. In the span of three months or so since the first new Rebels began appearing, it seems that the idea that the XSi really takes the expert EOS 40D to task in many key areas has already become something of an old saw in internet discussion forums, but there's probably a fair amount of truth to the notion that the bar for whatever comes along to replace the aging 40D was ratcheted up another notch by the latest Rebel.
In reviewing the XSi, the word that kept coming to mind again and again was "competent." And not in the damning-with-faint-praise way that "competent" tends to be used in the world of camera reviews. With what I firmly believe to be the most powerful AF system on a sub-$1,000 camera, more custom features and processing options than you'll find on cameras costing twice as much, and a sensor that continues to push the envelope in this class where both resolution and low noise are concerned, there's not much that the XSi can't handle.
The XSi's new 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor remains, in spite of a healthy resolution boost, about a stop cleaner than the competition. Nikon's done some amazing things with sensor technology in the upper tiers of the DSLR category, but when it comes to consumer-focused models, Canon has shown us with the XSi that they're still at the top of their game. As I said in the review, in terms of high-ISO performance:
"...the XSi is clearly a step ahead of the competition in this area, with excellent smoothness, good detail, and the lack of overt color flattening at high ISOs expanding the usable, ‘no reservations' range up to at least ISO 800 – even for big prints."
To read my full evaluation of the camera's performance, take a look at our Canon Rebel XSi review.
Even more than the utterly clean high-ISO images it produces, where the XSi walks away with the prize is in the accurate color reproduction and overall level of vibrancy it retains at higher sensitivities. With a little in-camera tuning, high-sensitivity shots straight from the XSi show that subtle punch that usually has to be brought back carefully in post-processing with consumer DSLRs beyond ISO 400 or so.
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With Swiss Army knife versatility, the XSi's struggles seem to center on finding and expressing a unique personality. Visually, the camera is a little bland, looking for the most part like every other Rebel (and not just the digital ones) ever made. While it offers advanced camera performance, build quality is also still squarely in the consumer camera realm. Likewise, the Rebel's cheap kit lens and default JPEG processing seriously undersell this body's capabilities. That said, it's hard to find fault with the camera for being too good for its kit optic, and with good glass the XSi's impressive detail capture shines through.
Along with last month's Editor's Choice pick, the Pentax K200D, the latest consumer offering from Canon impressed us most by scaling the supposedly insurmountable wall that once separated entry-level cameras from those for more serious shooters. With a price tag still well under a grand, the XSi puts the performance of an advanced amateur model within the financial reach of a much broader segment of the population – coming in only hundreds, rather than thousands, more than the most basic entry-level models. In short, if you have advanced-amateur aspirations but only slightly more than an entry-level budget, the XSi offers a value proposition that's pretty tough to beat.
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