Blame it on their portability. Blame it on their great price-to-performance ratios. Blame it on the fact that people like something that's a little bit different. Whatever the reasons, compact ultrazooms – cameras that offer long lens performance in a smaller body – are one of the hottest segments of the digital camera market at the moment.
Even with all the energy around these kinds of cameras, Canon appeared to take the cautious design approach to its entry into this class for 2008, introducing a mild update to the 10x zoom SX100 in the form of the Canon PowerShot SX110 IS. On the surface, there's not a lot about the SX110 to set it apart from its predecessor. But the SX100 is a good camera, and with a few crucial refinements and an attractive price for the SX110, Canon may yet be onto something here.
The Canon PowerShot SX110 IS is the latest model from Canon representing the emerging compact ultrazoom segment of the market – cameras with the size and design of a traditional compact point-and-shoot, but with zoom ranges more like that of an ultrazoom. In Canon's case, a 10x zoom with an equivalent focal length of 36-360mm earns the camera its "ultrazoom" designation, and a body similar in size and style to the larger Canon PowerShot A models its "compact" status.
Positioned as slightly up-market products, compact ultrazooms tend to bring a few more features than their regular compact counterparts, and the 9 megapixel SX110 (up slightly from the 8 megapixel sensor in the SX100 it replaces) is no exception. An excellent 3.0 inch LCD is one crucial upgrade, making the camera a joy to use in the field. Having optical image stabilization is also key, especially for a camera with this kind of zoom range. Canon's DIGIC III processor underpins the whole thing, providing responsiveness, known AF performance, and arguably the best face detection system around: as with other DIGIC III cameras, the SX110 is able to lock onto profiles better than ever before and track a moving face within the frame.
I've resigned myself to the fact that I will simply never understand the logic behind which scene modes Canon puts on the mode dial of its compact cameras, and which ones it reserves for scene position menu. In the case of the SX110, your more readily accessible mode dial options include a couple of the expected ones (portrait and landscape), but also some odd choices. The ubiquity of night portrait modes in positions of prominence on this and other cameras, for instance, suggests to me that more people must be taking people shots outdoors at night than I realize. I do like the fact that they saw fit to put the indoor preset, which provides all of the settings you need to grab snaps of moving subjects indoors in a single location, up on the dial.
To be a stick in the mud about the whole thing, I would have preferred a single scene position and less clutter on the mode dial, but others will probably disagree disagree. So be it.
Video options on the SX110 are pretty basic, with the camera prompting you to shoot in either regular (640x480) or basic (320x240) mode. You can't use the optical zoom in movie recording mode, and considering how much noise it makes when zooming, you probably wouldn't want to.
Finally, I'm a big fan of the fact that the SX110 lets you simply push the playback button to turn on the camera directly into playback mode. No need to wait for the lens to extend, even.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Styling and Build Quality
When it comes to its PowerShot cameras, Canon has definitely infused more style into the most recent models when compared to those from a few years back. This has been a double edged sword in some ways, though, because while the latest PowerShot cameras aren't the boring boxes for which Canon was once known, they don't always exude the same tank-like reliability, either.
Thankfully, the SX110 has little of the thin plastic feeling of some of its lower-tier A-model siblings. Although the body is mostly composite material, everything is well fitted. Body and panel flex are basically nonexistent, and the buttons feel like they could have easily been borrowed from one of Canon's mid-level DSLRs.
Overall, befitting its premium status, the SX110 does the best job of any Canon PowerShot we've seen in the last few generations of combining both of these design objectives – stylishness and ruggedness – into a single device.
Ergonomics and Interface
The biggest problem with the SX110's challenge to cameras like the Panasonic TZ5 may be its size. Although it's styled identically to the latest PowerShot A cameras, what pictures of the SX110 don't always accurately convey is its size: although it's thinner than the previous model in this line, it's slightly larger in every other dimension, and this fact alone makes the camera too large for all but the most capacious pockets.
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS (left) and SX110 IS
Having plenty of physical space to work with, however, makes the SX110 actually quite comfortable ergonomically. A slight grip bump provides stability, and the back-panel control layout is extremely easy to navigate, with large buttons and a solid, easy-to-operate control wheel. Everything's pretty tightly grouped around the control wheel, with the Print/Share button (which, in this camera as well, does double duty as a custom function control) the only outlier.
Canon continues to provide light refinements rather than major overhauls to their long-running, sidebar driven visual interface. As we've said before with other Canons, if you've used a camera from the manufacturer in the last decade, you should quickly settle into the SX110's arrangement.
One the SX110's big upgrades over the SX100 is the addition of a 3.0 inch LCD. Although its resolution number is a now typical 230,000 dots, the screen looks fantastic: bright, vivid, and extremely color accurate, making it extremely easy to live with.
The screen has a glossy overlay that's become the norm for Canon cams, which makes its decent performance outdoors that much more surprising: in spite of strong reflections against a black display, the SX110 is able to put up an image that's relatively viewable, even in direct sunlight.
Gain up in low light is automatic, and looks just fine, though there's some strangeness with illumination levels when using a fixed ISO setting: at ISO 80, the display will gain up briefly while focus is being locked, but then dropped down to levels that are so dark as to be basically unviewable once the camera grabs focus. It's a strange process that doesn't seem entirely intentional, or at the very least, not particularly well sorted.
Images are auto-rotated on playback based on the orientation of the camera and of the original shot, which means no turning the camera sideways to look at either landscape or portrait compositions. The fact that this isn't the de facto method of operation on every point-and-shoot we look at really should be against the law.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Pocket ultrazooms are usually billed as performance cameras, and the SX110's long lens, slightly large body, and manual controls make it a clear choice as an SLR user's backup "bag camera" assuming it delivers responsive performance.
In this regard, numbers are solid if not mind-blowing: when pre-focused, our test unit consistently grabbed snaps in the 0.04 second range. The average number for locking focusing and grabbing a shot with half-pressing the shutter first came in at 0.45 seconds. In both cases, these numbers aren't endangering either speed records – especially the AF acquisition time. They are fast enough to make the camera feel snappy, though the SX110's primary competitor, the Panasonic TZ5, has a step on this model in terms of speed with right combination of settings.
With a long zoom point-and-shoots, focusing speed at telephoto is often not just slower, but considerably slower, than the wide-angle counterpart used for our standard speed evaluations. We checked the numbers at full telephoto as well just to see how the SX110 would do, and found its press to capture times of just under a second in this case to be clearly slower than the wide-angle numbers, but also better than expected given the way many cameras with long lenses perform.
In a second test, we turned on the continuous AF system, gave the camera exactly half a second to begin focusing, and then press the shutter. As expected, times came in much better, at an average of 0.61 seconds. The moral of the story? If you're going to be shooting a lot at telephoto, continuous AF can be a great help. Just make sure you have a spare set of batteries handy, as the SX110 uses a lot more power in this mode.
The SX110 is able to shoot an infinite burst of back-to-back shots at full resolution. If you're only shooting 3 frames, the PowerShot drives along at a full 2.0 frames per second, but after the third frame, the number drops to an infinite rate closer to 1.5 fps.
For a premium camera targeting advanced users, the SX110's focus options – center or face-detection/auto-multi AF areas, and single-shot or continuous focus – seem a bit paltry. Where's the user-selectable multi-area mode, for starters? While the camera does have automatic multi-area AF in some of the auto exposure modes, the fact that there's not more to work with on the user control side seems like a poor choice given this camera's target audience.
In terms of performance, the system exhibited the kind of reliability that Canon's known for, proving basically unflappable at wide angle and still remarkably good at full telephoto. There's definitely a little more hunt/lag time at the long end of the lens, but finding an accurate lock was rarely a problem even at the long end of the lens. Shooting indoors in low light at full telephoto showed the system at its weakest, as it tends to with every camera we test, but even here I was able to get an accurate lock against all but the most low-contrast subjects on the second attempt at worst.
Lens and Zoom
This is the reason people buy cameras like the SX110: a 10x zoom in a camera that's close, at least, to pocket sized. The SX110's lens has all the right specs: optically stabilized, good range, and relatively fast maximum apertures (f/2.8-4.3) from wide to tele. Sourced straight from the SX100, the lens is a known quantity in terms of performance, and while it might have been nice to see Canon move to add either more range or a wider wide-angle end on the updated model, the SX110's glass is perfectly fine.
In use, the zoom can be a little noisier than some competitive models, with a buzz/whir when the lens is moving that's easily audible in a room with normal conversation taking place. Again, this probably won't be a big hang up for most users, but the noise is loud enough to attract attention if it's quiet – making it that much harder to make use of the SX110's zoom range for covert candids or nature shooting.
Somewhat unconventionally, the SX110's on-board flash is manually raised and lowered. No spring-loading here.
With its ultrazoom style positioning and operation (necessary to get illumination over the long, wide lens barrel no doubt), the Canon's flash unit does a decent job of providing coverage across a broad area when shooting in landscape mode. The flash can cause some more pronounced side shadows than is the norm for a point-and-shoot when working close to your subject in landscape mode, however.
Point-and-shoot flash metering is rarely perfect, and the SX110's no exception. There's a flash power compensation option in the sidebar menu with 2 EV of possible adjustment in either direction – a nice touch for a camera in this price range. A notch or two of negative compensation as the default setting helps out some with the hot spots. Color is accurate, avoiding strange casts when using auto white balance and flash under mixed light as a rule.
The SX110 has an appropriately powerful flash unit to match its 10x zoom. While it wasn't quite able to get the exposure as high as I'd like in low light scenes with the ISO locked, it's not more than a stop or two off even in a completely dark room at ISO 80.
Running on two AAs, the SX110 pays a price for this power in recycle times. After a full-power burst, the camera takes just under ten seconds (9.7) to recharge and fire again. One benefit of the pop-up flash, though, is that you can take a flash shot, flip the strobe down, and shoot without flash while it's recharging – better than being completely locked out from shooting while the flash recycles as with most point-and-shoots.
Slow synchro and red-eye reduction (pre-flash) modes can be enabled via the Flash Settings menu.
Unlike some full-size ultrazooms, the SX110 doesn't have a hot shoe for an external flash, though an accessory panel flash that mounts via an extension arm in the tripod socket is available from Canon.
Like most manufacturers, Canon doesn't seem to switch up its IS technologies much from one generation to the next. The SX110's lens-based stabilization system has the options that seem to be standard to Canon's DIGIC III cameras: a continuous IS setting in which the system is always working (ideal for video shooting), a shot-only mode in which the system engages when the shutter is half-pressed, a panning mode that stabilizes up and down motions without correcting for side-to-side movement, and an off setting.
Testing didn't uncover anything we haven't already seen. The system is more than adequate down to shutter speeds of about 1/15 at wide angle if you have steady hands. A long telephoto zoom range challenges the technology at the other end of the spectrum, however, and the fact that the SX110's small size makes it harder for many to easily stabilize doesn't help. In short, if you don't have much light to work with and are shooting under 1/100 at full telephoto, you'll probably want some physical stabilization beyond the IS system for consistently sharp results.
The SX110 gets its power from a pair of AA batteries, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that implies. As we've already seen, flash recycle times are pretty laggy if you're using alkaline AAs, especially, and the cells add to the SX110's overall heftiness, but the convenience of being able to get fresh power just about anywhere in the world can't be overstated.
The SX110's big screen and long, heavy zoom lens almost guarantee that you'll get less than 150 shots on alkaline power (though you can really extend your mileage by turning the screen brightness to its lowest setting). Switch to NiMH rechargeable cells, however, and then number shoots up to more like 400. So with the caveats always associated with AA power in mind, the SX110 does fairly well for itself on balance.
For a camera attempting to attract users looking to advance their photographic skills with features like manual exposure control, image quality is a first order concern. And as with the SX100 before it, I found the SX110 to have good image quality that did the job and showed few major flaws, but wasn't what I would necessarily call "impressive" either, especially for a camera in this class.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
The exposure and metering fronts proved to be one of the SX110's stronger areas. Default multi-area metering appears to be in tune with the capabilities of this camera's sensor, showing us fewer clipped highlights on the whole without any exposure compensation than we're used to seeing from a small-sensor compact.
Processing, however, is another story. A slightly noisy sensor all around combines with some sharpness processing that looks pretty aggressively bumped to my eye, even in the default color mode, to produce some artifacts in high-contrast boundary areas.
Shooting in regular, rather than fine, compression quality can also slightly emphasize the prominence of the "jaggies," making the SX110's images look a little less smooth and more digital than some competitive models.
Color reproduction is typical for Canon, with a nice fat saturation boost that is generally pleasing and extremely printable. If the default color mode isn't your style, Canon offers lots of options for changing things up via its "My Colors" menu in the main settings list.
Vivid and Neutral options push colors up or bring them down, respectively, providing a nice three-step adjustment range in combination with the default setting. For even more control, a Custom color mode allows saturation, sharpness, and contrast to be adjusted independently via five-step sliders.
As seen above, the range from one end of the spectrum on all values to the other is nice and wide, making it fairly straightforward to fine-tune the camera's processing to your tastes or a specific shooting situation. Although it doesn't allow you to save multiple user-created presets, the SX110 does remember custom settings across sessions as well – meaning that if you get a processing combination you're happy with, it's easy to keep it around for future use. Moreover, having this level of processing adjustability in a consumer grade compact is a nice touch that should further the SX110's bid as a budget-minded option for serious shooters.
No surprises here: the SX110 turns in an objectively poor auto white balance performance under our studio incandescent light test.
I also noted some strange color casts when shooting outdoors early and late in the day. In some ways, I wish I could say the SX110 performance was unusually bad – as it certainly required some tweaking in several situations – but the truth is that things are about par for the course in this class.
A full range of preset options work somewhat more consistently in their respective areas of expertise, and as always, there's a user-set custom mode for tricky lighting situations as well.
Lens and Zoom
For a wide-ranging zoom lens, the SX110's glass acquits itself fairly well in all areas. Bowed lines are visible in opposite directions at both wide-angle and telephoto, but aren't severe in either case. There's also some corner darkening, or vignetting, at telephoto, but again, it's rather minor.
Sharpness across the range is also usually a concern with complex, far-reaching zooms. While it's not the sharpest optic we've seen at any point in its range, I was pleased at just how well the SX110 performed even at full telephoto and maximum aperture.
There's plenty of edge definition to be had even in this worst case scenario. The fact is, camera shake will likely be a greater cause for concern in this situation than lens sharpness.
Finally, we saw some fringing/chromatic aberration toward the wide end of the lens and at wide apertures, especially. It was never particularly intrusive, but it was definitely there in high-contrast boundary areas.
Sensitivity and Noise
With a slight resolution bump on the same-sized sensor when compared to its predecessor, the SX100 tends to be ever so slightly noisy all the way down to ISO 80. Likewise, the more saturated the area in question, the more noise you see, making colorful areas look just a bit mottled to begin with.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
The SX110 is slightly more limited than some of its competition in terms of overall sensitivity range, maxing out at a full-res ISO 1600 setting. Visible noise begins to intrude in normal view sizes as low as ISO 400. ISO 800 is usable, but there's a big jump up to ISO 1600.
Noise is something of an issue for the SX110, yes, but my bigger gripe with this camera's high-sensitivity performance has to do with color wash out. Even at ISO 800, much of the saturation is lost, and by ISO 1600 you're dealing with an image that has maybe half of the color information available to the same shot at ISO 80.
Overall, it would have been nice to see Canon stick with the previous generation's 8 megapixel sensor and fine-tune the processing to straighten out this SX camera's noise and color reproduction issues. It's certainly not terrible, but it will likely be the primary hang-up for serious users just the same.
Additional Sample Images
After first spending some time with both the SX100 and Panasonic's competitor at the time, the TZ3, late last year, I came away slightly preferring the Canon's overall solidness to the TZ3's nicer form factor. As time went by, though, the SX100 just didn't seem to speak to me as much as the exciting and very compact TZ camera did. A year later, there hasn't been a new Lumix pocket ultrazoom in awhile: maybe the SX110's time is right.
In truth, the SX110 targets a different user than the TZ5. There are manual controls here, for starters, and the simple but well-stocked menus and solid performance of the SX110 encourage you to get out and take some shots rather than get wrapped up in lots of novelty. The Canon doesn't hold your hand as much as some competitors, but it doesn't get in your way either. Hence, if you're serious about photographs, the SX110 has the tools to get the job done in an efficient, workmanlike manner that earns your respect for its capabilities the longer you spend with it.
The SX110 will never be the most exciting or full-featured camera in this class – Canon simply didn't design it that way – and those hoping to see a dramatically smaller camera will be disappointed by the results of the latest SX model's slight slim-down. For these reasons, this camera may also get overshadowed by new models in this class that excite us, and the purchasing public, more. But if picture quality, easy of use, and performance are your primary concerns, buying this PowerShot is also the safest bet around: it's an unquestionably powerful camera with few blemishes, and thus a buying decision that few buyers (who aren't put off by its looks, size, or noise, perhaps) will have reason to regret.
|Sensor||9.0 megapixel (effective), 1/2.3" CCD|
|Zoom||10x (36-360mm) zoom, f/2.8-4.3
|LCD/Viewfinder||3.0", 230K-pixel TFT LCD|
|Shutter Speed||15-1/2500 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Easy, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Scene, Movie
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom|
|Metering Modes||Multi, Center, Spot, Face Detection
|Focus Modes||Multi-area, Face Detection, Single Point, Selectable Point
|Drive Modes||Normal, Continuous, Self-Timer
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, FE Lock, Forced Off, Red-Eye Reduction|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||SD, SDHC
|Max. Image Size||3456 x 2592
|Max. Video Size
||640x480, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||No
|Battery||2 AA batteries|
|Connections||USB, AV output|
|Additional Features||Face Detection, iSAPS, optical image stabilization, DIGIC III processor, manual exposure modes|
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