Head to Head: Canon PowerShot SX10 vs. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

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I’ve said it over and over again in the build-up to this holiday season: ultrazooms are hot this year. Sure, entry-level DSLRs are still getting their fair share of interest. But at the same time, many intermediate shooters are taking a fresh look at this class of generally high-spec, high-performance models that offers the zoom-range equivalent of bagful lenses for that Canon Rebel or Nikon D60 all rolled up into a single, cost-effective device.

Amid this “ultrazoom renaissance,” a brand new release from Canon – the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS – and a very competent performer from Sony – the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 – have dominated many a discussion among ultrazoom aficionados. Competitively priced and bolstered by legions of dedicated fans in both camps, these two long-zoom titans are the focus of this month’s Head to Head comparison.

Sophistication and Style
From the outset, it’s clear that these two models are built largely with the same idea in mind – a fact that’s evident in their exterior similarities.

Canon’s offering is a robust camera, with an intermingling of composite and metal materials.

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

The camera’s hand grip is large, comfortable, and reminiscent of a small DSLR, easing the challenge of hanging onto this hefty camera slightly.

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

Out back, you’ll find a Canon trademark: the tilt/swivel LCD. Note, though, that while most flagship models have gone to 3.0 inch displays, you only get a 2.5 inch screen with the Canon.

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

If you squint a bit, you might mistake the Sony for the SX10. Their profiles are that similar.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Using a near-identical basic layout to the SX10, the H50 uses lighter plastics and very little metal in its build. If it doesn’t feel quite as well made as the Canon, it’s also not as cumbersome in hand.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Stylistically, there are some points of distinction. The SX10 gets the rounded treatment that’s been going around lately among Canon’s PowerShot redesigns, and on the whole, looks and feels like a nicer, more modern device than the conservative and slightly dated H50. Choosing on looks and feel alone, then, the Canon will probably catch more eyes than the slightly squarish Sony.

Advantage: Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

Features and Specs
Talk about a dead heat! Put the specs sheets for these two models side by side, and declaring one the clear winner in this category looks like an impossible task. Targeting the same slice of potential buyers – power users who want a lot of zoom range and more exposure control – the H50 and SX10 respond to each others strengths point for point.

For some buyers shopping in this class, ultrazooms are all about the lens. And if that’s the case for you, the decision seems to be clear cut, with the Sony’s 15x optic losing out to Canon’s 20x zoom in both width (31mm versus 28mm) and length (465mm versus 520mm). While the Sony’s lens also tends to show more distortion at both ends, however, shot corners appear to be sharper across the zoom and aperture ranges with the H50’s Zeiss glass.

Both cameras provide screens that can be tilted for easier over-the-head or down-low shooting. The Canon’s wider range of motion earns it big kudos in my book, but the Sony’s actual display is superior (it’s 3.0 inches versus 2.5 for starters). And the H50 has a much better electronic viewfinder than its SX10 rival besides.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Sony scores a few bonus points for its Dynamic Range Optimizer technology as well – one of the better backlight and contrast control systems on the market at the moment. But for most users, this positive for the H50 may be more than counterbalanced by Sony’s continued insistence on its proprietary Memory Stick memory format.

At the end of the day, it’s possible that either one of these models could come out on top in a features/specs comparison, depending on what you’re looking for in a camera. They’re certainly as evenly matched in this regard as any two devices we’ve looked at in our Head to Head column. In my own mind, the key differentiators are the H50’s use of proprietary memory, and the SX10’s slightly more versatile lens. With these two considerations, for my money the Canon takes it by a nose.

Advantage: Canon PowerShot SX10 IS (but only just)

Ease of Use
Canon takes a large chunk of the points when it comes to interface design as well. They’ve been using the same basic arrangement that graces the SX10 seemingly forever, and it’s a gentle learning curve to master the SX10’s controls. The H50’s menus, by contrast, are typical for Sony, meaning they’re more densely layered and harder to navigate for most users – except maybe those who are upgrading from other Cyber-shots.

Ergonomically, it’s a different story. Both cameras use the same basic layout, with DSLR-style grips, back panel scroll wheels, and a slew of dedicated buttons. The Sony is slightly more button-saturated than the Canon, but – in my experience with both cameras, at least – also easier to deal with on the whole. What irked me most about the Canon was its scroll wheel: offering the same “zero feedback” feeling afforded by wheels on many of Canon’s PowerShot SD models, the SX10’s scroller made it nearly impossible to make fine adjustments. While the Sony’s setup is similar, a better DSLR-esque button layout and a control wheel that went easier on my limited patience made the H50 a more comfortable camera all around.

Some mention should also be made of the weight difference. Although neither model is light, the Canon, with its AA power, is almost unbelievably heavy for a point-and-shoot, making it a real chore to lug around after awhile. Likewise, while these two models generally stack up well from a performance standpoint, the Sony proved to be just a hair faster and more reliable in the auto focus department.

As before, it all depends on what your pet peeves are. For my taste, the H50’s menus were a little bit tiresome, but the Canon’s excessive heft, frustrating controls, and occasional AF blips left me more satisfied with the Sony’s overall shooting experience.

Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Image Quality
The truth is that most ultrazooms these days are competent image makers. Barring lens anomalies or high-ISO weirdness, performance evaluations between competitive models in this class are very much a matter of taste.

With that in mind, I’ll admit that – at low ISOs, at least – I prefer the H50’s images to those from the SX10. Too much default red channel saturation in the Sony aside, the H50’s output is smoother and less processed looking than the typically over-saturated/over-sharpened images coming from the SX10. In fairness, the H50 could use the sharpening scaled back a bit as well, but as someone who prefers to shoot neutral and post-process for punch, the Sony’s pictures – with lower contrast and less saturation – are just easier to deal with.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

All of that said, if you want print-ready shots straight from your camera, with vivid sky blues and keyed up greens, you may well find the SX10’s output more pleasing.

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

On the noise front, we really weren’t surprised to see that these two cameras match up fairly evenly. Both use 1/2.3-inch CCD sensors with roughly equivalent resolution. If anything, the Canon is just a hair cleaner at ISO 1600 – true to form, Sony pushes more noise reduction than I’d like to see here. Conversely, the H50 provides a noisy but serviceable ISO 3200 setting while the SX10 maxes at 1600.

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50, ISO 1600, 100% crop

Our reviews of both models provide an in-depth break down of image quality if you’re curious to know more:

As with many of the above categories, this one’s pretty close and will, as noted, likely come down to which look you prefer. For me, that’s the Sony.

Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Price and Value
It’s probably appropriate that we consider this category last. A camera, even a low-priced one, is only a good value if you clearly get more for your money. With these two models being pretty evenly matched, though, it’s not hard to recognize the H50 as the better option for penny pinchers. Coming in as much as $50 cheaper than the SX10, the H50 offers comparable performance pretty much across the board at a lower price.

If you’re sold on the Canon otherwise, the small price gap will be easy to justify in getting the camera that you want. But if the decision between these two models is still a toss-up in your mind, the H50’s better bang-for-buck equation may help make your choice.

Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

For a little more than $300 for either of these models, you get a whole more than amazing zoom range. Decent performance for general shooting, comfortable ergos, and surprisingly sharp images are all part of the package when considering the top contenders among current ultrazooms. In this case, as happens with the best Head to Head match-ups, the final outcome is too close to call – with both the SX10 and H50 serving up a heaping helping of photographic goodness and just a few niggles in each case.

If you’re considering a camera in this price and features range, it’s probably fair to assume that you’ve done your homework, and that you have some idea of how you might come down on the many “preference” issues presented above. Although each model has its relative strengths, comparing the SX10 and H50 point for point just further reinforces the fact that with these very refined flagship devices, it really is hard to go wrong.

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