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Canon PowerShot A590 IS Review
by David Rasnake -  2/19/2008

It's a common sense principle that sequels are rarely as good as the original. What seemed like innovation the first time around starts to feel increasingly like little more than imitation as time goes on. Put differently, a successful performance is often a hard act to follow. Following up on Canon's highly successful performance with the A570 and building on a long line of well-regarded, moderately priced Canon A models, the Canon PowerShot A590 IS offers a few more features and a little more style at a price that comes in fully $100 less than its predecessor's MSRP.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

 

Given this lineage, it's hard to approach the A590 as anything other than the mid-priced compact camera to beat in 2008. At the same time, the one unanswered question is whether the new model brings enough excitement and innovation to keep this highly competitive market segment firmly in Canon's grasp.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

Following closely in the footsteps of the PowerShot A570 IS, the latest PowerShot A model comes equipped with a 4x, optically stabilized zoom lens. Resolution is up slightly, from 7.1 megapixels to a full 8.0. As with previous models, the A590 sports Canon's DIGIC III processor for improved speed and high-quality images, in addition to improved Face Detection and Motion Detection technologies.

The A590 also provides shooters access to the standard complement of manual modes: aperture and shutter priority, as well as full manual control. Canon has refined this system over several models, and to say that it's a step above the manual functionality seen on most compact cameras doesn't fully capture how much more useful this system is. While it may not replace your DSLR, the A590's full-ranging aperture and shutter-speed values and a simple, intuitive control system makes the package work for those interested in learning photography basics.

More broadly, the Canon PowerShot A590 IS lets users choose from eight shooting modes:

As on most other PowerShot A models, Canon splits the scene modes into two groups, with the most commonly accessed ones (Landscape, Portrait, etc.) appearing on the mode dial and the rest accessible via a menu in the Scene mode.

Playback mode options are basic by contemporary standards, with a slideshow function and in-camera red-eye reduction being the items of note in this area. One other interesting addition here is a Focus Check feature, which uses the camera's face detection system to pick out and zoom in on faces during playback, allowing photographers to quickly confirm that eyes are open and focus and exposure are locked in.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

The basic look of the Canon PowerShot A models has been a relatively slow and stable evolution, with the styling cues established by the earliest models still apparent in the most recent variants. In general, the A590 takes some nice steps forward in terms of both build quality and styling, while retaining the functionality and ergonomics of its predecessors.

Styling and Build Quality

In my "First Thoughts" piece on this camera, I commented on Canon's slightly reshaped lines for the A590, giving the camera a more streamlined look. The more rounded edges have a slightly retro flair that suits the A model's basic camera appeal nicely.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

In setting up some test shots, I did find the fact that Canon has positioned the tripod socket at the point on the camera's base where it begins to curve slightly annoying, as this causes the attached tripod connector plate to sit slightly askew relative to the camera's horizontal axis. It's not a big deal unless you take lots of tripod shots, in which case all leveling must be "eyeballed" – the bubble level on your tripod head will not be accurate, as the camera is not sitting flush with the base.

In terms of build quality, the A590 actually feels a bit more rugged than its predecessor. A quick side-by-side confirms that even though listed weight is the same, the A590 has a bit of a density advantage over the 570, making it feel slightly more well-built to me, at least.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

Buttons and switches all feel acceptably solid, though in several cases (zoom toggle, shooting/playback mode switch, mode dial) I wished the camera offered a bit more resistance. The mode dial is especially clicky and odd feeling under finger compared to some of the older A models, but it doesn't seem like anything irritating enough to get most users bent out of shape.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
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Similar gripes apply to the battery door, which appears to return unchanged from the A570. Super-human finger strength is required to close the cover, and its generally low-budget feel is a bit unappealing.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

The choice of a shinier finish on the grip area does make the camera look a little cheaper in my opinion, though this is balanced by a nicely chosen charcoal finish color with chrome accents – reminiscent of the high-end A650.

Ergonomics and Interface

In rounding off the grip compared to previous models, the A590 feels a bit easier to grasp solidly. While there's still not much finger wrap-around room, the PowerShot's light weight and good balance make a more prominent hand hold generally unnecessary. I was also slightly concerned that the glossy finish on the handgrip might make the camera tend to be more slippery, but have yet to have any difficulties keeping the A590 in hand.

In an age where compact cameras seem to be moving away from a dedicated shooting/playback switch in favor of switching methods that are a little more seamless, the A590 still uses a conventional two-position switch. Admittedly, I'm a big fan of the convenience of being able to return quickly to the shooting mode with a press of the shutter button, and the A590's switch seems downright clunky and old-fashioned at times. Conversely, setting the camera to playback mode prevents the lens from attempting to extend should the camera get powered on while in your pocket or a bag – a nice lens protection feature. On balance, however, I'm hopeful that Canon will get with the times on future cameras over this minor interface issue.

Otherwise, the camera control layout and interface is classic Canon, with lots of on-screen information and parameter adjustments all made via the bottom and sidebar menus. The buttons look different, but are functionally the same as we've seen on these cameras in the past, and in general the layout works well for quick adjustments.

Display/Viewfinder

Like many of its PowerShot brethren, the A590 retains an optical viewfinder. While it's not much to look through, it has often been observed that a small viewfinder is better than no viewfinder at all when you really need to see what you're photographing (in bright sunlight on the beach, or when shooting in continuous drive mode, for instance).

The A590's 115,000-pixel LCD is a carryover from previous models. While the display could be sharper, it's acceptably fluid, even when gained up in low light. Viewing angles are also sufficiently wide. While the screen's nothing to write home about, it does just fine.


PERFORMANCE

With better than average speed and great usability, the A590 IS is truly a photographer's camera, offering consistent in-the-field performance in a variety of shooting situations.

Timing and Shutter Lag

Shutter lag timings with the camera pre-focused averaged right at .1 seconds with very little perceptible delay from press to capture; turn the LCD off and the speed increases slightly beyond this. Though this number doesn't put the A590 in the first tier of current-generation compacts in terms of speed, it's a respectable timing that feels plenty fast in actual use. Press-to-capture times without pre-focus averaged just above .5 seconds, with ideal-condition capture coming in as little as .35 seconds: again, not world-class performance, but quite good for a camera in this price range.

Continuous shooting mode yielded a consistent speed of around 2 frames per second at full resolution. Combined with the optical viewfinder, this makes the camera more useable than many compacts in action shooting situations.

Lens and Zoom

The A590 IS features an optically stabilized 4x Canon zoom lens, with an equivalent range of 35-140mm. Cycling the zoom through its range produces some interesting, and not entirely pleasant, noises – lots of scraping and grinding sounds make it hard to use the zoom discretely. Whatever was going on inside our test unit's lens barrel, however, didn't seem to have a negative impact on performance otherwise. Pick-up was appropriately quick, and the unit's construction feels solid with little slop or free play.

With seven distinct steps, the zoom is a touch notchy in use, and having a little more wide-angle reach is always a nice addition for landscape shooting. Overall, the A590's zoom range and functionality isn't a strong selling point, but probably won't turn potential buyers away either.

Auto Focus

The A590 offers up three choices for basic AF mode: Canon's AiAF multi-point auto focus, Center AF, and Face Detection AF. An on-screen focus point crop box, showing a close-up view of the focus point to confirm correct lock, can be switched on in either Center or Face Detection AF. The focus zoom system is also particularly helpful when used in conjunction with the A590's manual focus option (not surprisingly, enabling the Safety MF function, which checks and slightly corrects manual focus, makes the whole MF system much more accurate and useful).

AF issues seem to often be a weak link in moderately priced compacts, which makes the continued consistent performance of this latest PowerShot A model that much more appealing. Focusing wasn't always lightning quick, but rarely hunted (even in low light) and was near perfect in terms of accuracy, even in difficult scenarios. Locking the camera in Center AF mode increased speed slightly.

Canon has highly touted improvements to its Face Detection AF that allow the A590 to not only recognize, but also track, multiple faces within a scene. In use, the system performed reasonably well, though quick subject motion repeatedly caused the A590 to lose track or get confused. Off-axis face recognition also seems to be somewhat improved over the previous generation of compact cameras, though the A590 still seems to need to see two eyes to recognize a face.

Minimum focusing distance in macro mode comes in right at the advertised 2 inches, though lock isn't consistent at this distance. Overall, macro performance, if not exactly frame-filling, is nice and crisp.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

Flash

Flash recycle times have been the much-publicized Achilles' heel of the AA-powered PowerShots, especially the models relying on just two batteries. Tested performance improvements are slight at best with the A590 IS: a full-power flash discharge still takes nearly 10 seconds to recover from, during which time the camera is completely blacked out. Recorded recycle times from a variety of shots averaged just over 7 seconds with alkaline batteries. Switch over to 2300 mAh NiMH rechargeables and things improve slightly.

Otherwise, flash performance meets expectations, with decent color and good exposure even at close range.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

With the red-eye reduction lamp enabled, red eye was never an issue in our test shots, though users can select to have the camera automatically search for and process red eye if desired.

Image Stabilization

The A590 has true optical image stabilization using a floating lens element. Mode options include Continuous, Shot Only, and Panning; the IS system can also be disabled completely.

Real world testing suggests that the system works as well as any compact camera IS solution out there. As our test shots at 1/6 of a second show, it won't afford tack-sharp shots at very slow speeds, but with a steady hand it can probably come close.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
IS disabled (view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
IS enabled (view large image

Battery Life

With the LCD always on for shot composition, a pair of AA alkalines was good for around 170 shots. Canon promises that 2300 mAh NiMHs will last for 450 shots, and after a day shooting just over half this number (as well as some video) on NiMHs, the batteries were still going strong.


IMAGE QUALITY

Strong image quality on most every count from the A570 made it a great value in the minds of many, in spite of a general "less is more" approach to features that went against what most of its competitors were doing. Not surprisingly, image quality results from the A590 seem right on track in this regard.

General Image Quality

Overall image quality is very satisfactory for a compact camera, with good sharpness and nice dynamic range bringing out a fair amount of detail even in low-contrast areas at baseline sensitivity.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

Given that the expectation with this class of cameras tends toward soft images with excessive contrast, there's really very little to pick at in terms of general IQ considerations with this shot. Performance is, not surprisingly, very similar to that seen from the A570, with the negligible increase in resolution having a negligible impact, either positive or negative, on picture quality.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Saturation on the A590 IS tends a touch toward the consumer side of the spectrum, but not terribly so. Reds can be a little electric at times, and as with almost every consumer digicam, blues are rendered a little stronger than they actually appear. Otherwise, colors are pleasing and generally hue-accurate across the board.

Test shot crops show only faint traces of sharpening halos as well, making for images that, on balance, look very natural at best and appropriately processed at worst.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS

Our studio shots were just a bit underexposed, though this wasn't a tendency seen across the board with the A590 IS (if anything, the camera tended to need slight negative compensation to preserve highlights).

White Balance

White balance trouble spots with the A590 are the usual ones, with some fluorescent shots coming out just a touch cool and incandescent shots strongly warmed under the auto setting. The incandescent setting improved things slightly under low indoor lighting, though arguably not as much as some other cams we've tested.

The A590 includes a custom manual white balance mode especially useful for dealing with difficult lighting conditions and nice to see on a camera with this much manual functionality all around.

Lens Faults

The A590's lens is reasonably sharp edge to edge, even at its maximum f/2.6, though there is just a hint of sharpness loss at the corners when the lens is wide open.

In typical shooting situations, chromatic aberration is well controlled for normal viewing/printing, though it visibly encroaches at 100 percent view in high-contrast boundaries.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS

Barrel distortion tends to be pronounced at wide angle, though there's no discernible pincushioning at full telephoto. Similarly, vignetting was a non-issue, even shooting at full wide angle with the lens wide open.

Sensitivity and Noise

For a camera with a 1/2.5" sensor, the A590 shows some very well-controlled high ISO noise levels.

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 80 (view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 100 (view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 200 (view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 400 (view large image)

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 800 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 1600 (view large image)

 

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 80

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 100

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 200

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 400

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 800

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 1600

ISO 80, 100, and 200 are functionally identical at normal view sizes, with a slight jump coming at ISO 400 and a much larger degradation occurring from ISO 800 on. Still, fine detail retention is quite good up through ISO 800 and still nearly acceptable, all things considered, at ISO 1600. For small prints, visible noise doesn't become intrusive until ISO 1600, and the fine pattern grain is less objectionable than more blotchy variants we've seen.

Lighter colors especially do lose some punch, most noticeably between 400 and 800, but colors across the spectrum remain largely consistent as sensitivity increases. The full-size images show a little bit of noise-reduction induced detail loss at higher ISOs as well.

In short, the A590's high-ISO performance, while perhaps not best in class, makes this camera very useable up to ISO 800 at least.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot A590 IS
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Canon PowerShot A590 IS
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Canon PowerShot A590 IS
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Canon PowerShot A590 IS
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Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
(view large image)

CONCLUSIONS

Words like "acceptable" and "competent" kept cropping up again and again in reviewing the A590 IS, and in a market where anything not praised as excellent is often inferred to be not good, I'm concerned that this undersells this PowerShot's abilities. In truth, there's not a lot about the A590 that really jumps out in an initial evaluation. What impresses more about the newest Canon A is not any specific strength, but its all-around competency. Built to a price point that often entails some serious photographic compromises, the A590 IS makes relatively few: it's fast, precise, has decent high ISO performance, meters accurately, and provides full manual control. The lens and screen could both be better, and a few more "gee whiz" features might have attracted more attention, but based on the strong reputation of its predecessor, building interest in the A590 shouldn't be a hard task.

To sum the A590 up in a single sentence, as a basic, compact picture taking tool it simply doesn't get much more solid and consistent than this. While there may have been room for more updates (meaning, ultimately, that Canon may have to fight a little harder to keep strong competition at bay with what is largely last year's model), the PowerShot A590 IS remains a strong basic package that's definitely worth considering.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Canon PowerShot A580/A590 IS specifications:

Sensor 8.0 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Zoom 4x (35-140mm) zoom, f/2.6-5.5
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 115K-pixel TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 15-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes A580: Auto, Manual, Easy, Movie, Special Scene; A590 IS: Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Easy, Movie, Special Scene
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Sunset, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Night Scene, Aquarium
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom
Metering Modes Multi, Center, Spot
Focus Modes 9-Point AF, Face Detection AF, Spot AF, Face Select and Track
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off, Red-Eye Reduction
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, AVI, WAV
Max. Image Size 3264 x 2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 20 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery 2 AA batteries
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features Face Detection, Improved Auto Focus, Motion Detection Technology, Optical Image Stabilization