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Head to Head: Canon PowerShot A470 vs. Nikon Coolpix L15
by David Rasnake -  4/16/2008

We field a lot of questions in our forums from camera buyers who are drawn to the convenience of digital shooting, but simply can't or don't want to spend hundreds of dollars. At the same time, many are turned off by the thought of choosing from the horde of no-name compacts that have flooded discount stores recently. This is where the Canon PowerShot A470 and Nikon Coolpix L15 – two of the most popular bargain-basement compacts – come in.

While there are other noteworthy contenders from Fuji, Panasonic, and Pentax (as well as Nikon's own brand new L18) to consider, the A470 and L15 represent two of the most popular choices in this growing but often overlooked class of cameras for budget-minded shooters. So which one is worthy of a place in your pocket, your purse, or your glovebox? As we'll see in this month's edition of Head to Head, that largely depends on what you hope to get out of your camera.


Sophistication and Style

Canon didn't exactly wow us with the visual updates to its bottom-rung PowerShot A model, choosing, it seems, to focus more heavily on the performance side. As a photographer, I'm fully in support of that decision; as someone interested in buying a camera to carry in my pocket (or for that matter, buying a camera that doesn't look like it might have come as a free gift with your brand new 1996 Ford Taurus), maybe not so much.

Canon PowerShot A470
(view large image)

 

Yes, the styling looks like something out of mid-1990s automotive design – all swoopy and bulbous – and the A470 has retained a larger physical size than most two-battery AA-powered compacts. While everything feels arguably more solid than might be expected in the sub-$150 range, there's not a lot that could be called sleek in the Canon's control arrangement either.

Canon PowerShot A470
(view large image)

At the end of the day, while some kids and teens (a primary market for cameras in this price range) may find the Canon's color choices fun, I'm betting that members of the iPod generation are going to look for something a little more streamlined, and something a little easier to haul around in a pocket.

Which brings us to the Coolpix L15. While it's not exactly the epitome of high-style either (hey, what were you expecting for this price?), the look is very contemporary if a bit anonymous.

Nikon Coolpix L15
(view large image)

 

Even more important, however, is the fact that though it's still not exactly light – AA batteries weighing what they do – the Coolpix is easy to stuff into a jacket or jeans pocket and go.

With its stripped menus and basic, intuitive interface, not to mention decent build quality and a screen that's bigger and more fluid than what we're seeing on some much more expensive cameras, the Coolpix is a nice mix of serious and simple.

Nikon Coolpix L15
(view large image)

Unless you're captivated by the Canon's appearance, if size and style are your primary considerations in this decision, the L15 is the hands-down winner in my mind.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix L15


Features and Specs

This one's a little closer in my book: at the top level, the Nikon brings 8 megapixels of resolution, while the Canon "only" offers 7.1. Seeing as I'd give $100 to anyone who could consistently tell on sight the difference between 7.1 and 8 megapixels of resolution in a 3x5 print, the difference is essentially nonexistent. Likewise, the Canon has a slightly longer 3.4x optical zoom (to the Nikon's 3x), but gives up 3mm of wide-angle coverage at the short end. We're neck and neck so far – and that's why they're competitors.

As noted, the Nikon is the clear winner where LCDs are concerned, sporting a 2.8-inch, 230,000 dot display that rivals those found on much more expensive cameras in every way and makes the Canon's 2.5-inch, 115K unit look especially grainy by comparison – not that the A470 is exactly known for fluidity in this area. Nikon's inclusion of its Vibration Reduction technology on the thrifty is more than a little impressive. It's hard to imagine much more bang for your buck than that.

A fundamental difference in philosophy, however, becomes apparent when you dig a little deeper into the specs sheets of these two cameras. Whereas the Nikon does everything in its power to be a fully automatic camera (and generally does so admirably), the Canon features a surprising level of manual user control for a budget cam. Combine this with a user-selectable sensitivity range that does all right even at ISO 1600 (compared to the Nikon's paltry, noisy, and not manually-selectable maximum value of ISO 1000) and the Canon starts looking more and more like the digicam for shooters on a budget who don't want to give up traditional photographic controls.

Ultimately, while it's close (especially given that the Nikon has VR, but there's no IS on the Canon – if the Canon were an optically stabilized camera, it would be the clear choice in this area), some neat custom features seal the deal for the A470, which comes off as the more powerful of the pair where actually taking pictures is concerned.

Advantage: Canon PowerShot A470 (by a nose...)


Ease of Use

It's hard to fault either of these cameras for being difficult to use, as that's simply not the case. Both the L15 and the A470 use a straightforward approach to settings and selections, but while the Canon retains a fair number of physical controls (it even has an actual mode dial) the Nikon preferences menu-based selection just a bit.

In terms of performance, the Canon's decidedly quicker, with shorter shutter lag times and faster if slightly less consistent AF. If photographing kids or pets is part of your agenda, I'd probably preference the Canon based on this fact alone. If you're going to be taking more general family snapshots, however, things are about even all in all.

The overall feel of the Canon in hand is alright, but I strongly dislike the continued use of the d-pad's up/down axis as the zoom control. The arrangement takes some serious reprogramming for me at least, and doesn't sit comfortably under my thumb for one-handed shooting. Overall, if you're thinking about the Canon, try it out in hand before making a decision.

In general, while more advanced shooters may well appreciate Canon's inclusion of its very good, very detailed PowerShot user interface and several more advanced A-model features on the A470, in side-by-siding the two cameras, I'm betting most novice users will find the Nikon just a bit more intuitive given its largely automatic approach.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix L15


Image Quality

Though neither the A470 nor the L15 is likely to blow seasoned shooters away where image quality is concerned, the good news for budget buyers is that there's more than enough image-making horsepower here to handle snapshots and then some.

Given its price, this is where the PowerShot really excels, with generally good optical sharpness and few faults. By contrast, the Coolpix shows some signs of corner cutting where the lens is concerned, with blurry edge detail and some pronounced wide-angle distortion. While direct comparisons aren't possible (given that ISO isn't user-selectable on the L15), the A470 appears to be the clear winner where high-ISO shooting is concerned, preserving more fine detail at its maximum ISO 1600 than the Nikon shows at ISO 1000.

Canon PowerShot A470
Canon PowerShot A470, ISO 1600
(view large image)
Nikon Coolpix L15
Nikon Coolpix L15, ISO 1000 (view large image)

For more sample images and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, check out our full reviews:

Advantage: Canon PowerShot A470


Price and Value

Low cost is, of course, what this pair of is all about. Both cameras come in right around the $125 mark at the moment at the majority of reputable retailers surveyed, with the Nikon running just a little bit higher in the outliers and the Canon available for closer to $100 on occasion.

While the Canon is unquestionably a phenomenal deal, given its performance and level of control, for just a few more than 10,000 pennies, offering a camera with a high-res 2.8-inch LCD and VR for $125, as Nikon does, is simply unprecedented. Though the Canon may have more features all around, the Nikon's got some key ones that should appeal to a broad range of shooters, and on that criterion it gets my vote for value.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix L15


Conclusions

Based on this comparison, I hope it's obvious that in spite of the relative anonymity of cameras at the bottom end of manufacturers' lineups, the Canon PowerShot A470 and Nikon Coolpix L15 are two very different devices with different focuses and relative strengths. While I'd probably be more likely to part with my money for the Nikon if faced with the choice, anyone interested in a cheap compact with a little bit more "enthusiast level" performance will find the A470's control and improved image quality more appealing.

In general, I think my initial reactions in summing up the Coolpix L15 bear repeating, as they apply generally to this discussion:

"On the one hand, what I think should be emphasized is how much [the Nikon] does as well, or nearly as well, as the $200 devices. On the other, the L15 is also in many ways a demonstration of just how much you give up in features and performance to save $50. For less than $200 these days, Nikon's entry-level Style series model, the S500, is in a different photographic league, as are similar offerings from Canon, Sony, and Panasonic."

Obviously, the same idea applies equally to the A470: it's a very good budget camera, but it's still a budget camera nonetheless. In short, if you can spend a little more, I probably would, but if $130 is your absolute limit, the Canon PowerShot A470 and Nikon Coolpix L15 provide two good (if not always great), very different options for budget-conscious shooters.