DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon PowerShot SD890 IS Review
by David Rasnake -  5/14/2008

Following up on a classic is inherently risky business: the list of new releases in the digicam world that have ultimately been cursed by the "but the last model was so good" argument is long and invariably grows every year. Ultimately, as gets said many times around here, there's a fine line between offering enough improvements to justify current-generation prices and doing too much messing with a good thing.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS
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With the Canon SD850 remaining one of the most popular compact cameras out there, its follow-up model, the Canon PowerShot SD890 IS, had some big shoes to fill; preserving everything that the SD850 did well is almost as important in this case as pushing the envelope. With more resolution, a longer zoom, improved IS and auto focus systems, and a raft of new soft features, the "new tech" bases appear to be covered: the question, then, is whether the SD890 hangs on to enough of the older SD's form and function to strike that all-important balance.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Canon PowerShot SD890 IS is a 10 megapixel compact camera that packs a 5x zoom and optical image stabilization in a heavily restyled, pocket-sized body. Successor to the popular 8 megapixel SD850, the new model adds more resolution (and an attendant bump in sensor size, from 1/2.5 to 1/2.3 inch) and more zoom at the long end of the range to the basic SD850 platform.

A true point-and-shoot camera without manual exposure controls, the SD890 nonetheless comes equipped with a fairly comprehensive list of shooting modes, including a program auto mode and color accent and swap options. The list of scene presets on the SD890 strikes a nice balance between covering all of the bases and being reasonably easy to manage – you'll find 11 self-explanatory choices here.

In general terms, the SD890 eschews long lists of options for any one parameter, providing basic auto focus and metering choices, a single-option continuous shooting mode, and a straightforward icon-based interface. The emphasis in this case is on auto-exposure performance that's capable to handle just about any shooting situation that the user throws at it without requiring lots of adjustment to get sharp, well-exposed shots. With this goal largely attained, the Canon's sparse manual control options come more as icing on the cake than as a drastic limitation.

The PowerShot SD890 features the following primary shooting modes:

One particularly nifty playback function on the SD890 is its Focus Check display mode. Using the camera's face detection technology, Focus Check identifies faces in images during playback (even if the shots weren't taken with Face Detection AF) and provides a zoom window for checking focus on faces and confirming that eyes are open.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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This handy playback tool is easy to use and adds a nice point of refinement for a camera targeted to snapshooters in particular.

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

Canon's sleek reworking of its SD models this year has taken the line in two discrete directions, with some models getting a more creased, hard-edge profile while others appeared as rounded off versions of classic Canon forms. With its curvaceous profile, the SD890 definitely falls into the latter camp, establishing a new look for Canon's high-end SD models for 2008.

Styling and Build Quality

I've already discussed (probably ad nauseum according to some) about how much I enjoy Canon's restyled look for the SD line. The maker has tended to be conservative in its styling approach heretofore, and I for one am still glad to see them embracing a look that's a little more trendy and youthful.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS
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Aesthetically, the SD890 looks and feels like a series of intentional decisions, with each part of the camera's rounded layout flowing seamlessly into the next. Canon did a nice job of making sure that nothing feels "tacked on" with the latest SD: even the rubber cover over the USB port has been integrated into the lines of the camera topped off in a silver finish that closely matches the rest of the body.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS
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Build quality is equally well considered, with all of the SD890's parts exhibiting a tightly made, solid feel. The scroll wheel is a bit too floppy feeling to keep pace in this company, but this is a fairly picky (and a fairly subjective) criticism.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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The SD890 commands a steep price for its class, but as an exercise in both styling and build this camera might well come off as refined enough to convince buyers that it's worth the premium price tag.

Ergonomics and Interface

The biggest ergonomic news in moving up to the SD890 from the SD850 it replaces is the complete interface overhaul for the new model. Gone is the fairly ubiquitous layout style seen in previous mid-level SDs; in its place, the SD890 uses an integrated d-pad and scroll wheel arrangement that has some in common with the SD870's setup but is most like the premium-grade SD950's configuration.

As with the SD870, to say that the SD890's scroll wheel takes some getting used to may be an understatement. At times, the dial is too sensitive, while in other menu areas it seems to not register inputs at all. The idea of being able to scroll through your shots in playback mode, for instance, is logical and appealing; actually being able to stop on the specific photo of your choosing during this process, however, takes more luck than skill, with the interface alternately lagging behind and jumping ahead seemingly at random.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS
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In a move I first commented on in testing the PowerShot A470, Canon has finally found something to do with its useless (for most of us, anyway) Direct Print button, allowing users to assign it any of eight possible options – I used mine as a dedicated exposure compensation control – while in shooting mode. It's not an earth-shattering feature for sure, but given that button assignment is a trick usually reserved for DSLRs (and often fairly advanced ones at that) it's a novel inclusion nonetheless.

Ironically, the more sculpted and ergonomic looking body actual does a disservice to the SD890's in-hand comfort – at least for those of us with bigger hands. The "fall-away" profile of the handgrip area can make getting a comfortable grasp on the SD a challenge.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS
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Some people who held the new camera felt that this unconventional grip combined with the SD890's unique control arrangement made the camera awkward to hold and use. As I said, it certainly takes some getting used to.

What doesn't take any getting used to, however, is the on-screen interface. Those familiar with past Canon compacts will find much of the same in the SD890's menus. Basic shooting parameters are still handled via Canon's call-up sidebar FUNC menu, though ISO selection gets its own dedicated button on the SD890. The full-screen detailed menus look like those on every other Canon compact I've used in the last five years, with clear text options and a sensible number of divisions (the SD890 has a total of three submenus) making every available option easy to locate.

Display/Viewfinder

While the logic behind which SD cameras get optical viewfinders and which ones don't has never been clear to me, the SD890 (like the SD850 it supersedes) has one. Admittedly, it's so cramped, so dark, and so inaccurate that its usefulness as much other than an option of last resort when composing on the LCD isn't practical is questionable. For burst shooting or sunny days, though, users will be glad its there in whatever cursory form.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Although it's still a perfectly serviceable piece of hardware, the SD890 didn't score any high-profile upgrades where its screen is concerned. The 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot LCD appears to have been lifted straight from the SD850. Technology from rival manufacturers has for the most part come up to this screen's level, and what impressed the first time around with its sharpness, clarity, and brightness seems a little more prosaic these days.

To put a positive spin on it, the display refreshes fluidly, is adjustable for most outdoor shooting situations, and gains up automatically in low light – all good things for sure. Overall, while it might have been nice to see more techno-wizardry in this area for the updated model, the constraints of both design and technology mean that we may be approaching a practical plateau in screen size and resolution increases. If this is the case, I wouldn't mind proposing the SD890's LCD as a solid, middle-of-the-road standard for comparison.


PERFORMANCE

Basic performance is where the SDs have been known to excel, and promised improvements to several key systems (AF, IS) have put even more pressure on Canon to deliver the goods with the new PowerShot SD.

Timings and Shutter Lag

Shutter lag performance remains quite good for a compact with the SD890: true shutter lag (firing the shutter with the camera pre-focused) comes in around .05 seconds, making the camera's press-to-capture ability feel, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous. AF performance appears to have been tightened slightly on the latest SD as well, with timings of .4 to .5 seconds the norm when using the camera in AiAF mode. Simply put, gone is all but the very slightest hint of the dreaded "digicam lag" in the latest SDs, and while the timings suggest that the SD890 isn't the absolute fastest camera to hit the market this season, you'd be splitting hairs to tell a difference in snapshot shooting.

Continuous shooting is another area where the SD890 holds its own. The camera is able to fire off four shots in 1.9 seconds (for a frame rate of just under 2 fps), and better still, it's able to continue shooting right around this speed basically indefinitely with a fast card. All of this serves to make effective use of the Canon's optical viewfinder and slightly longer than normal 5x zoom: for grabbing a quick series of shots at kids' sporting events, for instance, the combination works just fine.

Lens and Zoom

If the SD890's 37-185mm f/3.2-5.7 zoom could be wider (a la the SD870) at the wide end, it's otherwise a solid choice with a little more reach than your standard compact camera zoom lens. If this isn't exactly life changing – it's certainly not the revolutionary power that a 10x lens on a compact camera provides – I'm still not complaining: every little bit helps, and the SD870 can offer up some nice, tight framing in normal shooting situations (zeroing in on architectural details in urban shooting, for instance) where a 3x lens usually comes up just short.

The lens barrel itself feels tightly made with amazingly little free play given the zoom's physical length. If anything, the amount of lens extension is a potential liability: it seems like it would be easy to accidentally damage the barrel when fully extended. This possible concern aside, travel is quick, quiet, and smooth.

Auto Focus

I appreciate Canon compacts for their seemingly unflappable AF systems, and on this score the SD890 is no different. Cutting through all of the press release hype, Canon's "intelligent" multi-point AiAF system really is quite good, with a well-tuned preference for foreground subjects and excellent speed. After putting it through its paces in a concerted effort to trip it up, I still have trouble finding much to pick at: even with the assist lamp and claimed low-light focusing improvements, the SD890's auto focus may be a touch slower in low light than some competitive models, but if that's the worst that can be said about it, it's clear that the latest SD's focusing system remains impressively solid.

Canon doesn't offer the bevy of AF modes seen on recent Panasonic or Sony cameras, for instance, but in general its center-point AF will get the job done when more precise focusing control is needed. And for a camera built more around ease-of-use than serious performance, I'm not sure it's a big concern (especially in light of the AiAF mode's particularly good performance). Even so, control-minded DSLR shooters looking for a pocket cam may want to take note.

Even if face detection in general still seems more like a parlor trick than a serious control option, Canon's turning this one-use wonder into a full-on stage show. The SD890's face detection AF mode, which links up specific exposure and even white balance settings, performs just as we've seen on other latest-generation Canon models, with face tracking, off-axis face recognition, and ease of use that will impress (if maybe not convert) all but the most hardened skeptics in the audience. I still can't see my way clear to using face detection – even good face detection – in everyday shooting, though if you like the idea and/or take lots of photos of people, the SD890's technology in this area is good enough to potentially be a serious selling point.

Equally nice was a macro focus mode that actually (and consistently) gets you close to really small things. After reviewing what felt like a long line of compacts with poor minimum focusing distances or inconsistent focus lock in the macro range, the SD890's close focusing ability to around three-quarters of an inch is a nice touch.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Skip the digital macro mode (it's basically just a crop function anyway, meaning you can get the same results post-shot): old-fashioned optical macro performance is plenty good on its own.

Flash

As with the LCD, the SD890's flash looks familiar, with a range of around 11 feet at the wide end of the zoom range. Exposure was generally good, though the SD890 had a tendency to blow some highlights up close and the range runs out pretty quickly, even with auto ISO enabled. If it doesn't exactly impress, however, performance is pretty typical for a compact.

With red-eye reduction enabled, reflectivity was never a problem in my testing. A slow sync mode is also available, as are the standard forced on, forced off, and auto options.

Even with its fairly powerful lithium-ion battery, full-power flash recycle continues to be a bit of headache with the SD890. The camera took a full 7.8 seconds to recharge in our full zoom/locked ISO test, and averaged over three seconds under normal shooting conditions. With several generations of technological advancement under its belt, this number really should be better, and if you shoot a lot of flash photos it's worth considering whether the SD890's pokiness in this area is tolerable.

Image Stabilization

A lens element shifting image stabilization system is employed for the SD890. Canon claims a full stop of improvement (for a total of four stops of effectiveness) over previous-generation SD cameras. As always, the problem with claims of this kind is that they depend heavily on how steady your hands are to begin with. Even with my notoriously shaky hands – I can't consistently depend on getting sharp hand-held pictures under 1/50 – I was able to get usably sharp shots with some frequency down to around 1/15 (nearly three stops of improvement in my admittedly unscientific evaluation).

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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That said, I did grab some serviceably sharp handheld photos with the SD890 at 1/4. Overall, while four stops of stabilization may be a stretch, it does seem that the latest system has made another (small) step forward in its capabilities.

What hasn't changed is Canon's inclusion of some IS mode options, including a selection that compensates for panning motion by stabilizing the lens only on the vertical axis. The SD890 employs continuous stabilization by default, but a power-saving single-shot mode (in which stabilization engages only when the shutter release is half-pressed) is also available.

Canon's Motion Detection Technology adds another level of digital stabilization, boosting ISO but also confirming that shutter speeds match the speed of subject motion, in the camera's high-sensitivity mode only.

Battery Life

Canon claims a pretty astounding 800 shots with the SD890 if you're willing to disable the display. Obviously, we weren't up to testing this claim.

More within the scope of our willingness is Canon's 320-shot CIPA rating per charge. My own experience (with some admittedly heavy image review) put the number closer to 250, which correlates pretty closely with the divergence between claimed and experienced numbers that we usually see. Unless you're willing to work mostly screen-free, if you're planning to shoot for a long day (or over several days without recharging), a second battery is a good idea in this case.


IMAGE QUALITY

For those who've been patiently waiting to see whether the SD890 lives up to expectations set by its illustrious lineage, the short answer is yes. All in all, the latest Canon SD model remains one of the most well-balanced compact cameras where IQ performance is concerned.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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While there are some details to pick at in the SD890's test shots, general shooters more interested in clean, printable snapshots than the minutia of image quality analysis can be confident in the Canon's ability to perform as expected.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Even without any metering adjustments, the SD890's fairly wide dynamic range is very nearly able to pull off shadow-to-highlight reproduction even in high-contrast scenes.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Moderate saturation in the default color mode with only a slightly higher than usual blue-channel bump means clipping is rarely an issue. Still, fully maximizing the tonal range in outdoor scenes, especially, is best accomplished with a little exposure roll-off.

Although the SD890 is capable of great subtlety in rendering fine detail and gradations, in some ways and for some subjects the images are too hard-edged – too sharply defined to be lifelike.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
100% crop

A more natural approach to sharpening (or adjustable sharpness) would likely make advanced shooters happy, but the general lack of obvious halos or sharpening artifacts leaves me feeling somewhat more lenient about Canon's processing approach in this case. In light of this camera's target audience, giving preference to immediate straight-from-camera printability over natural smoothness makes sense.

In addition to the default color mode seen above, the PowerShot has a long list of available processing options. The basic four include a Neutral mode – which, while it doesn't curb sharpening much, does keep saturation a little more under control – and Canon's standard-fare Vivid mode for even more punch (but also, more tendency toward highlight and channel clipping).

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Neutral
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Vivid
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Black and White
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Sepia
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There are also color mode options to lighten or darken skin tones (especially handy for preventing either a washed out or overshadowed appearance in faces in outdoor shooting), as well as settings that bring out red, green, and blue, respectively.

White Balance

Automatic white balance on the SD890 is really nothing to write home about, bordering yet again on barely acceptable under incandescent light. Oddly, it's not great under most fluorescent lights either, with a faint but persistent green tint. Presets do a fine job in most situations, but you'll definitely want to remember to use them.

For more fine-tuning, a user-set option is also available, and as with previous Canon digicams, the set procedure is easier to understand than that found on many competitive models.

Lens Faults

The fact that the SD890's lens isn't particularly wide on the wide end makes its relatively intrusive barrel distortion that much more unusual.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Wide-Angle
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The lens is a touch soft all around, but not outside the range of what's expected for a compact camera with small optics. Corner softness is a little more troubling, but won't bother snapshot shooters who don't intend to go much beyond 5x7. Likewise, some fringing snuck in to many high-contrast boundary areas.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
100% crop

The issue only gets pronounced at view sizes approaching 100 percent, so this may or may not be an issue depending on how exacting you are.

All around, the SD890's optics don't let the rest of the camera down terribly, but really don't do much to impress either. As with the aforementioned flash issues, I expected a little more from Canon, especially in light of the SD850's stellar performance in this area.

Sensitivity and Noise

Canon has managed to pull off the rare feat of not giving up miles of high-ISO noise performance to gain inches of resolution.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 80
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 100
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 200
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 400
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 800
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 1600
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Carefully gated noise reduction makes the SD890's ISO 800 setting surprisingly clean given its lineage (for some comparisons, check out our recent write-up on the subject). I've seen better ISO 1600 settings from some of the stronger competitors in this area, but performance with this PowerShot remains above average all the same.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
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CONCLUSIONS

When we reviewed the SD890's predecessor, we concluded that the SD850 was a "stylish, well-built compact digital camera that produces great quality images and color while requiring minimal involvement from its operator." The fact that this description could be lifted verbatim and applied equally to the SD890 suggests that while Canon has made some technological changes (the overwhelming majority of them improvements) to this SD model, the basic formula remains alive and well. Solid performance and simplicity are still clearly valued over heavily hyped whiz-bang, and I, for one, will take a solid auto focus system, low shutter lag, and clean images over a panoply of widgets and options any day.

While the SD890 remains a solid camera, there are still some bugbears lurking that I wish Canon had driven out this time around. Flash recycle is quickly becoming a persistent issue for Canon's smaller cameras it seems, and with full-power recycle times getting dangerously close to the notorious ten-second mark with the latest model, I'm left a bit baffled as to what the hang-up is. In fairness, the SD890 comes in at the low end of average in this regard, but so have the last several SD cameras; some improvements, however slight, would be a nice gesture on Canon's part. The SD890's processing choices are also pure Canon, with sharpness and saturation choices that some will continue to lament as too much.

The moral of the story, then, is twofold: on the one hand, unless you can't live without the SD890's signature styling or its improved noise performance, there's probably no reason to run out and replace your SD850 with the new model; if you dislike the new interface (and some will), justifying the upgrade becomes nearly impossible. At the same time, the latest SD does offer enough substantive (if generally incremental and expected) improvements in my opinion to command a $100 street-price premium over the still widely available SD850. Now if Canon could just figure out how to wedge a 10x zoom into this same form factor...

Pros:

Cons:

 

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS Specifications:

Sensor 10.0 megapixel, 1/2.3" CCD
Lens/Zoom 5x (37-185mm) zoom lens, f/3.2-5.7
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-pixel PureColor II LCD; optical viewfinder
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 15-1/1600 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Manual, Stitch Assist, Digital Macro, Color Accent, Color Swap
Scene Presets Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, Sunset, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, High Sensitivity
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Manual
Metering Modes Evaluative, Center, Spot
Focus Modes AiAF, Center AF, Face Detection AF
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous, Self Timer
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Sync, Red-Eye Reduction
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Custom, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC, MMC
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
Battery Rechargeable Lithium-Ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features

Face Detection, Motion Detection, Optical Image Stabilization, DIGIC III Processor