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Head to Head: Canon PowerShot SD890 IS vs. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150
by David Rasnake -  6/16/2008

PowerShot. Cyber-shot. Both names conjure up images of sleek, stylish pocket-size cameras. Giving equal weight to fashion and function, the Canon PowerShot SD890 IS and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150 enter our June Head to Head arena as two of the most exciting new releases in their class. So how do these heavyweights of the lightweight world stack up?

The subject of this month's side-by-side evaluation was suggested by a reader (thanks, Matt!), who asked that we compare the SD890 to the Sony Cyber-shot W170. Blame it at least in part on the fact that we chose to review the W150 first, but without a set of test notes to work from for the W170, we opted to change the game slightly. Even with the price and lineup placement differential, though, the scrappy middle Cyber-shot proves to be surprisingly well matched to the slightly more up-market SD890.


Sophistication and Style

Sony has long held a prominent position when it comes to building devices with a signature style, but conservative Canon has come roaring back with the latest SD models, presenting a serious challenge to the more fashion-conscious manufacturers on the ultracompact front.

When compared to their predecessors, these two both make a nod to their past – though in varying degrees. Though the SD890 retains a lot of the basic shape that made the forerunning SD850 popular, some serious edge rounding and detail redesign impart a different look to the latest SD.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS

Flowing, contoured, and very intentional in its design feel, the SD890 sports an arrangement all around that is at once familiar and different.

Canon PowersShot SD890 IS

Styling questions aside, the interface change out back isn't without controversy (more on this in the next section), meaning if you fall into the group that finds the change to an arrangement reminiscent of Canon's premium SD950 to be too long on cute and too short on functional, your decision between our contenders may be a quick one.

As a pure exercise in styling, though, the SD890 "gets it" (in my view, at least), offering a unified look and feel that befits a premium gadget. If you want to impress your friends with how flashy your camera looks, the Canon is the natural buy.

Even without the redefining restyling of its competitor, the W150 makes a visual impression of its own. The Cyber-shot is bigger than the PowerShot, with a look that takes its cues directly from previous W models.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150

In spite of its middling price, premium materials abound on the W150, and some mature, well-considered color choices will sway many potential pocket camera buyers in Sony's direction.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150

Whereas Canon's designers seemed to be interested in burying the SD890's gadgetry behind a spare, symmetrical control design, Sony has embraced the fact that the W150 is all gadget. A jam packed mode dial and loads of icons, buttons, and switches flaunt the Cyber-shot's technology, prizing function (and functionality) as opposed to the Canon's form-focused approach.

Where Sony blew their styling budget seems to have been in the menu design: the latest Cyber-shots continue the tradition of offering up some of the most visually appealing camera menus on the planet. If the Canon exudes high-end on the outside, the Sony's sleek, design-heavy menus make navigating the W150 closely akin to playing a video game. Too bad all of this design work also makes menus hard to read (and follow) at times, and bogs the camera down considerably.

Styling preferences are largely subjective, and in this case especially where you come down on this question will depend on personal taste. Considering style alone, I think the SD890 does a better job of uncluttering its physical presence and thus presenting a refined user experience. While I like the Canon for its smooth lines and minimalist, "un-electronics" look, I also understand the position of those who don't. What is clear in comparing these two is that you have two very different options where styling is concerned.

Advantage: Canon PowerShot SD890 IS


Features and Specs

The difference between the W150's 8.1 megapixels and the SD890's 10 is negligible for all practical purposes, and both cameras pack the punch of a 5x optical zoom – a feature that would have been unheard of in an ultracompact not long ago. Some slight weirdness with the Sony's lens aside, its wider field of view (equivalent to 30mm at the wide end) compared to the Canon gives the W150 a more flexible feeling range of coverage: most shooters won't notice the difference between the W150's 150mm and the SD890's 185mm telephoto end nearly as much.

Both cameras feature competent LCDs and optical viewfinders, easy to use auto-exposure shooting modes, and great basic features sets that include optical image stabilization. Canon's got a great new face detection system, but Sony one-ups them with not only excellent face detection, but priority modes and the somewhat cheesy "Smile Shutter" system as well. Both cameras can also use the face detection system to search for faces in playback.

If it's a near tie up to this point where features are concerned, Sony runs away with the prize for its healthy list of playback options: you can do more with your photos without ever taking them out of this camera than most basic image editing software permits. From building slide shows to adding soft focus effects to modifying shot basics, it's all here in the Sony's playback menu – and what's doubly surprising is how good most of the filters and tools are.

Though the cameras are nicely matched in the specs department, if you're a casual photographer looking for a pocket cam that allows for post-shot creativity with no computer required, the W150 is it.

Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150


Ease of Use

This is a tough one to break down for these two devices: both are extremely easy to manage where basic auto-only point-and-shooting is all that's asked of them. Yet both cameras can be a bit of a functional mess – the Canon because of its awkward physical interface, the Sony due to its elaborate and slow menu system.

The most controversial design decision regarding the SD890 is undoubtedly its slightly screwy wheel-based control arrangement. The basic idea – that you scroll through options more than navigate through them using a tradition d-pad – is basically solid, but suffers from some oddness at the hands of Canon's sloppy scroll wheel and, at times, poorly considered interface implementation. Sometimes it really is easier to just use a d-pad, and parts of the SD890's interface seem to bring in scrolling just for scrolling's sake.

The W150's physical controls are much more traditional. If anything, perhaps they're too traditional, to the extent that they try to pack too many options into a standard arrangement (one look at the sheer number of icons on the Cyber-shot's mode dial confirms this idea). The bigger usability problem with the W150, however, is one that's plagued Sony compacts for awhile now: too many menus with too much redundancy and too little clarity. Shooting parameters aren't always logically ordered, and finding the right setup menu (there are several) can take a combination of skill and luck that I don't care for as a camera control strategy.

Though both cameras excel at quickly and simply taking pictures, each presents its own interface/navigational challenges. As before, I find Canon's overall approach to have a little more aesthetic appeal, and even with the awkward physical arrangement, Canon's clear and familiar menu structure will cause noobs no consternation. While the technorati will have no trouble with the W150's menus, the Cyber-shot has the power to scare off less inclined would-be users with its lack of transparency.

Advantage: Canon PowerShot SD890 IS


Image Quality

Both the SD890 and the W150 prove to be quite capable where making clean, sharp images is concerned. Some minor lens faults prove to be an annoyance in each case, but not a significant hamstringing in either. For all of their differences, the cameras are surprisingly similar in this regard.

The Canon can be a little more hard-edged in its processing approach out of the box, and saturated blues, especially, show a clear difference in default color rendering between the two. The W150's biggest disappointment may well be its red channel issues: the camera was extremely prone to channel clipping and the fuzzy, indistinct, burned in mess that results.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150
(view large image)

The Canon is also a little more consistent where noise performance is concerned. Sony has improved its noise reduction by leaps and bounds, making the W150 extremely competent up to ISO 800 – something that couldn't be said of previous Cyber-shots. At ISO 1600, the Sony is unquestionably smoother, but the SD890 catches just a bit more detail and does so with more richly reproduced colors than its rival.

Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Canon PowerShot SD890 IS, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150, ISO 1600, 100% crop

What the Canon can't do, however, is shoot at ISO 3200, and even here the Sony looks surprisingly good.

All of this makes the difference between the two in this area a functional tie as far as most people are concerned; the hair's breadth separating the two in my mind is the Sony's clipping issue, which puts the SD890 in the lead – if only just.

For more sample images and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, take a look at our full reviews:

Advantage: Canon PowerShot SD890 IS (by a nose)


Price and Value

As closely matched as these two cameras are, this one's really no contest. The Cyber-shot hits Canon where it hurts – at the bottom line – with a price that's nearly $100 less than the SD890. Pair the resolution-matched W170 against the SD890 and things get a little closer, but the W camera still doesn't command the premium price of its opponent.

Obviously, the Canon has some advantages that the Sony doesn't, but even respecting those it's hard not to consider the nearly as powerful Cyber-shot to offer more bang for your buck. The Canon seems nonetheless fairly priced for its specs, and if your preference leans that way then the extra money for something that suits you better is almost certainly money well spent. That said, for all that it brings to the table, the Sony looks like one heck of a deal.

Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150


Conclusions

With a lot of mediocre small cameras out there that put out mediocre images, the SD890 and the W150 both exceed expectations, if in different ways. The fact is, I'd gladly carry either of these cameras in my pocket: even without manual controls or lots of features for the more photo savvy set, getting great results from either camera isn't hard at all.

As always with Head to Head, the idea is not to pick a "winner" per se; rather, the point is to highlight the relative strengths and weaknesses of two competitive devices. On this score, it's clear to me that in spite of the price difference, the more expensive SD890 doesn't dominate the W150 in the way some might expect. The W150 isn't without its compromises, but it holds up surprisingly well in this company. Conversely, when it comes to presenting the look and feel of a premium device, the SD890's smooth lines and great images show what make it what one of the most appealing small cameras out there.

If you're shopping for a feature-rich point-and-shoot, I'd make it a point to give both of these cameras a look. As with the most revealing side-by-side evaluations, they represent a study in contrasts – two clearly defined, and clearly different, approaches to designing a small camera.


Head to Head is a monthly camera overview and comparison column showcasing competitive cameras and discussing their relative strengths and weaknesses. If there are two or more cameras that you'd like to see compared in a future story, send us an email at headtohead@digitalcamerareview.com.