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Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Review
by Adam Crawford -  3/20/2009

At first glance, the Canon PowerShot SD960 IS is your typical point-and-shoot, featuring the easy-to-use controls, smooth navigation, and basic operations most casual shooters expect. Although the SD960 is not your stepping-stone into DSLR photography, it is strong enough to give you the big picture with a 12.1 megapixel sensor and a chiseled and sleek design – sure to make those who prize portability and chic design happy.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS


Sitting between the PowerShot SD970 IS and SD780 IS, and among four Digital ELPHs released at PMA, the SD960 is the first Canon ELPH to have a 16:9 widescreen display and feature a unique user interface that uses a control dial like an iPod, allowing you to scroll through the basic operations of the Function Menu by twisting the dial in a circular fashion. Other standout features include a 2.8 inch PureColor LCD II, which gives you high-res image playback; HD movie shooting at a 1280x720 resolution; and a Smart Auto mode for an easy shooting experience that requires little work.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
Aimed at the beginner to casual shooter, the SD960 IS doesn't offer much focal power, featuring a 4x optical zoom with a 35mm equivalency of 28-112mm giving you only a wide- to slightly telephoto range. But what it lacks in glass it makes up for in its feature set – including a 12.1 megapixel CCD sensor and Canon's newer DIGIC 4 processor, which has dramatically increased the performance of the newest Canon digicams, improving speed, low-light sensitivity, and overall operation.

Other standout features include a 16:9 widescreen 2.8 inch LCD, which sacrifices the cumbersome linked viewfinder found on many PowerShots (which makes me happy as a reviewer and photographer, given that Canon's tiny point-and-shoot viewfinders were hardly ever accurate, providing more ornamentation than quality). So what else does the SD960 tout? It features 720p (1280x720) resolution high-definition video capture and image stabilization, which is pretty much a standard feature you can find these days.

Here are some of the features of the SD960 IS in detail:

While most of these features have been added to increase the ease of use of the SD960, some other notable features include user-selectable light metering, a My Colors system that provides 11 different color/processing presets for images, white balance selection from automatic to custom settings, ISO speeds from 80-1600, exposure compensation, and the option to set single-shot or continuous shooting modes.

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality
Style and design define the PowerShot SD960 IS, and like many of its predecessors, the SD960 exhibits a combination of fashionable and durable construction. From the layout of dials and buttons, to the four different colors options (blue, silver, pink, and gold), this camera has a solid feel and an attractive casing.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS

Measuring a mere 0.87 inches thick and made from rigid aluminum, the SD960 is easily transportable in a jeans or shirt pocket, and only weighs 5.11 ounces.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS

Ergonomics and Interface
Built differently than most point-and-shoots I've used, the placement of controls and lack thereof (not a bad thing at all) makes the design and layout of the SD960 far from traditional. Physical controls are comprised of a power button, a mode switch to change between auto/movie/shooting modes, a combined shutter button/zoom lever, a control dial, and Playback, Menu, and Function buttons. Overall the SD960 feels like your typical Canon ELPH, with a strong build quality and great design.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS

Instead of incorporating a four-way menu dial, Canon has created their own unique interface that uses a combination of the control dial (which can still be used like a four-way "compass switch" as well) and Function button to call up quick actions on-screen. Although this takes a bit of getting used to it, once you play around with it, it quickly becomes intuitive.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS

Using the Control Dial by pressing the Function button takes you into to an interactive menu on-screen. A drop-down menu becomes visible on the left side, allowing you to change your settings quickly by navigating with the Control Dial and pressing the Func/Set button to select a shooting mode, etc. The menu system is similar in most of the previous PowerShot cameras, and remains the easily navigable system that these digitals cameras are known for.

Display/Viewfinder
One useless feature that has been tacked on to point-and-shoots over the past couple of years is the linked optical viewfinder, which is often placed above the LCD, sacrificing more real estate on the camera body so that you can look through a small and dark "viewfinder." Luckily many of the major camera manufacturers have done away with this feature by increasing the size and resolution of the LCD and getting rid of this superfluous feature.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS

Canon has sacrificed the tiny optical viewfinder in the SD960, much to my delight, and given us a 2.8 inch LCD with a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio that takes up most of the back of the camera in its place. Because of its rectangular size, the screen provides a wide-viewing angle with picture coverage of 100 percent and a high, 230,000 dot resolution. You can also zoom in for more detail per image by using the zoom toggle.

Many of the cameras released by Canon late in 2008 into 2009 have the PureColor LCD II coating technology on the LCD, which claims to repel smudges, scratches, and fingerprints. This feature is mostly disappointing, however, leaving more smudges and dust patterns onscreen than I care to remember.

But (once you rub the smudges off with your shirt or microfiber cloth, of course) the SD960's LCD is noteworthy for its vibrant color reproduction. Images are accurately displayed on-screen, with the display showing you pretty much what you'll get when you put your shots into your image editor. Also, when Canon said wide-viewing angle, they are correct in that statement, letting you move the camera away from your direct line of sight.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
The SD960 isn't the fastest camera on the block, but it's no a slouch either. With the new DIGIC 4 processor, performance and speed have greatly improved in the newest crop of PowerShot digicams, including the SD960 IS.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera
Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700
0.02
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
0.04
Nikon Coolpix S560
0.04
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
0.05
Casio Exilim EX-Z150
0.22


AF Acquisition
(press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera
Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700
0.23
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
0.47
Nikon Coolpix S560
0.61
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
0.75
Casio Exilim EX-Z150
1.15


The lab tests are impressive, and the numbers regarding auto focus speed and shutter lag were on par with my field shoot – proof that the DIGIC 4 processor has slightly improved the overall speed when supporting basic camera functions and processing images.

Continuous Shooting

Camera
Framerate/Frames
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
3.6 / 3
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700
1.6 / 10
Casio Exilim EX-Z150
1.3 / 13
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
0.9 /
Nikon Coolpix S560
0.7 / 5

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

When using the SD960's continuous shooting mode, the camera didn't prove to be a speed demon, but all in all, good numbers elsewhere for a point-and-shoot make the SD960 a solid performer.

Auto Focus
The SD960 has two AF modes, including Face AiAF and Center. The Face AiAF mode is a blend of Face Detection and multi-area AF that detects people's faces while setting focus, exposure, and white balance. The Center AF mode places a center point for focusing, limiting the area of focus to the middle of the frame only.

Canon's multi-area AiAF is a newly updated technology, and I had a chance to see how it performed this time around. It did well tracking faces, but did a better job in keeping most of the elements of my compositions in focus throughout the frame.

In general, I found that the AF acquisition was fast and rarely required the lens to fish around until it found focus. The new processor improves shooting by speeding up all the processes, including clearing the image buffer, finding focus quickly, and generally making the shooting experience faster for photographers.

Lens and Zoom
Optical zoom power in the SD960 is limited to 4x, but can be combined with digital zoom to give you 16x coverage. I don't recommend using digital zoom because of interpolation it introduces into images, so with the 4x optical zoom alone you are effectively getting a focal range of 28-112mm – a wide-angle to short telephoto lens.

With all point-and-shoots you are going to get a variable aperture range, and the SD960's f/2.8-5.8 maximum aperture range is especially constricted beyond the equivalent of 100mm.

In image playback mode, the lens will retract into the body, which I found useful when I'm thumbing the buttons on the camera and hope that I won't accidentally damage the lens by touching the glass or barrel. The camera is very compact even when the lens is active, and zoom motion was fast and not irritatingly loud.

Flash
The SD960 has a built-in flash that has three settings, as well as a forced off mode to prevent the flash from firing. Stated range for the flash is 13 feet at wide-angle and 6.6 feet at telephoto.

Flash modes are Auto, On, and Slow Synchro. The Slow Synchro setting is nice because it provides you with more fill instead of a large burst of light when On or Auto modes are employed, giving you a more natural light when you need it.

Depending on the shooting scenario, the flash on the camera was effective for most shooting situations. The Slow Synchro did serve as a nice fill for portraits in dark setting, keeping the exposure from getting any undesired cast. Overall the flash was not a standout feature of the camera, but it works just the same as most ELPHs.

Image Stabilization
One of the biggest benefits of using image stabilization is to control the "shaky hand syndrome" that most people have when shooting, and I'm no exception... The SD960 has a built-in IS system in the lens that uses a moving optical element to compensate for camera shake. Basically what is happening is that the camera detects movement on the X and Y axes and moves the lens accordingly in order to prevent blur.

Canon's latest point-and-shoots current feature four different IS modes, including Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning, and Off. Continuous mode works constantly when enabled, from composition to capture – which will drain your battery quickly, so use it only when you need to. Shoot Only enables IS only when you half-press the shutter, and is your best bet for most shooting situations. Panning is for fast-moving shots, and is intended to for subjects moving horizontally. And of course, off means off.

Battery
The SD960 uses a 760 mAh lithium-ion, and is rated at 300 images per charge. In general, this number seemed accurate during testing.


IMAGE QUALITY
The biggest issue with today's digital cameras is packing more megapixels sites onto smaller image sensors, which often results in poor image quality and noise. In the case of the SD960, we have a 1/2.3-inch CCD imager with 12.1 megapixels of resolution. Most people think bigger resolution is better, but the truth is that 12.1 megapixels provide enough image data for printing large images – which most users of point-and-shoots hardly ever do. And with all of these pixels in such a comparatively small physical space, the image quality when viewed at the pixel level shows grainy artifacts and increased noise throughout the frame anyway.

What the SD960 lacks in clean images it makes up for in vibrant color reproduction and the ability to further tweak colors with the camera's My Colors presets.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
With the different settings for exposure, image processing and color, the SD960 offers much in the way of customizable functions, and also default settings for the auto modes.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Default

Overall, the images in the default setting seemed to be a bit oversaturated, making the image color pop out, instead of making it look more natural. The My Colors mode provides a Neutral option, however, for easily and effectively toning down colors.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Vivid

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Neutral

The SD960's Vivid and Neutral processing options are shown above, but the camera also offers a lot of different preset options, including settings for shifting skin tones, mimicing the look of old images, or shooting black-and-whites. Another feature is the Color Accent function found in the shooting modes, which allows you to sample one color while keeping the rest of the scene in black and white.

For light metering, there are three options for measuring exposure. The first is Evaluative, which works to meter exposure according to the current shooting conditions. Next there is Center Weighted Average that gives precedence to the center of the frame for measuring the exposure, but also measures the entire frame as well, and last there is Spot metering which measures light in the middle of the screen only.

There is also a new technology introduced in the new ELPH digicams called i-Contrast, which can automatically detects and compensate for dark areas by changing exposure settings automatically to brighten up images. This option is similar to Nikon's D-lighting, which helps to increase the dynamic range and exposure of images. The system works to a degree, but proved to be less overbearing than some competitive technologies.

White Balance
Most of the white balance settings in the SD96, from AWB through the preset options to custom white balance, worked quite well for their intended purpose.

Lens Faults
The zoom lens on the SD960 produced soft edges when extended to full telephoto, but overall it was acceptable with no major image degradation. Also, the stabilzation system proved effective in keeping shots sharp, even with the lens fully extended.

Sensitivity and Noise
When shooting with the SD960 you can choose your ISO (the camera's sensitivity to light). There is an auto setting, user-selectable increments of ISO 80-1600, and a special low-res ISO 3200 mode in the shooting menu.

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

The SD960 performs well at ISOs of 80 and 100, but once pushed past ISO 200 you start to see more and more noise being introduced into the frame. With 12.1 megapixels and a decent showing in ISO performance, people who really want to analyze each pixel will find the output to be pretty acceptable. Just remember, as you go up the ISO ladder, the more grain you'll find with the SD960 – but it isn't as rampant as some other cameras in its class.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Canon PowerShot SD960 IS
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS Canon PowerShot SD960 IS


CONCLUSIONS
So is the SD960 IS worth considering? With a street price of $330, a 12.1-megapixel sensor, and 4X optical zoom range all bundled in a compact and rugged form factor, this camera proved to be a capable point-and-shoot with plenty of features for the beginner or novice. If you don't want to lug a beast around and want a stylish camera, the SD960 is a great option.


Bottom line – this camera is a solid performer, and Canon has done well by their new line of PowerShot Digital ELPHs.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 12.1 megapixel, 1/2.3" CCD
Lens/Zoom 4x (28-112mm) zoom lens, f/2.8-5.8
LCD/Viewfinder 2.8", 230K-pixel PureColor II LCD
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 15-1/1500 seconds
Shooting Modes Smart Auto, Program, Scene, Movie
Scene Presets Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, Long Shutter, Stitch Assist
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom
Metering Modes Evaluative, Center, Spot
Focus Modes Face AiAF, Center 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, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC, MMC
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, MOV
Max. Image Size 4000x3000
Max. Video Size
1280x720, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable Lithium-Ion
Connections USB 2.0, HDMI
Additional Features Face Detection, Motion Detection, Optical Image Stabilization, DIGIC IV Processor, Active Display technology