When it comes to the whole concept of compact ultrazooms, I'm a fan. It seems that every manufacturer has at least one of these small cameras with long lenses in their line these days, and it's really no surprise why. They're the photographic equivalent of duct tape: not always the ideal or most elegant tool for the job, but applicable in a whole lot of picture-taking situations just the same.
We've had a couple of weeks to get acquainted with Canon's latest entry in this field, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS. And while the folks in our office have yet to reach consensus on the camera's styling, its build quality, its redesigned interface – even its image quality – no one around here has yet to knock the SX200 for a lack of versatility. With a new Smart Auto mode that's able to dynamically respond to changing shooting situations guiding novices along, and a host of full manual exposure controls for more advanced shooters, Canon's definitely looking for broad appeal with its latest long-lens wonder. But with a whole lot of new kids on the compact ultrazoom block for 2009, the SX200 definitely has its work cut out for it.
BUILD AND DESIGN
One of Canon's latest round of PowerShot models with the current DIGIC 4 processor, the 12.1 megapixel PowerShot SX200 IS is built around a 1/2.3 inch CCD imager and a 12x, 28-336mm optical zoom. DIGIC 4 affords the new PowerShot several key features common to Canon's latest models, including an advanced face detection system that tracks faces as quickly and cleanly as anything we've shot with (and automatically adjusts exposure and white balance besides), 720p video capture, Canon's highlight/shadow balancing i-Contrast tool, 16 scene presets (including Color Swap and Color Accent modes), and Canon's newly developed Smart Auto automatic scene recognition mode.
Physically, the SX200 takes Canon's SX PowerShots in a new direction: love it or hate it, the SX200 is unquestionably a different breed of PowerShot than previous compact ultrazooms from Canon. While we often felt that the SX100 and SX110 were underrated as cameras, on the "compact" part of "compact ultrazoom" it always felt like Canon was only half-heartedly playing along. Next to a Panasonic TZ/ZS, an SX110 is downright mammoth. Never mind the fact that the plastic-heavy construction and bland, vaguely curvaceous styling of Canon's entry-level SX models makes them no match for their Panasonic rivals when it comes to aesthetics.
The SX200 changes all of that (well, most of it...) with a complete redesign, putting it more in line with the slimmer retro styling that Canon is playing up in this year's PowerShots, and moving it away from the clunky, boxy forms of previous compact SX models.
As I noted in my preview of this model, while the SX200 is appreciably smaller than its SX110 sibling, it's still not exactly a camera that you'll want to haul around in a pocket on a regular basis. And even with its lithium-ion power source, the SX200 weighs in slightly heavier than the SX110 – no doubt a function of the SX200's extensive use of alloy materials.
The SX200 represents the new stylistic direction of Canon's PowerShot models, with cleaner lines, more high-end materials (brushed metal with chrome accents), and a "retro-chic" two-tone appearance. We were generally impressed with this model's build quality, though after nearly a month with the new model, not everyone in our office was in agreement on whether the SX200 successfully pulls off the premium vibe it's striving for: there's perhaps a bit too much chromed plastic for some tastes, and not everything (example: the flimsy plastic pop-up flash, which extends automatically when the camera powers on) feels as robust as perhaps it should.
This mild criticism aside, I feel that Canon deserves high marks for slimming down and dressing up its premium compact ultrazoom, and while the total concept isn't perfectly executed, it's a nice looking camera with construction and features that suit its price class.
For a complete run-down on what's new with the SX200, have a look at our Canon PowerShot SX200 launch announcement. For a listing of specs and features, you can find our full specifications sheet for this model at the bottom of the page.
Ergonomics and Controls
The SX200's medium-thick, slightly sculpted body fits well in hand, with plenty of grip area out front and even a nice thumbrest area on the back panel. Controls are logically arranged, with a mode dial, zoom toggle, and shutter release up top, and the standard array of Canon physical controls out back. All in all, it's a comfortable camera in real-world shooting situations – though a slightly heavy lens makes camera balance a little tricky when shooting with one hand, especially at or near full telephoto.
The SX200 uses a combination four-way controller/scroll wheel for menu navigation, with dedicated functions (exposure compensation, macro focus selection, etc.) sitting in the directional positions when you're in one of the shooting modes. Pressing the center FUNC/SET button calls up a variation on Canon's classic sidebar menu, with quick configuration for basic options like metering, white balance, and sensitivity.
Long-time Canon fans will note that the SX200's quick-access interface has a slightly different look than Canon sidebar menus of the past. While most of the same options are there, it's more visually dressed up for starters; helpful guides also provide single-sentence explanations for each menu option and setting, offering clear, succinct explanations for advanced controls like metering and sensitivity. All of this friendly advice may quickly wear on advanced users, but it's also easy to disable the "Hints & Tips" function in the camera's setup menu.
Menus and Modes
Beyond the aforementioned quick-access menu, more involved shooting and playback settings are managed through a series of logically laid-out page menus. It's a system that will be familiar to anyone who's spent time shooting with Canons before, and even novices should quickly get the hang of how things break down in the SX200's lists of settings.
Basic shooting modes include a redesigned auto-exposure mode, in the form of Canon's aptly named Smart Auto system. A variant on the automatic scene recognition idea that's become popular of late, Smart Auto analyzes shooting situations and responds accordingly, automatically selecting the most appropriate preset type from among several basic choices – portrait, landscape, and macro modes, for instance. Fast and responsive, Smart Auto has the added benefit of using a series of icons to communicate which preset it's using, making it easy to override its choice via the camera's program or scene modes if you're unhappy. Other than occasionally hanging up on the macro preset, though, we had no problems with Smart Auto and found the final image results slightly better (especially in terms of focus consistency) than your typical AE shots.
As noted, the SX200 also provides 16 user-selected scene presets, including Canon's trademark Color Swap and Color Accent modes. The list is basic for the most part, covering all of the typical situational options a snapshooter might need. As usual, five of the most basic options (portrait, landscape, night shot, kids and pets, and party/indoor modes) are available directly via the mode dial, with the rest selected from a pop-up list from the scene position.
The SX200 also features a full complement of manual exposure modes, including both aperture and shutter priority options and a full manual setting. The SX200's manual mode is predictably clunky, with a button press required to switch from aperture to shutter speed settings and back again, but the priority modes are relatively easy to use. Spinning the scroll wheel changes your aperture or shutter setting, though I dislike the fact that there's no "live" metering: you have to half-press the shutter release to check your exposure.
A movie mode capable of capturing 720p HD clips is also available; more on that a little later in the review.
A 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot LCD – presumably the same screen from the SX110 – is used on the SX200 as well. As before, the display is bright, fluid, and accurate, with excellent performance in typical shooting situations and decent smoothness even in low light.
Screen brightness is manually adjustable (five steps), though even with the brightness maxed, there's too much glare off the display's coating to effectively use the camera in bright, direct sunlight.
With Canon's latest processor and an interesting new lens, the SX200 has real performance potential on paper. Could this be the enthusiast-focused compact ultrazoom that we've been hoping for? Quite possibly. And with an all new, ultra-reliable Smart Auto mode that's capable of more actively evaluating shooting conditions than previous AE efforts, the SX200 makes sure novice users aren't left out in the cold either.
The PowerShot SX200's basic timings were decidedly on the better side of average for an ultrazoom – a finding confirmed by our "in the field" time with this model. It's certainly not DSLR fast, but pre-focus the SX200 and it has no trouble keeping up with the class leaders, and even a few entry-level interchangeable lens models.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Casio Exilim FH20||0.02|
|Olympus SP-565 UZ||0.03|
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.03|
|Fujifilm FinePix S100FS
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Fujifilm FinePix S100FS
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
|Casio Exilim FH20||0.59|
|Olympus SP-565 UZ||0.62|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28
* Note: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 was measured at 1.25 seconds in its default multi-area AF mode, but was able to achieve a very fast 0.16 seconds in this test in its single-area high speed mode.
Auto focus was as quick as the above suggests, with only minor (and expected) reliability concerns in low light – when shooting at or near full wide angle, that is. With relatively slow optical performance at the long end of the zoom range, even moderately dim conditions (well-lit indoor scenes, for instance) challenged the SX200's focus-locking abilities with some frequency at or near full telephoto.
Given the SX200's obvious enthusiast appeal (long lens, HD video, manual exposure control...), I'm also a bit annoyed that Canon opted to remove the user-selected multi-area AF option from this camera – an option on some previous-generation PowerShots which let the shooter move the focus-area frame to target focus on a specific point in the composition. Instead, we're left with a combined auto multi-area/face detection option; to be fair, it's quite reliable, but hardly in keeping with the level of user control seen elsewhere in this model. Of course, there's also a center-point focus option, allowing for some use of the lock-and-recompose technique, and Canon's clunky point-and-shoot manual focus option is also available – which is nice if you have ten seconds or more to use the scroll wheel to move focus in or out, but not much help for capturing even slowly unfolding action.
|Casio Exilim FH20||40||30 fps†|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28
|Fujifilm FinePix S100FS
|Olympus SP-565 UZ
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
* 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.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.
As often seems to be the case with Canon's point-and-shoot models, however, continuous shooting performance was quite disappointing with the SX200, making the camera difficult to use for sports or wildlife photography in spite of its far-reaching lens.
Overall, this less than stellar continuous shooting performance certainly didn't stand in the way of a very good sum-total experience with this camera. With "a place for everything, and everything in its place" with the new interface, the SX200 is straightforward to use in the field, and the camera's combination of fully automated and user-controlled shooting modes should make everyone – amateur to enthusiast – happy.
The SX200 features a smooth zooming, optically stabilized 12x lens with a 35mm-equivalent range of 28-336mm. Unlike the SX110, the SX200 now provides true wide-angle coverage at the wide end, while retaining nearly all of the step-down model's telephoto range as well.
In another comparison to the SX110, we found the SX200's optics equally proficient, with solid edge-to-edge sharpness and expected but not intrusive barrel distortion at 28mm. Add a little bit of zoom, however, and things start getting noticeably softer. Likewise, speed is a bit of an issue at the long end of this lens: with a maximum aperture of f/5.3 at 336mm (compared to the SX110's f/4.3 at 360mm), diffraction begins to make a mess of shots the more focal length you use.
In the same vein, the SX200 struggled at times to keep chromatic aberration/color fringing under control, especially in high-contrast areas toward the outside edges of the frame.
However, the SX200's versatile focal range – with a "super macro" focusing mode capable of sub-1cm focus lock – serves to mitigate these concerns somewhat.
Now, if users could only zoom while shooting video...
Canon has made a big push to put 720p HD video in the overwhelming majority of its 2009 PowerShot lineup – a not-so-subtle nod to the important role that still cameras have come to play in capturing on-the-go video. To this end, the SX200 offers the option to shoot video at full 720p (1280x720), or at the standard 640x480 and 320x240 sizes; in each case, video capture is at 30 fps. A side-mounted HDMI out allows on-screen playback on HDTVs, and Canon offers a relatively generous 30 minute maximum clip length when shooting in HD.
Beyond these basic quality options, however, the SX200 isn't particularly feature-rich as a video shooter. There's no stereo audio capture for starters, and while Canon does extend its My Colors processing options to video capture as well, this one nice touch is more than offset in our opinion by the fact that you're restricted to digital zoom only while filming.
The above sample video, shot mostly through the window of a local coffee shop, shows the SX200 to be relatively adept in responding to significant changes in ambient light. Likewise, sound from the camera proved to be surprisingly good, and less "canned" than many competitive models. But compared to the carefully integrated video capture functions of the competitive Panasonic ZS3, the SX200's features in this area still feel just a tad tacked on.
With Canon migrating most of its PowerShot platform to a common 12 megapixel sensor and DIGIC 4 processor for 2009, we weren't expecting much that we hadn't seen before with the SX200 in terms of image capture. Like clockwork, the SX200 reels in vibrant, borderline-oversaturated images that generally look great with minimal post-processing.
Like all Canon PowerShots, the SX200 packs an exhaustive list of My Color processing modes, including settings for shifting skin tones, mimicking positive film, and even a custom mode that lets you set saturation, contrast, and sharpening manually.
The SX200's default multi-area metering did an acceptable job, but it felt like we still saw more than our share of clipped highlights with this model: admittedly, we put the SX200 in some fairly trying outdoor shooting situations, but I spent a lot of time riding the exposure compensation to keep highlights under control. Indeed, the live histogram proved to be a shot-saver more than once with this camera, and even then the final results weren't always spot on.
For pulling out a little more detail in blocked up shadow areas without pushing highlights, Canon offers all of their new DIGIC 4 PowerShots with their i-Contrast system: it's subtler than most "dynamic range" tools out there, but performs acceptably well, and – best of all – can be applied either at the time of capture or after the shot.
Flash exposure from the SX200's amusing pop-up flash was on par with other point-and-shoots, showing relatively limited range but decent recycle times – and some definite improvement over the AA-powered SX110 in this area.
The usual caveats apply: the PowerShot has a tendency to clip highlights if you're too close to your subject, and to underexpose slightly most of the rest of the time. To the positive, though, there's a slow synchro mode for bringing more ambient light into your flash exposures (a great option for many fill flash situations), and the SX200's face-detection linked flash exposure system provides a marked reduction in harshness when shooting portraits.
Of course, with +/-2 EV of manual flash exposure compensation available via the sidebar menu, you can also take control yourself as you see fit. During some casual indoor shooting with the SX200, it did strike me that Canon might have really upped this model's appeal among serious shooters with the addition of a hot shoe, but whether such an add-on would sway a significant number of buyers toward the SX series is certainly an open question.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Like most digital cameras – even in this day and age – auto white balance guesses better or worse depending on your lighting environment. As seen above, pure incandescent light remains the primary trouble spot, though we've seen overall AWB performance improve by degrees in pretty much every other shooting situation, from fluorescent light to late evening sun.
Finally, the SX200 sports a full-resolution sensitivity range of ISO 80-1600. As noted previously, we've found Canon's latest 12.1 megapixel sensor to be an acceptable, though certainly not great, performer where noise and detail loss are concerned in previous reviews, and we were expecting a performance of the same caliber this time around.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
As we've seen in other cameras with this sensor/processor combo, noise reduction begins to impart some "frayed edges" at settings as low as ISO 200. While there's arguably less noise here than in any 10-plus megapixel Canon point-and-shoot to date, somewhat aggressive NR creates images that are also quite soft by ISO 1600. All in all, the SX200 is – like most small-sensor cameras these days – serviceable for everything up to small prints at its top sensitivity settings, but texture definition and fine detail are hard to pick out beyond ISO 400.
Additional Sample Images
On the one hand, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS is both seemingly everything our editorial staff looks for in a camera, and everything we've come to expect from Canon. It's a solid, better-than-average performer in most respects, with great zoom range, wide-ranging control options to please everyone from novices to enthusiasts, a lucid interface, 720p video capture, and decent construction.
Even with all of this, though, the SX200 comes off as just a little – dare we say it? – boring. Sure, it's a reasonably solid camera that will give you little of substance to complain about (especially if you're just looking for snapshots). But in spite of several upgrades over the SX110, the sum of these parts doesn't always seem to add a lot to the overall experience. On the one hand, several key improvements – from HD video shooting to a wide-angle lens to a li-ion battery – have (finally!) given Canon an SX-series contender that's capable of challenging Panasonic on turf long dominated by its Lumix TZ/ZS models.
But while the SX200 certainly checks all of the boxes, only a full appraisal of some very strong competition from the likes of not only Panasonic, but also Olympus, Nikon, Kodak, and Samsung, will tell if the SX200 is able to eke out a leading position in this competitive field.
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS Specifications
|Sensor||12.1 megapixel (effective), 1/2.3" CCD|
|Zoom||12x (28-336mm) zoom, f/3.4-5.3
|LCD/Viewfinder||3.0", 230K-pixel TFT LCD|
|Sensitivity||ISO 80-1600 (3200 at reduce resolution)
|Shutter Speed||15-1/3200 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Smart Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Scene, Movie
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, Color Swap, Color Accent, Panorama Stitch
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom|
|Metering Modes||Multi, Center, Spot, Face Detection
|Focus Modes||Multi-area, Face Detection, Single Point
|Drive Modes||Normal, Continuous, Self-Timer
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Custom, Off
|Memory Formats||SD, SDHC
|File Formats||JPEG, MOV
|Max. Image Size||4000x3000
|Max. Video Size
||1280x720, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||No
|Connections||USB, HDMI, AV output|
|Additional Features||Face Detection, Smart Auto, optical image stabilization, DIGIC 4 processor, manual exposure modes|