DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review
by J. Keenan -  4/27/2009

While Canon may have taken their time getting a 20x ultrazoom into service with the SX10 IS, they haven't waited all that long in producing a follow up model to share the spotlight in this market niche: the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS. Folks will have to look carefully because the cameras are virtual twins: the bodies appear identical but the SX1 IS picks up an extra sensor on the front for a wireless controller and has a slightly larger 2.8 inch LCD monitor. The SX1 IS body is minimally larger and weighs about 0.8 ounces more. But while the body similarities may suggest that the SX1 IS is the most tepid of follow-ups, there are some serious hardware and performance differences under the skin.

Canon Powershot SX1


The SX1 IS sports a CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) sensor in place of the usual CCD (charge-coupled device) found in virtually all compact digitals. CMOS technology is generally credited with high noise immunity and low static power consumption, and the SX1 IS marks Canon's first venture into the compact market with such a sensor. But wait – there's more: the SX1 IS can record full HD video. Finally, the camera has RAW capability.

All of this is accompanied by a $600 MSRP, fully $200 over its less well-endowed sibling. If some of you are thinking the price sounds like entry-level DSLR territory you're correct – Canon's Rebel XS kit carries the same sticker and Nikon's D40 kit is a full $100 less. Of course, neither of those units offers a lens ranging from 28 to 560mm, so let's see what "evolved technology" SX1 IS brings to the table.


FEATURES OVERVIEW
Because of the many similarities between the SX1 IS and the SX10 IS, I have taken the liberty to use commentary originally made in the SX10 IS review where equally applicable to the SX1 IS.

First things first – the optically stabilized 20X zoom lens on the SX1 IS covers a 35mm film equivalent focal range from 28 to 560mm; here's what that range looks like in the real world.

Canon Powershot SX1
Wide-angle

Canon Powershot SX1
Telephoto

The camera features a 2.8 inch variable angle LCD monitor in addition to a viewfinder, with a 10MP sensor and Canon's latest generation Digic 4 image processor with "evolved" face detection technology, servo AF, face detection self-timer and intelligent contrast correction. As you might have surmised, intelligent contrast correction is Canon's way to expand the camera's perceived dynamic range, and it can be enabled as a camera setting as well as be applied in-camera for post processing of captured images. Here is an original image and the post processed version using "high" intelligent contrast.

Canon Powershot SX1
Origianl

Canon Powershot SX1
With intelligent contrast

The camera has a nominal ISO range from 80 to 1600 at full resolution, with 3200 ISO available at 3 megapixel reduced resolution (1600 x 1200 pixels). There is a hot shoe for mounting an external flash, and the SX1 IS can make use of SD and MMC memory media. Canon includes four AA alkaline batteries, a neck strap, lens hood and cap, stereo video and USB cables, a wireless controller and CD-ROM software with each camera.

There are thirteen primary shooting modes which Canon divides into "image zone" and "creative zone" categories. Selecting image zone modes causes the camera to "automatically adjust settings for optimal shooting" and includes the following:

The SX1 IS can record movies at either 640x480 or 320x240 pixel resolution at 30 fps in the 4:3 image aspect ratio, but the big news is by switching to the 16:9 aspect ratio the camera allows for capture of HD 1920x1080 movies at 30 fps. File size for movies is either 4GB or 1 hour, whichever comes first. As a practical matter when shooting HD, your 4 GB file will be filled in a little over 12 minutes, so the 1 hour limitation is really not in play. Canon recommends Class 6 or faster memory media for HD movies, Class 4 for the low res flicks.

Creative zone options are manual controls and include:

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
As is the norm in the digital ultrazoom class, the SX1 IS looks and feels like a downsized DSLR, measuring out at 5.02x3.48x3.45 inches and weighing about 24.8 ounces in shooting configuration (batteries, memory card and lens hood installed).

Canon Powershot SX1

Styling and Build Quality
The composite materials used for the camera body seem on a par for the class and the overall impression of build quality is good.

Ergonomics and Interface
The SX1 IS features a deeply sculptured handgrip style body and contoured back that is small enough so the little finger of my right hand has no place to go but curl under the body, resulting in a firm and solid one handed grip. The index finger falls quite naturally to the shutter button in both one and two handed shooting.

Canon Powershot SX1

There is rubberized material at the front of the handgrip portion of the body, but it's as smooth as the plastics that make up the rest of camera exterior and really contributes little to improving the grip. The same holds true for a patch of nubs molded in the plastic on the camera back in the thumb rest area – I'd prefer a really tacky material in these two locations, but the camera has an overall good feel in the hand(s).

Canon Powershot SX1

External buttons and controls allow access to most shooting modes as well as many other settings that the user might want to change on the run, such as white balance, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation and continuous shooting modes. The portion of the camera back not taken up by the monitor is awash with buttons, but Canon has laid them out so as to minimize conflict with the thumb when shooting.

Display/Viewfinder
The SX1 IS 2.8 inch LCD monitor has approximately 230,000 pixel composition and offers 100% coverage. It is articulated and can rotate through 270 degrees in addition to swinging out from the camera body.

Canon Powershot SX1

There are two settings of brightness, neither of which can completely overcome the glare of direct sunlight on a bright day – the monitor can be difficult to use for image composition or review under these conditions.

There is also a viewfinder with diopter adjustment for individual user eyesight. The camera user guide doesn't specify, but the viewfinder appears to offer nearly 100% coverage as well.


PERFORMANCE
The SX1 IS produced generally good results and is a pleasant camera to use. The ability to jump into movie mode with a one button push is a handy feature for folks who shoot video.

A word about the SX1 IS CMOS sensor and video capture – CMOS sensors can demonstrate rolling shutter effect during video capture, which essentially causes vertical objects in the image to take on a distorted tilt as the camera is panned across the field of view, such as following a moving subject in front of a stationary background.

The SX1 IS did produce the effect when panning across a row of palm trees at an extremely fast rate, certainly much faster than would ordinarily be employed. Panning to follow a fast moving object might be expected to produce some relatively slight distortion in vertical objects in the back or foreground, but for typical panning speeds such as those employed to capture wide vistas or follow average rate subject activity, image quality appeared to be unaffected.

Timings and Shutter Lag
The SX1 IS powers up quickly and is ready to acquire focus in about 1.2 seconds. I was able to power up, acquire focus at wide angle and capture an image in 2 seconds. Shutter lag comes in at .02 seconds, about as good as it gets in the compact digital class, and we also recorded a .51 second press to capture time with no pre-focus.

Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, reacquire focus and shoot) ran about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III/20MB/sec card.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
0.02
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 0.02
Olympus SP-565 UZ 0.03
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS 0.04
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 0.08

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS
0.31
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
0.51
Casio Exilim EX-FH20
0.59
Olympus SP-565 UZ 0.62
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 1.25*

* 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.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames* Framerate*
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 40 30 fps
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
4.1 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 3
3.5 fps
Fujifilm FinePix S100FS 3
1.3 fps
Olympus SP-565 UZ 4
1.2 fps

* 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.

Continuous shooting rates are approximately 4 fps, but focus is fixed at the first shot of the series and moving subjects can cause focus problems. There is a continuous shooting mode with AF that offers about 1 fps with focus established before each shot. The problem with either mode is a brief blackout after the first shot, and subsequent shots are delayed a bit before being displayed on the continuous AF option, so panning with moving subjects and continuous AF can be difficult, particularly if you're filling the frame with the subject.

The increased frame rate (4 fps) of the SX1 IS continuous shooting mode makes following a moving subject an easier exercise than with the SX10 IS at about 1.5 fps – the subject simply can't move as far between shots and the shots are displayed rather quickly after the initial blackout period.

Shooting in either continuous mode, the SX1 IS blazed happily along to 20 shots (JPEG) without slowing before I threw in the towel and lifted off the shutter button.

From any shooting mode you can begin capturing movies by simply pressing the movie button on the camera back to start recording. A second push stops recording.

Lens and Zoom
Published specs for the SX1 IS lens are identical to those of the SX10 IS, and there's no reason to think Canon isn't using the same glass in this very similar camera. Heck, they used the same photos to illustrate the lens performance for both the SX10 IS and the SX1 IS on the Canon USA website. The lens is nicely fast (f/2.8) at the wide angle end but a bit slow (f/5.7) at telephoto. Minimum aperture is f/8.

The lens can focus as close as 3.9 inches in macro and 0 to 3.9 inches in super macro mode; 1.6 feet in normal operation. It takes about 1.5 seconds to zoom from full wide angle to full telephoto.

Auto Focus
The SX1 IS offers face detect, center and flexizone AF frame mode options. Face detect and center are pretty much self-explanatory, while flexizone allows the user to move the AF frame to the desired area of the screen. There is also a face select and track feature which allows the user to designate a face which the AF frame will then follow "within a certain range".

AF acquisition times in good conditions ran about .5 seconds. These times lengthened somewhat at the telephoto end of the lens range (which is not uncommon), but the camera is a good performer overall in this area.

I used the center AF option almost exclusively. There is an AF assist beam that doubles as a red eye reduction and self-timer lamp.

Flash
Canon lists a flash range of up to 15.7 feet at wide angle and about 8.5 feet at telephoto when using "ISO auto". There are auto, auto w/ red-eye reduction, flash on, flash on w/ red-eye reduction, flash off; flash exposure (FE) lock, safety FE and slow synchro options available, depending on your shooting mode. The "auto ISO" requirement is the fly in the ointment with the built in flash – if you set ISO in the 80 to 200 sensitivity range that offers the best noise performance, the flash is taxed to make these distances. In this regard, the SX1 IS would be a good candidate for an external flash for serious flash users.

Canon Powershot SX1

Canon Powershot SX1

Canon Powershot SX1 Canon Powershot SX1

Canon lists a flash recycle time as "7 seconds or less", a marked improvement over the "12 seconds or less" listed for the SX10 IS (based on a battery voltage of 6 volts). But just before the "low battery" warning began flashing the SX1 IS took over 17 seconds to recycle after a full discharge. Fresh alkalines produced the published 7 second times for recycles after a full discharge. Partial discharges with fresh batteries produced 3 to 4 second recycle times, with the camera typically being able to be fired with flash again as soon as writing was finished.

With the flash enabled, the SX1 IS can't take another shot until the flash has recharged.

Image Stabilization
The SX1 IS features a lens shift (optical) type of stabilization. The feature may be disabled or set for continuous, shoot only or panning stabilization. Panning only stabilizes the effects of up and down movement, and there is no stabilization if the camera is shot in the vertical format. Canon recommends disabling stabilization when shooting still images from a tripod and using continuous stabilization for movies from a tripod.

Battery Life
Canon lists a 160 shot capability for alkaline batteries with the monitor on, and about 420 for NiMH rechargeable batteries; the alkalines I used seemed to approach the figure, but I used relatively little flash which might have been partially responsible for the performance. Compared to the SX10 IS, the SX1 IS seems to eat batteries, particularly in movie mode with the monitor being used for composition, so unless your last name is Duracell or Energizer, rechargeables are the way to go with this camera.


IMAGE QUALITY
All the Canon compacts I've reviewed in the past have had generally good image quality, and the SX1 IS follows suit, up to a point. We'll get to that in the exposure section.

Default images out of the SX1 IS were generally color accurate and pleasing to the eye. With the SX10 IS, the camera seemed quick to ramp up the ISO in the various auto shooting modes, but the SX1 IS seems to take a bit more measured approach in some cases. Shooting the SX10, I was more apt to set manual controls and ISO to keep the camera from boosting sensitivity into the noisier ranges, but with the SX1 I was a bit more trusting of using the "auto" shooting mode and just letting fly. Still, if you want maximum image quality, setting an ISO in the 80 – 200 sensitivity range is a good start. The caveat to this is that with the long end of the lens out there at 560mm, any camera shake is critical and the ability of the stabilization system to overcome shake and the lower shutter speeds inherent with the higher quality ISO sensitivities may be taxed.

Canon Powershot SX1

Canon Powershot SX1

Canon Powershot SX1

Exposure, Processing and Color
The SX1 IS offers evaluative, center-weighted and spot exposure metering methods, with evaluative being the default. There was no problem with normally lit subjects, but the SX1 IS had a tough time dealing with the high contrast shots of dark water and breaking waves. The camera pretty consistently blew out highlights on the sunny days, and while it did somewhat better with overcast, darker conditions, it still produced what seemed to be an unusually high number of images with a fair amount of lost highlight detail.

The stark contrast of dark water and white water is a difficult exposure problem to be sure, and my past experience with Canon compacts has been that there would typically be some lost highlights on occasion (which is true of virtually any camera), but otherwise did a credible job with my surf shots. The SX1 performance wasn't as good in this regard as I've come to expect from this brand, and in fact I got better results shooting center-weighted and spot meter options on the surf shots. Here are shots using the evaluative, center-weighted and spot metering options.

Canon Powershot SX1
Evaluative

Canon Powershot SX1
Evaluative

Canon Powershot SX1
Center-weighted

Canon Powershot SX1
Spot

That's not to say that the evaluative method didn't produce some nice shots with contrasty subjects. In the shots above, the evaluative shot of the surfer with the red board has nicely balanced exposure, but the shot with the two guys suiting up has clearly lost some detail in the white water, and this is one of the "better" bad shots. The camera also didn't discriminate against one shooting mode versus another – I had problems with lost highlights in auto, manual and the sport shooting mode using evaluative metering on the surf shots.

Exposure compensation is available with some shooting modes to deal with the highlights issue, but I found it easier to switch to center-weighted or spot for the surf work. For subjects with a more normal or even light /dark distribution across the image, evaluative did a fine job. I'm not sure why this camera turned in probably the worst blown highlight performance of any Canon I've reviewed, but perhaps our test unit was a bit out of tune.

The SX1 IS can shoot in RAW, and Canon's software packaged with the camera allows you to save the RAW file as a TIFF or a JPEG. File sizes for the TIFFs run over 28 MB while JPEGS can be over 7 MB. Whether you choose to shoot RAW or not, the fact that the SX1 IS has the capability is nothing but a positive in my book.

While default color with the SX1 IS proved accurate, there are "My Colors" menu options to offer the user alternatives – vivid, neutral, positive film, lighter and darker skin tone, B&W, sepia, vivid red, vivid, blue, vivid green and custom color. Here are examples of the default, vivid and neutral options.

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Default

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Vivid

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Neutral

White Balance
Auto WB proved accurate across a range of lighting conditions, but was very warm under incandescent (tungsten) lighting. The camera offers daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H and flash preset WB options, as well as a user-defined custom setting.

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Lens Faults
While this lens is a bit slower than some competitors at the telephoto end of the zoom, there's not too much to gripe about otherwise. Some barrel distortion exists at the wide end (straight lines bow out from center of image), but the telephoto end looks largely free of pin cushioning (straight lines bend in toward center of image). The edges and corners of images are a bit soft, but again not appreciably so. There is some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) present in extreme high contrast boundary areas, but this is a minor concern until image size becomes truly gargantuan.

Sensitivity and Noise
With The SX1 IS switching to a CMOS sensor of the same size as the CCD in the SX10 IS, I was curious to see what sort of noise performance was produced. And the answer is: about the same as the CCD in the SX10 IS, which is to say about the same as most compact digitals not carrying a Fuji Super CCD sensor.

Before I got a look at the studio ISO shots, I shot a range of ISOs on a subject here and looked at the result. Things looked pretty much like what we've come to expect – the first two sensitivities (80 and 100) were pretty close in quality and noise, with the third step (200) starting to show some impact and the rest progressing in the usual fashion.

The studio shots mirrored my experiment: 80 and 100 are good and hard to tell apart, 200 shows some slight noise starting to appear, a bit more at 400 and a fairly easy to spot increase at 800 and 1600.

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 1600

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

After looking at the shots from both the SX1 and SX10 side by side, DCR editor David Rasnake noted that while we observed minor differences in performance, there wasn't a "marked difference" between the two models in terms of noise or detail capture. "The SX1's high-ISO shots show ever so slightly less color noise in shadow areas at ISO 800 and 1600," he continued.

Finally, I put both the SX10 IS and SX1 IS studio shots side by side, and to my tired old eyes the shots look pretty much equal through ISO 400, with the SX1 IS shots looking a bit better at 800 and 1600, perhaps due to the contrast/chroma noise characteristics noted by David.

Additional Sample Images

Canon Powershot SX1 Canon Powershot SX1
Canon Powershot SX1 Canon Powershot SX1
Canon Powershot SX1 Canon Powershot SX1

CONCLUSIONS
When the SX1 IS was announced, three things set it apart from it its older brother, the SX10 IS: a CMOS sensor, true HD movie capability and a RAW shooting option. Well, four things if you count a significantly higher MSRP. Canon dubbed the SX1 IS a camera with "evolved technology", and it has upped the ante over the SX10 IS in a number of areas. It remains to be seen if HD movies and RAW are enough to coax folks into parting with DSLR level money for a SX1 IS when the rest of the package is available for a lot less in the SX10 IS. The SX 1 IS is good, but is it that good?

The cameras share much in common, such as basic image quality and general operating characteristics, but the SX1 IS wins most of the important battles, if only incrementally, when we start talking about bottom line performance: a bit better shutter lag, faster continuous shooting rates both with and without AF, faster single shot-to-shot times, and faster flash recycle times with a slightly shorter range. Then there's the HD movie capability the SX10 IS (and most other competitors) lack and the RAW shooting option.


Even the CMOS sensor redeems itself after what appeared to be a tie with the CCD-sensored SX10 IS by demonstrating just a bit better looking images at the 800 and 1600 ISO sensitivity levels. The SX10 IS gets more mileage out of its batteries and didn't have the highlight blowing propensity the SX1 IS showed with some high contrast scenes, but the exposure issue is so out of character based on all the other Canon products I've reviewed that I wouldn't be surprised to learn our test camera wasn't quite up to spec.

Pros

Cons