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Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Review
by Jim Keenan -  9/8/2009

Not quite a year after announcing the Powershot SX10 IS ultrazoom, Canon is back with a successor, the PowerShot SX20 IS. The new camera gets a higher 12.1 megapixel resolution on the same physical-sized sensor, a 720p HD video capability and an HDMI connection to facilitate playback of images on an HDTV.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS


Folks familiar with the SX10 IS will note the new camera appears to be virtually identical to the old (the main external difference seems to be the enlargement of the digital cover on the camera's right side to include the HDMI port), and the similarity is more than skin deep. The 20x zoom lens ranging from 28 to 560mm (35mm equivalent) has been retained, along with the 2.5 inch articulating monitor and full auto and manual shooting modes. Here's a look at that lens range:

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Wide Angle

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Telephoto

The SX20 carries a Digic IV processor (as does the SX10), but the mention of "improved smart auto" in Canon's ad copy suggests the later model processor may give the camera some additional capability. While the SX20 IS has been described by Canon as the successor to the SX10 IS, that camera remains on the Canon website at present.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

The SX20 IS accepts SD/SDHC, MultiMediaCards, MMC plus and HC MMC plus memory media. Canon includes 4 AA alkaline batteries, a neck strap, lens hood, lens cap, USB and AV cables and CD-ROM software with each camera.
What they don't include is the comprehensive user's manual - you get the basic "getting started" portion of the full manual (the first 40 pages out of 180), but you'll have to download and print the complete guide on your own.

Those missing pages cover everything from a detailed explanation of camera controls and settings to manual shooting modes to the playback/retouch menus to... well, to basically all the stuff that anyone who plans on moving the mode dial (page 42 of the full manual) off of "auto" may want to know at one time or another.

OK, Canon's gotten off on the wrong foot by going the easy route (for them) on the in-box user's manual - let's see if SX20 IS performance can save the day.


BUILD AND DESIGN
Following the typical formula for the class, the SX20 IS looks and feels like a downsized DSLR, measuring out at 4.88x3.48x3.42 inches and weighing about 24 ounces in shooting configuration (batteries, memory card and lens hood installed). If these numbers look familiar, they happen to be the exact dimensions and weight of the SX10 IS.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

The body is composite and the materials and overall build quality appear to be on a par with the class competition. A bit of play in the lens (both wide angle and zoomed out to telephoto) that appeared in some competitors (but without degrading image quality) is missing from the SX20 IS - the camera has a solid feel.

Ergonomics and Controls
With identical dimensions, weight and control layout, you might suspect the SX20 IS handles much like the SX10 IS in this arena, and you'd be right. What I wrote about the SX10 is equally applicable to the SX20:

The SX20 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. 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).

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.

Menus and Modes
If you've been around Canon compacts before then the menu layout will be an old friend - and if you're new to Canon you'll find the menus are largely intuitive. The camera can display a brief explanation of menu items as you select them if the "hints & tips" feature is enabled in the setup menu. Once you have images captured and are in playback mode, playback and print menus allow for a good range of in-camera image modifications and printing images directly from the camera via a PictBridge compliant printer.

In the past Canon has divided shooting modes into "image zone" and "creative zone" categories, but those terms have been dropped from the SX20 IS vocabulary. Now the only mention is of "shooting modes," a welcome simplification.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

There are 13 primary shooting modes in the SX20 IS, exactly the same as the SX10 IS with the exception of the 720p HD video option of the newer camera:

The above modes are largely automatic and user inputs are typically limited to image size and quality settings, and single versus continuous shooting modes for still images.

Display/Viewfinder
The 2.5 inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 dot composition, adjustable for 5 levels of brightness and can swing through 180 degrees of motion from the camera back while rotating through 270 degrees along its long axis. With many competitors going to 2.7 inch and larger monitors Canon is probably going to have to play catch-up before too much longer, but I found this monitor to be a bit more usable than most smaller monitors in bright outdoor light. Monitor coverage is 100%.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

The 0.44 inch electronic viewfinder has 235,000 dot composition, and is also adjustable for five levels of brightness. The viewfinder is equipped with a diopter to compensate for eyesight acuity, and coverage is 100%.

PERFORMANCE
If I were limited to carrying only a compact digital camera, I'd pick an ultrazoom every time. You aren't going to drop one in a shirt pocket, but being able to call up a lens focal range from wide angle to serious telephoto out of a single relatively small and light unit is just too much versatility to ignore.

Shooting Performance
The SX20 IS displayed a focus icon about 1.5 seconds after power up, and I could get off a first shot in about 2.5 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus and shoot) times were about 2.5 seconds with a SanDisk ExtremeIII 20MB/s card.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 0.02
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.02
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.03
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.03

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 0.40
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.56
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.57
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 0.59

Continuous Shooting

Camera Framerate*
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 30 fps?
Nikon Coolpix P90 1.4 fps
Olympus SP-590 UZ 1.2 fps
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 1.1 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.

AF acquisition times were very good at wide angle and predictably slowed at telephoto, but the SX20 IS press-to-capture time of 0.40 seconds is one of the better results we've seen in a compact digital. Shutter lag leaves nothing to be desired (for a compact) at 0.02 seconds.

Continuous shooting rates at full resolution worked out to 1.1 fps and I quit counting when the SX20 IS reached 20 shots with no sign of slowing. While the camera wants to shoot all day in the continuous mode, there's a blackout of the screen for the first couple of shots in any sequence and once shots begin to display they lag one shot behind - trying to pan on a moving subject can become an exercise in guessing where to point the camera next, especially if you're filling the frame with the subject.

The flash range on the SX20 IS has increased over the SX10 IS (22 ft at wide angle - 12 at telephoto versus 17 ft and 9.2 ft, respectively) and recycle time is "7 seconds or less" versus "12 seconds or less" for the older camera. Canon's figures are based on auto ISO, but shooting in programmed auto at 80 ISO and normally lit conditions, the flash was ready to go again in 4.5 seconds at wide angle and 6.3 seconds at telephoto. I set up a worst case scenario and shot aperture priority at f/8, full telephoto and outside on a moonless night to encourage a full discharge - recycle time was a bit over 11 seconds. While the flash is recharging you'll get a flashing lightning bolt on the screen if you half push to try and focus for another shot (the camera will not allow you to shoot with the flash enabled and recharging), but as soon as the recharge is complete you'll get the focus icon if you're still holding the half push. Here's the flash serving as primary illumination for Simon and as fill for Bandit.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

Canon rates battery life (CIPA standard) at 340 shots for alkalines and approximately 600 for NiMH, making the choice of power supply a simple decision.

Lens Performance
Canon's 20x zoom lens has a maximum aperture ranging from f/2.8 at wide angle to f/5.7 at telephoto - the wide end is as fast as the competition but the SX20 IS lags in aperture on the long end, where the other brands max out at f/4.5 or faster. That might be the low point for this lens - with identical ISO sensitivities the SX20 IS wide open can't match the faster shutter speeds the competition can generate at full telephoto. Faster is better for stopping action and helping keep images free from camera shake.

There is some barrel distortion present at wide angle along with some softness in the corners and a bit less on the edges of the frame - telephoto looks to be pretty clear of pincushion distortion and has less softness in the corners and edges. There can be chromic aberration (purple fringing) in some high contrast boundary areas, but enlargements in the 200 to 300% range are typically needed to call attention to this defect - the SX20 IS seems to handle this problem quite well.

The lens can focus from 0 to 3.9 inches in super macro mode, and 3.9 inches to 1.6 feet in macro mode (both at wide angle). Perhaps more interesting is the close focus distance at telephoto - 3.3 feet. That much lens that close can give you shots with an almost macro look to them, such as the cactus flowers that follow. I don't know about you, but macro and bees aren't in my vocabulary, so I was more than content to stand off a bit and shoot the flowers at 560mm. The original shots were then cropped to 12x8 inches, producing 287dpi and 248dpi files respectively that will still print nicely.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Original
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Cropped
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Original
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Cropped

The SX20 IS features "optical" image stabilization which has traditionally meant the movement of lens elements as a means to combat camera shake. Canon's press release also mentions the inclusion of "Motion Detection Technology" which on other Canon compacts has meant a function that included the automatic ramping up of ISO sensitivity. There's no mention of MDT in any of the user manuals (the short or long versions), but shooting options that allow you to establish the ISO (P or the manual modes) would ordinarily be the best way to try and avoid having the camera resort to MDT.

Video Quality
The SX20 IS had one of the better quality 720p HD videos I've come across in a compact, and the zoom function of the lens is available. The ability of the camera to switch to video from whatever shooting mode you're in by merely pushing the movie button is a nice feature, and while recording you can always use the shutter button to take a still picture - the camera will take the shot and then continue video capture with the still image capture process incorporated as part of the video.

Image Quality
Default images from the SX20 IS were color accurate and pleasing as to sharpness. Canon's "my colors" palette is available for manual shooting modes and offers 10 color and monochrome shooting options in addition to the default setting of "off." Here are the off, vivid, neutral and positive film color options:

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Off

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Vivid

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Neutral

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Positive Film

If you're still not happy with the images out of the camera, the eleventh option of the my colors palette, "custom color," permits adjustment of contrast, sharpness, saturation, red, green, blue and skin tones over a range of 5 settings (default is #3 for each). Here's a shot at the default values and a second with the contrast, saturation and sharpness all set to maximum values.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Default

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Maximum sharpness, contrast and saturation

Canon's i-contrast feature may be enabled to expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera by bringing out additional detail in darker portions of images while preserving highlights in the lighter portions. It is also available in the playback menu for post processing of images. Here's a shot with and without i-c.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
i-contrast off

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
i-contrast auto

Auto white balance did a good job outdoors ranging from cloudy to bright, as well as with flash and fluorescent light sources, but shot quite warm with incandescent. There are daylight, cloudy, tungsten (incandescent), fluorescent white and fluorescent H, flash and custom white balance settings available.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

I stayed with the default evaluative metering method for all the shots in this review, but there are center-weighted and spot options available. Evaluative could lose some highlights on occasion in high contrast situations, but overall gave me no reason to switch to the other methods.

ISO noise performance is typical for the class and comparable with that of the major competitors - the 80 and 100 ISO crop shots look pretty indistinguishable from one another and 200 is very similar, with a bit of noise creeping in.

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Noise is becoming more prominent at 400, with 800 and 1600 predictably showing increasing effects. All the shots look pretty good at the small full-frame sizes - again, typical.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

CONCLUSIONS
When Canon introduced the SX10 IS, its 20x zoom closed that gap on the competition at the time. Since then the ultrazoom lens envelope has been pushed out to 24 and 26x (and 624 and 676mm, respectively), while Canon's just introduced successor to the SX10 IS stands pat at 20x and 560mm. While the lens numbers may not have changed, the SX20 IS has elevated Canon's game over the SX10 IS in a number of ways. It's not a sweeping remake of the brand's CCD sensor flagship but rather incremental improvements to an already capable platform.

AF acquisition time is faster, shutter lag is shorter. Flash range is increased and recycle times are lower. Macro focus range is closer. ISO noise performance is almost too close to call versus the SX10 IS, but the SX20 IS has an additional 2 megapixels on the sensor, so that's a net gain (and performance compares favorably with the competition). The 720p HD video quality is one of the better ones I've come across in compact digitals, and you can zoom while shooting. The SX10 IS was/is a good camera - this one's better.


The lens is slower than the competition at full telephoto by about 2/3 of a stop and the 2.5 inch monitor looks a bit dated in a world of 2.7 inches and up, but its range of motion compensates for size a bit. This camera won't shoot as wide or as long as some of the competition, but it can hold its own in the image quality department and that makes it a viable contender in this crowded class. Now if they'd only put the whole manual in the box...

Pros:

Cons: