Canon PowerShot SD980 IS Review
by Allison Johnson -  9/25/2009

Canon's first foray into touch screen territory comes in the form of the PowerShot SD980 IS. It falls into line style-wise with the current generation of Digital ELPH cameras and it won't look out of place sitting side-by-side with your iPod and your touch screen smartphone - it's curvy, boldly colored, and relatively slim for a camera housing a 5x optical zoom lens.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Like the Panasonic Lumix FX580, the SD980 keeps all of the physical buttons and offers the touch screen as a kind of supplement in terms of camera operation. The result is more of a hybrid than a total touch screen makeover. There are three major areas where the touch screen will come into play: image review, touch-selected auto focus lock, and shooting mode selection.

It's a new interface for the PowerShot lineup, but there are plenty of familiar features here as well. The DIGIC 4 processor, optical image stabilizer, and 12.1 megapixel 1/2.3 inch CCD are carried over from previous Digital ELPHs. Slow, steady enhancements to an existing, capable platform have been the trend for Canon in recent years. Does the SD980 follow the trend, or is it just another pretty interface?

The PowerShot SD980 IS is immediately identifiable as a Canon compact by virtue of its shape, build, and color alone. There are a couple of style updates, though, to keep the face of the Digital ELPH fresh. The buttons on the back panel are curved slightly, and the buttons on top of the camera are lined up along a dark bowtie-shaped band.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

The wide aspect 3.0 inch display is another updated touch, and it's roomy enough to facilitate sliding your finger across the screen to flip through captured images. The whole package is a little heavier than it looks, but then again, it doesn't look very heavy at all. I didn't think twice about it carrying it in my bag for the past few weeks.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Ergonomics and Controls
The SD980 control layout is simple and familiar. Two buttons on the back panel offer shortcuts to photo review and the main shooting/camera menu. A control dial, with a rotating ring around it (big fan of that ring), provides quick access to self-timer, flash, focus mode, and display options. The function button at the center pulls up a quick menu of shooting options including image size, compression, white balance, and ISO setting.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Up on top is the shutter release encircled by the zoom lever, the on/off button, and a shooting mode switch. Around to the bottom you'll find the battery and memory card compartment. On the side, a very neatly angled wrist strap hook adds another touch of visual interest. It's flanked on either side by the HDMI and A/V out ports.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Overall, it's a comfortable layout, though it's not the ideal build for one-handed shooting. Two very small, raised lines to the left of the playback button offer a little bit of traction for a right-handed grip, but this positions the thumb right on top of the control dial. It's not hard to find yourself accidentally resetting the focus mode while trying to grab a shot with one hand. I didn't have any trouble using the camera with two hands and found it generally easy to handle.

I would also recommend use of the wrist strap. The curved edges can cause it to slip on occasion.

Menus and Modes
The PowerShot SD980 offers three basic shooting modes. They're all accessed via the sliding, wedge-shaped mode switch on top of the camera:

Other scene modes include the usual suspects like portrait and night snapshot. Canon also brings back the fun color swap and color accent modes.

The main camera menus don't use the touch interface, and it's a good thing too. The menu options would need to be much larger, which would add length, and nobody likes that. As they are, the menus are standard fare from Canon - concise and fairly intuitive. The only shooting menu to employ touch screen interaction is shooting mode selection, where the user will select from several screens of large, pictorial icons. In program mode, the main shooting screen displays touch options along the right side for flash and exposure compensation.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

The PowerShot SD980 also employs something Canon calls Active Display, allowing the user to advance images in playback mode by flicking the wrist. This feature took a little practice to master, and you'll definitely want a firm grip on the camera if you use this functionality.

The PowerShot SD980 uses a wide aspect 3.0 inch LCD as the only means of shot composition. Other recent Digital ELPH models have offered a very small viewfinder, but the SD980 isn't one of them. Once I'd spent a few minutes using the touch screen, I rarely had trouble using it. I found that it required a firm touch when using it to flip through photos in image playback, as if I was actually pressing and sliding a card across a flat surface. Once I had the hang of it, the touch screen rarely let me down. Users can access a calibration tool in the main camera menu.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Yes, the LCD can be overwhelmed in bright sunlight, but I think that an optical viewfinder would have felt a little out of place here. The set interested in touch screen interface are not likely to miss it. As a 230k dot resolution monitor, the LCD on board the SD980 is sufficiently sharp, bright, and accurate.

Even with that glorious wide-aspect touch screen at your fingertips, the PowerShot SD980 IS handles about like any other digital compact Canon has released in the past year. The dedicated buttons make the touch screen optional, so operating the SD980 with or without touch is pretty seamless.

When I did take advantage of the touch options while shooting, I generally liked using it. After that little "getting to know you" period, I found the touch screen responsive and best of all, easy to forget that you're using. With or without the touch screen, the SD980 is another dependable compact from a manufacturer we've come to rely on for dependable compact cameras.

Shooting Performance
For its size and price tag, the PowerShot SD980 performs well. Our lab tests show it coming in better or nearly as fast as the competition in shutter lag and auto focus acquisition speeds. Continuous shooting was really lackluster, but this may not be a major concern for potential SD980 owners.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.01
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS 0.01
Nikon Coolpix S640 0.04
Samsung TL225 0.04

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix S640 0.29
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS 0.32
Samsung TL225 0.41
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.42

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 3 2.6 fps
Nikon Coolpix S640 2 2.2 fps
Samsung TL225 7 1.0 fps
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS 0.7 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.

Equally as important as lab results is the way the SD980 handled in the field. I can say that it was just as fast as I needed it to be, with about a second start-up time and less than two seconds from shot-to-shot. Flash performance was as good as I expected. After a full discharge, recycle times stretched as long as six seconds. Firing off shots while using it for fill, the flash recycled in under three seconds. Battery life was also satisfactory. Rated for a CIPA compliant 240 shots, I averaged about the same on a fully charged Li-ion battery.

Auto focus options in program mode include a face priority Face AiAF setting or fixed frame. The closest distance that the SD980 will pick up focus in normal AF mode is about a foot and a half. Macro mode will focus on an object as close as two inches away.

Touch screen interface comes into play when selecting a focus target. Users can rely on the traditional AF system to select a focus point, or they can override it by selecting one on screen. Once a focus target had been selected, the camera was usually pretty reliable in holding on to that point if it moved around in the frame. Overall, the auto focus system performed best in bright light. It struggled notably in dim conditions, though not any more than other cameras of similar size and ability. The auto focus assist lamp helps reduce problems of finding focus in darker conditions, but doesn't eliminate them.

Activating AF-Point Zoom (available in the main shooting menu) allows the user to view a magnified thumbnail of a selected focus point. Touch the screen where you'd like the camera to focus, press the shutter button halfway, and voila, a magnified thumbnail appears on the screen. A nice option for those looking for a little more assurance that their target is in focus.

Lens Performance
The SD980 features a 5x optical zoom, starting at an equivalent 24mm for a nice wide angle and extending to 120mm. It's a reasonably fast lens, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle. Maximum aperture at telephoto is f/5.9. Zoom operation is a little bit noisy, which is perhaps one of the reasons why optical zoom isn't available in video recording mode.

Barrel distortion cropped up more often than pin cushioning. The vertical lines of the window in the wide angle image below bow outward slightly. In the telephoto image, there's not as much evidence of distortion.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
Wide angle

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Images were slightly soft at the edges of the frame, but sharply focused at center. Chromatic aberration was well-controlled, though it still cropped up in high-contrast areas. At 100%, a purple line is visible along the outline of the white frosting in the image below. Generally speaking though, the lens performs as well as most others in this weight class.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Video Quality
Video at the highest quality setting, 720p at 30 fps, is about average. It won't rival the quality of a dedicated camcorder, but high def video capture feels right at home next to that trendy new touch screen. Video resolution can be turned down to 640x480 or 320x240, both at 30 fps. Color swap and color accent modes are also available in movie recording.

Image Quality
The get-up-and-go PowerShot SD980 takes some very nice images right out of the box. Colors are bright, in the traditional vein of Canon's consumer digitals, and somewhat saturated. The neutral setting, one of the options available under the "My Colors" submenu, will bring saturation down a notch. Adjustments can also be made to color, saturation, and sharpness and saved as a custom setting under the "my colors" submenu.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

Default metering settings generally produced a nice exposure, though I found the SD980 tending to overexpose and lose some highlights in situations with mixed lighting. As predicted, the SD980 shot pretty warm under incandescent studio lights. Auto white balance turned in the best results under natural outdoor lighting.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

It should also be noted that though the SD980 boasts 16:9 wide-aspect image capture, you won't be able to utilize it at the camera's highest resolution. The wide images are roughly 9 megapixels.

Our studio images show noise beginning to appear starting at ISO 100, though it's very faint in the cropped image. ISO 400 displays more distortion, though the thumbnail image still looks fairly good.

Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

It seems that noise suppression really kicks in at ISO 800. By ISO 1600, details are quite smudged. The thumbnail image at 800 and 1600 could be used, but a full-size image at ISO 1600 will certainly display some smoothed-over noise.

Additional Sample Images
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS
Canon PowerShot SD980 IS Canon PowerShot SD980 IS

What the PowerShot SD980 IS does best is show off. Flipping through images with a swipe of the LCD or a flick of the wrist is sure to please a small crowd of friends and family. However, no camera is going to inspire any real "wow" factor if the images don't look as good as the interface. The SD980 delivers dependable image quality whether or not you choose to utilize the touch screen.

The PowerShot SD980 won't compete with Canon's more advanced compacts, but it's as good a performer as the popular SD1200. It hits a sweet spot between chic design and reliable performance. In the expanding world of touch screen cameras, the SD980 is as good as any we've seen thus far. It doesn't offer the level of control that Panasonic's Lumix FX580 does, but manual control is probably not what you're after if you're shopping for a touch LCD. If it's reliable image quality with limited user input that you want, then the PowerShot SD980 is an excellent option.