Over the past ten years I've tested many Canon digital cameras and one of the most interesting things about all those Canon cameras was not their differences, but rather their similarities. Canon is the most modular of the major camera makers and their product development folks have a broad catalog of proven components to draw from when creating new models. The new PowerShot A490 - Canon's cheapest digicam - is a very good example of just how well this modular design philosophy works.
Many of the digital cameras I test are higher-end units, but not everyone wants or needs to spend lots of money on a digital camera. In these financially challenging times most consumers want the maximum bang for their buck. The A490 can be had for around $100. A C-note doesn't buy a lot of luxury, so the A490's specifications are pretty basic. The A490 (which replaces the A480) is a bit chunky, but still easily pocketable and features a 1/ 2.3-inch CCD sensor, a 3.3x zoom (37mm-122mm equivalent) zoom, 10 megapixel resolution, a 2.5-inch (115k-dot resolution) LCD screen, and the same AiAF 9 point Auto Focus system with face/motion detection technology found in more expensive Canon digicams.
Stylewise, the A490 is all about practicality and usability - this chunky, utilitarian, and somewhat homely little digicam is unlikely to turn any heads or start any trends. More important is the fact that the A490's images are comparable to the images generated by more expensive Canon digicams.
Like all of Canon's point-and-shoots, the A490's color interpolation produces bright, slightly over-saturated colors and somewhat flat native contrast that long-time shooters refer to as Canon Color. Reds are a noticeably warmer, blues are a bit brighter, and greens and yellows are a bit more vibrant than real world hues - but that's not a bad thing in a camera designed for the masses.
There really is no free lunch, so what do consumers have to give up when they buy the A490? The A490 doesn't provide Image Stabilization, the LCD screen lacks Canon's standard anti-glare coating, and this camera won't do HD video - the A490's video mode is limited to VGA resolution.
The A490 is inexpensive, but based on my experiences so far, it is a competent and dependable picture maker. After a few days of carrying the A490 with me pretty much all the time and pretty much everywhere Ive been, I'm impressed. Stick around for our upcoming full review.