Canon PowerShot A490 Review
by Howard Creech -  8/19/2010

I've taken pictures with lots of Canon digital cameras and one of the most interesting things about all those cameras was not their differences, but their similarities. Canon is the most modular of all the major camera manufacturers and their product development folks have a broad catalog of proven components to draw from when creating new models.

Canon PowerShot A490

The new PowerShot A490, Canon's least expensive digicam, is a very good example of just how well this modular design philosophy works. The A490 is essentially an assemblage of proven market-tested, but slightly outdated components from earlier Canon models.

The metal-clad polycarbonate bodied A490 is actually a rather plain looking little digicam. Canon's bargain priced little A490 is like a 21st century version of the Kodak "Brownie" box camera popular during the early decades of the last century. The A490 is a boxy utilitarian digital camera that won't turn any heads or launch any trends - that's because the A490 is all about practicality and usability. The A490 is about the same size as a classic Altoids tin. Like the "Brownie" the A490 was designed to provide consumers with an inexpensive camera that has the ability to easily and dependably capture high quality images.

Canon PowerShot A490
The A490 (which replaces the A480) is a chunky, but still pocketable digicam which features 10 megapixel resolution, a 3.3x (37-122mm equivalent) optical zoom, a 2.5-inch LCD, the same AiAF 9-point auto focus system with advanced face detection technology found in more expensive Canon digicams, and the third generation DIGIC III processor rather than the newer DIGIC IV processor found on Canon's more expensive models.

Ergonomics and Controls
The auto-exposure only A490's user interface is uncomplicated with reasonably sized and (for the most part) clearly marked buttons. The control array is classic Canon - meaning everything will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a PowerShot camera. The Mode button makes it easy to select the appropriate shooting mode and the Compass Switch (four-way controller) and FUNC button provide direct access to the camera's most commonly changed/adjusted features including white balance, sensitivity, metering, flash settings, and macro mode.

Canon PowerShot A490

I had one complaint with the A480's controls - the exposure compensation function was part of the func menu, rather than having a dedicated position on the compass switch like most of its siblings. I wanted the exposure compensation function moved from the func menu back to a dedicated spot on the compass switch. Canon did that, making minor exposure adjustments (incrementally lightening or darkening images) much easier. Now I have a new complaint - the A490's shutter button is nearly flush with the camera body and constructed of identical material - meaning it is the same color and texture as the top of the camera - not at all easy to find by touch. I never did get used to the A490's shutter button and I actually missed my timing on a couple of shots because I had to look every time to make sure I had my finger on the shutter button.

Menus and Modes
The PowerShot A490's menu system is remarkably simple and very easy to navigate. Push the dedicated menu button (located under the compass switch) and the "Camera and Setup" sub-menus appear. The A490 utilizes the same basic auto exposure only image capture system as many of its siblings - here's a breakdown:

Interestingly, like its predecessor, the A490 doesn't provide either a Landscape or Action/Sports scene mode.

Like many current P&S digicams, the A490 eschews an optical viewfinder. The A490 relies on the same 2.5-inch 115,000 pixel TFT LCD that graced its predecessor for framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. The A490's LCD screen is relatively bright, hue accurate, fairly fluid, and automatically boosts gain in dim/low light. Images on the A490's LCD screen are a bit coarse, but it is sharp enough for most compositional and captured image review chores.

Canon PowerShot A490

The A490's display provides all the info the camera's target audience is likely to need and the user-enabled LCD grid-line display is a nice (and for me) very useful touch. LCD screens are subject to fade in the glare of bright outdoor light and the A490's screen seems (like its predecessor) to be especially susceptible to glare and fade.

The A490's third generation DIGIC III processor (Canon's more expensive digital cameras feature DIGIC IV processors) combines most primary camera functions (image interpolation and processing, auto exposure, White Balance, JPEG compression, gain control, and power management) on one chip - which improves operational efficiency and makes for quick startup/processing and near real time shutter response.

Shooting Performance
While the A490 isn't the fastest digicam in its class, it is quick enough to capture the "decisive moment" in this shot of an exuberant young prize winner on the midway at the Kentucky State Fair.

Canon A490 Test Image

The PowerShot A490 comes in on the low side of average for its class, speed-wise. The A490's boot up cycle (power on to the first image capture) is about 2.0 seconds. Shot-to-shot times averaged out to around 2.0 seconds between shots. The A490's built-in flash recycles in about 5.0 to 6.0 seconds (after a full-power discharge). The A490 can move its 3.3x zoom from the wide-angle end of its range to full telephoto in less than 2 seconds. AF speed is dependably quick in all but the most difficult lighting, typically less than half a second. Shutter lag shouldn't be a problem since shutter fire is essentially real time with pre-focus and (according to Canon) about 1/10th of a second from scratch.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-S7 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 0.02
Pentax Optio I-10 0.02
Canon PowerShot A490 0.03

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-S7 0.16
Canon PowerShot A490 0.57
Pentax Optio I-10 0.63
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 0.68

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Pentax Optio I-10 4 1.1 fps
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 1.0 fps
Canon PowerShot A490 0.9 fps
Casio Exilim EX-S7 0.4 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.

Canon's designers had to pinch pennies to create a digital camera that could be sold for a C-note. One of the most obvious ways to economize was to use on hand components from earlier models - the A490 features Canon's older 5-point TTL Contrast Detection system rather than the newer 9-point TTL Contrast Detection system featured on more expensive Canon digicams. Users can opt for either Center AF or Face Detection AF. In low light a focus assist beam helps illuminate the subject for more accurate focusing.

The A490's on-board multi mode flash provides a minimal selection of artificial lighting options, including Off, On (fill flash), Auto (fires when needed), and Slow Synchro. Canon claims the maximum flash range is a bit less than 10 feet (3 meters) which appears to be a fairly accurate claim - based on my very limited flash use.

The A490 is powered by two alkaline, NiMH, or lithium AA cells. Battery life will depend on the type of batteries used. I rarely keep track of the number of exposures shot before the batteries go dead, but I'd guess a "real world" power duration assessment (with OTC alkalines) is something like 150 to 180 exposures. Long life Lithiums and re-chargeable NiMH cells offer additional power options.

The A490 saves images to SD, SDHC, & SDXC memory media.

Lens Performance
The A490 sports the same f/3.0-5.8, 6.6-21.6mm (37-122mm equivalent) 3.3x zoom that graced its predecessor. When the camera is powered up the zoom extends automatically and when the camera is powered down the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is fairly smooth and operation is relatively quiet. The A490's zoom displays some corner softness, but center sharpness and detail capture are surprisingly good - especially for such an inexpensive camera.

Canon A490 Test Image
Wide Angle
Canon A490 Test Image

Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is essentially non-existent and that's especially impressive since barrel distortion (straight lines bow out) is a common fault with tiny super complex digicam zooms. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow inward) is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled, but noticeable in high contrast color transition areas. Overall, the A490's zoom is surprisingly good for an entry-level digicam.

Canon A490 Test Image

Image stabilization (IS) has become almost ubiquitous these days, but the A490 doesn't feature IS - not really a surprising economy in a camera that costs $100. Indoors, the A490, is pretty slow - factor in the lack of IS and many natural light (no flash) shots in dim lighting are going to come out blurry. Since the A490 is primarily an outdoor camera I don't consider the lack of IS to be a major shortcoming - especially in a camera this cheap.

Video Quality
The A490's 30 fps VGA (640x480) movie mode won't allow shooters to compete with someone using a dedicated video camera, but it does do nicely for generating e-mail video attachments for friends and family. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot in bright afternoon light and even though it gets pretty tight on the bee and passion flower - exposure is accurate, focus is fairly sharp, movement is fluid, and the colors are as I saw them.

Image Quality
I was surprised by just how good the images are, the new A490 doesn't disappoint at all in the image quality arena - it consistently generates images that compare favorably with pictures from more expensive Canon digital cameras. Like all of Canon's point-and-shoot digicams, the A490's default color interpolation produces bright, slightly over-saturated colors and somewhat flat native contrast that veteran shooters refer to as Canon Color - reds are noticeably warmer, blues are a bit brighter, and greens and yellows are a little more vibrant than real world hues - but that's not a bad thing in a camera designed for the masses.

Purple is very hard for many compact digicams to replicate - most tend to shift toward blue - so shooting purple subjects provides a very good way to test hue accuracy. The morning glories should be bright Royal Purple - instead they are blue. This slight hue shift is the only color anomaly that I noted with the A490.

Canon A490 Test Image

Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is a bit higher than average, particularly visible in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Overall, the A490's images show bright bold colors, impressive detail capture, and better than average sharpness.

The A490 provides an adequate selection of White Balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and Custom. The A490's Auto WB system does a consistently good job outdoors - although there is a slight tendency toward over-exposure and burned out highlights in very bright outdoor light. Indoors, like most point-and-shoots, the A490 (in Auto WB mode) sometimes struggles a bit to get colors just right.

Colors are noticeably warmer than real world colors under incandescent light and noticeably cooler than real world colors under fluorescent light. Using the tungsten (incandescent) or fluorescent WB settings indoors will help a bit, but perfect color accuracy with any auto exposure point-and-shoot digicam is a hit or miss proposition.

Canon A490 Test Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The A490 provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-selected settings for ISO 80 to ISO 1600. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are essentially the same - both display bright colors, slightly flat but balanced native contrast, and low noise levels. There is very minor visible noise/graininess (at full size) even at low settings. ISO 200 images are also very good, but show just a bit less pop than ISO 80 and 100 images.

Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 80
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 100
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 200
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 400
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 800
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 1600
Canon A490 Test Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

At the ISO 400 setting (and higher) noise is noticeable and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail. Shutterbugs with realistic expectations should encounter few problems with the camera in auto ISO mode.

Additional Sample Images
Canon A490 Test Image Canon A490 Test Image
Canon A490 Test Image Canon A490 Test Image
Canon A490 Test Image Canon A490 Test Image

When some veteran shooters consider entry-level cameras, they may dismiss such imaging tools as cheaply made and targeted toward snap-shooters. That's stinking thinking because the cameras used by old time photographers were pretty basic, but that didn't keep shooters like Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau from capturing some of the iconic images that define the golden age of photography. In the final analysis, good pictures are not entirely the responsibility of the camera, the individual behind the camera also has a lot of input.

We are in the midst of an economic downturn - money is tight and "bang for your buck" is especially important during these trying economic times. The A490 may be Canon's cheapest digicam, but it produces fine images, is easily pocketable and includes many of the features found on Canon's more expensive digicams. Savvy shoppers could do a lot worse than the Canon Powershot A490. The A490 can be found (online) for as little as $99, making it a fantastic choice for a first digital camera.