Canon PowerShot SX230 HS Review
by A. Sutton -  3/29/2011

The biggest distinction between the new Canon PowerShot SX230 HS and its SX210 predecessor is an on-board GPS tracker. Users now have the option to geo-tag pictures when they push the shutter. It's hard to miss where the GPS chip is located on the SX230 - it's labeled alongside the shutter, a bump that takes up quite a bit of real estate on the top of the camera. As this seems to be an attractive sort of feature that camera manufacturers are migrating toward these days, this is Canon's first camera with this built-in technology.

Canon PowerShot SX230

The SX230 also takes a step back in sensor resolution from 14.5 megapixels on the SX210 IS to 12.8-megapixels banded onto an "HS" High Sensitivity 1/2.3-inch CMOS chip. The CMOS sensor boasts lower power consumption than the SX210's CCD sensor as well as improved light-gathering capability. Less pixels on a chip that's the same size could potentially mean better image quality at higher ISOs via the HS system.

According to Canon, "The system delivers clear, blur-free shots with all the ambiance intact, and frees you from the sometimes unwanted effects of using the flash. Beautiful low light shots are possible at both low and high ISO speeds, and the dynamic range is expanded to retain maximum detail in highlight and shadow areas."

DCR reviewed the Canon SX210 IS last June, giving a tepid nod to its image quality and pointing out problems with noise past ISO 400. With the new HS System and a GPS chip employed, will the SX230 HS step up the plate? Keep reading to find out how it did.

Build-wise, the SX230 HS seems like a carbon copy of the SX210 IS, with only a few dimensions differing from its older sibling. Its dimensions are 4.16 x 2.42 x 1.31-inches and the SX210 IS measures 4.17 x 2.33 x 1.26 inches. The weight difference is not really discernable-the SX230 HS weighs 7.87 oz., and the SX210 IS comes in at 7.58 oz.

Canon PowerShot SX230

The major build difference that can be found is the actual GPS chip that is encapsulated at the top of the camera next to the shutter and zoom ring. It's somewhat unattractive, but I guess it's necessary to house the GPS unit. I would like to see the next version of this camera with less of a pronounced GPS box.

The SX230 has a 14x optical zoom lens with a focal length of 28-392mm, and it protrudes out over the front of the body. It also has the same aperture range as the SX210's 14x lens of f/3.1-5.9.

Canon PowerShot SX230

The hardware of the SX230 is basically a re-hashing of the SX210's design, minus an indiscernible amount of weight and a GPS dome added on the top. The chassis has a nice chrome finish extending around the camera with a ridge around it, a natural place to rest your fingers when shooting. Overall, the design is nothing new and should appeal to shooters who want three different color options: black, red and blue. I received the blue one for review.

Ergonomics and Controls
Like most point-and-shoots, the SX230 has quite a slim profile, though I wouldn't say it's exactly pocketable. The lens protrusion is a bit bulky to fit into a pants pocket and the SX230's overall balance feels a bit lens-heavy to me. With the lens extended fully it gets slightly top heavy as well, making a two-handed grip a necessity.

The SX230 employs a typical control layout with a mode dial, a func/set button that leads you to a quick menu, a dial around this button that lets you navigate quickly through settings, a dedicated menu button, display button, red video record button, shutter, zoom ring and on/off switch.

Canon PowerShot SX230

The wheel around the func/set menu is used to access the quick menu and is also used as directional buttons that bring up different options for focusing, EV stops, flash settings and self-timer. It is exactly the same as DCR Editor Allison Johnson's SX210 review indicated - if you hold your finger over any of these buttons, the options for AF, EV and all that aforementioned will light up.

The LCD has quite a bit of real estate, offering that 16:9 aspect ratio used for modern movie and HD video capture. You can also capture in the 16:9 aspect ratio for your images, which is nice if you also want to display them on your HD monitor or TV.

Allison identified the same annoyance that I found, too - the pop-up flash that automatically raises when the camera is turned on. I was almost afraid to push it down since it didn't do so automatically. It's ok, you can push it down without consequence and this works great on a DSLR for me (usually done manually through the menu or exterior button), but on a point-and-shoot, I would've just preferred one enclosed on the front of the body.

The major feature of the SX230 HS that sets it apart from other point-and-shoot digicams is that it captures, logs and records global positions. It has a built-in GPS system that allows you to log your location at all times, in sort of an exact recording of the path you went on at any given time if it's enacted (and even when the camera is turned off, for that matter). My advice is to skip logging unless you are a hardcore geo-tagger or fitness enthusiast that likes to record every step of the way. I tried this and it was a battery drain.

The best part of the GPS chip in the SX230 HS is the geo-tagging or GPS feature that records the exact location of your shots. This is accessed through the settings menu. To be sure that the GPS is working, go outside and let it find a signal, which is does in about 30 seconds. You'll be able to know if it has found a GPS signal on the LCD if a little satellite icon is displayed.

Once you get back to your computer to offload images, you'll be able to use Canon's Image Browser software. Images can also be exported to Google Earth for a more interactive map. Although it's a cool feature, and may be enough for some camera buyers, I think that accessing location information could be a bit more intuitive - the function is hidden deep in the menu, and getting the information is basically accessed through the software. I went through Lightroom 2 to see if it was embedded in the metadata, but alas, it was not. A cool function, and a definite upgrade from the SX210 IS.

Menus and Modes
As is the case with most of Canon's point-and-shoots, the SX230 HS uses a dual system that can be activated by pressing the func/set button. This leads you to a quick access tab on the side of the screen to change various settings. Since the camera can go fully automatic, the quick menu is different for each mode on the mode dial. For instance, in the more manual modes like Program, Av, Tv and Manual, you can access light metering, color filters, white balance, ISO settings, flash power, drive mode (single shot to continuous), aspect ratio, recording pixel size, compression, and movie quality size.

You can also access the main menu by pressing the Menu button on the back. Inside here is the dual-tabbed menu divider that gives you camera settings and the other setting options like volume, LCD brightness, date/time, etc. In the camera settings accessed through the menu, you can control things like i-Contrast, Autofocus, wind filter and flash settings. It is a rather simple system to adopt, and if you're familiar with recent Canon PowerShot cameras, this is no different.

Here are some of the mode dial's thirteen settings:

There are different options on the mode dial, including an interesting feature called movie digest. This mode allows you to make a short movie by automatically recording 3 seconds of video before you take each still image. The resulting videos are compiled in one video file. Interesting, but I couldn't find a use for it myself. There are also separate tabs for Portrait, Landscape, Kids & Pets, SCN with a sub menu of scene modes, fish-eye effect, and movie mode for enabling video.

Canon SX230 Sample Image
Fish-eye filter

The SX230 HS has a 3.0-inch TFT LCD with 461k-dot resolution compared to the 230k-dot resolution of its older sibling, the SX210 IS. It doubled in terms of resolution, and playback of video and stills looks great on the 16:9 aspect ratio screen.

Canon PowerShot SX230

The DCR lab ran some tests on the LCD to see how it well it would truly perform in different lighting scenarios, by measuring peak brightness and black-level luminance ratings. The peak brightness measured out to 485 nits, and on the dark side a measurement of 0.65, making it a decent performer overall with an LCD contrast ratio 746:1. As it is inherently problematic to frame shots in strange ambient lighting situations, the SX230 HS monitor worked better than other point-and-shoots I've used in its class. It seems as though manufacturers are coming up with more accurate and high-resolution LCD's to portray the images you see in the camera the same as your computer monitor.

I struggled using the LCD both during normal daylight hours and shooting at dusk with a lot of ambient light behind me. This is to be expected, but I hope that manufacturers soon come up with an anti-glare coating technology that can alleviate these sorts of shooting scenarios. Overall, the LCD was high-res and looked great.

The Canon SX230 has plenty going for it in the performance category. It boasts better sensitivity with its HS system that supposedly works great in low-light, and has the formidable and proven DIGIC 4 image processor. The GPS feature is an added bonus to this feature set, and worthy of noting that it performed perfectly without a misstep.

On top of these features, the SX230 offers full 1080p video, filter effects, scene modes and a nice zoom range. Although it's not the smallest pocket cam in the planet, I didn't feel awkward using it shooting in the field from the Santa Monica Pier to the boardwalk of Venice.

Shooting Performance
The performance of the camera was different for each criterion. The SX210 was actually a tinge faster, clocking in at 0.01, while the SX230 HS clocks in at 0.02 seconds. Where it was really impressive, in the lab and in the field, was achieving AF. It locked focus in s 0.38 seconds, slightly slower than the SX210 though still the fastest in its class among the cameras to which we compared it. The continuous shooting speed was modest and came right in at second place at 2.3 fps without frame restriction, except the obvious buffer memory being too full or the battery dying first.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR 0.01
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX230 0.02
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.03

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX230 0.38
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.44
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.45
Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR 0.55

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix P100 6 11.3 fps
Canon PowerShot SX230 2.3 fps
Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR 6 1.8 fps
Olympus SP800-UZ 10 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.

The Flash off the camera is fully controllable, and has a recycle time of around 2.5-3 seconds by my calculation (although the manual says up to 10 seconds). The flash distance ranges from 2.5 to 11.5 feet at wide angle, 3.3 to 6.6 feet at telephoto. The flash, even considering the softer slow synchro option, is a little harsh on subjects especially in the shadows. It's not exactly studio quality, but the SX230 HS isn't a professional camera, so it is what it is.

The battery life is quite good and lasted me an entire day of shooting. However, if you use the GPS logger this thing drains too fast. Unless you have a specific use for it, do yourself a favor and make sure you have it off or you'll wonder why your camera never holds a charge. Canon claims that one fully charged battery will last for 210 shots if you don't use any of the filters or scene modes. I found this number to be accurate.

Lens Performance
Overall lens performance was pretty good. The camera was able to take clear shots even at full telephoto. However, I did notice that at full telephoto, the ISO is bumped up considerably to quicken the shutter speed to combat image blur. I took a shot at dusk wide, and it shot at 100 ISO, which is not fair to judge it, since the image was a little dark. So I tested it again, in a well-lit room and it did the same exact thing. The wide image came in at ISO 500, and my telephoto image was 1600.

The bottom line is, if you're shooting full telephoto and don't have a tripod, or have the SX230 HS set on a timer in a stable place, you'll likely see a huge bump in ISO.

So what about distortions and other nasty little things? Well, like its predecessor, there was little to no barrel distortion at a wide angle and there is no real pin-cushioning going on with the SX230's lens.

In terms of chromatic aberrations, they were found, but were very minor. Mostly, I found purple fringing when I zoomed in 200% on my images. In areas of high contrast, some purple fringing is obvious, but it was controlled nicely by the SX230 - maybe a little better than the results of the SX210. Also, no vignetting on my test images, but I did catch some lens flare in some of my sunset shots. Even when I tried to shoot away from the sun, some rays still snuck in.

Video Quality
The SX230's video quality is very good, and probably some of the better footage I've captured using a point-and-shoot. I shot both of these videos at the Santa Monica Pier and was able to toggle the zoom without losing much fluidity in the video. The video doesn't seem too compressed out of the camera, and the highlights aren't really clipped. I would argue that this is one of the strongest features of the SX230 HS.

Download Sample Video

What is also nice about the full HD capture of the SX230 HS is that it has a frame rate of 24 fps, mimicking cinema cameras, with options to shoot 720p in 30 fps, standard definition at 30 fps and 320 x 240 at 30 fps.

Image Quality
I shot most of the time with default image settings. The images seemed very natural and richly colored, with vibrant hues. Image quality out of the camera was very nice and the SX230 didn't produce images with an overly processed look that many compact digitals are guilty of creating.

On close inspection, my images had a lot of good natural-looking detail, something I prize above all when it comes to photography. Also, light metering is very important when talking about a camera that is being touted for its low-light capabilities, as it will help you expose your image properly depending on what part of the frame you are metering. Its default setting is evaluative, and it works well to provide a proper exposure throughout the scene.

However, the other two options seemed to overexpose my images in low light, and in controlled lighting, but keep in mind it's either taking a center spot reading or center weighted. The spot metering had a tendency to overexpose every time, but center weighted worked nicely in giving precedence to the middle of the frame. Overall the SX230's exposure system is good.

Automatic white balance produced a good, faithfully reproduced image under our studio fluorescents. Performance in the field was also good. Pre-set options such as cloudy or custom rendered superior results that were accurate in the field as well.

Canon SX230 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

With a combination of the DIGIC 4 processor, the newly coined HS System and less megapixels, the SX230 HS is indeed a great performer in various lighting scenarios from the field to the lab. When you look at our lab tests you can see that the image quality doesn't start to get fuzzy until ISO 800. Noise increases from there to ISO 3200.

Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon SX230 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

That appears to be a stop improvement over the SX210's image quality which saw a significant drop at ISO 400. Noise is still evident in the 100% enlargement of the SX230's ISO 400 image, but less detail is lost to smudging and smoothing over. The difference is that ISO 800 is still usable in the SX230 HS, even for a mid-sized print. So it seems that yes, the HS System actually works quite well and should be touted as a great feature of the SX230 HS.

Additional Sample Images
Canon SX230 Sample Image Canon SX230 Sample Image
Canon SX230 Sample Image Canon SX230 Sample Image
Canon SX230 Sample Image Canon SX230 Sample Image

The SX230 HS is most notably a GPS-enabled device, however, this camera has a lot of other things going for it. Although location tagging is an increasingly fun area of photography, the real power of the SX230 HS is in the images it can create.

The image quality of the SX230 is very good, and by far one of its best selling points. Don't get me wrong, GPS is cool, but not enough to sway some buyers. The images are rich and natural. The SX230 does extraordinarily well in low-light scenarios and the smaller resolution size has proven to create a better image with less aberrations and better image quality overall than the SX210 IS.

There are some negatives to this camera as well though. The design is just a rehashing of the SX210 IS, it has a potentially annoying pop-up flash, a tendency to overexpose at telephoto lengths and speed-wise its performance is only middle of the road. Also, the GPS shouldn't be so buried into the menu system. I would have liked to have seen a dedicated GPS button instead of having to seek it out in the menu subfolders. I would also argue that there should be some sort of better integration or time stamp that can be place into the metadata so that you don't have to install the included software.

So is this camera worth the upgrade if you already have the SX210 IS? Maybe. If you want a camera and are stuck between the two, spend the extra fifty bucks more and get the SX230 HS, you get more bang for you buck and you won't be disappointed with the images you capture or video you record.