Travel-zooms look like compact P&S digital cameras, but they feature extra long zoom lenses (typically 10x to 25x) and manual exposure options that are not included on the little auto-exposure only cameras. The Powershot SX170 IS is Canon's latest travel zoom, the little brother to the class champ Canon SX280 HS. At first glance the Canon Powershot SX170 IS looks like a new digicam, but under the hood is an incredible collection of older hardware. The SX170 IS is driven by the proven DIGIC4 processor (rather than the newer DIGIC5), captures images and HD video (at 720p rather than the newer 1080p) via its CCD (rather than the newer CMOS) sensor, features a simplified AF system, eschews the current standard Canon (460k) LCD for the coarser 230k LCD of earlier generations of Canon point and shoots, utilizes the same 16x zoom as its predecessor, and finally provides no GPS, no Wi-Fi, and no touchscreen controls. When compared to the SX280 HS the SX170 IS appears to come up a bit short.
So, why would anybody buy this old tech in a new package digicam? Most folks won't be able to spot any genuine differences between the images generated by the two cameras and the SX170 IS can be bought for around $179.00 while the SX280 HS is selling for around $329.00. Most people who buy P&S digital cameras are casual photographers and they rarely (if ever) need the newest digicam features. One of the SX170 IS's strongest selling points (aside from its bargain price) is that it can capture beautiful still images and HD video clips with very little effort on the part of the shooter while allowing neophyte shooters to stretch their wings as they learn and simultaneously offering sufficient creative flexibility to appeal to more adventurous photographers.
Build and Design
The SX170 IS replaces the SX160 IS which was very popular unit with casual shooters and generalist photographers thanks to its relatively compact body and wide-angle to long telephoto zoom. The primary differences between the SX160 IS and the SX170 IS appear to be in battery department--the SX160 IS utilized AA cells and the SX170 IS draws its juice from a much smaller and significantly lighter Canon NB-6LH Lithium-ion battery. The change from AA batteries to Li-ion power resulted in a noticeably smaller profile for the SX170 IS, a deeper handgrip, and significantly less weight--8.8 oz. versus 10.3 oz.
The Canon Powershot SX170 IS is a fairly typical looking compact P&S digicam. If you want to make a style statement the SX170 IS is available in black, white, and red versions, but it is still a bit too bulky to be really pocketable. The Canon SX170 IS features a polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame, which is a substantially cheaper way to construct cameras than the metal-alloy shell over metal alloy frame method used in most of Canon's upscale P&S digital cameras. Fit and finish are first rate and the SX170 IS's construction seems tough and durable enough for just about anything the target audience is likely to try. The SX170 IS's weather/moisture and dust seals appear to be more than adequate for anything short of extended use in extreme environments.
Ergonomics and Controls
The SX170 IS's control layout will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Canon P&S digicam. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed - for right-handed shooters. In fact, after using the almost button free Canon ELPH 510 the SX170 IS seems to be awash in button, knobs, and switches. Shooters who like traditional control arrays and hate touchscreens are going to love this camera. The SX170 IS's compass switch (4-way control pad) provides direct access to the flash settings, ISO/Sensitivity settings, self-timer, and macro mode/focus options. Canon's nifty "func" button offers direct access to WB, color options, metering options, image size, and movie mode resolution settings. The rotary jog dial that surrounds the compass switch can be used to quickly sort/compare saved images in review mode or to rapidly navigate the menu in all shooting modes. Point and shoot digital cameras often hide one of the most important controls for cameras of this type--the exposure compensation button - deep in the menu, but that's not the case for the SX170 IS. The exposure compensation function has its own dedicated button making it easy for shooters to incrementally lighten or darken images to adjust for ambient light problems. However, the camera remembers your exposure compensation settings after the camera is turned off.
The SX170 IS also provides a "one-touch" video capture button. Simply frame your subject and push the red button. When you wish stop recording, just push the red button once again. Video capture begins an instant after you push the video start/stop button and ends an instant after you push it again. So users won't have to deal with any significant lag when creating video clips. After the minimalist control array of the ELPH 510 the SX170 IS's control array seems a little busy, but it isn't counter-intuitive and most users will have no difficulty using the camera's controls. Like essentially all point and shoot digital cameras the SX170 IS will perform impressively in auto (point and shoot) mode, but this camera was designed to be used by photo enthusiasts, too. So there are lots of creative options and an impressive level of individual input into the image making process.
Menus and Modes
The SX170 IS features the basic two-tab version of Canon's classic digicam menu system. The SX170 IS's menu system, like all Canon P&S digicam menus, is logical and easy to navigate.
The SX170 IS provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Easy Auto: Just point and shoot - no user input.
Auto (Smart Auto): Automatic scene recognition mode that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the subjects distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best scene mode for that specific shooting situation. No user input except for flash on/off.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
Live: Live view mode.
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Discreet: Automatically turns off the flash and all sounds for discreet use.
Fish-Eye Effect: Digitally creates a circular "Fish-Eye" look.
Scene: Portrait, Landscape, Kids & Pets, Low Light, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks; Creative Filters: Fish-eye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Color Accent, and Color Swap.
Movie: The SX170 IS records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1280X720p @ 30 fps.
Like most currently available point and shoot digital cameras, the SX170 IS doesn't provide an optical viewfinder which obliges shooters to utilize the LCD monitor for all framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. Most casual shooters don't use optical viewfinders anyway and in some shooting scenarios it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical (or electronic) viewfinder.
The SX170 IS features the same outdated 3.0 inch (230K) PureColor II LCD monitor that graced its predecessor. Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, and Pentax are now offering LCD viewfinders with double, triple, and even quadruple the resolution of the SX170 IS?s slightly grainy 230,000 pixel LCD monitor, but the cameras offering those higher resolution LCDs all cost more than the SX170 IS. The SX170 IS's TFT LCD display is fairly bright, hue (color) accurate; relatively fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The SX170 IS's LCD, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright lighting.
The SX170 IS doesn't seem awfully fast when compared to its upscale sibling, but numbers don't always tell the whole story. Start up time of the Canon PowerShot SX170 is about the same as most cameras in its price range and the tiny speed difference between it and the SX280 HS is unlikely to be noticed in real world shooting scenarios. From off to first image capture is about 2.5 seconds and in the final analysis I don't believe the SX170 IS's target audience is going to notice that their sub $200 digicam is a tiny bit slower than its $300.00 plus big brother. I used the SX170 IS to freeze a BMX biker in mid air (see sample photos) and that's fast enough for just about anything this digicam's target audience is likely to tackle.
The SX170 IS comes in on the high side of average when compared to its competition in terms of timing, except for its slightly slower than average AF acquisition times. When you design a camera with a 16X zoom some operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a very long lens will obviously move and focus more slowly than a shorter lens. The SX170 IS is easily quick enough to function nicely as a general- purpose digicam and dependably fast enough to capture the decisive moment--in all but the most extreme shooting situations. Shot-to-shot times are between 2 and 3 seconds.
The SX170 IS provides users with an acceptable selection of white balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and custom (manual). The SX170 IS's Auto WB system does a remarkably good job across the board. I suspect most users will enable Auto WB full time.
The SX170 IS provides a reasonable range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO1600. ISO 100 images show bright colors, slightly flat native contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images also look very good, but with a tiny bit less snap. At the ISO 400 setting noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail. Higher sensitivity settings show flat colors, reduced contrast, lots of image noise, and fuzzy details.
The SX170 IS is powered by a proprietary Canon Lithium-Ion NB-6LH rechargeable battery. Canon says the SX170 IS (with a freshly charged battery) is good for approximately 300 exposures (420 exposures in eco mode), which is about average power duration for cameras in this class. I rarely track numbers - since I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot, but that number seems fairly accurate based on my experiences with the camera. I used the camera heavily for just over a week and charged the battery twice. The included charger needs about two hours to fully charge the battery.
The SX170 IS's multi-mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, Flash On, Flash Off, Slow Sync, and Red-eye reduction plus menu options including flash exposure compensation @ +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is a bit more than 18 feet, which seems fairly optimistic given the small size of the flash. Based on my very limited flash use, the flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds.
The Canon PowerShot SX170 IS supports SD, SDHC, and the SDXC format memory media, but provides no internal memory.
When the SX170 IS is powered up - the lens automatically extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the zoom retracts into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. The SX170 IS's f/3.5-f5.9/5.0mm-80.0mm (28mm - 448 mm equivalent) zoom makes this digicam ideal for a broad variety of photographic applications--including shooting group pictures in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, snapping travel pictures in exotic locales, nailing not too distant wildlife, shooting youth sports, and capturing great macro shots of bugs and flowers.
The SX170 IS's zoom is impressively compact and it doesn't appear to be flimsy, but it is (unavoidably) an extremely complex lens and as complexity increases optical faults are magnified exponentially. Corners are noticeably soft at the wide angle end of the zoom, but they are appreciably sharper at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The SX170 ISs f3.5 maximum aperture (at the wide end of the zoom) is about a half a stop slower than the f2.8 maximum apertures of many similar P&S digital cameras, a stop and a half slower than the f2.0 maximum apertures of many upscale P&S cameras, and two and a half stops slower than the f1.8/f1.4 maximum apertures of many top tier P&S digital cameras - but it is fast enough for almost anything this camera's target audience is likely to shoot outdoors. Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet, but this lens exhibits noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom and visible pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is present, especially in high contrast color transition areas, but it is managed nicely.
The SX170 IS features a TTL Contrast Detection 1 point (fixed to center) autofocus system providing Continuous AF, Servo AF/AE, Face AF, and Tracking AF. AF is consistently quick and dependably accurate.
The SX170 IS's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV (exposure values) slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from ultra-wide to super-telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some impressive challenges.
Canon has equipped the SX170 IS with an optical Image Stabilization system that provides up to 3.5 EV of IS compensation. The SX170 IS utilizes Canon's Intelligent IS technology which detects camera movement and automatically applies the most appropriate image stabilization settings from seven possible options.
The SX170 IS's 1280x720p @ 30fps HD movie mode may seem outdated to some potential purchasers, but since most video clips captured by amateur shooters are going to end up on Facebook or Youtube (sites that feature VGA resolution) they are going to look just as good as the 1080p clips from more expensive P&S digital cameras. The sample video clip that accompanies this review was shot on a hot and sunny autumn day. The clip is sharply focused, properly exposed, movement is fluid (smooth, not jerky), and the colors are vibrant.
Colors (Canon default color interpolation) are bright and hue accurate, but visibly over-saturated. Reds are warmer than they are in real life, blues are a bit too bright, and greens/yellows are more vibrant than those seen by the naked eye. Most casual shooters won't consider these minor color intensity variations as faults. Although there is a slight tendency toward overexposure - in outdoor light the SX170 IS produces reliably well-exposed, sharply focused, and almost noise-free images. Indoors the SX170 IS's performance surprised me. As long as you stay at the wide angle end of the zoom, indoor pictures were better than expected. Images are reliably sharp. Check out the sample pictures, but in bright outdoor lighting highlight detail was occasionally blown-out. Overall, the SX170 IS's image quality is on the high side of average.
Canon Powershot SX170 IS clearly qualifies as a "best buy" for budget conscious shutterbugs who want a lot of bang for their camera buck. The SX170 IS would be an almost ideal choice for a first digital camera, an excellent choice as a primary family camera, and a very good choice for travelers who want an inexpensive, feature rich, dependable, and relatively inexpensive P&S digicam that is capable of producing consistently excellent images. In the past, the SX150 IS's single major shortcoming was poor battery life with OTC alkaline AAs. This has been remedied by substituting for a 2500 mAH NiMH rechargeable battery instead. The bottom line--bargain seeking consumers aren't really going to be able to get any more for their camera buying dollars than the Canon Powershot SX170 IS provides.