Canon's functional and practical A-series digital cameras have always made great complements to its sleek Digital IXUS line. This compact 4-megapixel replacement for the PowerShot A85 isn't as light and pocketable as a comparable Canon colleague, the Digital IXUS 40, but it offers the full range of manual controls that photo enthusiasts require, outdoes its stablemate in the number of scene modes and zoom range on offer, and costs less to boot. The PowerShot A520 has significant improvements over the model it replaces, too, including an 85g weight reduction.
If you're looking for a tiny snapshot camera that will fit in your pocket, the IXUS 40 might be a better choice. But should you be seeking a model that not only lets you switch to manual focus and exposure but also includes plenty of scene modes to fall back on, the PowerShot A520 will cost you almost £40 less. You can save another £30 by opting for the PowerShot A510, which has the same features in a 3.2-megapixel package.
After a run of testing digital ultracompacts that can get lost in a baggy pocket, the Canon PowerShot A520 felt overly large in our hands, even though it weighs just 179g and measures a compact 91 by 64 by 38mm. Both figures are trimmer than those of its predecessor, because the A520 uses two batteries for power instead of four and SD memory cards rather than CompactFlash.
We liked the solid, businesslike feel of this compact, which has a curved grip that you won't find on tinier pocket cameras. Its controls are logically laid out and easy to access. On top there's a recessed power button, a speaker and a large knurled dial for selecting shooting modes. On the back you'll find a slide switch to toggle between recording and viewing and a four-way rocking cursor pad with a central Set button. Canon assigns special functions to only two of the pad's keys: pressing up sets flash options, while pressing down selects normal, macro or manual focus mode. There's a Display key for cycling through LCD status options and a Print/Share button to direct the current image to a linked PictBridge-compatible printer.
Other functions, including exposure compensation, are accessed with the traditional Menu button and a separate Function key. The menus include three tabbed listings for basic camera features such as adjusting sound volume, formatting the memory card and turning digital zoom, red-eye reduction, or automatic review on and off. The Function key controls the shooting features, such as white balance, ISO, drive and exposure modes, self-timer and image size and compression. Many other cameras don't send you to a menu to apply exposure compensation, activate the self-timer or use a burst mode, but the PowerShot A520 remembers the last item accessed and pops it up the next time the Function key is pressed.
The other manual controls are pleasingly easy to use. For example, the left and right cursor keys are used to make shutter- and aperture-priority adjustments; in full manual mode, you press the Set button to toggle between shutter speed and f-stop control. If you choose to focus manually, the LCD shows a bar readout of the current distance as you focus.