Would you pay as much for a superzoom as you would for a digital SLR? That's the question you need to answer before putting down more cash for the £450 Canon PowerShot SX1 IS than you would for the EOS 1000D or the Nikon D60, with their 18-55mm lenses. Packing some higher-end features than its brother, the PowerShot SX10 IS, including a CMOS sensor (albeit of the same 1/2.3-inch size and 10-megapixel resolution), 30 frames per second, 1080p high-definition movie capture, and support for raw files, the SX1 delivers slightly better performance and image quality as well.
Physically, the SX1 is almost identical to the SX10, with the same 20x 28-260mm equivalent lens. It's equally comfortable to hold and shoot, retaining perks like the articulated LCD and four-AA-battery-powered operation. It's slightly heavier, at 680g, which makes it feel like a dSLR, but the big grip gives you plenty of holding room.
A button to jump into review mode sits near the indented thumb rest on the back, joined by the exposure compensation and focus-area selection buttons. Because the SX1's body is matte black plastic, rather than the reflective graphite of the SX10, the light blue labels are easier to see.
On the right side of the back is a dial that surrounds a four-way navigation switch with the function button in the middle. Although we generally like the controls, the dial feels too mushy. Like the SX10's, it doesn't respond appropriately, spinning either too much or too little for any given operation. As a result, we frequently overshot desired shutter speeds, for example. The zoom switch doesn't feel terribly exact, either. This is a typical problem with stepped zooms, as these lenses don't really cover a continuous zoom range, instead stopping at a series of preset distances.
Flippable and twistable LCDs are a user favourite. The SX1's is a wide-aspect 71mm (2.8-inch) model, compared with the 4:3 aspect 64mm (2.5-inch) model on the SX10. Keep in mind that, when you're shooting photos at full resolution in 4:3 aspect with the SX1, the effective image size of the LCD is as if it were a 64mm model. Canon uses the extra area on the sides for displaying information. Unfortunately, the electronic viewfinder isn't particularly great. It updates slowly and looks coarse.
More annoyingly, the camera lacks a dedicated toggle between the LCD and EVF. Instead, you have to cycle through the four display settings: low-info LCD, detailed LCD, low-info EVF and detailed EVF. That makes it nearly impossible to quickly jump back and forth.
Similarly, although there's a dedicated movie-record button, moving between capturing HD movies and standard 4:3 stills can get confusing. You have to press a button to toggle between the two aspect ratio modes, and the camera captures in whatever your indicated settings are for that aspect ratio. The routine is: press the button for 16:9, start movie record, stop movie record, press the aspect button, press shutter for photos.
It sounds simple, but we frequently forgot to toggle the aspect ratio back after shooting a movie, and ended up shooting lower-resolution, wide-aspect stills. Also, raw isn't available in 16:9 mode, which can complicate such mistakes. You should be able to set a movie size and only have to worry about pressing record. A final annoyance is that the SX1 remembers all your settings when you power off except the current metering mode.
None of these problems seriously detract from the overall usability of the camera, but forgetful or infrequent shooters might find themselves having more settings accidents than they'd like.
Although there's a movie mode on the dial, it's rather superfluous. In addition to the dedicated button, Canon has integrated the movie-resolution settings into the function menu, along with the standard white balance, colour adjustment, exposure bracketing, flash compensation, metering, and still size and quality controls.
Some of the SX1's more novel features include a 'face self-timer', which shoots a specified number of seconds after a face is detected, and a custom timer, which lets you also specify the number of shots to take (it's like a limited intervalometer, since you can only take up to 10 shots).
As with the SX10, this camera has Canon's Servo AF autofocus tracking mode. As the continuous shooting is so slow on this camera, we found Servo AF has too much time to get confused, and, since EVFs black out when a shot's taken, you can't verify that it's focusing on the right thing -- we have numerous in-focus fences and out-of-focus people in our test shots.
The rest of the capabilities are mostly the same as those of the competition. These include program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes, full auto, and a handful of scene modes. Our favourites are a custom-setting slot on the mode dial and 99mm macro and 0mm super-macro modes.
Overall, the SX1 delivers excellent performance, especially for a superzoom. It wakes and shoots in 1.4 seconds, and, under optimal focusing conditions, can lock and shoot in 0.4 seconds. Even in harder-to-focus, low-contrast conditions, it takes only 0.6 seconds. Shot-to-shot JPEGs typically take 2.8 seconds, and raw is even faster, at 2 seconds.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
While its 2.9fps burst can't beat the ultra-high-speed continuous shooting of models like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 or the Casio Exilim Pro EX-FH20, it's still very good for its class. And the SX1 can burst raw at about 1.5fps. Our only caveat about the camera's performance concerns a repeated, but unfortunately unrepeatable, problem with the AF system, in which it would indicate focus had been locked even though the scene was completely out of focus.
Generally, photo quality tends to be the weakest aspect of superzooms, but the SX1's pictures are among the best in its class. While its colours aren't quite as good as the SX10's -- oranges, yellows, reds and purples are slightly off, although you probably couldn't tell without a side-by-side comparison -- it has a better tonal range with less contouring in shadow areas.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The SX1 also has a better noise profile, with lower noise at all ISO levels, and without the blue channel artefacts we noticed in the SX10's photos. But, as with most models at this level, detail becomes visibly degraded at ISO 400 and beyond. The SX1 is pretty sharp, but it's not as sharp as the SX10. We attribute this to some visible haloing in the blue channel that we saw in our test charts.
The camera retains the separated stereo mics of its ancestors and can zoom -- pretty quietly -- during recording. The video quality is quite good. It's relatively sharp and saturated, with fast refocusing and exposure adjustment, especially when played back on a large TV.
Priced like a cheap dSLR and roughly the same size, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS delivers similar performance, plus a 20x zoom lens and HD video, which dSLRs can't provide. While it's relatively expensive for its class and has some interface quirks, it's one of the best superzooms we've seen so far.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet