The 10-megapixel Canon PowerShot SX10 IS wasn't a great superzoom, but it was one of the better ones. It's sad to see, therefore, that its replacement, the 12.1-megapixel PowerShot SX20 IS with 20x zoom, takes a couple of steps backwards, delivering overall poorer performance and photo quality as a trade-off for slapping a couple of extra megapixels on the box. On the bright side, it does add 720p video, while retaining the capability to zoom during capture, plus a mini-HDMI connector for playing your movies on a high-definition TV. It's available for around £300 online.
With an almost identical body to the SX10, the SX20 remains very comfortable to hold and shoot, retaining perks like the articulated LCD, and running on four AA batteries. It's heavy, at 680g, which makes it feel like a digital SLR, but the big grip gives you plenty of holding room. There's a deep, indented thumb rest on the back, joined by playback, exposure-compensation, and focus-area-selection buttons. Because of the darker plastic, the labels are easier to read than on the previous model.
On the right side of the back is a dial concentric to a four-way navigation switch with a function button in the middle. As with the SX10, we generally like the controls, but the dial feels too mushy. It doesn't respond appropriately, and it feels as if it needs to spin too far or not as far for any given operation, resulting in frequent overshooting of settings. It needs better tactile feedback. The zoom switch still doesn't feel terribly exact either, a common problem with stepped zooms (these lenses don't really cover a continuous zoom range, instead stopping at a series of preset distances).
The flip-and-twistable LCD remains a user favourite, but it's quite small, measuring only 64mm (2.5 inches), compared with the more typical 76mm (3 inches). The electronic viewfinder seems slightly improved over the so-so version on its predecessor. It looks fairly coarse, but we didn't experience the slow refresh issues we had with the other. But, annoyingly, the camera still lacks a dedicated toggle between the LCD and EVF. Instead, you have to cycle through the four different display settings: 'low-info LCD', 'detailed LCD', 'low-info EVF' and 'detailed EVF'. That makes it nearly impossible to quickly jump back and forth.
The camera still has a dedicated movie-record button with a fairly well-implemented capture interface. 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.
Held over from the SX10, some of the more interesting features include a 'face self-timer', which shoots a specified number of seconds after a face is detected, and a custom timer that lets you also specify the number of shots to take (it's sort of a limited intervalometer, since you can only take up to 10 shots). The rest of the capabilities, for the most part, are the same as the competition's. These include program, aperture and shutter priority, manual, 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.
Slower than before
By going to 12.1 megapixels, the new, 'improved' version of the SX10 manages to become significantly slower than its predecessor in some respects -- and that's in a class of cameras that always struggles with poor performance. The SX20 powers on and shoots in about 2 seconds, which is acceptable, if a tad slower than competitors. In good light, it matches the SX10's time of 0.6 seconds to focus and shoot, and in dim manages to shave 0.1 seconds off, for 0.7 seconds, which is relatively good for a superzoom.
The time it takes for two consecutive shots increases by a full second over the SX10, however. When you add flash, the differential rises by more than 1.5 seconds, to 4.1 seconds. The burst performance also drops, from 1.4 frames per second to 0.7fps, but that just takes it from unusable to even more unusable. (Since electronic viewfinders black out when a shot is taken, you can't verify that the subject is in the frame, making them inadequate for continuous shooting.)
Battery life is still good, though -- you should get about 340 shots on alkalines and 600 on NiMH, and the optical image stabiliser works as well as ever. The lens, however, narrows to f5.7 at maximum telephoto, which is quite slow -- even the Olympus SP-590 UZ only narrows to f5.0 at a longer 676mm equivalent.
The SX20's photos aren't bad, but they no longer stand out from the rest of the pack. Even photos shot at ISO 80 look soft and noisy, except when viewed scaled-down -- it looks like the poor detail resolution typical of point-and-shoot cameras, since super-macro close-ups tend to look the best of the bunch. While the exposure and colour look very good, the slow lens can get frustrating when shooting at the telephoto end, because there never seems to be enough light. The HD movies look relatively good, although, like the stills, they're soft, and the ability to zoom through the whole range for video is really good. The lens zooms quietly, too.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
While it's a solid superzoom, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS doesn't deliver as much for the money as the PowerShot SX10 IS did or the expensive PowerShot SX1 IS still does. You should probably check out some of the cheaper options before committing.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet