At first glance, the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS compact superzoom set off our internal disaster-warning systems. This camera looks alarmingly similar to last year's model, the PowerShot SX210 IS, which we weren't particularly taken with. The £230 SX220 has an almost identical design, an equally high price and, surprisingly, actually features a lower-resolution sensor compared to its predecessor. So is this a backwards step for Canon?
Reissued and revamped
Call it laziness, call it brand confidence -- whatever the reason, Canon has decided to send many of its 2011 range of cameras out into the big wide world looking very much like their 2010 equivalents. In the case of the SX220, the design is almost exactly the same as that of last year's SX210. That's not to say the SX220 looks unattractive or outdated, though.
A mid-sized compact camera, the SX220 has a modern-looking, two-tone shell that's available in either purple or grey, both with a silver trim. It also offers sturdy build quality and looks like it could withstand a knock or two.
At the full extent of the SX220's long, 14x optical zoom, the lens sticks out by a good 2.5 inches -- to almost comical effect. The flash is of the pop-up variety and will merrily make an appearance whenever you switch the unit on. This is no bad thing in itself, except that the flash pops up at precisely the point on the unit's top edge where your left index finger tends to rest.
Other than a combined shutter button and zoom ring, the top of the device is devoid of controls. These are reserved for the rear of the camera, where they sit next to the LCD screen. A crowded mode dial offers more than a dozen different options, from 'easy' automatic shooting, through the usual portrait, landscape and scene modes, right up to full manual control.
The SX220 clearly wants to cater to everyone, from complete novices to enthusiast-level users. On the one hand, there are plenty of automated functions, such as a 'smart shutter', which is designed to take perfect pictures of your friends and family between all their blinking and gurning. At the quirkier end of the features list, you have, for example, slow-motion video recording and a 'miniature effect' option that uses a blurring technique to make your subject look like a tiny toy version of itself. Both are strangely compulsive.
The display itself is not only large, measuring 3 inches diagonally, but also has a comparatively high resolution of 461,000 pixels. For most normal photography, a large amount of the wide-screen display will go unused, with black bars appearing either side of the standard 4:3 ratio frame. Canon uses these black areas to house icons and so on, but it still seems something of a waste -- unless you're shooting movies, which use the full width of the screen.
The SX220 packs in plenty of options for amateur film makers. You can film at resolutions of up to 1080p, and you can also use the 14x optical zoom while shooting. Audio is recorded in stereo and you get the benefit of the camera's image stabilisation while filming too. An HDMI output means you can watch your home-made meisterwerks on a big-screen HD telly.
The video quality is fairly good for a camera, although the 1080p setting only records at 24 frames per second. You can achieve a 30fps rate by switching to 720p, although this lowers the overall detail.
Despite its video options, still photography is very much the SX220's forte. While it has a 12.1-megapixel resolution compared to the SX210's 14.1 megapixels, it doesn't seem to have a detrimental effect on picture quality. In fact, quite the reverse is true.
We had some issues with the SX210's image quality but its successor produces excellent results. This could be because, with the SX220, Canon chose to ditch the SX210's CCD-type sensor in favour of a backlit CMOS-type chip.
At the top resolution and in good outdoors conditions, the SX220 will furnish you with detailed, natural-looking photographs. Colours are full, warm and vibrant, without any oversaturation. Chromatic aberration isn't much of an issue either. There can be a slight softness to images, though.
The camera maintains its strong performance in a number of different scenarios. At the opposite end of the 14x zoom is a wide-angle of 28mm (in 35mm equivalent terms), making the SX220 just as adept at capturing large, rambling landscapes as it is at taking group photos or portraits. There's some barrel distortion around the edges of wide-angle shots but not a huge amount.
Indoors, the SX220 puts up a valiant fight against fading light sources. ISO settings go right up to 3,200 and, as our test shot above shows, colours and definition are still fairly impressive right up to ISO 1,600, despite the onset of picture noise.
The Canon PowerShot SX220 HS is adaptable, robust and capable of outperforming many of its competitors. It isn't the cheapest compact superzoom around, but it remedies many of the flaws in last year's model.
Edited by Charles Kloet