If you want a high-quality, dependable digital SLR, then Canon's EOS range is a good place to start looking. The latest model from the manufacturer is the EOS 600D. At around £630 for the body only and £700 for the camera together with an 18-55mm lens, the 600D is reasonably priced for a fairly high-end dSLR. But does it bring anything new to the table or is it just a minor refresh of last year's model, the price of which has now fallen significantly?
At first glance, last year's EOS 550D and the 600D look almost identical, notwithstanding a few variations in the leather-look grip and the mode dial. Turn the 600D around, however, and you'll find a somewhat more significant change in the new design -- the 600D comes with a flip-out LCD screen, not unlike the sort you find on a camcorder.
The 3-inch display is larger than average and of exceptionally high quality, offering more than a million pixels of detail, as well as natural colours and good contrast levels. It's great for viewing your snaps after you've shot them.
The screen's horizontally pivoting hinge allows you to tilt the panel up or down as well as twist it around. That makes it extremely useful for high- and low-angle shots, and comes in handy for video work too.
Since the 600D is a dSLR, many of its users are likely to favour using a viewfinder to compose their shots. Thankfully, the 600D offers an excellent optical viewfinder to squint through. It has approximately 95 per cent coverage and features a useful selection of read-out data, including autofocus points and ISO sensitivity.
Flipping screens aside, the 600D's design is slightly devoid of personality. At just over half a kilo, the 600D's curvy body is lighter and more compact than some of its more obese rivals, but it's still far from gazelle-like, and adding glassware soon piles on the pounds.
Canon's friendly, approachable design is beginning to look rather tired compared to the stylish, modern or retro-looking models you'll find elsewhere. We wish Canon would find a way of making its consumer dSLRs feel less plasticky.
Help at hand
Although it isn't pitched as an entry-level dSLR, the 600D is relatively easy to use and comes with many features that will be appreciated by casual snappers and those seeking to learn the ropes as they go. A full auto mode is available, while the 'basic+' and 'creative auto' modes let you automate some settings and experiment with others. Many of the camera's functions come with useful on-screen explanations to help you make the most of what it has to offer.
Program, aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes are all available, as is full manual control. These settings are all selectable via the top-mounted dial, along with 'auto depth of field', portrait, landscape, macro, movie and other modes.
The camera's menus are all logically arranged and easy to navigate. The 600D uses a familiar arrangement of controls, with a five-way direction pad and plenty of dedicated function buttons, many of which undertake double duty, depending on the camera's mode of operation.
The camera also offers an accessory hotshoe, pop-up flash (with red-eye reduction) and support for SDXC memory cards. An HDMI output and a socket for an external microphone are welcome extras, particularly since the 600D is so adept in the video department.
High-definition video at both 1080i and 720p resolutions is supported, at a range of different frame rates -- 30, 25 and 24 -- depending on the effect you're after. You also get the benefit of autofocus when you're shooting movies, should you wish to use it, as well as stereo sound.
Overall, the movie quality is very good for a dSLR and streets ahead of your average compact camera, although the maximum file size for any single clip is 4GB, which is rather limiting for those who like to film long takes.
As for photos, the 600D is equipped with a large, APS-C-sized image sensor with an 18-megapixel resolution. An advanced 14-bit image processor, ultra-high ISO sensitivity -- up to a theoretical ISO 12,800 -- and a nine-point autofocus round out its specs.
The 600D is pretty fast -- it's ready to use more or less as soon as you've switched it on and can shoot continuously in bursts of 3.7 frames per second.
The image quality is exceptionally good too. Detail is ultra-plentiful, with warm, rich colours and only minimal grain, even in areas of shadow. Skin tones are attractive and realistic and, although our test lens was basic, we were able to make full use of the 600D's creative tools to take some great-looking photographs.
Most impressive of all is the camera's performance in low-lit environments. It may pop up the flash if it's set to auto, but often you can get some stunning interior shots without it. A number of our test photos were taken in a north-facing room in the late afternoon, with only limited ambient sunlight. The shots, which were taken at ISOs of between 500 and 800, look amazingly noise-free, crisp and detailed, with perfectly pitched colours.
The Canon EOS 600D isn't much to look at, but it's a great performer, and its creative features and helpful nature make it an excellent choice for both beginners and enthusiasts looking to replace an older dSLR. We wouldn't necessarily recommend it as an upgrade from its immediate predecessor, but its versatility, video capabilities and twisting screen all help to make it a highly desirable snapper.
Edited by Charles Kloet