Costing two-thirds of the way towards a grand, it's slightly silly to call this an entry-level camera, but that's precisely how Canon's describing it. As a 'first choice for those starting their dSLR adventures', it offers specs that would have been impossibly expensive just five years ago, including the first touch-enabled screen on any dSLR.
The Canon EOS 650D will set you back around £615 for just the body or £660 including an 18-55mm kit lens. So how does it shape up in the face of intense competition from cheaper highly-specced cameras?
Touchscreen and menus
Touchscreens are fairly common outside of the dSLR market, but this is the best I've used on any camera. It's extremely responsive and even the small controls in the main menus are easy to address accurately with a tap of your finger or thumb.
The screen itself is articulated on both planes. You can flip it out and tilt it so you can do overhead or low-down shots and still see how you're framing your subject, or turn it around so that it's facing towards the lens for timed self-portraits and group shots. More usefully, you can fold it back on itself so it covers the back of the body like the more conventional, less versatile screens found on the EOS 550D and earlier.
Wisely, unless you enable 'tap to fire', Canon has locked off most of the touch features outside of the menus so you don't press them with your nose when you hold the eyepiece to your face. The Q menu button in the lower corner remains active and opens up the most common shooting settings to save you a trip to the menus. If you don't get on with touch control, you can turn it off.
The menus are extensive and well thought out, with features broken down into logical tabbed groups. If you frequently find yourself using just a subset of the main options, you can group them together onto a bespoke 'My Menu' so you can find them without navigating the complete set of options.
Beyond the touchscreen, there are plenty of controls scattered about the body on physical buttons and dials. Canon's had since the launch of the 300D in summer 2003 to perfect the button layout, and it's now at the point where every shooting control falls easily under a finger (the menu and info buttons wisely sit out of the way).
650D and its rivals
Canon has taken a softly-softly approach to evolving the entry-level digital EOS, so while it's disappointing, it's no great surprise to see that the resolution remains the same as it was on both the 550D and 600D. It has 18 megapixels (5,184x3,456 pixels), arranged across an APS-C-sized sensor with a crop factor of 1.6x -- the amount by which you need to multiply the focal length of any lens to work out its 35mm equivalent. That makes the 18-55mm kit lens I used in my tests work like a 28.8-88mm zoom.
There's been no change in the shutter speed range, which stands at 1/4,000 second at the fastest and 30 seconds at the slowest, plus a bulb option. Continuous shooting has been given a boost though, increasing from a maximum of 3.7 frames per second to 5fps, although the maximum number of frames you can shoot at this level has dropped from 34 JPEGs to just 22. If you're shooting raw, you'll have to pause after 6, as was the case with the 600D.
However, sensitivity now stretches to ISO 12,800 in regular use, extendable to ISO 25,600. Naturally, at ISO 12,800, there's a fair degree of noise in the image, with both heavy grain and some false colours appearing in images. Halving the sensitivity to ISO 6,400 fixes the colour noise, and by the time you get down to ISO 3,200, the grain is easy to overlook. Although you wouldn't want to rely on the upper reaches too often, low-light performance is good.
I performed my tests with the EOS 650D set to shoot raw files with JPEG sidecars and used the raw originals for my analysis. The camera was set in Aperture Priority throughout so I could control depth of field while it handled all other shooting conditions. ISO was set to auto, except when I was testing low-light performance.
On the whole, the results were excellent. Sharp contrasts were a particular high point, with the 650D balancing extremes of both shadow and highlight. Even where the focal point was brighter than its surroundings, as is the case in the window below, it didn't dial down the exposure to such a degree that detail and colour were lost from the darker portions.
Punchy colours remained bold under all lighting conditions, including under dim and artificial light, when it was forced to increase the sensitivity.
In scenes with less striking colours, or where the colours showed a lesser degree of variation, such as the wall below, which is a fairly uniform beige in both the brickwork and the mortar, the results accurately showed fine detail and an impressive degree of texture, despite the narrow tonal palette. Likewise, the subtle shifts in the colour of the sky remain accurate and true to the original scene.
It's tempting to compare the 650D directly with its most obvious competitor -- the Nikon D3200. With a 24.2-megapixel resolution, the latter outguns the Canon by 34 per cent. It's disappointing that Canon hasn't hiked the resolution in its last two cameras in the range, but we should remind ourselves that pixels aren't everything. The level of detail captured by the 650D's 18-megapixel sensor is truly impressive, even when using the entry-level kit lens.
In the shot below, the main point of focus is the bold rusting strut of a beach lighthouse, and it's naturally brought out a high degree of detail in both the decaying ironwork and walkway above. However, at the same time, there's plenty of supplementary points of interest cleanly resolved, such as the cobweb catching the sun (A), the last few flakes of paint (B), and some trapped insects (C).
Likewise, the pollen dust on the flower below is extremely fine grained and it's easy to make out that this is powder, rather than just a general colour effect, both where it's fallen on the petals and on the stamen themselves.
It's extremely quick to lock the focus and the results at the centre of the frame are very sharp. However, there is a fall-off as you move towards the edges of the frame when using the 18-55mm lens. Some of my results also exhibited a subtle degree of chromatic aberration, which is an inaccurate fringing of sharp edges such as the roof of the lighthouse below, where they form a sharp contrast. Naturally, your experience here will be dependent upon your choice of lens.
The 650D shoots HD movies at a choice of either 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, or 1,280x720 pixels at 60 or 50fps. It also has a 640x480-pixel option at 30 or 25fps. The maximum movie duration is 29 minutes 59 seconds or 4GB -- whichever limit you hit sooner. There's a dedicated movie position on the power switch that locks open the shutter and activates live view.
The soundtrack is recorded in stereo and you have a choice of either automatic or manual volume control. A pair or level meters show you the current volume, while a fine-grained slider lets you drag the setting higher or lower. Naturally, there's also wind noise reduction built in, which you can enable or disable as you choose.
This attention to detail really paid off, with an excellent, clean soundtrack and only a hint of wind noise in extreme conditions, such as when recording in a tunnel close to the sea.
Colours were true to the originals and action was smooth and accurate. It compensated well for changing light levels in most conditions, although it exhibited a slight lag on some occasions. At one point, however, when compensating for a rapid change from dark to light, as seen in the movie below, the transition was stepped rather than smooth.
On the whole, though, it put in a good movie performance and would have made it into our list of the best dSLRs for video.
With a built-in touchscreen, faster processor and improved video performance, the 650D represents a significant step up from earlier EOS models -- particularly if you compare it with the 500D or anything older. If you currently use a more recent entry-level EOS, then apart from the screen, upgrading will also bring you a faster burst mode, a higher maximum sensitivity setting and an improved movie mode. If you already have a handful of EF or EF-S lenses, you can pick it up as a body-only deal for around £600.
However, at that price it's still significantly undercut by the Nikon D3200, which sells at around £470 with a lens or £440 without. You won't get the touchscreen, which really is the 650D's trophy feature, and burst speed is 20 per cent slower while maximum sensitivity is lower. But in other respects it gives the Canon a good run for less money.
The mid-priced market is increasingly squeezed. At one end you have the considerably more expensive professional cameras, like the EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800, but at the other you have a healthy crop of interchangeable lens compacts like the Sony Alpha NEX-5N and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5. The latter offer a wide range of lenses and higher resolutions at similar or lower prices, with the added benefit of a smaller body.
If you've already invested in the Canon platform and have a kit bag of lenses that you'd otherwise have to replace, it's worth buying the 650D -- it's Canon's best consumer dSLR to date. If you haven't, then you've got the luxury of choice. The lower price of the Nikon D3200 offsets the features you'll be missing, but the more advanced Canon will likely have longer-lasting appeal.
Editor's note, 6 September 2012: This review has been updated following further in-depth testing but the score remains the same.