Sunday, January 3, 2010

Canon PowerShot G11

Canon PowerShot G11

It really feels as though Canon's trying to recapture the past, or at least make up for some possibly poor decisions it's made over the past few years. For instance, though in many ways it bears little resemblance to the five-year-old PowerShot G6, that was the last G-series model with an articulated LCD, a feature beloved by many of the series' fans. And though last year's G10 jumped to 14.7 megapixels, bringing with it an increase in noise--anathema to the pixel peepers who play with these models--the new PowerShot G11 drops back to the 10-megapixel resolution of the several-generations-old G7. And these choices seem to pay off.

With the same body, a similarly sized sensor, and the same lens as its predecessor, it's unsurprising that the G11 looks and feels almost identical to the G10. Keeping with its historical design, the metal body feels quite solidly constructed. As with the G10, I wish the grip were just a tad larger; the thumb rest feels kind of slippery and I never feel absolutely secure shooting one handed. While it's not nearly as sleek as a lot of the enthusiast models coming out these days, such as the Olympus E-P series or Canon's own S90, the larger size does allow the G11 to accommodate a sizeable, useful optical viewfinder and big, easy-to-turn dials.

Though I have some quibbles, shooting with the G11 feels as quick, fluid, and comfortable as you'd expect from its class. The camera retains the four-way switch (for setting manual focus, macro, flash, and drive mode) with a Function/Set button nested inside the navigational scroll wheel on the back. Last year, I said of the G10's similar controller, "Like the G9 and the G7 before it, the G10 uses a four-way switch plus Set/Function button, which is surrounded by a scroll wheel.

I love the scroll wheel, but find I tend to accidentally hit one of the Manual focus, macro, drive mode, or flash switch when I'm trying to press the middle button." Canon seems to have tweaked the design of the wheel, and I find it even more troublesome: now I frequently press one of the switches while I'm scrolling as well. It's especially difficult to control in cold weather with numb fingers. And in movie capture mode, scrolling the wheel turns on the how-often-could-you-possibly-want-to-do-this Color Accent feature; given how easy it is to accidentally scroll, shooting videos can be pretty annoying.

Canon stacks the mode dial inside the ISO sensitivity dial for right-hand operation and has an exposure compensation dial on the left. In addition to giving the camera a retro feel, the dials on the G10 are really practical and much faster to use than even direct-access buttons, which always require at least some navigation. There's also a new Quick Shot mode, which provides an interactive control panel interface that's become common on dSLRs.

Unfortunately, Quick Shot mode is a semiautomatic program mode that activates continuous autofocus and face detection, so you can't access this panel while shooting in shutter- or aperture-priority or manual modes. (And leaving the camera in continuous AF mode is a great way to drain the battery.)

Features that I've liked for generations thankfully remain: a built-in neutral-density filter, two slots on the mode dial for custom settings, capability to change the size of the AF area, a hot shoe, exposure lock, raw support, and the bayonet adapter mount for add-on lenses. Still, it takes a hit for what it doesn't have: decent video capabilities. VGA at 30fps without optical zoom doesn't cut it these days. (You can download the PDF manual for a full accounting of the G11's features and operation.)

Performance is roughly equivalent to its predecessor; it's above average for its class, but still a bit slower than I think people should get for a camera in its price range. CNET Labs' testing shows time to first shot is 2 seconds, slower than before. In bright light, a relatively quick focus helps keep the shutter lag to a zippy-for-its-class 0.4 second. In dim light, that increases to a 0.7 second, about 0.1 second faster than the G10.

Two shots in a row have a relatively large 2.5-second gap between, however, slower than the past couple of generations, and adding flash recycle bumps that to a not-very-speedy 2.9 seconds. Continuous shooting drops to 1.1fps, down from the G10's 1.4fps. As before, though the AF system is pretty responsive, no one would confuse this with an SLR. The 2.8-inch LCD is big and bright; it's a hair smaller than the G10's but you don't really notice, and thanks to the flip-and-twist design, it's really useful.

When it comes to image quality, the drop in resolution seems to be worth the trade-off; the G11's photos display far less noise above ISO 200 than the G10's. Photos look clean at ISO 80 and ISO 100, but softening begins at ISO 200.

At ISO 400 you can begin to see some degradation in detail, in addition to the softness, and by ISO 800 there's enough blue-channel noise to produce some yellow splotches. ISO 400 was a bit disappointing for this class of camera, especially given the drop in resolution.

There's still sufficient detail for a lot of scenes, but you also see the yellow blotches and some white pixels from the noise suppression. Depending upon scene content, ISO 800 shots may be usable scaled down a bit. Switching to raw at high-ISO sensitivities didn't help much (processing using either Adobe Camera Raw or Canon's Digital Photo Pro); the JPEGs are fairly well optimized.

Color and exposures are great, and perhaps a tad better than before. There's some typical wide-angle distortion at the 28mm-equivalent maximum, but photos have very good center and edge-to-edge sharpness at longer focal lengths.

There are lots of reasons to opt for the Canon PowerShot G11 over the sleeker, slightly less expensive S90, including the optical viewfinder, articulated LCD, hot shoe, add-on lens support, and longer zoom. That makes it frustrating that the lens on the S90 is better in some ways, such as its wider maximum aperture. And while it doesn't have the cachet of one of the newer interchangeable-lens models, it doesn't have the price tag, either, and like those, it still admirably fulfills the promise of being a camera worth toting when a dSLR is too clunky.