Thursday, January 14, 2010

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Review

Canon's SX series of PowerShot cameras this year are a lot like last year's, with the same form factor and most of the same features. The differences aren't major, and with the PowerShot SX120 IS, it offers only a slight change in resolution from its older brother the PowerShot SX110 IS, moving from 9 megapixels to 10 megapixels in the SX120 IS.

The other change is in the processing of the SX120 IS, sporting the tenable DIGIC 4 chip, which has been proven in many newer Canons to work better in low-light and to provide superior image quality and color reproduction.

That being said, the PowerShot SX120 IS has a lot going for it, even if the differences are subtle. Sometimes the small things are the biggest in stature when you're looking at them up close. That's the case here.

In the August 2009 announcement of the new PowerShot SX models, we saw the move from the SX110 IS and SX10 IS to the newer SX120 IS and SX20 IS. Some of the shared features of the SX110 IS and the SX120 IS are a 10x optical zoom, a 3.0 inch LCD, manual control, in-camera processing, the same exact dimensions and weight, and the fact that they both takes AA batteries.

The SX120 IS offers only minor changes to the SX110 IS, including advanced face detection, slightly smaller 1/2.5 inch image sensor (the SX110 IS has a 1/2.3 inch CCD) and enhanced battery life when using the power save mode. Although they haven't changed much in terms of designs or features for this model refresh, Canon's mentality is sort of like Photoshop's for their SX series it seems - keeping what people are used to using in new software, and then easing in new features with an upgrade so as not to alienate their customers.

But is the SX120 IS worth the upgrade if you already use the SX110 IS? I'll seek an answer to that question below. Skip to the third page conclusions now if you are impatient (like me).

The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is the spitting image of the SX110 IS, so not much can be said to those who already own this older generation model. It is the same size, weight and has the same exterior controls as the SX110 IS. The best way I can describe the design is to call it "boxy."

The body is constructed of hard plastic. It is sort of reminiscent of an older 35mm automatic film camera, as if Canon had left plenty of room for a film canister and crank. It feels retro grade, but again, it's the same as most of the previous generations of SX PowerShot digital cameras, so there's no new ground to be broken in design.

Though slightly chunky, the SX120 would still fit in your pocket if you were to force it enough. If you attempt ths, be careful of external flash - it's an analog pop-up that you push up with your fingers. That's an awesome feature when you want total control over the flash, but more about that further on down. It sort of looks like a pared down Micro Four Thirds camera, like the Olympus E-P1 or the Panasonic GH1, minus the interchangeable lens. Don't let that fool you, though, the SX120 offers a nice zoom range with a 36-360mm with the 10x optical zoom power.

Ergonomics and Controls
The size and weight are the same, we already know that, but the dimensions are 4.35x2.77x1.76 inches and weighing in at 8.64 oz. (camera body only) - exactly alike in both models. It has a nice handgrip on for the right hand, a mode dial with various automatic shooting modes as well as manual options like aperture priority and program auto.

The lens is retractable but still protrudes out, looking like a pancake prime lens when it's fully retracted. The shutter release also houses the zoom lever, left for wide and right for telephoto. The bottom of the SX120 is the trap door hatch for an SD/SDHC card and AA batteries. This part of the camera feels a bit chintzy, and every time I needed to change out batteries or remove my memory card it felt like I was going to break it.

The back layout of the camera is identical to the SX110 (I know you're already tired of hearing that comparison). The controls are comprised of a playback button, face detection, exposure compensation, func/set button, a scroll wheel to maneuver through the menus, a display button and direct access menu button on the very bottom, all of which are easy to use and to understand.

So you're asking yourself by now, is this the same camera as the previous model with just a new sensor size chip and a processing engine as well? The answer is, sort of, minus a few subtle nuances.

Menus and Modes
Canon doesn't often deviate from their menu system of the last five years or so, which is a good thing if you hate learning new menus every time you buy a digital camera. It is, once again, very easy to use and intuitive.

The menu, activated easily by pressing the menu button, presents the user with option tabs for camera settings or a setup menu. The setup menu exists mostly to provide access to the more advanced settings, format your memory card, or change the LCD brightness. The menu you'll utilize more often is accessed through the function button. It's especially useful in advanced shooting modes and allows you to change settings like white balance, My Colors, metering and exposure compensation without menu diving.

On the mode dial, you'll find your auto and easy mode, along with thirteen total shooting modes. It also has a specific SCN or Special Scene mode that takes you into a sub menu of seven different scenarios, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, and ISO 3200.
Here is a rundown of what is on the mode dial:

* Auto
* Easy Auto: Easiest point-and-shoot mode, it requires you to do nothing but press the shutter.
* Portrait
* Landscape
* Night Snapshot
* Kids & Pets
* Indoor
* SCN: Has the 7 different scene modes besides the others on the mode dial.
* Movie Mode

More advanced control settings are:

* Manual: Allows you to set aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and white balance, and any other factors you introduce.
* Aperture Priority: Allows you to set your aperture speed while the camera chooses the optimal shutter speed.
* Shutter Priority: Allows you to control shutter speed while the camera decides the best aperture for the conditions.
* Programmed AE: Automatically sets aperture, shutter speed, but allows you to control exposure compensation, white balance and ISO speed.

The real estate on the back of most modern point-and-shoots doesn't easily accommodate a viewfinder, and an LCD offers certain advantages. This LCD provides 100% coverage, therefore allowing you to compose the shot exactly as you want it to be. Even in some DSLRs you will often get more picture than you see in the viewfinder because the area of coverage is below 100%, sometimes making it hard to frame your shot because you don't know exactly what you're going to get. The tradeoff is that an LCD is sometimes difficult to use in direct sunlight, and an optical viewfinder is often a nice tool to fall back on in bright conditions.

The SX120 IS has a big LCD that is comparable to most cameras in its class when it comes to resolution and size. The 230,000-pixel resolution monitor is quite vibrant and bright, faithfully displays your shots in playback mode, and matches precisely what you see when you upload the same image onto your computer. Even some of the details visible on-screen while I was in the field showed me blurry areas of the frame without zooming in with the lever, making it easy for me to delete and reshoot when it was an issue.

The one issue that I did find with the LCD is the slow playback and sluggish speed between operations. The LCD is also noticeably slower in power saver mode.

The PowerShot SX120 IS is in a bit of an unusual class. It's bigger than most point-and-shoots with a 10x optical zoom. But, it's also small enough to skirt around or put it in a coat pocket, and I mostly kept it ready at the helm of my palm when I went into my local park.

Shooting Performance
Upon start up of the SX120 there is a little bit of a delay, which I would calculate to be only a few seconds, making it easy to fire it up and get the shot you need quickly. I was able to do just that.

Once you're ready to start shooting, you have a best in class shutter lag (press-to-capture) speed of 0.01 seconds. Between single shots, it took approximately 2.5-3 seconds to capture, refocus, and then capture again.

AF acquisition was a little behind the competition, ranking in third place at 0.68 seconds among four other cameras tested in our lab. Field-testing showed the camera finding AF in low light slightly slower than the controlled environment, but still fast, even in low light. The camera bumps up the ISO to utilize faster shutter speeds, often creating a pretty noisy image, even though it can focus faster in low light. I guess it's a tradeoff.

Continuous shooting results were 0.78 fps at full resolution. I tested the camera to see how consistent this was in Continuous AF mode, and the camera kept firing off way past 35 shots until my batteries were about drained. Overall continuous shooting is decent, but the shot to shot ratio is good if you want to shoot some action (but bring extra batteries if so). The shutter can be set to a maximum of 1/1600th of a second - pretty fast for a point-and-shoot.

Flash performance is good, and the SX120 IS allows for control over the intensity and exposure compensation of the flash. The best part is that you can enact it whenever you want to by simply flipping up the flash. Choices include slow synchro for less intensity and full flash for a more encompassing shot.

I thought the Slow Synchro was better and offered a more natural look, while the full flash was somewhat overbearing at close range.

The battery power is one of the biggest issues as far as performance goes. The SX120 IS is rated at 130 shots for an alkaline and 370 shot with a Ni-MH Battery. I suggest going in on some NiMHs, because field shooting and some of the tests I conducted ate up a lot of power.

Lens Performance
The SX120 IS has a 10x optical zoom and a reasonably fast f/2.8 aperture at wide angle to f/4.3 at the telephoto end. The focal range covers a 36mm wide to 360mm telephoto and has a close focusing distance at macro of 0.4 inches.

There is some barrel distortion at wide-angle with some softness around the corners of the frame.

I did find some chromatic aberration at high contrast areas, though I could only find it when I blew up the images to about 400%. Purple fringing anywhere in a photo is undesirable, but it's controlled comparatively well and doesn't pose much of a problem.

The IS in SX120 IS stands for Image Stabilization, and Canon has developed one of the best and most effective systems to date. Image stabilization can be activated for continuous, shot only and panning operation. This gives you a few stops of light so that, ideally, you don't end up with so many blurry images at telephoto focal ranges. In the case of the PowerShot SX120 IS, this statement holds true. I was able to shoot at telephoto, enact the IS and come up with a steady shot every time, even when light was scarce.

Video Quality
There's not much to write about as far as video quality, other than to say it's sufficient for standard resolution (640x480 at 30 fps). Video mode is accessed by through the mode dial.

Image Quality
Canon has built a brand on reliable cameras that are known for great image reproduction and processing. The SX120 IS can capture vibrant hues and provides several processing options with their My Colors settings. Options include default, vivid, neutral, sepia, black and white and custom color. The blues and reds captured with the SX120 were spot on, and neutral colors like green and brown differed depending on the processing prompt you were using, e.g., vivid brought out darker hues of green and brown, and neutral made colors look sort of flat.

I preferred using the vivid mode for my landscape shots and neutral for any architecture. In both cases, I got some pretty accurate shots, and was able to capture the images how I saw them.

The i-Contrast feature is among one of the new features that most camera manufacturers have developed and it's designed to bring out more highlight details in dark areas of your frame. In the case of the SX120 IS, it works perfectly. My sample shot with i-Contrast off shows a dark doorway with very little detail in the shadowed areas. With i-Contrast turned on, I got a wider range of color and detail.

Auto White Balance works great for most situations, including shaded areas and high contrast scenes. The incandescent studio shots turned out warm, but different options like daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, and custom will generally help the user find the right balance for shooting conditions.

The PowerShot SX120 IS provides three metering options:

* Evaluative: default setting that calculates light for the entire frame
* Center-weighted: factors in more emphasis to the subject in the middle of the frame
* Spot: measures only a small portion of the frame

Overall, evaluative worked for most situations and gave me a well-balanced exposure, however, when trying to emphasize contrast in a frame, you can't go wrong with spot metering.

The SX120 IS is almost exactly the same camera as the SX110 IS that was released last year at the same time, minus the processing chip, resolution and features like advanced face detection. It has the same body size and design, the same construction, operation and controls, and the same focal length.

It also shares the same purple fringing problems, ISO performance, and maximum aperture ratings at wide angle and telephoto. So is it worth the upgrade for SX110 IS owners? That's a tough call. But if you don't currently own an SX110, and you're looking for a camera with great optics, excellent image quality, full manual control, and a reasonable price tag, then the SX120 IS is a no-brainer.


* Good/faithful image quality
* Big LCD
* Good performance timings
* Full manual control
* Fast lens for its class
* Exceptional image processing


* Chromatic Aberrations/Purple Fringing
* Same design as last year's model
* ISO performance not up to snuff with other current models
* Have to use the CD-ROM to read the advanced manual

Editor's Rating: Very Good