Another day, another IXUS on the market. The already crowded point-and-shoot range from Canon has another competitor entering the fray, and one that looks as good as it performs. The 870 IS succeeds the 860 IS which polarised many because of its gawky wide-angle lens and styling. Fortunately, the 870 IS learnt from those mistakes, and is a nicer overall package to boot.
One of the guarantees with the IXUS range is that if you know how to work one, you'll know how to work them all. Take it out of the box, and you'll be instantly at home with its compact size and layout. Buttons and toggles have been given a cleaner look to fit in with the camera body, and it's a satisfyingly compact camera to hold, if a little on the heavy side. Available in a sleek silver or more opulent gold, the front panel contrasts nicely against the black behind of the camera. The 870 IS is — like a good pie — gently curved in all the right places.
The front of the camera does mark very easily though, and we're sure over time it will collect scratches and marks on it, as it already started to do after a couple of days of normal use. The in-built flash unit is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it affair — one of the slimmest versions we've seen this side of a wafer.
The 870 IS now has a thumb rest on the back, and improved buttons that are more streamlined.
At the back sits the ISO, macro/landscape, timer and flash buttons, enclosed in the control wheel, which can be used to navigate through menus and advance through photos. The wheel itself is flanked by the playback, direct print, menu and display buttons, all redesigned and enlarged from the 860 IS. All feel satisfyingly well made and provide an excellent level of feedback when pressed. There's also the addition of a thumb rest, something which was sorely lacking on the 860 IS.
As spearheaded by its predecessor, to make way for the 3-inch LCD screen, Canon has gotten rid of the optical viewfinder, much to the cries of low light shooters and battery conservers everywhere. It's a much-missed feature that really did set the IXUS range apart from many of its competitors in the past.
With a 4x optical zoom, the lens of the 870 IS is just marginally longer than its predecessor's 3.8x zoom. The megapixel count hasn't changed — 10.0 is the limit here — but the 870 IS now has the new Digic 4 processor, as shared by its older dSLR cousin, the EOS 50D.
The other point to write home about is the 28mm wide-angle lens and improved macro functionality. The lens in particular is very nice, delivering crisp and clear shots in pretty much all shooting situations. It's relatively fast, at f/2.8, but of course there are no manual controls for shutter speed and aperture to make the most of this. The 980 IS, announced at the same time as the 870 IS, will have this feature in a similarly sized compact package.
Another interesting feature is the face self timer — it's like a normal self timer, but with a twist. For those photographers who keep missing out on appearing in the shots they spend minutes painstakingly composing, the 870 IS allows you to compose the scene, press the shutter and when it detects a new face has entered the group, it takes the picture.
Performance and Image Quality
One of the first things you'll notice with the 870 IS is the power button. While it looks incredibly sleek, it's recessed a bit too far into its plastic surrounds, so pressing it takes quite a bit of effort. Apart from this fiddly beginning, the camera powers on very quickly and start to first shot time is a relatively speedy one second or so. The 3-inch LCD is bright and vivid, thanks to the PureColour technology within. Video recording at 30fps was also satisfyingly smooth.
Unfortunately, the screen doesn't cope so well in high glare or overcast situations. Outdoors on a cloudy day it was very difficult to discern composition and focus on the screen because it reflected the light so much. Like so many other screens on cameras in its class, it's susceptible to smudges and fingerprints.
Image quality is excellent though, with very little fringing and accurately reproduced shots. A lot of compact point-and-shoots would have trouble rendering high-contrast scenes like the one to the right correctly, but not the 870 IS. The wide-angle lens produces incredibly crisp images, and fortunately, the Digic 4 processor does not over-sharpen them.
However, we were surprised with the extent to which noise creeped in on photos at higher ISO levels. Images shot at ISO 400 were relatively clean, but ISO 800 saw a dramatic jump in grain and visible noise. The ISO chart below shows an incremental comparison of shots taken at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800.
Images up to ISO 400 are relatively clean, but hit ISO 800 and noise begins to seriously impact on quality. (Click for larger image)
It's an interesting development given the 870 IS shares the Digic 4 processor with the Canon 50D — proving that the image sensor and noise-reduction algorithms make as much difference as the processor does in terms of producing clean images.
Though the 870 IS isn't perfect, with its noise issues and minor design faults, it still remains an excellent compact camera. A sharp lens, fast image processing times and fantastic picture quality make the IXUS an ideal combination of style and substance.