The Canon PowerShot SX10 IS wasn't a great superzoom, but it was one of the better ones. So it's kind of sad to see its replacement, the SX20 IS, take a couple of steps backward, delivering overall poorer performance and photo quality as trade-off for slapping an extra couple of megapixels on the box. On the bright side, it does add 720p video while retaining the ability to zoom during capture, plus a mini HDMI connector for playing your movies on an HDTV.
Keeping an almost identical body to the SX10, the SX20 remains very comfortable to hold and shoot, retaining perks like the articulated LCD and four-AA-powered operation. It's heavy, 560g, which makes it feel like a dSLR, but the big grip gives you plenty of holding room. There's a deep indented thumb rest on the back, joined by playback, exposure compensation and focus area selection buttons. Because of the darker accent plastic, the labels are easier to read than on the previous model.
The articulating screen at the back of the SX20 IS. (Credit: Canon)
On the right side of the back is a dial concentric to a four-way navigation switch with the function button in the middle. As with the SX10, we generally like the controls, but the dial feels too mushy. It doesn't respond appropriately, and it feels like it needs to spin too far or not as far for any given operation, resulting in frequent overshooting of settings. It needs better tactile feedback. The zoom switch still doesn't feel terribly exact either, a common problem with stepped zooms (these lenses don't really cover a continuous zoom range, instead stopping at a series of preset distances).
Of course, the flip-and-twistable LCD remains a user favourite, but in trade-off it's quite small — only 2.5 inches compared with the more typical 3-inchers. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) seems a bit improved over the so-so version in its predecessor. It looks pretty coarse, but we didn't experience the slow refresh issues we had with that one. But — still annoying — the camera lacks a dedicated toggle between the LCD and EVF. Instead, you have to cycle through the four different display settings: low-info LCD, detailed LCD, low-info EVF, detailed EVF. That makes it nearly impossible to quickly jump back and forth.
It's still got a dedicated movie record button with a fairly well-implemented capture interface. Canon integrated the movie resolution settings into the function menu along with the standard white balance, colour adjustment, exposure bracketing, flash compensation, metering, and still size and quality controls. Held over from the SX10, some of the more interesting features include a Face Self-timer, which shoots a specified number of seconds after a face is detected and a custom timer that lets you also specify the number of shots to take (sort of a limited intervalometer since you can only take up to 10 shots). The rest of the capabilities, for the most part, are the same as the competition. These include PASM, full auto and a handful of scene modes; our favourites are a custom setting slot on the mode dial and 3.9-inch macro and zero(!)-inch Super Macro modes. For more details on the SX20 IS's features and operation, you can download the PDF manual.
By going to 12 megapixels, the new and "improved" version of the SX10 manages to become significantly slower than its predecessor in some respects. That's in a class of cameras always struggling with poor performance. The camera powers on and shoots in about two seconds, which is acceptable, if a tad slower than everyone else. In good light it matches the SX10's 0.6-second time to focus in shoot, and in dim manages to shave 0.1 second off for 0.7 second — relatively good for this group. However, the larger files come into play for the time it takes for two consecutive shots, which increases by a full second; when you add flash, the differential rises by over 1.5 seconds to 4.1 seconds. The burst performance also drops in half, from 1.4fps to 0.7fps, but that just takes it from unusable to even more unusable. (Since EVFs black out when a shot is taken you can't verify that the subject is in the frame, making them inadequate for continuous shooting.)
The battery life is still good, though. Canon CIPA rates it at about 340 shots on alkaline batteries and 600 on NiMH, and the optical image stabiliser works as well as ever. The lens, however, narrows to f5.7 at maximum telephoto, which is quite slow; even the Olympus SP-590 UZ only narrows to f5.0 at a longer 676mm equivalent.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The SX20 IS's photos aren't bad, but they no longer stand out from the rest of the pack. Even photos shot at ISO 80 look soft and noisy, except when viewed scaled down; it looks like the poor detail resolution typical of point-and-shoot cameras, since super macro close-ups tend to look the best of the lot. While the exposure and colour look very good, the slow lens can get frustrating when shooting at the telephoto end because there never seems to be enough light. The HD movies look relatively good, though they're soft like the stills, and the ability to zoom through the whole range for video is really nice. The lens zooms quietly, too.
(Credit: Matthew Fitzgerald/CNET)
This was typical of our outdoor photos with the SX20 IS. At small sizes, most photos look sharp, but when examined closely they look noisy and mushy. This was shot at ISO 200, but the ISO 80 photos look just as bad, and our noise numbers confirm that the camera's noise at ISO 80 and ISO 100 are unusually high, even for a class of camera known for image problems. (1/80, f5.0, ISO 200, AWB, evaluative metering, 289.5mm equivalent) (Credit: Lori Grunin/CNET)
While it's a solid megazoom, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS doesn't deliver for the extra dough the way the SX10 did or than the expensive PowerShot SX1 IS still does. You probably should check out some of the cheaper options before committing.