A long zoom in a little body seems to be the big goal for camera manufacturers in 2010. The 14-megapixel PowerShot SX210 IS is Canon's entry; it's the company's most compact superzoom camera sporting a 28mm-equivalent wide-angle lens with a 14x zoom. It follows up 2009's SX200 IS, upping both resolution and zoom range and slimming down the body to a more pocket-friendly size. And though it improves on some of the prior model's controls, it still has a few design quirks that made me want to throw it across the room on occasion. Its shooting speed performance is noticeably pokey, too. On the other hand, it takes very good photos and has a nice set of manual and semi-manual shooting options. If you don't need speedy shooting and don't care about design, the SX210 IS is a compact superzoom worth considering.
The SX210 IS, which is available in black, purple and gold versions, simply looks like an extra large IXUS. The 14x zoom lens front and centre is the only thing keeping this from being slipped easily into a tight pocket; there's no problem dropping it in a handbag or coat pocket, though. Still, you'll probably want to invest in a protective case or risk scratching the fine finish of the metal shell. Like its predecessor, the SX200, Canon makes the flash pop up every time you start the camera. At least this time you can push it down and it'll stay down. (Simply putting a finger on it when powering on will keep it from coming up, too, hopefully not damaging the lift mechanism.) With the flash up, the camera is very awkward to hold because you don't really have anywhere to put your fingers. The LCD is decently bright, but it's a lower resolution than can be found on other cameras in its price range. Also, despite being 3 inches on the diagonal, you'll only be using 2.5 inches for framing your shots unless you switch to the camera's sole widescreen resolution (4320x2432 pixels).
The camera's controls are a mix of good and bad; they're also a bit small and cramped for larger hands. On top is the shutter release, a nubbin of a zoom control, and a tiny power button that's nearly flush with the body and could be difficult to locate without looking. When gripping the camera, your thumb sits on the sizeable shooting mode dial. It clicks firmly into each selection so there's little risk you'll inadvertently change modes.
With so many superzoom camera offerings, you may be tempted to skip over a 14x model like the SX210 IS. The fact is this range is able to get you much closer to your subject without the bulk of a larger lens. The fact that it's a wide-angle lens, too, gives you that much more flexibility when shooting. (Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
Directly under the dial is a dedicated record button for movies (it's programmable also should you want it to handle another task like changing ISO or white-balance settings) and a playback button. Below those is an unmarked control dial/directional pad. Touch the dial and a button description displays on screen so you know which direction to press to change flash, exposure, self timer and focus settings. The slightest touch makes it appear, so it pops up regularly while shooting, obscuring what you're trying to shoot. The dial does make for fast navigation, though, and for quick changes to aperture and shutter speed in the manual and semi-manual shooting modes. It moves freely, but you can feel individual stops when rotating it. In the centre of the dial is Canon's standard Func. Set button for accessing shooting-mode-specific options and making selections. Under the dial is a display button for changing the shooting or playback information that's shown on-screen and a menu button for basic operation settings. All in all, operation is straightforward, but you'll certainly want to read the manual, which is in PDF format on the bundled software disc.
Should you want to connect to a computer, monitor or HDTV, there are Mini-USB and Mini-HDMI ports on the body's right side. The battery and memory card compartment are on the bottom under a non-locking door; however, the door closes firmly. The battery does not charge in-camera.
Shooting options on the SX210 IS run the gamut from simple point-and-shoot options to full manual controls. The manual shooting options are better than most compact superzooms. You get semi-manual and full manual control over shutter speed and apertures as well as manual focus with a safety for fine-tuning. Apertures include f/3.1, f/3.5, f/4, f/4.5, f/5, f/5.6, f/5.9, f/6.3, f/7.1 and f/8. With the lens fully extended, you only get three of these, though: f/5.9, f/7.1 and f/8. Shutter speeds can be set from 15 seconds to 1/3200 second. There are options for setting colour saturation, sharpness and contrast, too, and the flash strength can be easily adjusted. A flash exposure lock, which adjusts flash output for what you're focused on, can quickly be activated as well; it functions well for keeping the flash from blowing out subjects.
If you just want to point and shoot, there's Canon's smart auto, which determines the appropriate settings based on the scene you're shooting. An easy mode works similarly, but heavily limits settings. Canon also put on the mode dial five popular scene selections — portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids & pets, and indoor — and a SCN choice for accessing lesser-used scene settings like low light, indoor, beach, foliage, snow, fireworks and panorama stitch assist. Canon added a Smart Shutter option to the scene mode, too; this includes a smile-activated shutter release as well as wink and face detection self-timers. Wink allows you to set off the shutter simply by winking at the camera and the face detection option will wait till the camera detects a new face in front of the camera before it fires off a shot. Both work well.
The top image was taken at ISO 3200, the bottom at ISO 6400 (the sensitivity is chosen by the camera based on lighting conditions). They're grainy, and there's visible yellow blotching in the darker areas, but at least you'll capture something if that's all you're after. (Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
In addition to the company's standard creative shooting options, Colour Accent and Colour Swap, it's introduced a couple new modes for 2010. One is a miniature effect, which blurs the top and bottom of the frame and boosts contrast and colour saturation to make subjects look like painted miniature models. It works to some degree, but is not as convincing as true tilt-shift photography, which is what the effect is based on. Another mode, fish-eye effect, is even less effective because like the miniature effect, it's just an approximation done with software of what a fish-eye lens creates. That said, they're included and can be fun to play with if only to add some interest to what would otherwise be a boring shot.
Shooting performance is generally slow, meaning it's not a good option for fast-moving subjects; this is the case for most compact cameras, however. Shutter lag — the time it takes to capture an image once the shutter release is pressed — is 0.6 second in good lighting and 0.8 second in low light. Shot-to-shot times are somewhat long, too, at 3.5 and 5.8 seconds, without and with flash, respectively. What's worse is that the camera actually feels slow. From off to first shot is two seconds (good for a compact superzoom camera) and its continuous shooting rate is a lowly 0.5 frames per second.
(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 SX210 IS' photo quality is very good bordering on excellent; there are definitely some issues. Photos from compact digital cameras tend to noticeably soften at ISO 200, and that's what happens with this Canon. However, the drop off is subtle and noise amounts are low, so 13x19-inch prints of lightly cropped or uncropped images are certainly possible. Canon claims you can crop and enlarge portions of shots for prints up to 16.5x23.4 inches. You can certainly do that, but it's doubtful you'll be happy with what you get. The biggest problem is that photos will occasionally look over-processed and digital. Cropping in only makes this more visible in prints.
The manual shooting options on the SX210 are better than most compact superzooms. (Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
As you head to the higher sensitivities (ISO 400 through 1600) details get increasingly softer, but are still strong enough to make a solid A4-sized print. Its low-light photos aren't as good as those from Sony's Cyber-shot HX5V, but only slightly. On the other hand, the SX210's lower ISO shots are a touch above the Sony's. Canon has renamed its High ISO mode to Low Light to help alleviate some people's confusion about the setting. The mode captures 3.5-megapixel photos at ISOs from 400 to 6400. The results are predictably grainy and there's visible yellow blotching in the darker areas of photos, but at least you'll capture something if that's all you're after.
The SX210 can focus as close as 2 inches to a subject in macro mode. The results are very good, though they can look somewhat oversharpened. (Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
There is some asymmetrical distortion on the left side, with the lens visible at its widest position. When the lens is extended there is slight pincushion distortion, but it's barely discernible. The SX210 exhibits a high amount of fringing around high-contrast subjects. It's typical of compact cameras, but the amount is above average for its class.
The SX210 exhibits a high amount of fringing around high-contrast subjects, such as the streak of purple running down this tree trunk and scattered throughout the image around the leaves and branches. The tree trunk looks fairly flat and processed, too, which doesn't help things. (Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
Colour performance is a strong point with the SX210 IS. Everything turns out bright, well saturated and reasonably accurate. Exposure is generally good, though it really struggles with highlights, blowing them out every chance it gets. White balance is fairly accurate, too, but auto goes really warm indoors. You're better off selecting the appropriate preset for your lighting or using a custom setting.
(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
Video quality is on par with an HD pocket video camera. You do get use of the optical zoom while recording and the lens movement doesn't get picked up much by the stereo mic. Worth noting is the camera's dynamic image stabilisation option that helps control shake when running alongside a moving subject. It does in fact help, but is only effective when the lens is in its widest position.
As pocketable superzooms go, the Canon PowerShot SX210 IS is a solid choice for those looking for more shooting control as well as a reliable Auto mode. Most of the issues we have are with its design, which keeps it from receiving a higher rating. (It's a marked improvement over the SX200 IS, however.) The noticeably slow shooting performance is also a problem; we can't recommend this for those needing to capture photos of anything that's moving. Nonetheless, its photo quality is very good and the manual and semi-manual controls are better than you'll find from competing models.