DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot A40
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Monday, April 1, 2002
Last Updated: Friday, August 30, 2002

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The Canon PowerShot A40 ($299) is the latest 2.0 Megapixel entry-level camera from Canon. It replaces the popular PowerShot A20 (see our review), and is one of the most full-featured entry-level cameras I've seen. I'll go into more detail later.

Some of the new features include:

  • Real manual control over shutter speed and aperture
  • User-selectable ISO of 50-400
  • Vivid & Neutral color modes
  • Low sharpening mode
  • Improved playback zoom feature
  • Movie mode (the A10/A20 didn't have one!)

Find out more about this camera in our review!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot A40 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 2.0 (effective) Mpixel Canon PowerShot A40 camera
  • 8MB CompactFlash card
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions 8.0 and Arcsoft Camera Suite
  • 177 page manual (printed)

The A40's bundle is sort of hit and miss. Since I like complaining, I'll start with the misses first. The 8MB CompactFlash card is on the small side, and won't hold a whole lot of photos. So I recommend buying a 32MB card at the very least.

Along those lines, Canon only includes alkaline batteries, which quickly die and end up in the trash (please recycle them!). My advice: two sets of NiMH batteries, which will last much longer. Canon estimates that you'll get about 350 shots (with mixed LCD use) with those alkalines, versus about 675 with the NiMH batteries. Oh, and NiMH batteries are much cheaper in the long run, too.

Now onto the happier news. The PowerShot A40 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no worries about lens caps.

The PowerShot A-series cameras are some of the most expandable out there. Want a wide-angle, telephoto, or macro conversion lens. You've got it (with optional conversion lens adapter). Want to take pictures underwater? The WP-DC200S waterproof case ($240) will let you take the A40 up to 100 feet underwater! About the only accessory you can't buy is an external flash.

Canon's Digital Camera Solutions Software has always been one of my favorites, and that's true still. It's easy to use and has all the necessary functions. The PhotoStitch software is great for making panoramas, while RemoteCapture lets you control the A40 via the USB connection.

All is not good in Mac OS X land, though. As of this writing, the A40 is not compatible with Mac OS X's Image Capture application (and therefore iPhoto), and neither is the software I just mentioned (it just quits when loaded). Good news is on the horizon, however: version 9.0 of the software, which came with the PowerShot S330 Digital ELPH, has Mac OS X native versions of ImageBrowser and PhotoStitch, and it works fine with the A40. I'm sure you will be able to get this new software from Canon if you ask. It does exist. (The camera appears to be fully Windows XP compatible.)

The A40's manual has received a bit of a tune up. Canon produces some of the easiest manuals to comprehend, and that has not changed here.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot A40 is a surprisingly hefty plastic camera. It's not quite as big as, say, the PowerShot G2, but it's closer to that than the Digital ELPH. It will fit in most pockets but I wouldn't call it pocket-sized either. The camera is easy to hold with one hand or two.

The body is made of high grade plastic, and feels like it could take whatever you throw at it. (But please don't throw the camera.) The official dimensions of the A40 are 4.3 x 2.8 x 1.5 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 250 grams empty. For the sake of comparison, the all-metal PowerShot S330 Digital ELPH is 3.7 x 2.5 x 1.2 inches and weighs 245 grams.

Let's start our tour of the A40 with the front of the camera. The A40 has the same F2.8, 3X optical zoom as all the A10/20/30. It has a focal range of 5.4 - 16.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. While the lens itself is not threaded, you can remove the outermost silver ring using the dark gray button you can see below the lens. That will allow you to attach the conversion lens adapter, which will let you attach those conversion lenses I was telling you about.

Directly above the lens is the microphone. You can probably tell from its location that you won't be able to use the zoom in movie mode.

At the top right is the built-in flash. The working range of the flash is 0.76 - 4.2 m at wide-angle, and 0.76 - 2.5 m at telephoto. Canon has pulled off a neat trick with this flash: inside the flash, there's an orange light which is used as a pre-flash for redeye reduction, as an AF illuminator (for low light focusing), and as a self-timer lamp. This is the first time I've seen this.

Here now is the back of the A40. If you like multifunction buttons, this is your camera. Almost every button does at least one other thing.

The A40 has a 1.5" LCD, which is a bit smaller than average (especially considering that the camera isn't that small), but generally the image quality is very good. When there isn't enough light, sometimes the LCD gets grainy.

Straight above the LCD is a large optical viewfinder. There is no diopter correction, however.

Now I'm going to go over each of those buttons around the LCD. I will start with the five buttons below the LCD, from left to right:

  • Set {menus} / Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, on, off, on w/redeye reduction, slow-synchro) {record}
  • Left {menus} / Drive (Single-shot, continuous shooting, self-timer) {record}
  • Right {menus} / Focus (Normal, macro, portrait, landscape) {record}
  • Menu {record/playback}
  • On/off

Just a quick note about two of these. Continuous shooting mode will shoot at a rate of 2.5 frames/second, until the buffer is filled up. Self-timer can be 2 or 10 seconds, which is determined in the menu.

No, the two buttons to the right of the LCD:

  • Display {record/playback} - turns LCD on/off
  • Manual controls / Exposure compensation / White balance / Photo effect {record} / Delete photo {playback}

The A40 has a real manual mode, which I'll touch on in just a second. Exposure compensation is the usual -2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments. White balance has the following choices: Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, and two fluorescent modes. Nope, no manual white balance here. The photo effect feature is borrowed from the PowerShot G2 and offers the following choices: Vivid color, neutral color, low sharpening, sepia, and black & white. I've got examples of the first two in the gallery.

Let's get back into the tour. The mode wheel, seen to the right of all those buttons, has the following choices:

  • Playback
  • Auto record mode
  • Program mode
  • Manual mode
  • Stitch Assist
  • Movie mode

I'll cover most of these later, but a few notes now.


A real manual mode on a $299 camera! Who'd have thought?

In auto record mode, the camera has control over basically all the settings, except for basics like flash, macro, self-timer, and quality. Switching into Program mode gives you full access to all camera settings, though the A40 will still pick the best exposure settings for the picture. Manual mode gives you access to the same settings as in program mode, but adds the ability to set the shutter speed or aperture manually. The shutter speed choices range from 15 to 1/1500 second, while you'll have two aperture choices, somewhere between F2.8 and F14. These kind of manual controls have been unheard of on entry-level cameras until now.

Stitch assist mode will help you create panoramic shots, which you'll complete using the PhotoStitch software I mentioned earlier.

The final item on the back of the camera is the zoom control, which is perfectly placed for your thumbs. The zoom mechanism is a bit noisy, but is smooth and precise.

Finally, we're moving on, to the top of the camera. The only thing up here is the shutter release button. I would have liked to see an LCD info display up here, so you don't have to use the main LCD to check basic settings.

Here is one side of the camera. Under that rubber cover, you'll find the I/O ports. Let's take a closer look.

From top to bottom: USB, A/V out, DC in (for optional AC adapter).

On the other side of the camera, you'll find (behind a plastic door) the CompactFlash slot. This is a Type I slot, so no Microdrives. Also over here is a clock battery, which hopefully you won't need to replace.

On the bottom of the camera, you'll find a plastic tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. Those four AA's seem to contribute a lot to the weight of the camera.

Using the Canon PowerShot A40

Record Mode

It takes about 3.5 seconds for the A40 to extend the lens and "warm up", before you can start taking pictures. When you press the shutter release button halfway, the camera generally locks focus in less than a second. A few times I got the blinking lights of "focus difficulty" but that was usually at closer shots, and macro mode solved the problem. When you press the shutter release all the way down, the picture is taken after a short, yet noticeable lag. Shot-to-shot speed isn't spectacular -- you'll wait about 4 seconds before you can take another shot (Fine quality).

Speaking of quality, let's take a look at the resolution and quality choices available on the A40.

Resolution Compression # shots on 8MB card
(included with camera)
# shots on 64MB card
(for comparison)
Large
1600 x 1200
Superfine 7 64
Fine 11 100
Normal 24 200

Medium
1024 x 768

Superfine 16 135
Fine 24 205
Normal 46 379
Small
640 x 480
Superfine 35 288
Fine 50 415
Normal 87 707

There is no uncompressed TIFF or RAW mode available on the A40.

Now let's talk menus. The A40 has an easy-to-use menu system, though I wish the camera had a four-way switch instead of just left and right. Here's what you'll find in the menus.

  • Resolution (see chart above)
  • Compression (see chart)
  • Light Metering (Evaluative, spot)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400) - in auto mode, the camera will choose from 50-150.
  • AiAF (on/off) - when on, the camera chooses one of three focus areas. When off, the camera focus in the center of the frame.
  • Digital zoom (on/off)
  • Self-timer (2 or 10 sec)
  • Review (Off, 2 sec, 10 sec) - how long the shot is shown on LCD after it's taken. You can hold it as long as you want by keeping the shutter release button held down when you take the shot.
  • AF-assist beam (on/off) - turn on the AF illuminator
  • File number reset (on/off)
  • Beep (on/off)
  • Format
  • Setup (sleep timer, date, video out system)

Before I talk about photo quality, I want to address one issue that a few readers brought to my attention. Apparently there are some people who are saying that either the optical viewfinder and/or CCD are mis-aligned on their A40, causing all their pictures to be "off" by a degree or two. I've only one example, and it was a handheld shot, so it's hard to tell if there's really a problem.

I set out to test my A40 and see if I had any problems. After leveling my target, tripod, and camera, I took several test shots with the A40 and 3 other cameras (including the EOS-D60), and found no problem with the A40. Perhaps there are some bad ones out there, but mine is not one of them.

Okay, on to photos now!

My usual night shot location was fogged in (night after night) so I ended up here at City Hall. My first reaction was -- holy smokes, a cheap camera that can take night shots -- then I remembered that you have full control over the shutter speed. You could probably pull off a brighter shot than this if you had used a longer shutter speed than I did (3.2 seconds), but it's pretty good nonetheless.

There's a bit of noise in the photo (the ISO was 50) but it's not bad at all for a $299 camera. It's no D60 (which took an incredible 30 second exposure of the same scene), but it's also several times cheaper.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's our new plastic fruit and vegetable basket! I hope to take this shot (using only natural light through the window) in each review. It was taken on a tripod with the self-timer on.

Now back to our regular program. Though I had to find a good distance from the subject, I finally got the A40 to take this shot well. The colors are right on and the subject is nice and sharp.

Overall, the photo quality on the A40 was excellent. Colors were usually right on, images well-exposed, and there was no sign of chromatic aberrations (purple fringing). But don't take my word for it, check out the photo gallery and judge for yourself!

Movie Mode

Though I can't think back that far, the A10 and A20 didn't actually have a movie mode. So here's another new feature. The A40 can record videos with sound at two different resolutions, though your clips will be short.

Movies can be recorded at 320 x 240, or 160 x 120, at a rate of 20 frames/second. Clips can be as long as 10 secs at 320 x 240, or 30 secs at 160 x 120. This is regardless of the size of your memory card. If your card fills up before the time is up, the camera will stop filming.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, the zoom is disabled during filming, so you'll want to set that before you start.

After a bit of a delay, here's a sample movie:


Click to Play Movie (3.1MB, AVI format)

Can't play it? Download Quicktime.

Playback Mode

The playback mode on the PowerShot cameras has always been quite good. Slideshows, image protection, thumbnail mode, and zoom & scroll are all there. So is DPOF print marking -- and you can use the Direct Print function to print directly to Canon photo printers.

In addition, you can rotate photos inside the camera, saving a trip to the photo editing software.

The zoom and scroll feature has been greatly improved on the A40. You can now zoom in as much as 10X into your image, and quickly scroll around in it. This is useful for checking that the focus is correct in your photos. I found myself wanting a real four-way switch in this mode, as scrolling with only left and right is frustrating.

Another improvement on the A40 is the added detail about your photos, as you can see above. The camera moves through high resolution images in just over one second, making it pretty speedy.

If I have one complaint, it's that you can't delete a group of photos -- it's one or all.

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot A10 and A20 were popular entry-level cameras, and I expect the new A40 to do just as well. The A40 is a rare beast: a low cost camera with real manual controls! It's also well-built, easy to use, fairly small, and Canon's software is excellent. On the downside, there's a bit of shutter lag, there's no Mac OS X support (yet), and I wish it had a four-way switch. Aside from that, there's really little to complain about. The A40 is a topnotch camera for beginners and amateurs alike.

What I liked:

  • Has features normally found on more expensive cameras (shutter/aperture control, for example)
  • Very good photo quality
  • Impressive night shots for a cheap camera
  • Easy to use in point-and-shoot or manual modes
  • Excellent software bundle
  • Supports external lenses, underwater case

What I didn't care for:

  • No Mac OS X support (yet)
  • No rechargeable batteries included
  • I wish it had a four-way switch

Other low cost, zoom-capable cameras I recommend looking at include the Canon PowerShot S330 Digital ELPH, Fuji FinePix 2600Z and 2800Z, Minolta DiMAGE X, Nikon Coolpix 2500 and 775, Olympus D-520Z, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P50 and DSC-P51, and the Toshiba PDR-M25.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the A40 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Don't miss Steves Digicams review of the PowerShot A40.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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