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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot A510/A520
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 23, 2005
Last Updated: December 30, 2011

Two of the hottest digital cameras of 2004 were the Canon PowerShot A75 and A85. Both were superior to the competition thanks to their picture quality, full manual controls, and expandability. For 2005 Canon has gone even further with their replacements, the A510 ($199) and A520 ($299). Instead of slapping new model numbers on the same old thing, Canon reinvented the A75 and A85 with some great new features, which include:

The two cameras have the same resolution as the old models: 3.2 Megapixel for the A510 and 4.0 Megapixel for the A520. The only other difference between the two cameras is the color of their bodies.

This review will be a little different that most, as I will be reviewing two cameras in one review. I will be using the A520 as the "model" in the product shots. Photo tests will be from one or both cameras, depending on the test.

With that out of the way, get ready to learn more about these two cameras, which I expect to be just as popular as their predecessors.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot A510 and A520 have average bundles. Inside their respective box, you'll find:

Canon includes a 16MB MultiMedia (MMC) card with the cameras. That won't hold too many photos at the highest quality setting, so I'd advise that you buy a larger memory card right away. I'd say 128MB is a good starting size. The camera can use SD or MMC cards, though you'll get higher capacities and better performance from the former. High speed memory cards are not a necessary purchase with either of these cameras.

The A510 and A520 use two AA batteries, versus four on the A75/A85. Canon includes alkalines with the camera, which will quickly run out of juice and end up in the trash. Your best bet is to buy a four-pack of NiMH rechargeable batteries, which will last a lot longer while simultaneously saving you money (not to mention saving the environment). Using 2300 mAh NiMH batteries, you can take 300 shots per charge (using the CIPA standard), which is above average. Don't forget to get a nice, fast charger along with those batteries!

I'm a big fan of cameras that use AA batteries, because 1) they're cheaper than proprietary li-ion batteries and 2) you can use alkalines in a pinch if your rechargeables die.

There's a built-in lens cover on the A510/A520, so there are no messy lens caps to worry about.


The A510 with the HF-DC1 High Power Flash / Image courtesy of Canon, Inc.

One thing I absolutely loved about the A75/A85/A95 was just how expandable it was. Guess what, these new models have even more options! I've compiled them all into this handy chart:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens WC-DC52 $80 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.7X to 24.5 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Telephoto lens TC-DC52A $100 Boosts focal distance by 1.75X, up to 245 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Close-up lens 250D $72 Shoot at higher magnifications in macro mode (as close as 4 cm); requires conversion lens adapter
Conversion lens adapter LA-DC52F $18 Required for conversion lenses; you can attach standard 52 mm filters to it as well
Waterproof case WP-DC60 ?? Take your A510/A520 up to 40 meters underwater!
External flash HF-DC1 $100 This is a slave flash; it fires when the camera's on-board flash does; it attaches via an adapter to the tripod mount;
AC adapter ACK800 $40 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Battery/charger kit CBK4-200 $43 Includes four 2300 mAh NiMH batteries and a charger

The external flash is the new accessory offering I was referring to. It effectively doubles the flash range of the camera.


ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 22 of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software with the two A-series cameras. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows) or ImageBrowser (for Mac), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows. Zoom/ImageBrowser can be used for downloading images from your camera, basic editing of your photos, and photo printing.


ArcSoft PhotoImpression (Mac OS X)

ArcSoft Camera Suite 1.3 is also included with the A510 and A520, which contains VideoImpression and PhotoImpression for Mac and PC. Although it has a quirky interface, there are some useful tools in this easy-to-use software.

Recent Canon camera manuals have been more complex than earlier ones, but they're still above average. The manual included with the A510 and A520 is complete, but expect lots of "notes" and fine print.

Look and Feel

Despite having a more powerful zoom lens, the A510 and A520 are quite a bit smaller than their predecessors. They're still not as compact as, say, the Digital ELPH cameras, but they'll fit comfortably in larger pockets. Build quality hasn't changed much since the old models: the cameras are made of a mixture of plastic and metal, and they feel very solid considering their price. The important controls are easy to reach, though I wish the cameras had a more substantial right hand grip.

Now, here's a look at how the A510 and A520 compare with some of the competition:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A75/A85 4.0 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 12.0 cu in. 200 g
Canon PowerShot A510/A520 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 13.5 cu in. 180 g
Fuji FinePix E500/E510 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 12.5 cu in. 175 g
HP Photosmart R607 3.5 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 8.5 cu in. 132 g
Kodak EasyShare DX7440 4.0 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 17.3 cu in. 224 g
Nikon Coolpix 4200/5200 3.5 x 2.3 x 1.4 in. 11.3 cu in. 155 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P73 4.6 x 2.1 x 1.4 in. 13.5 cu in. 190 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S60 4.8 x 2.5 x 1.6 in. 19.2 cu in. 198 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W5 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 12.5 cu in. 197 g

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Jeff, didn't you just say the A510/A520 were smaller than the A75/A85? Well, yes, they are -- try them in person if you don't believe me. But if you dunk them in water (NOT RECOMMENDED), the new models will displace more water than the old ones. So don't read into those volume numbers too much!

Well that's enough about that, let's move onto our tour now. Keep in mind that I'm using the A520 as the "model" in this next section.

Two of the biggest new features on the A510 and A520 can be found on the front of the camera.

Big feature number one is the new F2.6-5.5, 4X optical zoom lens. Big zoom cameras seem to be all the rage these days, so I wasn't entirely surprised to see Canon add another "X" to the zoom here. The focal length of the lens is 5.8 - 23.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm.

Just like with the old models, you can add conversion lenses and filters to the A510 and A520. Just press the button to the lower-left of the lens and remove the ring, like so:

Then you just attach the conversion lens adapter (optional) and the filter or conversion lens of your choice! Very few entry-level cameras offer this feature!

Getting back to our tour now. To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. While this may sound boring, this is actually exciting and new feature number two. Why? Because when you zoom toward a distant subject, the flash "zooms" too! In laymans terms: it covers a wider area at wide-angle and a smaller area at telephoto, which is exactly what you want. These are the first Canon cameras to be equipped with a zoom flash.

Despite the fancy flash, the working range of the flash is 0.45 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.45 - 2.2 m at telephoto is fairly average. By attaching the optional slave flash you can effectively double this range.

To the left of the flash is the optical viewfinder and AF-assist lamp, the latter of which doubles as the self-timer lamp. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as an aid for low light focusing.

The only other item worth mentioning on the front of the camera is the microphone.

One thing that hasn't really changed since the A75 and A85 is the LCD. It's still 1.8" in size, and it has around the same resolution (115,000 pixels). The screen is bright, subjects are sharp, and motion is fluid. Low light visibility is just okay. The screen "gains up" a bit, though not as much as I would've liked. Still, you should still be able to make out your subject on the screen.

Directly above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is of average size. One thing missing here is a diopter correction knob, which is used to focus the view through the finder (pun intended).


Direct Transfer menu

Below the LCD are three buttons: Print/Share, Menu, and Function. The Print/Share button lights up when you're connected to a PC running a modern version of Windows. By pressing the button while its lit, the Direct Transfer menu opens. You can see the various options in the screenshot above.

The Menu button does just as it sounds. The Function button opens the -- get ready -- function menu:


Function menu

And here it is, the function menu. The options here include:

Time to discuss some of those items! The custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card as a reference, for perfect color in any lighting. This is one feature that far too few cameras have.

The continuous shooting feature will take up to 8 shots at 2.1 frames/second on the A510, and 6 shots at 1.7 frames/second on the A520 (my measurements, at Large/Superfine size). Believe it or not , the self-timer feature is worth a mention. More specifically, the custom self-timer feature. This lets you choose the start time (0 to 10 seconds) as well as the number of pictures taken (up to 10).

The photo effect lets you change the color or sharpness of your image instantly, and you can use it for stills or movies.

Back to the tour, now. To the right of the LCD you'll find the switch that moves between record and playback mode, the four-way controller, and the display button, which toggles the LCD and the info shown on it on and off. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, changing manual settings, and also:


Manual focus

The manual focus mode lets you set the focus yourself by using the four-way controller. A guide showing the current focus distance is shown on the LCD, and the center of the frame can be enlarged so you can make sure your subject is properly focused.

At the bottom of the photo is the door for the SD/MMC card slot. We'll have a closer look at this in a bit.

There's more to see on the top of the camera. Just below the power button is the mode dial, which has plenty of options, including:

Option Function
Automatic Point-and-shoot mode, many menu options are locked
Program mode Camera chooses shutter speed and aperture. All menu options are unlocked.
Shutter Priority (Tv) You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/2000 sec. The 1/1600 and 1/2000 sec shutter speeds are only available above F4.0 at wide-angle and F8.0 at telephoto.
Aperture Priority (Av) You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2.6 - F8 and will vary depending on the focal range used.
Full Manual You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See above for values.
Movie mode More on this later
Stitch Assist Helps you make panoramic shots
Scene mode You pick the situations and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, underwater, indoor, kids & pets, night snapshot.
Slow shutter Slows the shutter speed down
Fast shutter For stopping action
Night scene For people pictures with a night backdrop
Landscape Self-explanatory
Portrait

I said it before, and I'll say it again: one of the reasons I recommended the A75/A85/A95 so much was due to their offering of automatic and full manual modes -- so people can start off easy and can progress to more advanced techniques once they learn more about photography.

Just to the right of the mode dial is the camera's speaker. Above that is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. It takes just two seconds for the zoom controller to move the lens from wide-angle to telephoto. I counted just eight stops throughout the 4X zoom range, which makes being precise a bit challenging.

On this side of the camera you'll find the A510/A520's I/O ports, which are kept under a rubber cover. They include A/V out, USB, and DC-in (for optional AC adapter). One thing that Canon didn't improve on these new models is the USB speeds: it's the same old, slow USB 1.1 here.

There's nothing to see on this side of the camera. I should mention that the lens is at the full telephoto position in this picture (it was at full wide-angle in the previous shot).

On the bottom of the camera you'll find the plastic tripod mount, SD/MMC card slot, and battery compartment. The doors covering the two compartments are fairly sturdy, though I wouldn't try to force them. As you can see, the cameras use two AA batteries; the old models used four.

The included 16MB MMC card is shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot A510/A520

Record Mode

It takes about 2.5 seconds for the cameras to extend their lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

Autofocus speeds were about average, with focus times typically around 0.4 - 0.6 seconds when the shutter release button is halfway pressed. Focusing will take longer at the telephoto end, but I never found it to be sluggish. One area in which the A510 and A520 have gone downhill since the A75 and A85 is in terms of low light focusing performance. Despite having an AF-assist lamp, but cameras focused poorly in my tests, which was quite surprising. While you do have the ability to manually set the focus, I was expecting better from these two Canon cameras.

Shutter lag was not a problem, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speeds were good, with a delay of just under two seconds before you can take another shot, assuming you've turned off the post-shot review feature.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the two cameras:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 16MB card
(included)
Large (A520)
2272 x 1704
Superfine 2.0 MB 7
Fine 1.1 MB 13
Normal 556 KB 26
Large (A510)
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 9
Fine 893 KB 16
Normal 445 KB 33
Medium 1
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 14
Fine 558 KB 26
Normal 278 KB 50
Medium 2
1024 x 768
Superfine 570 KB 25
Fine 320 KB 45
Normal 170 KB 80
Small
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 56
Fine 150 KB 87
Normal 84 KB 138

Neither the A510 nor the A520 support the RAW or TIFF image formats.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The A510/A520's menu system looks just like the one on the old models. It's fairly basic and easy-to-navigate. The options in the record menu include:

Well, that was easy. Next!

Here now is the setup menu, which you can access from either the record or playback menu. The options here include:

An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now. Some tests were done with just one camera, others with both, so read my descriptions carefully!


A510

A520

Despite using the same settings and calibrating the white balance in the same way, there are noticeable color differences between the A510 and A520 in our macro test. The A520's colors have a bit of an orange tint, while the A510 is more bluish. I figure this is just a random white balance quirk, and not something you can draw conclusions from.

Both cameras produced very "smooth" photos of our macro test subject, with no grain or noise to be found.

You can get as close as 5 cm at wide-angle or 30 cm at telephoto while in macro mode, on both cameras. The recordable area is 60 x 44 mm at wide-angle and 84 x 63 mm at telephoto, per Canon's measurements. Buying the 250D close-up lens will lower the minimum focus distance down to 4 cm at wide-angle and 14 cm at telephoto.


A510


A520

Both cameras did a nice job with our night test shot, though the A520 is a little noisier than its lower resolution sibling. With full manual control over shutter speed, the two cameras were able to take in plenty of light. There's a bit of purple fringing, but nothing too horrible.

Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images, one camera at a time.

A510

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400

 
A520

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400

Since the A520 starts out noisier than the A510, it's not surprising that it did worse in this test. Both cameras faired poorly at ISO 200 or above, but especially the A520. These really aren't great cameras for high ISO shooting, but then again, they're cheap.

I used the A520 for the distortion test, which shows moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. The distortion test shows a bit of corner softness and vignetting (dark corners), but I did not find this to be a problem in my real world photos.

The other area in which the A510 and A520 have gone downhill when compared to the old models is in terms of redeye. Both the A75 and A85 fared well in this test, but both the A-series models did poorly. I used the A510 for the shot you see above; the A520 was just as bad. While your mileage may vary, you should probably expect to deal with redeye at least some of the time.

One thing Canon didn't mess with on the two cameras was the image quality: it's excellent. The cameras take photos that are just right in terms of sharpness: not too soft, nor too sharp. They have a nice "smooth" look to them. Colors were accurate, as was exposure. Purple fringing does rear its ugly head a little, but it's nothing that I'd consider problematic. Noise levels are low, with the A520 being just a little noisier than the A510. However, as you saw above, neither camera performed well at high ISO settings.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Look at our A510 and A520 photo galleries and print the photos as if they were your own. Then decide if their photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

Another thing that hasn't improved since the A75/A85 is (unfortunately) the movie mode. You're still stuck with the same old sluggish frame rate and time limits. I know Canon can do better, as the latest Digital ELPHs have an excellent movie mode. On the A510 and A520 you can record up to 30 seconds of 640 x 480 (10 frames/second) video with sound. By dropping the resolution to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 you'll get longer recording times (3 minutes max) and a slightly better frame rate (15 frames/second).

The included 16MB memory card holds a grand total of 22 seconds of video at the 640 x 480. Remember, no matter how large of a memory card you have, the time limits will remain the same. Those are per movie limits, so you can have lots of 30 second movies.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming, not surprisingly.

A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip. Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

I've got two remarkably similar sample movies from both cameras. You'll have to excuse the rather pedestrian subject matter (pun intended), it's been hard to get good video samples lately. Bonus points if you know where I took this!


Click to play A510 movie (4.6 MB, 640 x 480, AVI format)
Click to play A520 movie (5.0 MB, 640 x 480, AVI format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The playback mode on the new A-series cameras is just like the one on the old cameras. It's pretty good, though you probably won't be showing it off to friends.

The camera has all the basic playback features that you'd expect. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, voice annotations (60 secs), image rotation, and zoom and scroll. Playback mode is also the place to print photos when connected to a compatible Canon or PictBridge-enabled photo printer.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. This feature is pretty snappy, despite the fact that the A510/A520 don't use Canon's latest DIGIC II image processor.

By default, the cameras don't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram.

Playback speeds are decent, with a one second delay between high res photos. After using the blazing fast SD200 and SD300 (which use DIGIC II), the A510 and A520 seemed a little sluggish in this area.

How Does it Compare?

In most respects, the Canon PowerShot A510 and A520 are nice upgrades to two of my favorite cameras from 2004. However, two things have changed for the worst (low light focusing and redeye). Even so, these two cameras are still arguably the best entry-level digital cameras on the market.

First, the good news. Despite being smaller than their predecessors, the A510 and A520 offer a bigger zoom lens. Where most cameras have 3X zoom lenses, the A-series models offer a 4X zoom. Not satisfied with that? The cameras support wide-angle, telephoto, and close-up conversion lenses. A new optional feature on these models is an external slave flash, which attaches to the side of the camera. For people who take a lot of flash shots, this may be worth the $100 price. While the A-series cameras offer a new "zoom flash" feature, that doesn't necessarily translate into better flash range. It does, however, focus the light on the subject while you're shooting at the telephoto end of the lens.

One thing I really liked about the old A-series cameras was the full manual controls, and the new models have them as well. While beginners will probably stick to automatic or scene modes at first, once you learn more about photography you'll appreciate having the manual controls too. In addition to manual exposure controls, the A510 and A520 also feature manual focus and white balance. Photo quality on the cameras is excellent, with smooth photos, accurate color/exposure, and low purple fringing and noise levels (except at ISO 200 or above). Camera performance is generally good (save for an issue mentioned below), but not spectacular. It would've been nice if Canon had put the DIGIC II chip into these models, but you can't have everything. One performance area in which the cameras did better than average was in terms of battery life: you can take 300 shots per charge using NiMH rechargeable batteries.

Now, the bad news. Two things have gotten worse since the A75/A85, and a few things haven't changed when they should've. Where the old models could focus well in low light, the new models cannot. I don't know why, but they just don't like to focus in dimly lit rooms, despite having an AF-assist lamp. You've got manual focus to back you up, but you shouldn't have to use it for some of the shots where the AF failed for me. Another disappointment is in terms of flash photos -- redeye is much worse than on the older models. Some of the features that aren't any better than the old models include the sluggish, time-limited movie mode, low light LCD visibility (it's okay, but could be better), and the lack of a histogram in record mode. Some rechargeable batteries would've been nice, as well.

In conclusion, I can highly recommend the A510 and A520 to most people. However, those who take a lot of photos in dim lighting (and by that I don't mean interior lighting, I mean darker than that) or fans of redeye-free photos may be frustrated with either of the two cameras. To be fair, most of the competition has the same problems, but since the old models didn't have these problems, I'm going to knock Canon for it. If the cameras seem like a good fit for you, then check'em out.

If you're trying to decide between the A510 and A520, note these tradeoffs. The A520 will let you make larger prints and gives you more flexibility when cropping your photos. However, images are slightly noisier, especially at high ISO sensitivities. Also, the frame rate in burst mode is slower than on the A510 since there are more pixels to deal with in each photo. Remember: more pixels does not mean better photo quality!

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Other entry-level cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot A95, Fuji FinePix E500 and E510, HP Photosmart R607, Kodak EasyShare DX7440, Nikon Coolpix 4600 and 5600 (both coming soon), Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS1 (coming soon), Pentax Optio S40 and S50, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P73, DSC-S60, and DSC-W5 (the last two are also "coming soon").

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot A510 and A520 and their competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our A510 and A520 galleries.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

 

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