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Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot SX1 isn't just a super zoom digital camera -- it's also a video camera capable of recording Full HD video. In the past, hybrid cameras have been just so-so, but the PowerShot SX1 takes good quality stills and very nice HD movies. Add in a rotating LCD, manual controls, snappy performance, and lots of point-and-shoot features, and you end up with a hybrid camera that's done the right way. The SX1 isn't perfect, though: it's expensive, with a low resolution EVF, bizarre manual exposure options, and images that have a bit too much purple fringing for my taste. If you need a camera capable of taking HD movies, then the PowerShot SX1 is worth a look. If you want a capable super zoom camera with a more conventional movie mode, then you can save $200 by purchasing the PowerShot SX10 instead.

The PowerShot SX1 is a fairly large and somewhat heavy super zoom camera. It's made of a mix of metal and plastic, and it feel solid in your hands. The camera is easy to hold, thanks to a large right hand grip. Be sure to keep an eye on your left hand, though, as you can block the AF-assist lamp easily. The SX1 is a bit intimidating in terms of controls: it has a lot of buttons, some of which aren't labeled terribly well. While I like having a scroll wheel on the back of the camera, the one on the SX1 needs to give you more feedback -- it's far too easy to blow past the option you wanted to select, since the dial doesn't "click". The main event on the SX1 is its 20X optical zoom lens, which is the same as the one on the PowerShot SX10. This lens has an impressive 28 - 560 mm focal range, which covers just about any shooting situation you might encounter. Inside the lens is Canon's reliable optical image stabilization system, which does a good job at reducing the effects of camera shake in stills and movies. On the back of the camera is a flip-out, rotating 2.8" widescreen LCD. The screen is sharp, and offers good visibility both outdoors and in low light. One thing that did not impress was the SX1's electronic viewfinder, which is both smaller and lower resolution than the one on the SX10. Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? The PowerShot SX1 includes a lens hood and remote control, and you can add an external flash to its hot shoe, if you wish.

The PowerShot SX1 has both point-and-shoot and manual controls, though some of the latter are frustrating. For beginners, you'll find an auto mode, plus numerous scene modes. There's a good face detection system, plus a handy face self-timer feature that waits until an extra face enters the frame before taking the photo. The camera also has an effective redeye reduction system. Manual controls are a mixed bag. While the SX1 does provide all the manual exposure modes, the slowest shutter speed you can use in any of them is 1 second. If you want to go slower, you need to use a scene mode (huh?). The camera supports the RAW image format, and Canon includes their capable Digital Photo Professional software to work with those files. The SX1 has a customizable button, menu, and spot on the mode dial.

The feature that separates the PowerShot SX1 from most of the competition is its ability to record Full HD videos. In layman's terms, you can record videos at 1920 x 1080 at 30 frames/second, with stereo sound, and full use of both the optical zoom and image stabilizer. The microphone level can be adjusted manually, and a wind screen is available for shooting outdoors. The video quality is very good, though keep in mind that your per-clip limit is around 12 minutes, and that a high speed (not to mention large) memory card is required. Lower resolution 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 modes are also available.

Camera performance was very good. The PowerShot SX1 is ready to start taking pictures just 1.2 seconds after you hit the power button. Focus times are good, ranging from 0.2 seconds at wide-angle to less than a second at full telephoto. Low light focusing was about average, and again I remind you to make sure that your fingers aren't blocking the AF-assist lamp! Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, even when shooting RAW. The exception comes when you use the flash, which is quite slow to recharge. If you're using it, expect shot-to-shot delays approaching 4 seconds. The SX1 has an impressive continuous shooting mode, due mostly to the use of the CMOS sensor. For JPEGs, you can take about 14 photos at just under 4 frames/second, until the shooting slows down. In RAW mode, you can take 9 photos at a still impressive 1.8 fps. Battery life is above average, and I applaud Canon's use of AA batteries.

While there's definitely room for improvement, overall the PowerShot SX1 took good quality photos. Exposure was consistently accurate, though the SX1 clips highlights, perhaps a little more than its cheaper sibling. Color and sharpness are both satisfying -- no complaints there. The SX1 may have CMOS sensor like Canon's digital SLRs, but don't expect the image quality to be comparable. You'll spot some speckled or grainy noise in low contrast and shadow areas of your photos, even at ISO 80. This increases fairly quickly, though you'll still be able to make 4 x 6 prints through ISO 400 in good light, and ISO 200 in low light. If you don't mind shooting RAW, you may be able to do a little better than that. The SX1 has more purple fringing than most super zoom cameras, though you won't notice unless you're making huge prints, or viewing the photos at 100% on your computer screen. If you've got auto redeye correction turned on, then this nuisance shouldn't be an issue.

If you're looking for a camera that can take high definition videos, then the PowerShot SX1 is absolutely worth checking out. It's not without its issues, but the PowerShot SX1 does most everything very well. If you don't need HD video recording, RAW support, HDMI output, or a remote control, then you can save at least $200 by purchasing the nearly identical PowerShot SX10. It remains to be seen how the SX1 compares to Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, but I'll be posting that review soon, so keep an eye on the home page for it.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (in good light)
  • Whopping 20X optical zoom lens, with a 28 - 560 mm range
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Flip-out, rotating 2.8" widescreen LCD display; good outdoor + low light visibility
  • Manual controls (though see below) and plenty of scene modes
  • Can record Full HD video, with stereo sound, use of optical zoom and image stabilizer, and more
  • Fast startup, focus, shot-to-shot, image playback speeds
  • Very good continuous shooting for a compact camera
  • RAW format supported
  • Hot shoe for external flash
  • Customizable menu, button, and spot on mode dial
  • Redeye not a problem thanks to automatic removal tool
  • Good face detection (with subject tracking) and handy face self-timer features
  • Wireless remote and lens hood included
  • HDMI output
  • Above average battery life; uses AA batteries

What I didn't care for:

  • Expensive
  • Noise visible at ISO 80 in shadows and low contrast areas; gets worse fairly quickly
  • Fairly strong purple fringing; some highlight clipping
  • Electronic viewfinder is smaller and lower resolution compared to the SX10
  • Slowest shutter speed require use of scene mode, despite manual exposure modes
  • Slow-charging flash
  • Average low light focusing performance; AF-assist lamp easy to block with fingers
  • Scroll wheel needs to provide "feedback"; buttons are cluttered and confusing
  • No memory card or lens cap retaining strap included

The PowerShot SX1's closest competitor is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. Some other super zoom cameras to consider include the aforementioned Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, Casio Exilim EX-FH20, Kodak EasyShare Z980, Nikon Coolpix P90, Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28, and the Pentax X70.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SX1 IS and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

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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.