DCRP

GPS-Equipped Compact Ultra Zoom Cameras Review

Canon PowerShot SX230 HS

The PowerShot SX230 HS is the replacement to last year's popular SX210 IS. The"HS" stands for high sensitivity, which Canon says comes from the combination of a CMOS sensor and DIGIC 4 processor. I should point out that, unlike the PowerShot G12 and S95, the SX230 HS does not have a larger sensor than your typical compact camera.

Besides the switch from a CCD to a CMOS sensor, other new features on the SX230 include a sharper LCD, Full HD movie recording, a GPS receiver, and lots of special effects for both stills and movies.

Basics

You'll find the following items inside the PowerShot SX230's box:

  • The 12.1 effective Megapixel PowerShot SX230 HS digital camera
  • NB-5L rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solution
  • 35 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)

The SX230 is the only camera in this group that doesn't come with a memory card, or have some kind of internal memory (not that the others give you very much). So, you'll need to supply your own memory card, unless you have one already. The SX230 supports numerous types of SD and MMC media, include SD, SDHC, SDXC, MMC, MMCplus, and HC MMCplus. I'd stick with the first three, if I were you. A 2GB card is a good starting point for those just taking stills, while movie lovers will probably want something like an 8GB card. Canon recommends a Class 6 card for best movie recording performance.

The PowerShot SX230 HS uses the familiar NB-5L lithium-ion rechargeable battery. This compact holds 4.1 Wh of energy, which translates into 210 shots per charge. Speaking of which, you'll charge the battery in an included external charger, which plugs right into the wall. It'll take just over two hours to fully charge the NB-5L.

Optional accessories for the PowerShot SX230 HS include:

  • WP-DC42 waterproof case (about $185): lets you take the camera up to 40 meters underwater
  • HF-DC1 external slave flash (priced from $93): attaches to the tripod mount and fires at the same time as the onboard flash
  • ACK-DC30 AC adapter (priced from $50): power the camera without draining your battery

Canon continues to have one of the best software bundles on the market. The SX230 HS comes with the following applications, all of which work on Mac OS and Windows:

  • CameraWindow: Transfers photos to your computer and
  • adjusts basic camera settings
  • Image/ZoomBrowser (Mac/Windows): A very good photo organizing and editing tool by bundled software standards. Editing tools include Auto Adjustment, redeye correction, color/brightness/sharpness adjustment, and movie editing. Photos can also be printed, e-mailed, uploaded to YouTube, or burned onto a CD or DVD.
  • PhotoStitch: Combines several photos into a single, panoramic image

The SX230's documentation is split into two parts. There's a short, printed manual to get you up and running, with the full manual in PDF format on an included CD-ROM (boo, hiss). The quality of the manuals themselves is just average, which is a nice way of saying "not great".

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SX230 HS is a stylish, midsize camera made entirely of metal. Everything is well put together -- even the usual weak spots like the door over the battery/memory compartment and the tripod mount. All of the camera controls (save for the shutter release / zoom controller combo) are on the back of the camera, making them easy to access (though the power button is in an awkward spot). I don't care for the lack of labels on the four-way controller, though. You have to slightly press the button in a certain direction to see what you're actually adjusting.

The SX230 is available in black, blue, and what Canon calls red (and I call pink).

The main thing to see on the front of the PowerShot SX230 is its F3.1-5.9, 14X optical zoom lens. As far as I know, this is the same lens that was on the PowerShot SX210. The lens has a focal range of 5 - 70 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 392 mm. As with all three of the cameras in this comparison, you cannot add a conversion lens to the SX230.

Image stabilization is a necessity an ultra zoom camera, and the SX230 HS uses a lens-shift type system to reduce the risk of blurry photos. In movie mode, there's an added "dynamic mode", which helps reduce severe camera shake, which can occur when you're moving around while recording.

Behind the lens is a 12.1 Megapixel "high sensitivity" CMOS sensor. As I mentioned before, this sensor is the same old 1/2.3" size, and not the larger 1/1.7" model found in the PowerShot G12 and S95. We'll see how it performs at high sensitivities later in the review.

To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's pop-up flash, which can pop up automatically, or be raised manually. If you don't want to use the flash, just push it back down. The flash has a working range of 0.8 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 2.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO), which is the weakest of the three cameras in this comparison. If you want more flash power, you can attach the slave flash I listed in the accessories section.

Other items of note on the front of the SX230 include its stereo microphones and AF-assist lamp (also used to count down the self-timer). That "hump" above the AF-assist lamp (with a dark "window" beneath it) is where you'll find the camera's GPS. I'll get to that particular feature a bit later.

You can't miss the LCD on the SX230, as it takes up nearly all of the back of the camera. As you can see, this 3-inch screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio, which makes it great for shooting videos, but not-so-great for taking stills, as there will be borders on either side of the image. The LCD has 461,000 pixels, so it's nice and sharp. The screen is bright, with a nice viewing angle. Outdoor visibility is fairly good, though the screens on the Panasonic and Sony cameras are easier to see in those situations. The SX230 does have the best low light visibility of the three cameras I tested, however.

As with the other two cameras in this comparison, the SX230 lacks an optical viewfinder.

Now let's talk about buttons and dials. Just above the top-right corner of the LCD is the somewhat oddly placed power button. Next to that is the mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Movie mode While you can record movies in any shooting mode, this is the only one in which the LCD displays the scene in the 16:9 aspect ratio before you start recording. I'll talk about movies more a bit later.
Creative Filters mode Take photos with special effects, which include fisheye, miniature, toy camera (with a standard, warm, or cool tone), monochrome (black & white, sepia, or blue & white), Color Accent (select a color to keep and the rest of the image is changed to B&W), and Color Swap (exchange one color for another).
Scene mode You choose the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Select from Smart Shutter, high-speed burst, best image selection, handheld night scene, low light, beach, underwater, foliage, fireworks, and Stitch Assist. See below for more.
Kids & Pets The most commonly used scene modes, easy to access.
Landscape
Portrait
Movie Digest Creates a short movie of all the photos you've taken throughout the day. See below for more.
Easy mode Totally dumbs down the camera interface, with the flash setting being the only thing you can adjust.
Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation, with auto scene selection and subject tracking AF. Most menu options locked up.
Program mode An auto mode with full menu access. There's no Program Shift feature available, though.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the appropriate aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/3200 sec.
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the proper shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. Aperture range is F3.1 - F8.0.
Manual (M) mode You select the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges as above. There's no bulb mode available.


Selecting a scene mode via the Function menu

So those are all the shooting modes. I do want to quickly touch on some of the more interesting Scene modes, though:

  • Smart Shutter: select from smile detection, a "wink" self-timer (yes, you wink at the camera and it takes a photo), and a face self-timer; this last feature waits for another person to enter the scene before taking a photo
  • Best Image Selection: takes five photos in a row and selects the best one based on things like facial expression; resolution is fixed at 1984 x 1488.
  • High-speed Burst: takes photos continuously at 8.1 frames/second; resolution is fixed at 1984 x 1488
  • Handheld night scene: combines several exposures into one for blur-free night photos (at least in theory)
  • Low light: lowers the resolution to 3 Megapixel and boosts the ISO up to 6400 to capture photos in dim lighting; don't expect great image quality, though
  • Movie Digest: in this mode, the camera takes records videos of the 2 - 4 seconds that precede a still photo you take; all of the movies that day are combined into a single file for later viewing

In the manual control department, you've got access to both aperture and shutter speed, either separately or simultaneously. One thing I found somewhat annoying was the fact that the ISO is fixed at 100 when the shutter speed is more than 1 sec. That's fine for scene modes, but in P/A/S/M mode, I don't want anything locked down. As with the other two cameras in this comparison, the SX230 does not support the RAW image format.

Below the mode dial is the dedicated movie recording button, with the playback button to its right. Under that is the combination mode dial / scroll dial. The dial is used for adjusting exposure settings, navigating through menus, and reviewing photos you've taken. The four-way controller does all of that, plus more (though you'd never know it by looking at the camera). In record mode, it can also adjust the following:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV)
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 sec, custom) - the custom option lets you choose the delay and number of shots taken
  • Left - Focus (Auto, macro, manual) - you'll find both center-frame enlargement and a distance guide in manual mode
  • Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, slow sync, flash off) - redeye reduction is turned on in the shooting menu
  • Center - Function menu + OK


Function menu

If you press the center button on the four-way controller, the function (shortcut) menu will open. Some of the notable items in the function menu include:

  • My Colors: make pictures more vivid, emphasize certain colors, or adjust the contrast, sharpness, and color saturation
  • White balance: you'll find all the usual presets here (including an underwater option), plus a custom option for shooting under unusual lighting; the color tone in underwater mode can be fine-tuned
  • Flash exposure compensation / flash output: adjust the flash strength from -2EV to +2EV, or (in manual mode) select from 1/3, 2/3, or full power
  • Drive mode: here's where you choose between the camera's two full resolution burst modes, which I'll discuss later
  • Aspect ratio: select from 16:9, 3:2, 4:3, and 1:1; unlike the Panasonic ZS10, the PowerShot SX230 does not maintain the same focal range at all aspect ratios

The last items of note on the back of the PowerShot SX230 HS are the Display and Menu buttons. The former toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the latter does exactly as it sounds.

On the top of the camera you can see the flash (closed here), speaker, GPS receiver, and zoom controller / shutter release combo. When the flash is popped up, you'll lose some valuable finger space, making the camera more difficult to hold onto.

The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.1 seconds. I counted over fifty steps in the camera's 14X zoom range -- nice!

Nothing to see on this side of the SX230. The lens is at the wide-angle position here.

On the other side of the SX230 you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. They include USB + A/V out (one port for both) as well as mini-HDMI.

That 14X lens is at the full telephoto position in this shot.

Our tour of the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS ends with a look at its bottom. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden in this photo) plus the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is fairly sturdy, though do note that you won't be able to access it while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NB-6L lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

Features


Shooting menu, complete with "Hints & Tips" that describe each option

I already mentioned a lot of the camera's features in the previous section. There's more to talk about, and I'm going to start by mentioning the options in the record menu. The menu is attractive, easy to navigate, and features a description of each option at the bottom of the screen. Some of the interesting items in this menu include:

  • AF Frame options: choose between face detection, subject tracking, or just center-point AF; if you're using that last option, you can select between a small and normal-sized focus point
  • Digital zoom: while normally I don't recommend using this feature, if you lower the resolution you can get extra zoom power without a degradation in image quality; at 6 Megapixel, that's 17X, while at 2 Megapixel you get 35X of total zoom power
  • Servo AF: the camera keeps focusing while the shutter release is pressed halfway
  • Continuous AF: the camera is always focusing, even when you're not pressing the shutter release button; reduces focus times at the expense of battery life
  • i-Contrast: improves image contrast by brightening shadows and reducing highlight clipping
  • Blink detection: warns you if a person in your photo had their eyes closed
    Wind filter: comes in handy when taking movies outdoors

There's one thing in the setup menu that I want to mention, and that's the GPS settings. There are just two things you can turn on and off: the GPS itself, and a "logger" function that periodically turns on the receiver so your route can be tracked (though it'll eat your battery). The included Browser software can take this GPS log and create a map showing the route you took and what photos were taken where. I'll talk about GPS acquisition times when we get the comparison section of the review.

Now let's talk about movies. Like all four cameras in this comparison, the SX230 HS records at Full HD resolution (albeit at 24 fps) with stereo sound. Recording will stop when the file size reaches 4GB, or when the time elapsed hits 30 minutes (HD modes only). Here's a summary of the four resolutions available and the recording time limits:

  • 1920 x 1080 (24 fps) - 14:34 time limit
  • 1280 x 720 (30 fps) - 20:43 time limit
  • 640 x 480 (30 fps) - 43:43 time limit
  • 320 x 240 (30 fps) - 1 hour time limit

You can zoom in and out all you want while taking a movie, with the focus adjusting accordingly. The lens moves slower than normal as well, to keep the motor noise from being picked up by the microphone. The image stabilizer is available, as well. There are no manual controls in movie mode -- it's a totally point-and-shoot experience, unless the wind filter counts.

The SX230 lets you use any of the special effect shooting modes for movies, including things like miniature effect and Color Accent. A Super Slow Motion mode will record video at 120 or 240 fps and then play them back at normal speed, giving the impression of, well, slow motion. The resolution will be lowered to 640 x 480 and 320 x 240, respectively, in this mode.

There's also a somewhat mysterious iFrame movie mode, which records 720p video that can be "edited with iFrame compatible software or devices". This format was developed by Apple, which apparently allows for native editing of the movies, instead of having to transcode them to another format.

Standard playback view You can switch between shooting and GPS info by pressing "up" on the four-way controller

I'll conclude this section with a few playback mode options. All three of these cameras have all the usual basic features (slideshows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, playback zoom), so I'll stick with the unique stuff:

  • i-Contrast: brighten the dark areas of a photo
  • Redeye correction: remove redeye from photos you've taken
  • Image rotation/trimming/resizing: just as they sound
  • My Colors: apply most of the filters found in record mode to photos you've already taken
  • Movie editing: remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of a clip
  • Smart Shuffle: shows photos that the camera thinks are related to the one currently being viewed
  • Filtered playback: show images tagged as favorites, taken on a certain date, with a certain category (which you or the camera can set), or by file type (still, movie, movie digest)

Alright, that does it for the PowerShot SX230 HS for now. I'm going to cover the Panasonic and Sony cameras next, followed by some comparisons and a conclusion!

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