DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S20
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Originally Posted: Monday, March 6, 2000
Last revised: Sunday, March 19, 2000

One of my favorite cameras of 1999 was the Canon PowerShot S10. Why? Well, it was light, easy to use, fast, and took great photos too! When the S20 was announced, I was excited -- it took everything that made the S10 so great, and added a 3.3 megapixel CCD!

Is the $799 PowerShot S20 as good as its predecessor? Find out!

What's in the Box

The PowerShot S20 has the same set of "in the box" features as the S10 did.

Inside the box for the camera, you'll find:

  • The 3.3 Mpixel PowerShot S20 camera
  • An 16MB CompactFlash card
  • Non-rechargeable lithium-manganese dioxide battery (sound familiar?)
  • Wrist strap
  • Video-out cable
  • Serial cables - one for Mac, another for PC
  • USB cable
  • Software package including PhotoDeluxe and PowerShot Solutions software
  • Owners manuals for camera and software

Like the S10, the PowerShot S20 needs no lens cover-- it's built right into the camera.

Unfortunately, like the S10, Canon decided to leave out the rechargeable battery on the S20, so you'll probably want to buy the $100 DK110 Power Supply Kit, which includes an AC adapter, NiMH battery, and recharger.

I didn't take a look at the software this time, but I did cover it in the PowerShot S10 review.

The 80 page manual is very well done, and the Software Starter Guide is a nice addition as well.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot S20 looks identical to the S10, except it's kind of a bronze color, as opposed to silver. I'll assume that the readers of this review haven't used an S10 before and tell the whole story.

The camera has a small, metal body that definitely feels sturdy. It's one of the best designed cameras I've used, for a number of reasons: it's easy to grip with both hands; all the buttons are in good places; the menu systems are logical (more on this later). My only two complaints regarding the design are the lack of a diopter correction for the optical viewfinder, and the nose smudges that you'll get on the LCD display.

Looking at the back of the camera, you can see how simple the layout is. All the buttons are labled -- you can also see Canon's reliance on menus, rather than buttons.

The top row of buttons control flash, continuous shooting/flash mode, and macro mode in record mode, and thumbnail mode, zoom, and "jump" in play mode. I'll explain these in more detail in the next section.

The buttons to the right of the 1.8" LCD are for changing exposure compensation and white balance, as well as invoking the menu system, and turning off the LCD.

The four-way switch is used for navigating the menus, as well as operating the 2X optical zoom.

Moving on to the top of the camera now -- nothing too exciting up here. The LCD info display is showing single photo mode (as opposed to continuous or self timer mode), 13 shots remaining, "beep" sound on, Large resolution, Fine quality.

Canon has three resolutions, and three levels of quality:

Large - 2048 x 1536
Medium - 1024 x 768
Small - 640 x 480

Superfine - 6 "large" shots fit on included 16MB card
Fine - 16 large shots
Normal - 31 large shots

The mode wheel has a number of options, including PC connect, play, OFF, auto record, manual record, "Image" (more later), and panorama modes. It's too bad that the lens retracts when you move from record to play mode.

Here's the left side of the camera, where you'd hook up a video out cable, or the USB/serial cable. There's also a spot for a lithium battery that helps the camera remember its settings.

Here's the CompactFlash slot, and the included 16MB card. This is a type II slot, with support for the IBM MicroDrive, which is fully compatible (the S10 model had some trouble with it). The door to the CF slot is the only flimsy-feeling piece on the camera.

I didn't show the bottom of the camera, but rest assured that there's a threaded tripod mount located right below the lens.

Using the Canon PowerShot S20

The PowerShot S20 really is fun to use, as long as you're not looking for manual controls. The power-up time is around 2 seconds, as is the time between shots. When you factor in a fast play mode, and responsive zoom, you've got a fast camera! I'm going to work my way through all the modes, starting with record (auto):

In auto mode, your options are very limited -- it's truly point-and-shoot. You can only adjust the flash setting, or turn on macro mode or the self-timer. You can frame your photo on the bright and crisp LCD display, or turn it off and use the optical viewfinder (which saves your precious battery!) The camera has an interesting twist on the post-shot review feature -- instead of always seeing the photo you just took on the LCD, you have to keep the shutter release button down, and only then will you see the photo! If you just shoot and release, you won't see it!

When you switch over to Manual Mode, you get more control -- not what "pros" would desire, but good enough for most people. In addition to the above settings, you can put the camera into continuous shooting mode, and adjust exposure compensation or white balance.

If you pop into the menu, you can adjust a few other things, such as the resolution and quality settings, sharpness, contrast, and gain -- which is a fancy way of saying ISO (100, 200, 400). If you hold down the "set" button, you can switch between matrix and spot metering.

Moving next into "image" mode -- this gives you a few more choices for taking pictures (from left to right, the icons above):

  • Landscape
  • Fast shutter
  • Slow shutter (there's your manual controls!)
  • Night Scene
  • Black & White

I haven't tried most of these - but I'll try to do it soon -- I have the camera for two more weeks.

I should mention that this camera has an AF illuminator, like the Olympus C-2500L did. In low light, it emits a bright red light, which the camera focuses on. This allows for photos in very low light!

I *did* use panorama mode (see the gallery), which is very good. You can choose from five different orientations of your panorama, and then it helps you shoot it. When it's time to stitch, the excellent PhotoStitch software does it quickly and easily!

Play mode is also nice -- photos load quickly, and you can zoom and scroll in real-time. A feature I've only seen on the PowerShot cameras is the "jump" mode, which lets you move ahead by nine or ten images (in thumbnail and normal modes, respectively). This is really handy when you've got tons of photos in the camera!

Another nice feature is the ability to rotate photos inside the camera. My only real complaint about play mode is the lack of a multi-image delete function.

How does it compare?

Just like the PowerShot S10 that came before it, the S20 is truly an excellent camera. It's also the first 3 Mpixel camera I've tested, so it's hard to compare it's photo quality with other cameras in its class. To make matters worse, the weather has been really bad up here, so sunny days are few and far between. I'll try to get some photos under blue skies in the next two weeks.

The Good:

  • 3.3 Mpixel - Printing 8x10's is no problem!
  • Great design - from sleek body to menu systems
  • Fast startup, recycle time, play mode
  • CompactFlash Type II with Microdrive support
  • USB support
  • Nice macro and panorama modes

The Bad:

  • Only a 2X optical zoom
  • No "real" manual controls
  • Rechargeable battery costs another $100

You can see that the good really outnumbers the not-so-good here. The PowerShot S20 is a great camera, one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone seeking a small, point-and-shoot camera. It's fast, well-designed, and really easy to use. That said, someone who desires manual controls (myself included) will probably look elsewhere.

There are tons of other cameras to consider: Nikon Coolpix 990, Olympus C-3030Z, Casio QV-3000EX, and the Fuji FinePix 4700, to name a few. But only this one and the Casio are close to shipping, so if you want to buy now, your choices are limited! But do head out to the stores and compare the S20 to the other guys out there, including the "older" 2 Mpixel cameras!

Photo Gallery

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

Want a second opinion? Or maybe a third?

Check out Steve's Digicams review of the PowerShot S20. If you still yearn for more, Digital Photography Review has one too.

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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