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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot A400  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 24, 2004
Last Updated: December 30, 2011

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The PowerShot A400 ($179) is Canon's entry-level digital camera. It's a major upgrade to the previous camera to hold that title (the A310), featuring a new 2.2X optical zoom lens instead of the old fixed focal length lens of years past. With a street price hovering around $150, the A400 is the cheapest way to get a Canon camera into your hands.

The A400 is one of several cameras this year to come in multiple colors:

Those colors are called Silver, Sky Blue, Lime Green and Sunset Gold. I reviewed the blue model, in case you couldn't tell.

Is the A400 a good entry-level camera? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot A400 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot A400 camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • Two AA alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft Camera Suite, and drivers
  • 140 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card with the A400, and that won't hold too many photos at the highest quality setting. So you're going to want a larger memory card right away. The camera can use SD or MMC cards, but you'll want to use the former due to its superior performance and capacity. I'd recommend a 128MB SD card as a good place to start.

Something else you'll need to buy are rechargeable batteries and a charger. The A400 includes two AA non-rechargeable alkaline batteries in the box, which won't last long and end up in the trash. My recommendation is to buy a set of NiMH rechargeables (2100 mAh or better), which won't break the bank -- and it's more environmentally sensitive, too.

Canon estimates that you can take about 300 photos (using the CIPA battery life standard) with 2300 mAh batteries which is pretty good. You'll only get 1/3 as much battery life using alkalines.

The A400 has a built-in lens cover so there are no lens caps to worry about.

There are a couple of accessories available for the A400. The most interesting is the AW-DC20 all-weather case ($200), which lets you take the A400 up to 3 meters underwater. Not suitable for scuba, but okay for the beach or swimming pool. Other accessories include an AC adapter ($40), NiMH battery kit ($50 -- buy another brand and save), and a soft case ($9).

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 19 (which is actually a little outdated) of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software with the A400. 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.

RemoteCapture (Mac OS X)

Also built-in to the "Browser" software is RemoteCapture, which you can use to control your camera over the USB connection. Images are saved directly to your computer.

PhotoImpression 5 (Mac OS X)

Also included is version 5 of ArcSoft's PhotoImpression software, which is getting better with each version. Here you can do more photo retouching and printing. The user interface is quite good, as well. VideoImpression is also included, for editing those short movie clips the camera can record.

While still better than average, I've found Canon's recent manuals to be a little more cluttered than they used to be. The information is all there -- just be prepared for lots of small print and "notes" in each section.

Look and Feel

The A400 is a camera that sits at the intersection of Compact & Midsize. It's no Digital ELPH for sure but it never got in my way. For a "cheap" camera, it feels surprisingly well built, made of a combination of metal and plastic. The important controls are easy-to-reach and everything "feels right".

The dimensions of the A400 are 107.0 x 53.4 x 36.8 mm / 4.2 x 2.1 x 1.4 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 165 grams / 5.8 ounces empty.

Okay, let's begin our tour of this camera now!

The biggest change between the A310 and A400 is the addition of an optical zoom lens. The lens here is an F3.8, 2.2X zoom with a focal range of 5.9 - 13.2 mm. The 35mm-equivalent focal length is important to note: 45 - 100 mm. That's great if you love telephoto, but not-so-hot if you do a lot of indoor shooting, or if architecture is one of your favorite subjects. Since the lens is not threaded, you can't attach a wide-angle conversion lens to the A400.

To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. The working range of the flash isn't spectacular -- just 0.5 - 2.0 regardless of the focal length. You cannot attach an external flash to the A400.

One thing you do need to watch out for with regard to the flash are your fingers! Due to the positioning of the flash it's not hard to accidentally put your fingers in front of the flash.

Just below the flash is the AF-assist lamp, which helps the camera focus in low light conditions. It's nice to see this feature on a low-cost camera.

The only other item of note here is the microphone which is located at the top-center of the photo.

The A400 has a fairly small 1.5" LCD display. Despite the size, it has a healthy 115,000 pixels, making things nice and sharp. In low light the screen does become difficult to see, as it doesn't brighten automatically (at least not very much) like on some other cameras.

Directly above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is average-sized. It doesn't have a diopter correction feature (used to focus what you're viewing), though.

To the right of the viewfinder is the mode switch. It moves the camera between playback, record, scene, and movie mode. In scene mode you pick the scenario and the camera uses the right settings for that situation. The available scenes are:

  • Portrait
  • Night scene
  • Foilage
  • Snow
  • Beach
  • Fireworks
  • Underwater
  • Indoor

The next item over is the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.4 seconds. I counted just 5 stops in the zoom range.

Function Menu

To the immediate right of the LCD are three buttons: Menu, Display, and Function/Delete Photo. The menu button is self-explanatory; the display button toggles the LCD and what's shown on it on and off. The function button opens the (get this) function menu, which has the following options:

  • Shooting mode (Auto, manual, Stitch Assist)
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • White Balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - see below
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid color, neutral color, low sharpening, sepia, black & white)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart)

There are three shooting modes on the A400. Both automatic and manual mode are point-and-shoot, with the difference being that you can't access most of the menu options while in auto mode. Stitch Assist mode helps you line up photos so you can stitch them into a panorama when you get home (using the bundled software).

The custom white balance feature lets you shoot a white or gray card, to get perfect color in any lighting. I was pleased to see this feature on the low-priced A400.

The photo effect feature lets you quickly change the color or sharpness of your photos. You can also use the photo effects in movie mode.

To the right of those buttons is the four-way controller, used for menu navigation as well as:

  • Up - Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous, self-timer)
  • Left - Focus (Auto, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash (Auto w/redeye reduction, auto, flash on w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off)

The only thing worth mentioning about those is about the continuous shooting mode. Here you can take up to 10 shots in a row (based on my tests) at about 1.3 frames/second. The LCD briefly freezes between shots, which can make following a moving subject a bit difficult.

The final button to mention is the Print/Share button, which is located to the right of the four-way controller. When connected to a Direct Print or PictBridge-enabled printer, pressing this button will let you print your photos. When connected to a Windows PC, the following screen will be shown on the LCD:

Direct Transfer menu

As you can see, you can transfer all images, new images, images that you've DPOF marked, or you can manually select some. The wallpaper option sets the chosen image as the background picture on your PC!

The last things to see here at the I/O ports, which are located under the rubber cover at the bottom of the picture. There you'll find ports for USB, DC-in (for optional AC adapter), and A/V out.

The only things to see on the top of the camera are the speaker, power button, and shutter release button.

Nothing to see here...

Over on the other side you'll find the SD/MMC card slot as well as the battery compartment. The door that covers these is about average in terms of build quality.

The included 16MB SD card is shown at right.

We end our tour with a look at the bottom of the camera. The only thing to see here is the plastic tripod mount.

Using the Canon PowerShot A400

Record Mode

The A400 takes a little over two seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures -- pretty snappy.

The A400's focus speeds were just fair. It usually took around a second to lock focus, making it one of the slower-focusing Canon cameras that I've used. The camera focuses fairly well in low light, but I've seen better from other cameras (Canon's included).

The A400 had very little shutter lag, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed is good, with a 2 second wait before you can take another shot.

Press the Function button as the picture is being written to the memory card, and you can delete it.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the A400:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 16MB card
(2048 x 1536)
Superfine 1.6 MB 8
Fine 893 KB 15
Normal 455 KB 30
Medium 1
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 1002 KB 13
Fine 558 KB 24
Normal 278 KB 56
Medium 2
(1024 x 768)
Superfine 570 KB 23
Fine 320 KB 41
Normal 170 KB 73
(640 x 480)
Superfine 249 KB 51
Fine 150 KB 80
Normal 84 KB 126

The A400 does not support the TIFF or RAW file formats.

Images are named IMG_####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9900. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace or erase the memory card.

Now, onto the menus!

The A400 has a very small record menu that's very easy to use. Both the record and function menus seemed quite sluggish for some reasons. The options in the record menu include:

  • Quick Shot (on/off) - reduces shutter lag but makes the LCD freeze while the camera focuses
  • AiAF (on/off) - turns on the 9-point autofocus system; if off, camera focuses on whatever's in the center of the frame
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Self-timer (2, 10 secs)
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec)
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos

I should mention the date stamp feature since there's been some confusion about it lately. To use this feature you must use the function menu's resolution option to select "postcard size", which is 1600 x 1200. Then and only then can you print the date and/or time on your photos. It should be an option at all the resolutions in my opinion!

There is also a setup menu on the A400, so let's take a look at those options now:

  • Mute (on/off) - turn off those annoying beep sounds!
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • LCD brightness (-7 to +7 in 1-step increments)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos for you
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Language (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

In addition, there is a "My Camera" menu, where you can customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your A400 makes, providing your own sounds and pictures if you want. You can also shut all of that off, which may not be such a bad idea.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The A400 did a fine job with our usual macro test shot. The image is quite "smooth" which seems to be a Canon trait these days. Colors look both accurate and saturated. Thanks to the A400's custom white balance (a nice feature on such a cheap camera), my 600W quartz studio lamps were no challenge.

In macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 5 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto.

The A400 is not a good choice if you plan on taking long exposures. The slowest shutter speed on the camera is one second and that won't cut it for shots like this. The photo would've been great had the shutter speed been 4-5 seconds... but alas that is not possible. Purple fringing levels are low and the buildings themselves are sharp (just too dark!).

The A400 did a good job in the flash test, with just a bit of redeye and flash reflection.

The distortion test shows mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. There is some vignetting (dark corners) here, but I didn't find it to be a problem in my real world photos.

Overall the photo quality on the PowerShot A400 is very good. Color, exposure, and sharpness all earn good marks. If I had one complaint it would be that details can sometimes be a little fuzzy. For evidence, see the plants in this picture or the bride and groom in this one. Even with that, the photos look quite good for a camera with a $179 price tag.

Don't just take my word for it, though. View our photo gallery and print the photos as if they were your own. Then decide if the A400's photos meet your expectations!

Movie Mode

While the A400 has a VGA movie mode, it's quite limited when compared to other cameras. You can record up to 30 seconds of 640 x 480 video (10 frames/sec), with sound. Drop the resolution down to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 and the frame rate jumps to 15 frames/sec and the recording time increases to 3 minutes. It doesn't matter how large a memory card you have, these limits are fixed.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

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

Updated 9/28/04: Here's an fairly exciting sample movie for you. As you can see, it's pretty choppy.

Click to play movie (7.7 MB, 640 x 480, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

Canon always has done a great job with their playback modes, and the A400 continues the tradition. Image protection, slide shows, DPOF print marking, voice captions, and thumbnail view mode are all here. The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.

The "zoom and scroll" feature (my term) lets you zoom into your images up to 10X, with many steps in between. Scrolling around in the enlarged area is very snappy.

You can rotate images in playback mode, but since the camera has an auto rotate function, they may already be okay!

By default you won't see too much information about your photos. But hit the Display button and you'll get the screen you see above, complete with a histogram.

The camera moves through photos at an average pace, taking about 1 second between each one. It goes from one high res photo to the next -- there is no low res placeholder.

How Does it Compare?

Despite its low price, the Canon PowerShot A400 doesn't compromise on image quality. Aside from the occasional fuzzy background detail, the A400 takes very good photos, not bad for a camera costing about 150 bucks! While not the smallest camera around, the A400 (in your choice of four colors) is easy to take wherever you go. It's well-designed and doesn't feel cheap like some other entry-level cameras. Probably the biggest flaw on the A400 (if you can call it one) is the lens. It's not the 2.2X zoom that bothers me; rather, it's the fact that the lens starts at 45 mm -- not great for indoor shots.

The A400 offers an AF-assist lamp for focusing in low light, those it didn't perform that much better that average in those situations. On the whole, camera performance was pretty average. The menus seemed rather sluggish for some reason, as well. There aren't any manual controls on the A400, with the exception of white balance (which is a useful one to have). In addition, the slowest shutter speed is just 1 second, making the A400 a poor choice for night shots. The camera has a VGA movie mode but it's crippled by a 30 second time limit and sluggish 10 frame/sec frame rate. The flash was on the weak side, as well.

The A400 is a good choice for an entry-level camera, and it gets my recommendation. However, I would suggest spending about $30 more to get the PowerShot A75, which offers manual controls, a more reasonable 35 - 105 mm focal length, and support for conversion lenses.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Doesn't feel "cheap", despite its price
  • Manual white balance
  • AF-assist lamp (but just so-so performance in low light)
  • Optional all-weather case
  • Good redeye test performance
  • Comes in four colors
  • Impressive software package

What I didn't care for:

  • Details can be fuzzy in some pictures
  • LCD doesn't "gain up" in low light
  • 45 - 100 mm lens means you'd better like telephoto shots
  • Slowest shutter speed is 1 second
  • Menus seemed sluggish
  • Weak flash
  • Movie mode has low frame rate, short recording times

Some other low-cost cameras worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot A75, Casio QV-R40, Fuji FinePix A330, HP Photosmart M307, Kodak EasyShare CX7330, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Xt, Nikon Coolpix 3200, Olympus D-540Z, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC50, Pentax Optio 30, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P73. A long list, for sure, so do your homework before you buy!

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot A400 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Check out our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out another review of the A400 over at Steve's Digicams.

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.