DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S400 Digital ELPH
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 12, 2003
Last Updated: September 8, 2003

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One of the most popular lines of digital cameras out there are Canon's Digital ELPH models. The latest one, Canon's first 4 Megapixel model, is the PowerShot S400 Digital ELPH ($499 street price).

The S400 has a elegantly designed metal body, super fast processing speeds, and quite a few manual features as well. It uses the new DIGIC processor that first appeared in the PowerShot G3 (you can read more about it here).

The small 4/5 Megapixel camera arena continues to grow in 2003. How does the S400 hold up against the competition? Find out now!

The S400 is known as the Digital Ixus 400 in some countries. Since the cameras are so similar, some text from the S230 review will be reused here.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S400 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.0 (effective) Mpixel Canon PowerShot S400 camera
  • 32MB CompactFlash card
  • NB-1LH rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions and ArcSoft Camera Suite
  • 161 page camera manual + add'l software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 32MB CompactFlash card with the S400, which should be enough to get you started. But you'll probably want to buy a larger card soon after you get the camera, since 4 Megapixel images take up a lot of space. The S400 supports all Type I CompactFlash cards, which means you can get a pretty large card (1GB).

The S400 uses the same battery as the other Digital ELPHs, which is the NB-1LH. This lithium-ion battery has 3.1 Watt/hours of power. Canon estimates that you'll be able to take about 315 shots with 50% LCD usage, or spend 140 minutes in playback mode (both numbers are an improvement over the S230). That's not too bad for a little camera. Long time readers of this site know that I'm not a big fan of proprietary batteries, but it's unavoidable with these ultra-small cameras.

Battery charger + battery

One thing I love about these little Digital ELPHs is the battery charger. It plugs right into the wall, with no cables to worry about. It takes 130 minutes to fully charge the battery.

The S400 has a built-in lens cover, so there is no lens cap to worry about.

There are some interesting accessories available for the camera. One of the coolest is the WP-DC800 waterproof case ($240), which lets you take the S400 up to 100 feet underwater. A regular camera case is also available for a lot less ($14). Three power-related accessories include an AC adapter ($70), car power adapter ($70), and extra batteries ($58).

The S400 can also print directly to many of Canon's printers, including the CP-10 and CP-100 photo printers reviewed on this site. Some of their newer BubbleJet printers are also compatible.

Canon includes their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software, as well as ArcSoft's (very capable) Camera Suite, with the S400. The main programs in the DCS software package are ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser (Mac/PC names), PhotoStitch (a great panorama creation product), and RemoteCapture (which lets your Mac or PC control the camera over the USB connection). Canon's software continues to be head and shoulders over the competition. Best of all (for us Mac users, at least), all the software is Mac OS X native.

Canon's camera manuals have always been better than average, and that is the case with the S400's as well.

Look and Feel

The S400's appearance has been updated since the S230/S330. In my opinion, it's one of the best cameras I've ever seen. The body is metal, with a light silver color on the front, and a darker silver on the back. The S400 is well built thanks to its all-metal body. Canon has tried to reduce the likelihood of scratches on the S400 by applying a "Cerabrite" finish to the body. I don't think that this finish is on the back of the camera though, as my S400 got scratched easily there. (Paragraph updated 3/14/03)

The S400 is very easy to use with one hand or two, and it fits in your pockets with ease. Here's a comparison of the size/weight of the S400 versus the other recent Digital ELPH models, as well as the PowerShot S45:

(WxHxD, inches)
PowerShot S45 4.4 x 2.3 x 1.7 260 g
PowerShot S230 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 180 g
PowerShot S330 (discontinued) 3.7 x 2.5 x 1.2 245 g
PowerShot S400 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 185 g

As you can see, Canon managed to shrink the 3X zoom Digital ELPH down to the same size as their 2X model. Also note the difference in size between the S400 and S45 (both are 4 Megapixel).

With that out of the way, let's begin our tour of the S400 now!

The S400 has an amazingly compact 3X optical zoom lens. The lens has a maximum aperture of F2.8 - F4.8, and a focal range of 7.4 - 22.2 mm. That's equivalent to 36 - 108 mm. As with most ultra-compact cameras, there is no support for add-on lenses on the S400.

To the top-right of the photo you'll find the built-in flash. The working range of the flash is 0.46 - 3.5 m at wide-angle, and 0.46 - 2.0 m at telephoto. No external flash options are available.

The item to the left of the flash is an autofocus-assist lamp. This bright light is used to light up a subject, to assist the camera's AF system in focusing when lighting is dim. I wish all cameras had these!

Remember how I said that these metal cameras scratch easily? My S400 is living proof, having survived a run in with another metal camera in my camera bag. Anyhow...

The S400 has a bright and sharp 1.5" LCD display. The LCD is high resolution, so everything is easy to see. Images move smoothly on the LCD as you point the camera around in different directions. The LCD's brightness is adjustable via the setup menu.

Straight above the LCD is a large (for a tiny camera) optical viewfinder. It does lack diopter correction, so if your vision isn't perfect, you won't be able to see clearly.

To the left of that is the mode wheel (such as it is), which moves the camera between auto record, manual record, stitch assist, and movie modes. The only difference between auto and manual record modes are what mention options are available. Stitch assist helps you compose panoramic shots, by overlapping sequential photos. Hard to explain in words, so try it yourself to see what I mean. I'll have more movie mode later in this review.

There are four buttons below the LCD, including one which does a whole lot of things. From left to right:

  • Set - the "ok" button for the menus plus changes between auto, manual, and Stitch Assist modes.
  • Menu
  • Display - turns LCD on and off, plus info shown on it
  • Function - an overlay style menu with the following options
    • Exposure compensation (+2EV to -2EV in 1/3EV increments)
    • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom)
    • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
    • Photo effect (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black & white)
    • Compression/Resolution - see chart later in review
    • Delete photo - in playback mode or right after a shot is taken

Function menu

The S400 has a few manual controls, as you can see. This includes manual white balance, and a photo effect feature which lets you change the color between regular, vivid, and neutral (see below). The photo effects can be used in any camera mode, including movie mode.

Normal Color Vivid Color Neutral Color

To the right of those buttons is the four-way switch, which is used for menu navigation and more. That includes:

  • Up - Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot) + AE/FE lock
  • Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off, slow-synchro)
  • Down - Drive (Continuous shooting, self-timer) - two continuous shooting to choose from. More later.
  • Left - Focus (Macro, infinity)

The switch at the far right opens the CompactFlash slot door (you can see where it got scratched). Just above that is another switch, which moves between playback and record mode.

Up on the top of the camera, you'll find the speaker, microphone, power button, shutter release button, and zoom controller.

The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in a little under two seconds. There seems to be a very slight lag before the lens starts moving.

One thing to watch out for when you're recording movies is the microphone. It's really easy to accidentally cover it up with your fingers.

On this side of the camera, you'll find the I/O ports for USB and A/V output under a rubber cover.

Over on the other side, behind a plastic door, is the CompactFlash slot. This is a Type I slot, so no Microdrives! I do worry that the plastic door could break off if forced.

You can also see the 32MB CF card that is included with the camera.

Finally, here's the bottom of the S400. Here is where you'll find the tripod mount and battery compartment (the included battery is shown as well).

The metal tripod mount is off at the corner of the body, not inline with the lens or center of the camera.

Using the Canon PowerShot S400

Record Mode

The PowerShot S400 starts up very quickly -- it takes just 2.5 seconds to extend the lens and prepare for shooting. Press the shutter release button halfway, and the camera locks focus in a little under one second. If the AF assist lamp is used, it may take a little longer.

Shutter lag times are low and not noticeable until you start approaching slower shutter speeds, at which point you probably shouldn't be hand-holding the camera anyway.

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent as well: just two seconds pass before you can take another shot. If you have the review feature turned on, half-pressing the shutter release will ready the camera for another shot.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the S400:

Resolution Compression Approx. File Size # shots on 32MB card
2272 x 1704
Superfine 2002 KB 14
Fine 1116 KB 27
Normal 556 KB 54

Medium 1
1600 x 1200

Superfine 1002 KB 30
Fine 558 KB 54
Normal 278 KB 108
Medium 2
1024 x 768
Superfine 570 KB 53
Fine 320 KB 94
Normal 170 KB 174
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 120
Fine 150 KB 196
Normal 84 KB 337

There's no TIFF or RAW mode available on the S400. The camera names files as IMG_yyyy.JPG, where y = 0001 - 9900. The camera maintains the numbering even if you erase/replace the card.

The S400 has the same, easy to use menu as other Canon cameras. Items in bold are only available in manual mode. Here's a look:

  • AiAF (on/off) - turns multi-point autofocus on and off
  • Continuous shooting (Standard, high speed) - more below
  • Self-timer (2, 10 sec)
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using the 3.6X digital zoom will degrade image quality
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec) - for showing image on LCD after it is taken
  • Long shutter (on/off) - see below

The S400 uses Canon's 9-point AiAF autofocus system. The camera picks one of nine areas of the frame to focus on (you can't pick where, like on some cameras). If you want to use the center of the frame to focus on, you can do that too by turning AiAF off.

There are two continuous shooting speeds available on the S400: standard and high speed. Standard mode will take shots (until the memory buffer is full) at a rate of 1.5 frames/sec, and will show you the photos on the LCD as you take them. High speed mode won't show you the photos as they're taken, but you'll get a faster burst rate of 2.5 frames/sec.

The long shutter feature lets you use long exposure times, a must for low-light shooting. Just don't forget your tripod. The shutter speed range is 1 - 15 sec, with many points in between. After using the PowerShot A70, I was a little disappointed that the S400 didn't have full control over shutter speed and aperture as well.

There is also a setup menu on the S400, and here are the interesting items:

  • LCD brightness (-7 to +7, increments of 1)
  • Auto power down (on/off)
  • Beep volumes (for shutter, playback, startup, operation, self-timer)
  • File number reset (on/off)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - rotate images taken in portrait mode correctly
  • Language (English, Deutsch, Français, Nederlands, Dansk, Suomi, Italiano, Norsk, Svenska, Español, Chinese, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

If you so desire, you can customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes -- providing your own sounds and pictures if you want. You can also shut all of that off.

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

The S400 turned in a fine performance on the macro test. Colors look great, and the image is sharp. No complaints from me! The focal range in macro mode is 5 - 46 cm at wide-angle, and 30 - 46 cm at telephoto.

Since some folks want to know the image area in macro mode, here are those numbers: 58 x 43 mm at wide-angle, and 107 x 80 mm at telephoto.

The S400 also did a nice job with the night shot from Twin Peaks. The long shutter speed mode allows you to pull off shots like this, but don't forget to use a tripod. At shutter speeds slower than 1.3 sec, the camera will use its noise reduction system. That's probably why there is so little noise in this 3.2 sec exposure. There is also no purple fringing to be found.

I was so surprised with the results of the redeye test that I went back an hour later and repeated the test. And I got the same result -- no major redeye. I was shocked that it wasn't horrible, as is usually the case with these micro cameras. I use the self-timer for this shots, and the bright orange lamp that flashes as the timer counts down may constrict the pupils a bit... but hey I'm not complaining. Note that enlarged this crop a bit so you can see the detail.

Our new distortion test illustrates the barrel distortion typically at wide-angle. This test also shows a little bit of vignetting (darkened corners), but it's not a major problem, seeing how I never noticed it in my sample photos.

The PowerShot S400's photo quality is very good -- I think most people will be pleased. Colors and exposure were generally fine, and images were sharp -- perhaps a little more so than on the similar S45. You can make out individual blades of grass (and fur too) in the shot below -- something some other cameras kind of "mush together".

I saw a little bit of purple fringing, but nothing that I'd consider a problem.

As I always say, don't just take my word for it, have a look at the photo gallery and decide for yourself about the S400's photo quality!

Movie Mode

The S400 has a nice movie mode, though it's not as nice as the one on the PowerShot A70.

You can record up to 3 minutes of video at 320 x 240 or 160 x 120. That's right, no 640 x 480 mode on the S400. Sound is recorded along with the video.

The zoom lens cannot be used during filming, which is the case with nearly all cameras that record movies with sound.

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

Here's a sample movie for you:

Click to play movie (2.6MB, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The S400 has the same, excellent playback mode of other Canon cameras. The thing that sticks out the most about the playback mode is the speed: everything is very responsive, thanks in large part to the DIGIC processor.

The S400 has all the basic playback features that you'd expect. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) lets you blow up the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It's very fast too.

You can attach a sound clip to a photo using the Sound Memo feature. The clips, which are saved in WAV format, can be up to 60 seconds long.

Movies can be trimmed in playback mode as well. You can cut parts off of the beginning or the end of your movie.

Another nice feature is the ability to rotate photos. You can also mark photos for transfer to your e-mail program, assuming that you use Canon's software.

The S400 provides a lot of info about your photos, including a histogram. It moves through images fairly quickly as well -- just over one second elapses between photos. If the camera has to rotate the image (if auto rotate is turned on), it may take slightly longer.

How Does it Compare?

The S400 is a worthy upgrade to Canon's Digital ELPH line, offering 4 Megapixel resolution, great photo quality, robust performance, and quite a few manual controls. THe body design is excellent -- one of the nicest-looking cameras I've seen. The movie mode is good (3 minute limits), but not as good as the PowerShot A70. The playback mode is top-notch as well. One thing I wish the S400 had more of was either scene modes or more shutter speed control. After seeing how Canon put full shutter speed and aperture controls, I was hoping that the S400 would have that too. No such luck. At the very least, an "action" mode would be nice for those who are taking pictures of sporting events or their kids. But I guess you can't have everything. All in all, the S400 is a great camera and it gets a strong recommendation from me.

Now for the question that many people have been asking: should I get the PowerShot S45 or the S400? Both sell for $499.

The S400 is what some call a "boutique" camera -- lots of style, at the expense of manual controls. The S45 (read our review) performs just as well and offers full manual controls, but (as noted earlier) it's bigger and heavier. So if you're someone who wants a small and light point-and-shoot camera, check out the S400. If you're more demanding and want to get your hands a little dirty, the S45 may be a better choice. But you really can't go wrong with either camera.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Small, beautiful metal body
  • Super fast performance
  • Has an AF illuminator lamp
  • Support for underwater case
  • Surprising performance in redeye test
  • Very good playback mode

What I didn't care for:

  • Wish it had more manual controls
  • While nice, movie mode not as nice as other Canon models
  • Poorly placed microphone (watch your fingers)
  • Flimsy plastic door over CF slot

Some other small 4 Megapixel cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S45, Casio QV-R4, Fuji FinePix F410 (I suppose), Kodak EasyShare LS443, Konica KD-400Z, Minolta DiMAGE F100, Olympus Stylus 400, Pentax Optio 430RS, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P9.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot S400 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality stacks up in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read a review of the S400 at Steve's Digicams.


Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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