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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD20 Digital ELPH  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 19, 2004
Last Updated: December 29, 2007

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The Canon PowerShot SD20 Digital ELPH ($350) is the 5 Megapixel update to the tiny PowerShot SD10 from last year. Beside the higher resolution CCD, the only other new features on the camera are the Print/Share button on the back and a choice of new colors. Speaking of which, here are the available colors:

Those colors are called Silver, Garnet, Midnight Blue, and Zen Gray. You can probably figure out which color I had.

How does the PowerShot SD20 perform in our tests? Find out now! By the way, the SD20 is known as the IXUS i5 in some countries!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD20 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot SD20 camera
  • 32MB Secure Digital card
  • NB-3L lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft Camera Suite, and drivers
  • 161 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 32MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card with the SD20, 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 256MB SD card as a good place to start (they're practically free these days anyway).

The SD20 uses the same NB-3L battery as its predecessor, which has just 2.9 Wh of energy. Don't expect endless battery life on this tiny camera -- the CIPA battery life estimate is just 120 photos per charge. With that in mind, I highly recommend buying an extra battery ($45). I'm not a huge fan of proprietary batteries like this, but they're par for the course on ultra-small cameras like the SD20.

When it's time to charge the battery just pop it into the included battery charger. It takes 95 minutes to fully charge the NB-3L. This is one of those "plug it right into the wall" chargers.

The SD20 has a built-in lens cover so there are no lens caps to worry about. It's a very small camera, as you can see!

There's really just one accessory for the SD20 and that's the AW-DC10 all-weather case ($80), which lets you take the SD20 up to 3 meters underwater. Not suitable for scuba, but okay for the beach or swimming pool.

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 21 of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software with the SD20. 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.

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 for your consumption -- just be prepared for lots of small print and "notes" in each section.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SD20 is a stylish, ultra-compact camera that can go just about everywhere. The body is almost entirely metal, and it feels very solid. The important controls (what few there are) are all within each reach of your fingers.

The dimensions of the SD20 are 90.3 x 47.0 x 18.5 mm / 3.6 x 1.9 x 0.7 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs just 100 grams / 3.5 ounces empty. I have the PowerShot SD300 here as well and it's not that much bigger, with dimensions of 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 inches and a weight of 130 grams. What I'm implying here is that for one less Megapixel of resolution and a slightly larger body you get a much more capable camera in the SD300.

Anyhow, enough about that -- let's tour the PowerShot SD20 now.

The SD20 has the same lens as its predecessor. That makes it an F2.8 fixed focal length lens, equivalent to 39 mm (which is not great news for wide-angle fans). What I'm trying to say is: there is no optical zoom! Not surprisingly you cannot add conversion lenses to the SD20.

Just to the upper-right of the lens is the camera's AF-assist lamp. Even on a camera this small Canon didn't get rid of this useful feature. The lamp does more than just help the camera focus in low light in low light -- it's also the redeye reduction lamp and the self-timer lamp. It's hard to see in the photo, but to the right of the AF-assist lamp is the microphone.

At the top-right of the photo is the built-in flash. As you'd expect on a small camera, the flash is fairly weak, with a range of just 0.3 - 2.0 meters (1.0 - 6.6 feet). You cannot attach an external flash to the SD20.

You'd better like the SD20's LCD display, since it's the only way to frame pictures on the camera. Though this 1.5" LCD only has 78,000 pixels, you wouldn't know it by looking at the screen -- it's quite sharp. It's also bright, and images on it are fluid. The LCD brightness is adjustable in the setup menu as well. In low light the LCD "gains up" slightly but it's still too dark to be usable in my opinion.

There's no optical viewfinder on this camera, which may be a deal breaker for some people.

Above the LCD is a switch which moves the camera between playback, movie, and record mode.

To the right of the LCD are three buttons plus the four-way controller. The menu button does just as it sounds, so what's with the Function/Set button?

The function menu

The function button is the way to change the shooting settings on the camera. The available options on this overlay-style menu are:

  • Shooting mode (Auto, manual, macro, portrait, landscape, night snapshot, indoor, underwater) - some of these are new to the SD20
  • Exposure compensation (+2EV to -2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - the custom item is new, and it lets you shoot a white or gray card in order to get perfect color in any lighting
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black & white)
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Image size/compression - see chart later in review

A few random notes about those. First, manual mode really isn't a true manual mode -- it just unlocks all the menu options. The only manual controls are white balance and shutter speed. That long shutter mode lets you choose a shutter speed ranging from 1 - 15 seconds.

The photo effect feature lets you change the color between regular, vivid, and neutral, and you can adjust the sharpness as well. You can use photo effects in movie mode, as well.

The four-way controller is used for menu navigation and more. The "more" includes:

  • Up - Digital zoom in
  • Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off, slow-synchro)
  • Down - Digital zoom out + delete photo
  • Left - Drive (Single shot, continuous, self-timer)

Note that using the 6.5X digital zoom will lower the quality of your photos. I have a sample photo in the gallery for evidence.

Continuous shooting mode will take shots sequentially at around 0.9 frames/second, which is quite slow. You can keep taking pictures until the memory card fills up.

The other button to see here is new to the SD20, and it's the Print/Share button. 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 items on the back of the camera are the I/O ports, which are protected by a rubber cover. The ports include A/V out and USB.

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

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 and NB-3L battery are shown at right.

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

Using the Canon PowerShot SD20

Record Mode

It takes about 1.7 seconds for the SD20 to power up before you can start taking pictures -- pretty snappy.

Autofocus speeds on the SD20 were about average, ranging from 0.5 - 1.0 seconds. Turning off the 9-point AiAF will speed up these times, since center-focusing is quicker. Low light focusing was good thanks to the SD20's AF-assist lamp.

The SD20 had very little shutter lag, even at slower shutter speeds. The camera offers a Quick Shot mode which lets you fully press the shutter release button without stopping halfway to focus for faster shooting.

Shot-to-shot speed is average, with a 2.5 second wait before you can take another shot, assuming you've turned off the post-shot review feature.

Press the "down" button on the four-way controller 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 SD20:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 32MB card
(2592 x 1944)
Superfine 2.4 MB 11
Fine 1.4 MB 20
Normal 695 KB 40
Medium 1
(2048 x 1536)
Superfine 1.6 MB 17
Fine 893 KB 32
Normal 445 KB 63
Medium 2
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 1002 KB 28
Fine 558 KB 51
Normal 278 KB 97
(640 x 480)
Superfine 249 KB 108
Fine 150 KB 168
Normal 84 KB 265

The SD20 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 SD20 has a very small record menu that's very easy to use. Do note that some of these options are locked up in the automatic shooting mode The options in the record menu include:

  • Quick Shot (on/off) - allows you to press the shutter release all the way down without stopping halfway to focus; subject must be at least 1.5 m away
  • AiAF (on/off) - turns on the 9-point autofocus system; if off, camera focuses on whatever's in the center of the frame (which is faster)
  • 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) - post-shot review
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos
  • Long shutter (on/off) - activates this feature; lets you take exposures as long as 15 secs
  • Stitch Assist (Off, left-to-right, right-to-left) - helps you make panoramic photos

I should mention the date stamp feature since there's been some confusion about it. 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.

There is also a setup menu on the SD20, 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)
  • Display info
    • Shooting info (on/off)
    • Review info (on/off)
    • Replay info (Off, standard, detailed)
  • 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)
  • Clock display (0-10 sec, 20 sec, 30 sec, 1-3 mins) - yes, the SD20 doubles as a clock
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos for you
  • Language (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Traditional Chinese, Korean, 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 SD20 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 PowerShot SD20 did a pretty nice job with our macro test subject. Colors are good for the most part, though the reds seem a little pink to me. The subject is very "smooth", which has been a trademark of Canon cameras of late. With manual white balance (a feature new to the SD20), my quartz studio lights were no big deal.

The focus range in macro mode is 3 - 10 cm, which is pretty good.

Since the SD20 has no zoom lens the night shot looks a bit different -- still very nice though! I appreciate how the SD20 has a long shutter speed feature, as that's the only way you're going to pull off a shot like this. The photo is low on noise, though purple fringing is noticeable (and with no control over the aperture, there's not much you can do about it).

Redeye on an ultra-compact camera? You're kidding! No, really, it's a problem, which shouldn't be surprising if you've read a lot of my reviews. Expect to clean this up in your "people pictures" if you get the SD20.

The distortion test shows mild barrel distortion and some noticeable vignetting (dark corners). Vignetting in real world photos wasn't as bad as in this test.

Overall I'd call the PowerShot SD20's image quality very good. Images have that "smooth" look that I described earlier. Color and exposure were generally good, though the camera blew out the highlights more than once. Noise levels are higher than on the SD10 but are still low. Purple fringing was a problem in some photos, but it wasn't horrible either.

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 SD20's photos meet your expectations!

Movie Mode

While the SD20 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.

A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage from the beginning and end of your "film".

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

Here's a low budget sample movie if there ever was one:

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 SD20 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 setting the "replay info" option in the menu to "detailed" you can see plenty of information about the photos you've taken, including 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?

The Canon PowerShot SD20 Digital ELPH is what I call a "secondary camera". It's the go-anywhere camera that's always on hand to capture the moment. For more serious endeavors, that's where you bring out your primary camera -- the PowerShot G6, Coolpix 8700, whatever. With that in mind, the SD20 is a very nice ultra-compact camera that can fit in your pocket, ready for action at any time. It takes very good 5 Megapixel photos without major delays like shutter lag. The camera is mostly point-and-shoot, though I appreciate the manual white balance and long shutter speed controls. The camera has an AF-assist lamp for focusing in low light, though I found it hard to see anything on the LCD in those conditions.

With the tiny body come several trade-offs. For one, you'll get plenty of redeye and a limited flash range. The lens is fixed at 39mm, which isn't great for wide-angle shots as you might imagine. Purple fringing was a bit higher than average, as well. Canon's movie mode isn't very good either, with slow frame rates and short recording times. Lastly, battery life isn't as good as you'd find on a larger camera with a more powerful battery.

All-in-all, the SD20 is a compact, stylish camera that you can bring everywhere. I wouldn't buy it as a primary camera but for something you can always have with you, it gets the thumbs up.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Stylish, compact body; comes in four colors
  • Manual white balance + slow shutter speed controls
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Optional all-weather case
  • Impressive software package

What I didn't care for:

  • LCD doesn't "gain up" in low light (or not very much, at least)
  • No optical zoom; lens fixed at a not-so-wide 39mm
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Weak flash, major redeye
  • Movie mode has low frame rate, short recording times
  • Battery life isn't fabulous

Some other high resolution, ultra-compact cameras worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH, Casio Exilim EX-Z50 and EX-Z55, Fuji FinePix F450, Kodak EasyShare LS753, Konica Minolta DiMAGE X50, Olympus AZ-2 Zoom and Stylus Verve, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax Optio S5i, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 and DSC-T1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD20 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 SD20 over at Steve's Digicams.

Buy it now

Silver body

Garnet body

Midnight blue body

Zen gray body

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.