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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 4, 2007
Last Updated: January 3, 2012

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The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS ($399) is an ultra-compact camera featuring an 8 Megapixel CCD, 4X optical zoom lens, image stabilization, and a beautiful 2.5" LCD display. Contrary to popular belief, the SD850 does NOT replace the SD800 -- rather, it replaces the SD700, which was introduced back in February of 2006.

Canon's model numbering is so confusing that I decided to make two charts to help you make sense of it. First up, we have a Digital ELPH family tree:

USA model names shown - click to see European model names

Hopefully that clears things up a bit. Now, here's a closer look at the differences between the current Digital ELPH models, with the SD850's predecessor (the SD700) thrown in for good measure.

Feature PowerShot SD700 IS PowerShot SD850 IS PowerShot SD870 IS PowerShot SD950 IS PowerShot SD1000
Street price
(at time of posting)
N/A $354 N/A $449 $227
Resolution 6.0 MP 8.0 MP 8.0 MP 12.1 MP 7.1 MP
Optical zoom 4X 4X 3.8X 3.7X 3X
Lens max. aperture F2.8 - F5.5 F2.8 - F5.5 F2.8 - F5.8 F2.8 - F5.8 F2.8 - F4.9
Focal length (35 mm equiv.) 35 - 140 mm 35 - 140 mm 28 - 105 mm 36 - 133 mm 35 - 105 mm
Image stabilization Yes Yes Yes Yes No
LCD size 2.5" 2.5" 3.0" 2.5" 2.5"
LCD resolution 173,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 230,000 pixels
Optical viewfinder Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Face detection No Yes Yes (enhanced) Yes (enhanced) Yes
Redeye reduction tool No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Movie mode file size limit 1GB 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Battery used NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L NB-4L
Battery life (CIPA standard) 240 shots 230 shots 270 shots 240 shots 210 shots
Dimensions (W x H x D) 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 3.7 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in.
Weight 165 g 165 g 155 g 165 g 125 g

So what does the SD850 offer over its predecessor? You get more pixels (of course), a new image processor, a sharper LCD, a redeye removal tool, and more.

How does this latest ELPH perform in our tests? Find out right now!

The PowerShot SD850 is known as the Digital IXUS 950 IS in some countries. Yes, very confusing.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD850 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 8.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH camera
  • 32MB Secure Digital memory card
  • NB-5L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions
  • 31 page basic manual + 161 page advanced manual (both printed)

Canon is one of the few camera manufacturers who still includes a memory card in the box, instead of building memory right into the camera. The 32MB SD card that comes with the SD850 won't hold many photos, though, so you'll want a larger card right away. The camera supports the SD, SDHC, and MMC memory card format, and I'd suggest starting out with a 1GB card. It's worth spending the extra money for a high speed SD or SDHC card.

The SD850 uses the same NB-5L lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. This battery has 4.1 Wh of energy, which isn't bad for a camera of this size. Here's how the SD850 compares to the competition in terms of battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Canon PowerShot SD700 IS * 240 shots
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS * 230 shots
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS * 270 shots
Casio Exilim EX-Z1080 240 shots
Fuji FinePix F40fd 300 shots
GE G1 200 shots
HP Photosmart R742 150 shots
Kodak EasyShare M873 200 shots
Nikon Coolpix S510 * 170 shots
Olympus Stylus 830 * 200 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX12 * 350 shots
Pentax Optio A30 * 150 shots
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 * 350 shots

* Has image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the camera manufacturers

As you can see, the SD850's battery life is just a little bit worse than its predecessor. In the ultra-compact group as a whole, the SD850 is right in the middle.

When it's time to charge the battery, just snap it into the included charger. This is my favorite type of charger: it plugs directly into the wall. It takes around a little over two hours for a full charge.

Like all ultra-compact cameras, the SD850 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to deal with.

There are just a few accessories available for the PowerShot SD850. The most interesting is probably the WP-DC15 underwater case (priced from $160), which lets you take the camera up to 40 meters below sea level. Next we have the HF-DC1 external slave flash (priced from $90), which attaches via the tripod mount and fires when the onboard flash does, giving you more flash range and less redeye. Last, but not least, we have the ACK-DC30 AC Adapter (priced from $45), which lets you power the camera without draining your battery.

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 30.2 of their Digital Camera Solution software package with the SD850. The main applications are the ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser "twins" that come with all PowerShot models. ImageBrowser is for the Mac, while ZoomBrowser is for Windows PCs. The Mac version is not Universal, so it doesn't run as fast as it could on Intel-based Macs. However, a Universal version now exists (it comes with the PowerShot G9), so it may be worth contacting Canon for an upgrade.

After you download photos via the CameraWindow application, you'll end up with the screen above, which has a standard-issue thumbnail view. Photos can be organized, printed, and e-mailed from this screen.

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve.

ImageBrowser - MovieEdit Task (Mac OS X)

The MovieEdit part of Image/ZoomBrowser lets you edit videos, complete with transitions, effects, text overlays, and much more.You can also downsize the videos, which makes them easier to share with friends via e-mail or your website.

PhotoStitch (Mac OS X)

A separate program called PhotoStitch can, well, stitch together separate photos into one giant panorama. The interface is simple, the process takes minutes, and the results are impressive, as you can see. You can use the SD850's Stitch Assist feature to line up the photos side-by-side with just the right amount of overlap.

The SD850's documentation comes in several parts. There's a basic manual to get you up and running, plus an advanced manual for understanding more complex camera features. There are also separate manuals for the bundled software and for direct printing (via PictBridge). The manuals cover everything in detail, though they could be more user friendly.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SD850 IS looks a lot like its predecessor, the SD700. It's an ultra-compact camera made almost entirely of metal, and it feels very well constructed. The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, and there's a nice rest for your right thumb on the back. The controls on the back of the camera are on the small side.

Now, let's see how the SD850 compares to other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD700 IS 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 7.9 cu in. 165 g
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS 3.6 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 7.9 cu in. 165 g
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 10 cu in. 165 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z1080 3.6 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 8.3 cu in. 125 g
Fujifilm FinePix F40fd 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.9 cu in. 153 g
GE G1 3.6 x 2.5 x 0.8 in. 7.2 cu in. 115 g
HP Photosmart R742 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.1 cu in. 136 g
Kodak EasyShare M873 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.7 in. 5.5 cu in. 110 g
Nikon Coolpix S510 3.5 x 2.0 x 0.9 in. 6.3 cu in. 125 g
Olympus Stylus 830 3.9 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 125 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX12 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 125 g
Pentax Optio A30 3.5 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.2 cu in. 130 g
Samsung L830 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 6.8 cu in. 132 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 124 g

The SD850 has exactly the same dimensions and weight as its predecessor. It's one of the larger cameras in the group, but I never had any trouble stuffing it into my jeans pocket.

Let's start our tour of the SD850 IS now, beginning with the front view.

The PowerShot SD850 IS has the same F2.8-5.5, 4X optical zoom lens as the SD700 before it. The lens has a focal range of 5.8 - 23.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm. The lens is not threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported.

The "IS" in the camera's name recognizes the SD850's optical image stabilization system. Most photographers are familiar with the effects of "camera shake", which can blur your photos, especially in low light, or at the telephoto end of the lens. Sensors inside the camera detect this motion, and the SD850 shifts one of its lens elements to counteract it. It won't work miracles, nor can it freeze a moving subject, but it will allow you to use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. Want an example? Have a look at this:

Image stabilizer off

Image stabilizer on

Both of the above photos were taken at a blur-inducing 1/10th of a second. As you can see, the image stabilizer did its job, producing a tack sharp photo. If you want another example of the IS system in action, check out this brief sample movie.

To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. The flash strength is unchanged since the SD700 -- it's still 0.5 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.0 m at telephoto, which is about average for an ultra-compact camera. If you want more flash power, you can either buy the external slave flash I mentioned earlier, or buy the PowerShot SD950 (which has a more powerful flash) instead.

Directly above the lens is the AF-assist lamp, with the optical viewfinder to its left. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations. It also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

The last thing of note on the front of the camera is the microphone, located to the lower-left of the viewfinder.

The back of the SD850 has had a few cosmetic changes since the SD700, but everything's in the same place. The LCD is the same size as before (2.5"), but the resolution has been boosted from 173,000 to 230,000 pixels. Canon calls this a "PureColor" LCD, and it's one of the best that you'll find on a compact camera. It's bright and sharp, with a wide viewing angle and great outdoor visibility. In low light, the screen brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.

Above the LCD is the SD850's optical viewfinder. Yeah, it's small and there's no diopter correction, but these days it's a surprise when I find a compact camera with a viewfinder, so I'll let those slide. You can see a tiny bit of the lens barrel when you're at full wide-angle, but it did not bother me.

To the right of the viewfinder is the power button. Continuing in that direction, we find the camera's mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Playback mode More on this later
Auto mode Fully automatic, most camera settings locked up
Manual mode Still automatic, but with full menu access
Special Scene mode You choose the situation, and the camera uses the proper settings; choose from portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, creative light effect, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, underwater
Movie mode More on this later

Despite having a "manual mode", the PowerShot SD850 is still considered a point-and-shoot camera. The only manual controls on the camera are for white balance and slow shutter speeds, and I'll explain both of those in further detail later.

Run your mouse over the above image to see the "heart" Creative Light Effect in action
Images courtesy of Canon Inc.

You will find plenty of scene modes, and the new Creative Light Effect item in the scene menu caught my eye, mostly because it's so bizarre. When this mode is active and you take a flash photo, at night, with holiday lights or cityscapes behind your subject, these lights can be changed into various shapes (stars, hearts, etc.). Mouse over the above image to see an example of this feature.

To the lower-left of the mode dial is the Print/Share button. When connected to a computer, you can transfer your photos by pressing this button, and you can even choose your desktop background right from the camera. If you're hooked into a PictBridge-enabled photo printer, this is how you'll make prints. In playback mode, the Print/Share button opens up the My Category feature that I'll describe later. Finally, it can be used to activate the Auto ISO Boost feature that I'll tell you about later in the review.

Below the Print/Share button you'll find the four-way controller. Not only can this controller move in the usual up/down/left/right directions, but it can also be "rotated" by running your finger around the edge of it (the dial doesn't actually turn). It doesn't work nearly as well on an iPod though, probably due to the controller's small size. Rotating the dial lets you scroll through menus or quickly move through your photos. Using the directional buttons will navigate the menus, and also:

  • Up - ISO (Auto, Hi Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600) + Jump (Quickly moves 10 or 100 photos at a time in playback mode)
  • Down - Drive (Single shot, continuous, self-timer [2 or 10 sec, custom]) + Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Normal, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, flash on, flash off)
  • Center - Function Menu (see below) + Set

There are two Auto ISO modes on the PowerShot SD850. The difference between the two is that "Hi" mode uses higher sensitivities than the regular one. I'd use the Hi Auto mode only if you know that your prints will be small. I'll have more on the camera's ISO performance later in the review.

The SD850's continuous shooting mode is fairly good. If you're using a fast SD or SDHC memory card then you can keep shooting at 1.3 frames/second until the card fills up. The LCD keeps up with the action, so tracking a moving subject is not a problem.

Function menu

By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu. This menu has the following options:

  • Shooting mode (Manual, digital macro, color accent, color swap, stitch assist) - only shown with mode dial set to M; see below for more
  • Special scene mode (Portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, creative light effect, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, underwater) - only displayed with mode dial set to SCN
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode (Off, 1 - 15 sec)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - this last option lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

The digital macro option locks the lens at wide-angle and lets you be just 2 cm from your subject. To get closer you can use the digital zoom, but that reduces image quality if you're shooting at the highest resolution. To really take advantage of this feature you'll want to lower the resolution, which allows you to use a bit of digital zoom without reducing the quality of the photo.

The color accent and color swap options are part of the larger My Colors feature. The former turns a photo to black & white, preserving only the color you select. Color swap does just as it sounds -- you swap one color for another. They're fun, but not terribly useful features. The other My Colors features are in a separate menu, and they should be self-explanatory. Buried in there you'll find the custom color option, which allows you to adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, plus red/green/blue and skin tone levels.

Stitch Assist helps you line up photos side-by-side, for later "stitching" into a single panoramic photo.

The long shutter mode lets you select a slow shutter speed (from 1 - 15 secs), which is needed for night shots like the ones in my reviews.

Below the four-way controller you'll find the Display and Menu buttons. The former toggles the LCD on and off, as well as what's shown on it. The Menu button does exactly as it sounds.

On the top of the camera you'll find its speaker, shutter release button, and zoom controller.

The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.6 seconds. The current zoom position is not shown on the LCD -- a major omission in my opinion. I counted nine steps in the SD850's 4X zoom range.

Nothing to see here.

On the other side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The ports here include USB and A/V out. Like all of Canon's cameras, the SD850 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your computer.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

On the bottom of the SD850 IS you'll find a metal tripod mount, plus the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is fairly sturdy. You will not be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NB-5L battery is shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH

Record Mode

The SD850 IS extends its lens and is ready to start taking photos in about one second -- that's pretty darn fast.

No live histogram to be found

Focusing speeds were very good. At the wide end of the lens, you'll wait between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds for the camera to focus. At the telephoto end, or when the camera had to "hunt" a bit, focus delays rarely exceeded one second. Low light focusing was excellent, thanks to the SD850's AF-assist lamp.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it can occur.

Shot-to-shot delays are minimal. You'll wait about 1 second before you can take a shot without the flash, and about three seconds with it.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button (the "down" key on the four-way controller).

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

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 32MB card
# images on 1GB card (optional)
3264 x 2448
Superfine 3.4 MB 8 278
Fine 2.0 MB 14 462
Normal 980 KB 29 958
Wide (16:9)
3264 x 1832
Superfine 2.5 MB 11 366
Fine 1.5 MB 18 614
Normal 736 KB 39 1284
Medium 1
2592 x 1944
Superfine 2.4 MB 11 380
Fine 1.4 MB 20 678
Normal 695 KB 41 1342
Medium 2
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 18 590
Fine 893 KB 32 1058
Normal 445 KB 64 2082
Medium 3
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 29 942
Fine 558 KB 52 1678
Normal 278 KB 99 3180
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 111 3554
Fine 150 KB 171 5494
Normal 84 KB 270 8634

The SD850 also has a "postcard" size that you can select, which is the same resolution as Medium 3. This is the only setting that lets you print the date on your photos.

There's no RAW or TIFF image support on the SD850, nor would I expect there to be.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The SD850 has the same menu system as the other cameras in the SD series. Note that some menu options are not available while in the automatic and scene modes. With that in mind, here's what's in the record menu:

  • AiAF (Face detect, on, off)
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 1.6X, 2.0X, Standard) - see below
  • Slow synchro (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off) - uses the redeye reduction lamp to reduce this annoyance
  • Custom self-timer - a very handy feature
    • Delay (0-10, 15, 20, 30 secs)
    • Number of shots (1 - 10
  • Auto ISO shift (on/off) - see below
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Save original (on/off) - whether an unretouched copy of a photo taken in My Colors mode is saved
  • Auto category (on/off) - puts photos into categories based on your shooting mode; more on this later
  • Display overlay (Off, gridlines, 3:2 guide, both)
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - only works when using postcard resolution!!
  • Set Print/Share button (Off, exposure compensation, white balance, custom WB, digital tele-converter, display overlay, record movie, LCD off, play sound effect) - redefine what this button does
The camera has detected three faces When I pressed the shutter release halfway, it locked focus on five of them

There are three focus modes on the PowerShot SD850. The first one is Face Detect, which is a must-have feature on 2007 cameras (according to the manufacturer, at least). This will lock the focus and exposure on up to nine different faces in the frame. Canon's implementation of this feature is better than most -- the SD850 locked onto five of the six faces in my test photo. If the camera doesn't see any faces in the frame then you'll get regular 9-point autofocus. If you don't want it to look for faces, just select the "on" AiAF option. If you choose "off", the camera will focus on the center of the frame.

I want to mention the digital zoom feature on the SD850, since it's a bit unusual. Canon calls the 1.6X and 2.0X options a "digital tele-converter" -- it's basically just fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera -- it just enlarges the center of the frame digitally. The camera's Safety Zoom feature warns you when you pass the point where image quality is degraded. When you're shooting at the highest resolution that starts as soon as digital zoom kicks in, but if you're using a lower resolution you can use it for a little while before that happens (e.g. you can go up to 6.4X total zoom at the M2 resolution). This feature can be found on other cameras (Sony calls it Smart Zoom; Panasonic, Extended Optical Zoom), and you can do the same thing in your favorite photo editor, as well.

Auto ISO shift is a pretty handy feature. If you halfway press the shutter release button and get the flashing red "shake warning" that you can see in the right face detection sample, you can press the blinking Print/Share button, and the camera will choose an ISO that will result in a sharp (but noisier) photo.

There are three different modes for the image stabilizer. Continuous mode activates the IS system as soon as you halfway-press the shutter release, which helps you compose your photo without any camera shake. Shoot only doesn't activate the system until the photo is actually taken, which is more effective at stopping blur than the continuous mode. Panning mode only stabilizes for up and down motion, and you'll want to use this when you're tracking a moving subject. You can also turn image stabilization off entirely, which you'll want to do when the camera is on a tripod.

The setup tab in the menu has the following items:

  • Mute (on/off) - turns off all the beeps
  • 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)
  • Touch icons (on/off) - shows what direction you're pressing the four-way controller on the LCD
  • 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)
  • Time Zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Clock display (0-10 sec, 20 sec, 30 sec, 1-3 mins) - yes, the camera doubles as a clock
  • Card format
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch to playback mode
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print Method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all - back to defaults

An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well. You can also turn off all the screens and sounds as well, which might not be a bad idea.

That's enough for menus, let's talk about photo quality now.

The SD850 turned in a pretty good performance in our macro test. The colors are nice and saturated, though the blacks aren't terribly black. The camera captures plenty of detail, yet retains the "smooth" look that Canon's cameras are famous for.

There's really only one macro mode on the PowerShot SD850 (I don't think that the digital macro mode counts). In the "regular" macro mode you can be as close to your subject as 2 cm at wide-angle and 40 cm at telephoto, which is pretty good.

The PowerShot SD850 produced a beautiful night scene of the San Francisco skyline. Using the long shutter mode, I was able to bring in enough light for proper exposure. The buildings are sharp, there's not much noise to speak of, and purple fringing was not a problem.

There are two ISO tests in this review. The first one uses the night scene above, so you can see how noise levels look at high ISOs in low light situations. Since I can't select shutter speeds faster than 1 second, the test stops at ISO 800 (and that shot is overexposed compared to the others for the same reason). The studio ISO test later in the review will show the whole range.

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

There's just a bit more noise in the ISO 100 shot compared with the ISO 80 one. Noise and noise reduction artifacting become visible at ISO 200, and once you hit ISO 400, a lot of detail is lost. As such, I wouldn't take the camera any higher than ISO 200 in low light situations (and the ISO 800 crop shows you why).

There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the SD850's lens. To see what this looks like in real life, have a look at the building on the right in this photo. While the SD850 doesn't have a problem with vignetting (dark corners), it definitely has an issue with corner blurriness (as do many ultra-compact cameras). To see what I mean, have a look at the lower right in this shot.

Compact cameras almost always have redeye problems, and the PowerShot SD850 is no exception. The shot above was taken with the redeye reduction feature turned on, which blasts your eyes with the AF-assist lamp right before the photo is taken. As you can see, that didn't help. The good news is that Canon finally put a redeye removal tool into the playback mode of their cameras. And, look, it works:

That's quite an improvement if you ask me. It would be nice if this feature was automatically activated right after you take a flash photo, instead of having to do it manually later. Still, this is a feature that is quite welcome around here.

Here's that second ISO test I promised you. This one is taken in the studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras I've reviewed. While the crops give you a hint about the noise levels at each ISO setting, I highly recommend viewing the full size images to get the most out of this test. And with that, here are the crops of the above scene:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The first three crops (ISO 80 - 200) are buttery smooth. The only things I noticed were a slight drop in color saturation and a bit of noise on the TiVo doll in the ISO 200 shot. Noise reduction becomes more evident at ISO 400, though a mid to large-sized print is still possible. Even though there's quite a bit of noise at ISO 800, much of the detail is retained, so a small print isn't out of the question, especially if you use noise reduction software. The ISO 1600 shot is pretty bad, so I'd avoid using this setting.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the photos produced by the PowerShot SD850 IS. They were generally well-exposed -- save for some blown highlights in our torture test -- with accurate colors. Sharpness was just how I like it: not too sharp, not too soft. The exception here is the corner softness that I mentioned earlier. Noise wasn't a problem until ISO 400, as the test above illustrated, and Canon takes it easy on the noise reduction until you reach the highest sensitivities. Purple fringing was minimal.

As usual, I invite you now to have a look at our photo gallery. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the PowerShot SD850's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

One of the things I didn't care for on the old PowerShot SD700's movie mode was the 1GB file size limit. When recording at the highest quality setting you'd hit that in a little over eight minutes. With its DIGIC III processor, the PowerShot SD850 now allows for file sizes up to 4GB. Thus, now you can record over 32 minutes of 640 x 480, 30 frame/second video with sound. A high speed memory card is required in order to record long movies at this setting.

One way to increase recording time is to lower the resolution and/or frame rate. For the 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 sizes, you can choose 15 or 30 frames/second. If you don't mind small, choppy videos, then there's also a 160 x 120 mode, which records up to three minutes of 15 frame/second video.

There's also a "Fast Frame Rate" mode available, which lets you record up to 1 minute of 320 x 240 video at a whopping 60 frames/second. This is great for videos of fast moving subjects.

But wait -- there's more. New to the SD850 is a time-lapse mode, which will capture a frame every 1 or 2 seconds (your choice) for up to two hours. These frames are then converted into a movie and played back at high speed, so you can make your own Planet Earth style movies of flowers opening or grass growing.

You can use all of the My Colors features in movie mode. An editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming (it will be locked when you start filming). You can, however, use the digital zoom.

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

Here's a sample movie for you:

Click to play movie (19.7 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The PowerShot SD850 has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, image rotation, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. When you're zoomed in you can press the Func/Set button and then move from photo to photo at the same magnification setting.

There's also the redeye removal tool, which I told you about in the previous section. It's easy to use, and you can choose to save your original image if you want. It can even remove redeye from multiple people in a photo.

Most of the My Colors features can be used in playback mode, save for Color Accent, Color Swap, and Custom Color.

Assigning a category to a photo

The My Category feature lets you assign photos to any of seven possible categories. If you have Auto Category turned on in the recording menu then this will be done automatically, depending on what scene mode you used to record them. There are three custom categories, though I don't see a way to give them a name instead of the generic "My Category 1". You can select images by their category and display slide shows of them, or delete/protect them.

Jumping through photos by date

The Jump feature lets you move forward or back 10 or 100 photos at a time, and you can also go to the first photo in a category or folder. As the screenshot above shows, you can also jump ahead by date using this feature.

Rotate the four-way controller to get this view

Another way to quickly move through photos is to "rotate" the four-way controller. It's kind of clunky in my opinion, but at least now you know about it.

Sound Recorder

In addition to recording stills and videos, the PowerShot SD850 can also be used for recording audio clips. You can record up to two hours of continuous audio at the sampling rate of your choosing, as long as its 11 kHz, 22 kHz, or 44 kHz. Sound is recorded in stereo.

By default you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get more info, including a histogram.

The PowerShot SD850 moves between images almost instantly, with your choice of two snazzy transitions. Like all of Canon's other cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.

How Does it Compare?

I've long been a fan of Canon's Digital ELPHs, and the PowerShot SD850 IS illustrates why. It stylish, ultra-compact, and well built. It has a gorgeous 2.5" LCD display and an optical viewfinder, a combination you won't find on most cameras in this class. It offers a few manual controls, just the right amount of scene modes, and not too many gimmicks. It's not the perfect camera, but as ultra-compact cameras go, it's certainly one of the best.

The PowerShot SD850 IS doesn't look a whole lot different than the SD700 before it, but that's okay. It's a compact camera made almost entirely of metal, and it feels solid in your hands. There aren't too many buttons to deal with, though the ones you will find are on the small side. The SD850 features a 4X optical zoom lens, with a standard 35 - 140 mm focal range (check out the SD870 if you want wide-angle). Inside the lens is Canon's effective optical image stabilization system, which reduces the risk of blurry photos and shaky movies. On the back of the camera is beautiful 2.5" LCD display, with excellent sharpness, indoor/outdoor visibility, and color. The SD850 is one of a very select group of cameras to still have an optical viewfinder.

Canon put plenty of features into the PowerShot SD850, but they didn't go overboard like some camera manufacturers seem to do these days. There are plenty of point-and-shoot features to choose from, including just the right amount of scene modes, though the Creative Light Effect mode seemed awfully cheesy to me. The camera has the requisite Face Detection feature, and Canon's implementation is one of the best I've seen. I also like the Auto ISO Boost option, which raises the sensitivity at the push of a button in order to obtain a sharp photo. There's also a new redeye reduction tool in playback mode, and you'll need it.

There aren't many manual controls on the camera, but the two Canon included are useful: white balance and slow shutter speed. Still, I'd love to see a full set of manual controls on a Digital ELPH someday. The camera's movie mode has been improved since the SD700, now offering up to 32 minutes of continuous VGA quality video with sound. There's also a time-lapse movie mode, a fairly uncommon feature in this class.

Camera performance is excellent. The SD850 is ready to shoot in about a second, which is above average. Focusing times were very good, even in low light situations. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. While the burst rate isn't terribly high, the SD850 can keep shooting at 1.3 frames/second until your high speed memory card fills up. Battery life was average in the ultra-compact group and, like all Canon cameras, the SD850 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Photo quality was very good on the SD850 IS. The camera took well-exposed photos, with pleasing, accurate colors. Sharpness is right in the middle: not too sharp, not too soft (and this can be adjusted if you desire). Noise is minimal until you hit ISO 400, with the ISO 800 setting being usable for small prints (ISO 1600 on the other hand, is not). Purple fringing was not a problem. The negatives in the image quality department include noticeable corner blurriness and severe redeye, both of which are common in the ultra-compact class. While there's not much you can do about the blurriness (you won't see it in all but the largest prints, though), you can use the tool in playback mode to get rid of the redeye.

Two last items before I wrap things up. I don't like how the camera does not display the current zoom setting on the LCD -- people shouldn't have to guess! And finally, you can't swap out the memory card while the camera is on a tripod.

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH is an ultra-compact that does just about everything right. As you probably noticed by reading this conclusion, there isn't much to complain about -- and the few negatives are shared with nearly every other camera in this class. I highly recommend checking out the PowerShot SD850 if you're in the market for a stylish ultra-compact camera.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, low noise through ISO 400 (in good light)
  • Compact, well built metal body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Gorgeous 2.5" LCD display
  • Has an optical viewfinder (a rarity in this class)
  • Snappy performance
  • AF-assist lamp, great low light focusing
  • Handy Auto ISO Boost feature is a good substitute for an always-on high sensitivity mode
  • Well-implemented face detection feature
  • Effective redeye removal tool (and you'll need it)
  • Very good movie mode
  • Optional underwater case
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Corner softness
  • Redeye a big problem (though the tool in playback mode gets rid of most of it)
  • Current zoom setting not shown on LCD
  • Controls on back of camera a little small
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on a tripod
  • More manual controls would be nice

Some other cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS (similar, but with a wide-angle lens) and SD950 IS (more resolution than the SD850, plus a titanium body), Casio Exilim EX-Z1080, Fuji FinePix F40fd, GE G1, HP Photosmart R742, Kodak EasyShare M873, Nikon Coolpix S510, Olympus Stylus 830, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX12, Pentax Optio A30, Samsung L830, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD850 IS and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

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 or technical support.

Want another opinion?

You can read more reviews of the SD850 at CNET and Steve's Digicams.