For everything that Canon does right, they've always struggled with the compact-zoom genre. Last year's SX210 IS and SD4500 IS, for example, had some great qualities, yet puzzling design choices stifled their appeal.
But 2011 is a year where things have gone topsy-turvy in this class. Panasonic, the traditional travel-zoom champion, somehow went from first to near-worst. Nikon's cameras are actually praised for their low-light abilities. And above all, Canon muscled its way to the top of the class with the exceptionally well-rounded SX230 HS. Meant for casual photographers, but lovable by all, this pocket-sized all-in-one shooter gets just about everything right.
Body & Design
The SX230 is designed in the sleek, minimalist spirit of the ELPH series, though longer and slightly thicker than its ultra-compact brand-mates. Its mostly plastic body feels well built and has a nice heft to it. Most users should find its rectangular body to be comfortable in their hands, though it's a little too large to carry in a pants-pocket.
The 3-inch, widescreen LCD is like a Cadillac: bigger than you need, but luxurious. Black bars book-end any shots taken in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio, like watching old TV shows on an HDTV, though high-def videos do fill the entire screen. The mid-range resolution (461,000 pixels) is par for the course, and the screen is visible anywhere except for direct sunlight.
A slew of buttons and dials sit to the right of the screen, packed in cozily but comfortably. A mode dial sits in the top-right corner for easy thumb access. Going down the column, there are dedicated video mode and playback mode buttons, a selection wheel, and buttons labeled for display and menu access. The power toggle sits to the left, on a ridge above the LCD. It's a great placement for a power button -- easy to find and press, but out of the shutter's way.
Up top, a domed, chromed shutter button sits inside the zoom tilter (which could use a slightly larger tab for a better grip). Heading left, there’s a bump for the GPS antenna, an aperture for the playback speaker, and finally the pop-up flash. It’s a clever way to fit a flash into the camera, but it's frustrating in practice, which we'll discuss below.
A 28-392mm (14x) lens protrudes from the front panel. The focal range isn't as broad on the wide end or far-reaching on the telephoto end as some of its competitors, but it’s still versatile enough to work in just about any setting. The f/3.1 maximum aperture is on the slow side (and that gets even narrower as the zoom extends), but it’s a standard number for a compact zoom. The front also sports an LED lamp to assist focus in dim light or for macro shots, as well as tiny microphone apertures flanking the lens.
So aside from the irritating pop-up flash, the SX230 at looks and feels like a well-designed camera, which is a great start and the first step to a positive user experience.
Performance & User Experience
The SX230 is a charm to use. It’s like a bigger, overpowered ELPH -- and ELPHs are the epitome of user-friendly compact cameras. It stays out of its own way. It's a casual photographer’s camera that enthusiasts could learn to love.
Flowing from the logical button layout, the control scheme is simple and streamlined. It just makes sense. All of the buttons and dials are placed comfortably. They’re well-labeled for the most part, aside from the selection dial, which users can half-press to bring up a legend on the LCD. The menu system is easy to navigate as well. The most common changes, like exposure adjustments, effects, and burst mode settings, are all made in the quick menu, while more static settings (image stabilization, intelligent contrast, and GPS settings) are in deeper "regular" menu. While important changes are never more than two levels deep, it feels like the SX230 is geared toward automatic operation, since there are basically no direct-access keys on the body.
As it was with the SX200 and SX210, the SX230's pop-up flash is a pain in the tail-feather. When it's raised, there's no place to rest a finger. It pops up automatically at start-up, but not when the flash actually needs to fire. It's designed to be manually raised and lowered, but the tiny tab on the front makes it tough to pull up when it needs to be. A few other compact zooms have this type of pop-up flash, but this one is the most irritating. The Nikon S9100 is the only one that handles it well, with a release-lever on the left side of the camera. On the (not?) bright side, when the flash is closed, it’ll never fire, so manually closing it is like activating a kill-switch.
The SX230 is responsive, though not one of the quicker cameras in the class. It starts up in less than two seconds, which is respectable. Autofocus is pretty quick and shutter lag is negligible, like most of its competitors. Shot-to-shot times are quick enough that you won’t miss many opportunities, but it feels a step slower than the other premium compact zooms we’ve tested this year. Canon claims that the continuous drive can run indefinitely at 3.2 shots per second, and that's about what we got, though the pace slows significantly if autofocus is active or the flash fires with every shot.
There are plenty of shooting modes to choose from, and most of them seem to have a clear purpose. Most users will do most of their shooting in regular Auto mode, which leaves the important settings in the hands of the camera. It almost always takes a good shot. Easy mode is pointless, as it does the same thing as Auto, but locks out any user control aside from the shutter and zoom.
Hands-on users will be happy to know that all the manual shooting modes are available, including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and full Manual exposure. The selection wheel makes cycling through stops nice and easy. Tons of shooters will just ignore those modes, but they’re there for the folks that want them. The SX230 doesn’t offer truly high-end adjustments, like noise reduction settings or RAW capture, though there's only one camera in the class that does (the Fujifilm F550EXR) and a ton of compact zooms don't even offer PASM modes anymore. The SX230 looks well-rounded by comparison.
Of course, there’s a plethora of scene modes. The usual suspects like Portrait, Landscape, Kids, Beach, and the like all make appearances. Handheld Night Scene stands out the most. It’s an in-camera HDR (high dynamic range) mode that takes three or more shots at slightly different exposures and combines them into a shot with brilliant, balanced lighting. It works in any lighting condition, though the benefits are most obvious in the dark.
Some other notable modes appear as well. Low Light drops the resolution down to 3 megapixels and jacks up the ISO sensitivity, with mixed results. There’s a Stitch Assist panorama mode, which is decidedly less exciting than the sweep panorama modes we’ve seen on a handful of cameras this year. Hi-Speed Burst can churn out up to 8.1 shots per second, though only at 3 megapixels. Some Smart Shutter options are available as well, including Smile Shutter, Wink Timer, and Face Timer. Canon included their Creative Filters as well, including effects like Fish Eye, Poster Effect, Toy Camera, and Color Swap. Those are always fun to play around with, and lots of folks get a kick out of them.
It’s also worth noting that the SX230 allows manual focus in most shooting modes. The camera magnifies the center of the image, and the selection dial controls critical focus. It isn’t a practical way to focus, but it is one more creative tool for curious users to experiment with.
No Canon camera has had built-in GPS until now, and their lack of experience shows. It suffers from the same first-generation kinks that Sony and Panasonic did last year. The GPS menu is tough to find, for starters, so there’s no easy way to activate, deactivate, or force-refresh the GPS signal. That can lead to dead batteries and untagged photos. When the GPS is on, it works fine. It can grab a signal pretty quickly in an open space (though cities present a challenge, as usual), and stays locked onto that signal. It offers an option to ping the satellite and log your location at a set interval even while the camera is off, which is either convenient or creepy, depending on your perspective.
Aside from pop-up flash and GPS issues, we can’t find much to dislike about using the SX230. It is most certainly geared toward casual users. Something like an assignable function button would be great for experienced shooters that like to quickly change settings -- ISO, most likely -- but we can live without it.
The battery is rated for 210 shots per charge. That’s about what we achieved in regular testing, though we usually left the GPS off. A good rule of thumb is that GPS reduces battery capacity by 25 percent, so plan accordingly, and possibly buy a backup.
Image & Video Quality
In a sentence, the SX230 takes great pictures in pretty much any setting. Exposures are clear, colors are rich, and details are pretty crisp. Even pixel peepers have to admit that these images are pretty great coming from a point-and-shoot.
In bright outdoor conditions, shots are great, like they should be. The brightest areas of the picture sometimes look overexposed, but that’s a common issue with any camera. We didn’t see much ugly green or purple fringing in high-contrast areas (tree branches or edges of buildings against the sky, most obviously). It’s quick enough to capture action shots pretty well, even in decent indoor lighting -- though as with any point-and-shoot, at least a few shots will come out blurry. It pays to have realistic expectations.
The SX230 is great in tougher lighting conditions, too. Canon equipped it with their High Sensitivity system -- the marketing lingo for a backlit CMOS sensor (which we can also thank for the nimble performance) paired with a Digic 4 image processor. Every camera with the HS system that we've tested has been great in low-light. We credited it as the major redeeming quality in last year’s SD4500, and it helped the ELPH 100 HS and ELPH 500 HS become some of our compacts this year. Don’t expect it to work miracles -- a pitch-black room or campsite will still look pitch black -- but shots that would usually look sloppy and discolored will at least look presentable.
At the base ISO setting (100), shots show excellent detail and definition, with a tiny bit of smoothness, typical of CMOS sensors. Details get smoother as the ISO level increases, but it’s only noticeable at a pixel level up through ISO 400. At medium sizes, or even large sizes viewed from a fair distance, it’s a non-issue. ISO 800 still looks pretty great, which goes a long way toward the solid indoor and low-light image quality, and even ISO 1600 looks decent, with the sharpest results we've seen in the class. At these levels, shots take on a painting-like texture, but it’s a huge improvement over the splotchy, messy results that we used to see. Even the top setting of 3200 isn’t an atrocity, which is about as much as anyone can ask of a point-and-shoot. The sensor basically performs within its limits. Shots hold their natural colors throughout the range, and only at the top setting does it look like the noise reduction is really working overtime.
Most of the CMOS-based compact zooms we’ve seen this year (and we’ve seen almost all of them at this point) conform to that pattern. But among the many worthy competitors, the SX230 takes the most consistently eye-pleasing images throughout the ISO range. It can capture a great picture in almost any scene.
Aside from that, a few minor image quality issues pop up, nothing that we consider to be a deal-breaker. There’s some softness in the corners of the frames, and a negligible amount of barrel distortion in wide-angle shots -- it’s only noticeable if you’re looking to find something wrong. We didn't notice a drop-off in quality at the longer end of the focal range, which is great. The Auto White Balance usually produces yellowish results under artificial indoor lighting. We’ve had this problem with just about every Canon compact we’ve tested, too. Switching to the appropriate white balance setting (Tungsten, Fluorescent, etc.) will help, though we always encourage a manual white balance.
Video mode is strong, as we’ve come to expect from Canon cameras. The SX230 shoots 1080p high-def video at a cinematic 24 frames per second. Some folks think this filmic look looks better, or at least more charming, though there are just as many shooters who would trade it for 30 fps so that action shots look a bit smoother. It’s a matter of personal opinion, and in the end, shouldn’t matter that much. This is a camera first and a camcorder second, and in that light, the videos are excellent. The optical zoom works while filming and it’s decently quick to re-focus. Even in loud situations, the microphone is pretty accurate. Of all the compact zooms we’ve seen this year, we’d put the SX230’s video mode toward the top of the heap.