Though I've never used one myself, I keep hearing great things about the Canon Powershot A1100. It was released more than a year ago, but it still sells like ice water in the desert. It's arguably the best cheap camera out there: It retails for less than $150, and shoots crisp, clear shots with absolutely no fuss. It's an ideal camera for novices.
The A1100 is still widely available, but in the name of capitalism, Canon has given us the "refreshed" Powershot A3100. On paper, the specs are pretty similar to the A1100, so I thought I'd spend some time with the A3100 to see if it's really an upgrade, or just a rehash with a new model name, or even worthy of your ducats at all.
So as I said, I've never actually shot with last year's A1100. Our reviewer Brenda Paro said that it "feels durable, and is lightweight enough to be your go-to travel camera," so that's what I was expecting from the A3100. Judging by Brenda's assessment of its predecessor, I think the A3100's design might be a step backward.
The plastic body felt cheap in my hands. It's too big to be an ultra-compact, but it weighed less than some of those credit-card-sized cameras that I've tested. It felt hollow. That's disconcerting for a gadget. There's a word used in laptop reviews to describe cheap-feeling keyboards: "clacky." Clacking is the sound of plastic on plastic, reverberating in lots of empty space. The buttons on the A3100 are clacky, for sure.
That said, they are laid out and labeled well. The icons made sense. The power button, shutter button, and the mode dial are all unremarkable, which is OK by me.
Per usual these days, there's no optical viewfinder. The 2.7-inch LCD has 230,000 dots, twice as many as the A1100's screen does, so images looks much sharper on the display. (I believe it's the same screen as some of Canon's more expensive models, like the SD1300.) It's bright and visible in everything but direct sunlight; that's about as much as anyone can expect from an LCD, so this screen gets high marks.
The A3100, along with the A3000, is one of the first A-series Powershots to run on a lithium-ion battery. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal taste. Some folks like Li-ion because it comes with the camera, it's rechargeable, and allows for smaller camera than a AA compartment would. Others prefer AA batteries because they don't need to be charged. The camera can keep running as long as the supply of fresh batteries holds up. I can say that the battery here lasts about as long as any average Li-ion, roughly 200 shots.
Let me put it this way: almost everything about the design screams "budget camera." At a street value of $150, that's no problem. Canon obviously had to cut a few corners to get the price down, and as long as the image quality holds up, no big deal.
Image Quality and Performance
And lo, the image quality is quite good. I spent most of the time shooting in Smart Auto mode, which automatically chooses one of the 18 scene presets and allows some level of control over the settings. It's pretty much on par with Panasonic's Intelligent Auto (iAuto) mode, which I've praised before.
As if that wasn't easy enough, Canon also includes Easy mode, which completely automates all the settings. All I could do was toggle the flash from auto to off. I suppose that some complete novices would benefit from Easy mode, maybe, but Smart Auto is already dead simple. I get the feeling that Easy mode is just for the marketers, so they can play some game of one-upsmanship over other brands with "smart" or "intelligent" auto modes.
Anyhow, in Smart Auto, outdoor shots were bright and beautiful. It almost always selected the right mode. I had to switch it into Macro manually a few times, but it was pretty spot-on aside from those few instances. Macro mode was a highlight. It captured a lot of detail in the floral shots I took, not quite at the level of the SD1300 I tested last month, but comparable. In general, I noticed that the blues come out looking a bit flat to me, but the greens really pop. Overall, I was very pleased.
Indoor shots are pretty good for this class of camera. It has limitations, so work within them and the shots will be decent. Flash is a reality to accept on cheaper models like this, and the A3100's happens to be a sensitive one. It blacked out the background every now and then, but I'd toggle over to Slow Synchro mode (and hold the camera still) and get a better interpretation. Without the flash, blurry photos are inevitable, though the optical image stabilization does help. ISO up to 400 is pretty crisp, while 800 and 1600 are still usable. I have to note that it's a little bizarre than Canon backtracked to the Digic III image processor, even when they used the mightier Digic IV on the A1100. Still, I think that the images end up about the same quality, so I guess Canon knows what they're doing.
There is a program mode on the A3100, and if I'm reading the old reviews correctly, it offers more control than the A1100 did for standard stuff like white balance and exposure compensation. The menu system is intuitive, as I've come to expect from Canon. The most popular scene presets like Portait, Landscape, Slow Synchro, and Kids and Pets have set places on the mode dial, and there's a menu for the extended list of scene presets too. The Face Detection feature even has a dedicated button on the back, though I'll admit that I didn't spend much time futzing around with it.
It's pretty fast, starting up in about two seconds or so. Continuous mode only goes as fast as 0.8 shots per second according to the spec sheet, but in single-shot mode, there's a pretty quick turnaround between shots. Shutter lag is acceptable as well (learn to pre-focus!). The 4x zoom extends quickly and quietly.
Videos are standard definition. Cheaper cameras do high-def movies, so I wouldn't call video a selling point of the A3100. But for what it's worth, the video and audio quality are OK, nothing to brag about. The optical zoom does work during recording, a nice feature that I've noticed more often this year. Short, casual videos will be fine, but for high-quality movies, look elsewhere.
Yep, It's a Good One
This is a simple one: The A3100 is a no-brainer if you're considering a $150 camera. Yes, there are a few design flaws and the build feels a little flimsy, and I'm still a bit puzzled as to why Canon backtracked on the image processor, but the image quality is very good for the price point. If I was forced to choose between the A1100 and the A3100, I'd probably choose the former, but it's really just a matter of personal taste. The A3100 is an excellent camera for novices and casual shooters, and even hobbyists looking for a cheap backup would probably find plenty to like here.