For about a decade now, Canon ELPHs have been the standard-bearers for point-and-shoot quality. They’re small, they’re affordable, they’re easy to use, and they take great pictures. What they lack in exciting, headline-grabbing features, they make up for with consistent quality.
Yep, consistency has been the name of the game thus far, but this year’s lineup got a big redesign -- at least internally. The 2011 ELPHs are all built around backside-illuminated CMOS sensors, a trend we’ve seen deployed with mixed results over the past year, but one that has the potential to lend a huge performance boost to the ELPH lineup.
At this moment, the entry-level ELPH 100 HS is the most affordable CMOS-based compact on the market. On specs alone, it has the potential to out-class every other compact in its price range in terms of low-light image quality (which seems to be increasingly important to camera buyers), video resolution, and performance speed. But we’ve also seen promising cameras fall victim to their CMOS sensors, with fine details smeared into mush. Read on to see if the new ELPH lives up to its potential and maintains its standing as one of the finest affordable point-and-shoots for another year.
Body & Design
No surprise here: This year’s entry-level ELPH looks almost identical to last year’s entry-level ELPH, the SD1300 IS. It’s a bit smaller than a deck of cards in every dimension, small enough to easily fit in any pocket. (It’s a bit larger than the step-up ELPH 300 HS by comparison, which is one of the smallest cameras available, period.) The body is sturdy enough to almost feel like it’s made entirely out of metal, but alas, it’s mostly just well-disguised plastic.
Also like its predecessor, the ELPH 100 has a comfy 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel widescreen LCD plastered on the backside and a 4x zoom, 28mm wide-angle, f/2.8-5.9 lens slapped on the front. Both are fairly standard for point-and-shoots -- nothing to get excited about nor to scoff at either.
The layout is simple, sparse, and logical. It'll look familiar to anyone who’s used a Canon compact in the past few years -- with a few minor modifications. The mode switch on top toggles between just two photo modes: Auto, and everything else. Next to the mode switch sit a small, slightly recessed power switch and the shutter release, which is encircled by a zoom tilter. Both the shutter and tilter are flush with the camera body, which looks cool, I guess, but makes it tougher to find the release quickly without looking, and also to accurately half-press it for autofocusing. What was wrong with the slightly raised shutter, I do not know, but it was a more comfortable design, for sure.
It’s a similar issue with the buttons on the rear: The menu access, playback toggle, and four-way selector take their rightful places on the back, but they’re also flat against the body and also awkward to find by touch. A selection wheel would really tie the interface together, too, but that’s a feature usually reserved for more expensive cameras. In a nod to its impressive 1080p video mode, the ELPH 100 sports a dedicated video-record button as well.
On the right side, a well-anchored rubber cover protects the A/V, USB, and HDMI ports, while a flimsy plastic door conceals the battery and memory card slots on the bottom. There’s a metal tripod thread down there, too.
Performance & User Experience
The ELPH 100 user experience is like old meeting new in the best way possible. It’s as streamlined and easy to use as any ELPH/SD-series camera has ever been, but it’s much faster and more responsive than any previous iteration.
Aside from a few gripes with the button design and placement that I mentioned above, the layout and interface are intuitive and user-friendly. It’s clearly geared toward automatic operation since most of functions are buried in the menu system, rather than assigned to a mode dial (non-existent here) or hotkeys (though the four-way selector does allow direct access to focusing range, exposure compensation, and flash settings).
ISO, white balance, intelligent contrast, drive mode, and autofocus mode are all adjustable for a bit more hands-on control. But for the most part, it’s almost like it’s expected that users should trust the ELPH 100 to choose its own settings. And thankfully, the ELPH 100 is a smart camera, and chooses its settings well. About eight times out of ten, you’ll get a nice shot in Auto mode.
Canon’s fun filters make their expected appearance here, including some color adjustments (Sepia, Vivid, Neutral, and so on), Color Swap, and effects like Miniature, Poster, Fish Eye, and the like. Extraneous, yes, but cool, even just for a goof. There are also some noteworthy non-filter scene modes, Handheld Nightscene being the most useful. It’s a high-dynamic range (HDR) mode: It takes three shots at different exposures, and mashes them together to create a rich, clear, smooth, and almost surreal-looking shot. Its made possible thanks to the sensor, and is pretty common in CMOS-backed cameras these days.
Also thanks to the BSI CMOS sensor, the ELPH 100 is an all-around speedy performer. I’ll go out an a limb and call it the fastest cheap camera I’ve ever used. Startup isn’t notably fast -- it's about two seconds until it's ready to shoot -- but just about every other aspect of its performance is more fleet-footed than average. Autofocus is accurate and quick to lock. Shutter lag is minimal. Shot-to-shot times are not an issue. Burst mode is a deceptively fast 3.8 frames per second, which matches most entry-level dSLRs that cost at least three times as much as it does.
Battery life is impressive. It's rated for 230 shots, and that's just about what I got from it -- enough to get me through the review period without a recharge. Mileage may vary, depending on LCD brightness, time spent reviewing shots, and the like, but it's an ample battery for this camera.
Image & Video Quality
Image quality is very good for a point-and-shoot, with rich colors, mostly accurate focus and exposure, and capable processing. It can handle a wide variety of shooting situations quite well, and it’s particularly adept at low-light shots compared to other low-cost point-and-shoots.
My first reaction was that shots at base ISO are a bit on the soft side, but I went back to compare them with some shots I took last year with the SD1300 -- the camera that we thought had the best image quality in its price-point last year -- and the results are very similar. Both cameras are 12.1 megapixel shooters, though the SD1300 uses a CCD-type sensor, which I’ve found generally offers better clarity at the low end of the ISO range. But side-by-side, the difference between the two cameras is barely noticeable. (Check out some SD1300 samples here.)
Unlike the SD1300 (and most CCD point-and-shoots), the ELPH 100's image quality stays pretty consistent throughout the ISO range. The sensor seems to handle noise well enough that the processor doesn't have to do all that much work to make shots presentable -- though the processor is the celebrated Digic 4, so it could just be effective enough that it's tough to tell where the sensor ends and the processing begins.
In the upper reaches of the ISO range, details get smoothed out rather than mushed up. Edges remain defined and colors stay saturated. Very close inspection reveals a dotty, painting-like texture, but it could be much, much worse. I did notice some splotchiness in areas of uniform coloring in dark scenes -- a dusky sky, for instance -- but it was an inconsistent problem, and results varied shot-to-shot. At least one shot of every night-scene batch should come out well. Medium or large prints of ISO 1600 shots will certainly look a little bit messy, but they’re surprisingly usable. ISO 3200 shots are pretty hairy as expected, but the results are still smoother than what's typical from this class -- they're fine for sharing online, in other words.
It might sound silly to readers that don’t spend a lot of time reading reviews (that’s most of of you, I’m guessing, given the price-point and target audience for this camera) that it’s worth celebrating a camera that actually works well within its manufacturer-given abilities. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. It might be for the sake of marketing and keeping up with the competition, but point-and-shoots usually don’t work very well at their top ISO settings. (Check out our recent review of the Fujifilm XP30 to see the results of a camera operating outside of its abilities -- woof.)
A few minor image quality issues pop up here and there, though that’s to be expected. Typical for Canon, the colors are on the vibrant side, particularly blues; market research apparently shows that buyers prefer this look, but it’s not for everyone. High-contrast areas (objects against the sky, most often tree branches and edges of buildings) suffer from some green and purple fringes, particularly toward the edges and corners of the frame. This is a pretty typical phenomenon, though it seems to be slightly exacerbated in CMOS cameras like this one.
The ugliest flaw continues to be the yellow cast over indoor shots. Automatic White Balance hit-or-miss in Canon compacts under artificial lighting, and that can be a real deal-breaker for folks. Thankfully there’s a simple and effective solution: Manual white balance. Really, it takes about ten seconds and a white piece of paper (think business card, receipt, whatever), and coloring improves dramatically. It's worth it, and easy to do.
Video recording is another headline feature on the ELPH 100. It shoots full 1080p HD video, which is as high-res as it gets. It's a nice video mode for what it is, certainly good enough to replace a standalone pocket camcorder like a Flip or Kodak, though not a replacement for a more serious camcorder. Optical zoom is not available on this model, which is unfortunate -- that requires a step-up to the ELPH 300 HS model.
The ELPH 100 HS is an excellent, affordable point-and-shoot. It’s everything that we look for in a camera like this, and everything we’ve come to expect from this camera line: pocket-sized, good-looking, dead simple, and effective. Canon’s gamble on the new sensor-type paid off handsomely, boosting performance speeds and low-light image quality to a level not typically seen at this price point. It’s not quite perfect: The design, particularly the button layout, is a bit too slick for its own good, and some typical point-and-shoot IQ problems still pop up. But overall, there’s a lot to love about this camera, and it should appeal to just about any kind of photographer looking for a cheap compact.
There are a few other point-and-shoot options worth considering. The Panasonic FH25 is a sure bet, packing an 8x optical zoom. Performance is a bit slower and images a bit less consistent (low-light shooting is not a strong point, but not a weak one either), but based on the success of last year’s FH20, plenty of buyers will take a little extra zoom where they can get it. Nikon’s touch-oriented, 7x-zooming S6100 is sure to get some attention for its striking build. And for an extra chunk of change, the Canon ELPH 500 HS adds a 3.2-inch touchscreen and most importantly, an f/2.0 max aperture lens, which should really boost low-light performance (we’re set to review this camera next, so we’ll have an update soon).