Last year's Canon SD4000 IS was the first ELPH to approach high-end compact territory, a realm previously reserved for Canon's S and G series models. The SD4000 combined a bright lens, reliable image processor, and a new sensor that was designed for quick performance and extra sensitivity to light. It worked out well, and the SD4000 nabbed some strong reviews and favorable comparisons to the Canon S90 advanced compact. It set the stage for a wave of lower-cost Canons with the same processor/sensor combination -- now branded as the High Sensitivity (HS) system -- and changed the point-and-shoot landscape for the better.
As it tends to go in the camera world, Canon has already replaced the SD4000 with the ELPH 500 HS. The familiar lens/processor/sensor combo remains, but the interface has been overhauled, now sporting an enormous touchscreen and very few physical buttons. Can this trendy new design can make a great thing even better? Read on to find out.
Body & Design
The ELPH 500 is a small camera, but a bit too bulky to be considered an ultra-compact model. Its body is roughly the same size as this year’s S95, though the design is most similar to last year’s SD4000, with rounded corners, soft lines and a vaguely bulbous profile. It falls somewhere between the homely SD4500 and sharp-dressed ELPH 300, but of course, true beauty is in the eye of the photographer.
A 3.2-inch, wide-format, touchscreen LCD gobbles up most of the rear panel. Most of the controls flow through that monolithic monitor, so there are just a few physical buttons. A lonely playback key sits to the right of the screen on the rear. Up top, from left to right, there’s a slider to switch between Auto mode and, well, "not Auto" modes; a power switch; and the shutter release, encircled by a zoom tilter.
There isn't much of a button layout to speak of, so ergonomics are a secondary concern here (though I’ll get to the touchscreen’s implications in the User Experience section below). There is just one notable design issue: Like the other Canons we’ve tested this year, the shutter release is flush with the body. It looks cool, but it’s difficult to find by touch; a shaped or textured shutter release would improve usability.
A bright-and-wide 24-108mm (4.4x zoom) f/2.0-5.6 lens -- arguably the ELPH 500’s centerpiece, and one of the nicest lenses on any compact camera at this price -- sits up front, joined by the flash and LED focus-assist lamp. A big plastic panel covers the mini-USB, A/V out, and mini-HDMI ports on the right side of the camera. On the bottom, there’s a sliding door for the battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC card compartment, as well as a metal tripod threading.
Performance & User Experience
Whether they’re ELPHs or EOS dSLRs, Canon cameras are almost always a pleasure to use. Grandma and grandpa can figure out how to use them, and more importantly, actually like it.
Canon tries to port that user experience to a predominantly touch-based interface on the ELPH 500. The results are lukewarm. Touchscreens work wonders for smartphones and tablet computers, but not cameras. The best implementations keep the tried-and-true tactile controls, and use touchscreens to complement the user experience with functions like tap-to-focus. One can shoot an entire session with a camera like the Panasonic ZS10 and never use its touchscreen, but the touchscreen does open up some extra possibilities when they're appropriate.
With the ELPH 500, on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to work around the touchscreen. Basic functions like the shutter release and zoom are still tied to physical controls, but aside from a dedicated playback toggle, all the navigation and setting adjustments are touch-based. If it was as responsive as the iPhone, it might’ve worked, but it lags, and it’s a major drag on the user experience. Missed shots abound. Clumsy navigation awaits. The “buttons” are often too small. Scrolling is particularly frustrating. The battery life suffers as well, managing a middling 180 shots per charge. Aside from tap-to-focus, there is not a single function that a button-based interface could not have done better.
When the touchscreen can stay out of the way, the ELPH 500 is a nimble performer. From power-on, it’s ready to shoot in under a second. Autofocus is quite fast and accurate in good lighting, though there’s a noticeable drop-off when light starts to fade. Even so, shot-to-shot times are less two seconds under dimmer artificial lights. At its best, it can churn out a respectable 3.4 frames per second in continuous drive mode, matching the speed of entry-level dSLRs and significantly out-performing most run-of-the-mill point-and-shoots. It can maintain that pace indefinitely, so there’s no need to worry about filling up the buffer and missing any shots while the camera writes to the card. Slow(er) and steady wins the race, sometimes.
Straight-up Auto mode is easy to use and grabs a good exposure most of the time. A small handful of specific scene pre-sets are available under the “not Auto” tab, including Portraits, Foliage, and Kids & Pets, but Auto mode usually detects when it should use those presets anyway, so some users may never need to manually select them. Canon’s typical fun effects and filters are present, too, including Color Swap, Color Accent, Black & White, Sepia, so on and so forth.
Then there are the more "serious" modes. Like most of Canon’s recent compacts, the ELPH 500 has an in-camera high-dynamic range (HDR) mode, known here as Handheld NightScene. It snaps three or more rapid-fire shots at slightly different exposures, and combines them into one evenly exposed, almost surreal-looking image. Bright areas are controlled, dark areas are visible, and colors really pop. There’s also a dedicated Low Light mode, which boosts the ISO sensitivity and drops the resolution down to three megapixels. It’s only really useful in super-dark situations if you just want some semblance of a photo to (kind of) capture a moment.
And of course, the enthusiast's bread and butter: Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority (no full Manual exposure control, though). They offer the hands-on exposure control that experienced users want and that casual users can use to explore and experiment. But the touchscreen cripples them. “Scrolling” through apertures and shutter speeds is slow, inaccurate, and horribly painful. It’s there if you need it, but be ready to wait.
So the user experience is a big mixed bag with the ELPH 500. It does offer the best of what the Powershot line has to offer: A dead-on auto mode, useful (or at least fun) scene modes, some hands-on control, and nimble performance. It’s just all trapped in an irritating touchscreen interface.
Image & Video Quality
Canon’s ballyhooed High Sensitivity system is at the heart of the ELPH 500 HS (hence the “HS” tag at the end there). It’s a combination of the vaunted Digic 4 image processor -- found in any Canon camera worth its salt, from the pro-level 5D Mk. II down through this year’s A Series shooters -- and a 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, which keeps shots looking clear at high ISO settings. It also has a wide-open f/2.0 maximum aperture, which lets in about as much light as any point-and-shoot out there.
In layman’s terms, that means that the ELPH 500 HS can take great pictures in pretty much any setting. Low-light image quality is a big selling point in particular. My photos from some nights out at a bar and a local rock concert are clearer and more evenly lit than I’d usually get from a compact camera. Details are a bit soft by the highest standards of low-light photography, but it’s easier on the eyes than the rough, splotchy noise and sloppy noise reduction that so many cameras pepper their pictures with at high ISO settings. I also took fewer blurry shots than usual; since the aperture is so wide, the shutter speed remains pretty quick even in the dark, reducing the chance that hand-shake will ruin the photo.
Bear in mind that the laws of physics still apply to the ELPH 500. The lens and sensor scoop a lot of light compared to plenty of point-and-shoots, but it’s still a small camera with a tiny sensor; it can’t keep up with a big-sensor mirrorless compact or dSLR. Even so, it’s a great low-light shooter by point-and-shoot standards. Shots up to ISO 1600 are still detailed and color-saturated -- totally usable for medium-sized prints, in other words. Up at ISO 3200, things get a bit fuzzier, but they’ll work for viewing on a screen.
It's a great shooter in bright situations and low ISO settings, too. My initial reaction was that details are a bit soft at the low end of the ISO range, but after comparing it to some of last year’s CCD-based Powershots, the difference is barely visible. (I generally find that CCD sensors produce sharper results than CMOS sensor at the lower-end of the ISO range, but quality degrades faster at higher ISO settings.) It's adept at capturing nuances in lighting, both in the dark and the daylight, and the wide-open lens can sometimes achieve the eye-pleasing shallow depth-of-field look (sharp subject, soft background).
Viewed at full resolution, the ELPH 500’s shots do have a bit of a dabbed-on texture, smooth rather than sharp, but I’d call it an aesthetic quality rather than a problem. Most compact-cam shooters rarely view their shots at full resolution anyhow. I'd bet my lunch money that if we lined up medium-resolution shots from the ELPH 500 and critically acclaimed Canon S95 side-by-side, most people would not be able to determine which camera took which photos, and some folks would even prefer the shots from the cheaper ELPH.
The ELPH 500 does run into a few issues, though, most of which S95 manages to avoid. At the widest, brightest lens settings, shots show some noticeable barrel distortion, though this is somewhat expected coming from a lens like this. There's also a slight tendency to blow out highlights (very bright areas of a shot), also likely due to the light-greedy lens. Some occasional green and purple fringing popped up in high-contrast areas, but again, this is expected to a degree, and far, far from the worst case I've seen. As usual with Canon compacts, automatic white balance tends to cast a yellow tint on pictures taken under artificial lights, so either find a better preset, or take twenty seconds to customize the white balance.
The most puzzling quirk, to me at least, was the random tendency to slightly underexpose shots taken in comfortable outdoor conditions. It happened to a couple shots in each of my test batches. It may have just been my particular camera, as I haven't heard of anyone else running into this problem. Weird. Anyhow, none of these issues should be deal-breakers, as they almost never ruin shots (nothing that 30 seconds of post-processing can't take care of), and the great overall image quality outweighs these minor inconveniences.
Video mode, as we've come to expect from Canon, is very good. The ELPH 500 shoots 1080p video at 24 frames per second for that classy cinematic look. Optical zoom is available while recording without much of an audible motor zoom. Low-light video quality holds up nearly as well as the still image quality. It's a perfectly suitable substitute for a standalone pocket camcorder -- it has a better zoom range, for sure -- and can capture some better-than-average clips for YouTube, though it's still just a compact camera video mode.
Canon's goal was clearly to make an ELPH that was high-end in every sense, but they got too ambitious. With the SD4000, they nailed down the formula for great performance and picture quality, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that they should use that formula in another camera. They didn't need rocket scientists to design a touch interface either, but they should've at least found somebody who's used an iPhone for five minutes. The interface isn't frustrating just because it's a touchscreen. It's frustrating because it's just a bad touchscreen.
Ultimately, the ELPH 500 is still a solid camera. We recommend it, since it's almost impossible to find this kind of picture quality for $300. We're giving a low A minus rating, but it could've been a solid A or even a rare A plus if Canon had played it safe and paired the HS system with a tried-and-true button-based interface (for the same price, of course). There will be plenty of users who learn to live with the ELPH 500's control scheme. Those folks will probably have small fingers and shoot almost exclusively in Auto mode.
But any prospective buyers would do well to look at cameras like the Canon S95, a true advanced compact with an oversized sensor and a robust control scheme, or perhaps the Nikon P300, a high-end point-and-shoot with similar specs as the ELPH 500 but a traditional interface and higher price tag.