Extended zooms, indestructible casings, and new mirrorless formats are all exciting, of course. But the new camera I've been most excited to get my mitts on this season is the Canon Powershot SD1300 IS (known as the IXUS 105 in some regions). It's a simple $200 ultra compact with no headline grabbing features or outwardly distinguishing characteristics. Why do I care so much?
Because you, dear reader, voted with your clicks and made it known that cameras like this one appeal to a huge amount of people. Its predecessor, the SD1200, has been the most popular camera on Digital Camera HQ for the past year by a wide margin. It's cheap, it fits in your pocket, it has the Canon name, and most importantly, it takes great snapshots. Casual snap-shooters are happy with it as their primary camera, serious hobbyists often keep it as a pocket-sized backup.
So when Canon announced the model in consideration here, I was eager to see how they would follow up the camera that has dominated our corner of the Internet. It's a tricky proposition, messing with success, so read on to find out how it fared.
Body, Design, & Construction Quality
Even at first glance, it's obvious that the SD1300 comes from the SD series design tradition: small, minimalist, classy. The body is almost exactly the size of a credit card, except, you know, about 0.8 inches thick. It's far from the smallest camera that I've ever seen, but fits easily into any pocket in my wardrobe. The shell is primarily plastic, but it weighs enough to feel well-built.
The button layout on the back is intuitive and should be familiar to Canon users: A directional pad, function button at the center, menu, display, and a dedicated playback button. My favorite touch is the three-way switch in the upper-right corner, allowing for quick changes between Auto, Manual, and Video modes. Up top, the chrome shutter works like a shutter should. The zoom tilter is elegantly and ergonomically integrated into the base of the shutter -- a great design that never gets old, no matter how many times I see it. And, as a big improvement over the SD1200, the power button is actually bigger than than one of those emergency-eject holes on old floppy disk drives. It's large enough for life-sized fingers to push, yet flush with the body so it stays out of your way the rest of the time.
One complaint: In what I (and I'm sure many others) consider a downgrade from the SD1200, the SD1300 lacks an optical viewfinder. Few compacts are still equipped with viewfinders, which is a shame, but the SD1200 stood out even more from the pocket-sized pack because of that -- more on this later, though. At least the 2.7-inch LCD is quite good. It's clear and vibrant in good lighting conditions, and mostly visible in ridiculously bright ones -- not up to the level of OLEDs I've seen, but much better than the cheap screens on some lesser brands.
Overall, the SD1300 is about as well designed as any ultra-compact out there, a good balance of carry-around comfort and solid construction.
Performance, User Experience, & Image Quality
This is a speedy little snapshooter. It takes barely more than a second to start up. Auto-focus locks on quickly and accurately and the shutter lag is barely noticeable. The continuous shooting mode could be a little quicker -- it's been measured at a little less than one frame per second, but it can keep shooting until the battery dies or the memory fills up.
The Smart Auto mode is quite intelligent, as always, and churns out a sharp picture about 9 times out of ten. This is a camera that you can point and shoot without thinking twice, and still come away with a stellar snapshot. Canon nailed this feature on the SD series a few generations ago, and little has changed.
As I've come to expect from Canon, the interface in Manual mode is dead simple. Big letters, obvious labels, and intuitive menus. I especially like Scene Preset menu, where the most common settings (Portrait, Night Snapshot, Indoor) are on a top level, and more specialized settings (Beach, Snow, Fireworks) are set away in a sub-menu. I never had to go fishing for the most useful modes, and it was a nice touch. Little things like that make me feel confident that Canon gives a lot of consideration to their user experience.
Manual controls are on-point for a semi-serious point-and-shoot -- nimble, but not fully adjustable. ISO ranges from 80-1600, several white balance settings are on offer, as are a number of color filters, exposure compensation settings, light metering techniques, as well as macro, normal, and infinity focus settings. Auto exposure and flash exposure can be locked as well. So as strong as Auto mode is, there's room for experimentation if you're feeling inspired.
Image quality is superb for this class of camera. Shots are quite crisp and noise-free up to ISO 400 (and not awful up at 1600, though not very pretty either). Color reproduction is life-like, maybe a bit blue-tinted. There are a few color settings to experiment with, including Vivid or Neutral modes, as well as sepia and black and white filters. Full-zoom shots (well, it is just a 4x zoom lens) are almost always sharp and focused as well, proof that the image stabilization is doing its job. Simply put, it takes as sharp and vibrant a photo as I've ever seen from a $200 camera. The proof is in the pudding, so check out the images (click to enlarge).
But Is It Really An Upgrade?
So the SD1300 is obviously a high-quality ultra compact, one that can make legions of casual photographers very, very happy. But it bears the mark of the SD series, and I feel the need to hold it up to the high standards of its predecessor. If it's going to hold up as a worthy replacement, it needs a few improvements to keep up with this year's trends, right?
When I sat down to compare its specs to the SD1200, I found that the two models are barely distinguishable from each other. The SD1300 has a wider-angle lens and a longer zoom (4x vs. 3x), cool with me; a higher resolution, which is nothing but a stat for the marketing sheet, one that I do not consider an improvement; and, in a disappointing step backward that I mentioned above, no optical viewfinder. The SD1200 is one of the few ultra compacts left with a viewfinder, but the SD1300 is just another LCD-only model, nothing special to see here.
Apart from those changes, good or bad, the two cameras both have the same 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor and the same Digic IV processor -- both of which are fine by us, don't fix what isn't broken and all that. But I'd hardly consider the SD1300 an upgrade, and I don't see how it's worth the $50 premium over the current price of an SD1200. The SD1300's initial price ($200) is lower than the SD1200's was back in March 2009 ($230), so that's a positive step. But it doesn't change the fact that the SD1200 is the better deal right now.
Furthermore, compared to other new, $200 point-and-shoots (Panasonic FH20, Sony W350, or Nikon S4000 for example), the SD1300 seems a wee bit overpriced. The specs just don't add up on paper. It has a smaller zoom than any of the other new models, just one half of the FH20, which we gave a stellar review. The SD1300 also lacks HD video, which seems like a weird omission. Fuji has a $99 model with HD video, so how expensive can it be? Canon is one of just two major manufacturers without a sub-$200 HD video camera this year -- the other one is Kodak, and that's not company they exactly want to brag about keeping.
It's true that Canon almost always makes a reliably high quality camera, and that comes at a premium. It's usually worth paying for, too. The SD1300 does indeed offer fantastic picture quality, a solid build, and Canon's unmatched ease of use. But when I look at this new camera in the context of the old one, I feel like somebody is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.
Still A Great Camera, But Vote With Your Wallet
The last section probably came across as hard on the camera so let me be clear: The SD1300 is an excellent pocket-sized camera with which anyone, regardless of experience or know-how, can take sharp, vibrant snapshots. The image quality is great for the cost, the interface is, as always, intuitive and painless, and it even has enough horsepower for some photographic experimentation. But rather than the step forward that we saw from the SD1100 to the SD1200, we're getting a step sideways. Had Canon named it something else and kept the old price point, I wouldn't be complaining. It will still turn out to be one of the best point-and-shoots for under $200 this year, but if I had to spend my money on one, I'd wait a few months for the price to drop.