It’s homely, but darn effective. The Canon Powershot SX130 is the fourth version of Canon’s SX1xx line, and the camera giant has done a commendable job of refining the series into a no-nonsense mid-range consumer camera -- much more versatile than a run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot for a lower cost than most compact zooms. The SX130 performs as well as any travel zoom out there, but the AA-battery power and bulky design will be the make-or-break factors for most buyers.
Body and Design
Let’s call the SX130 a compact zoom. It’s a bit bulky, a little too large to fit in a pants pocket comfortably, and it runs on two AA batteries in category where every other camera runs on a proprietary lithium-ion battery. But it’s certainly smaller than a superzoom, and the rest of the specs, particularly the 12x zoom (28 - 360mm), fit the compact zoom profile.
The bulbous shape looks pretty goofy, like a regular Canon ELPH (like the SD1300) ate too many cheeseburgers. But it’s actually more comfortable to hold than smaller, rectangular compact zooms (the Panasonic ZS7 and Nikon S8100 spring to mind). The designers made good use of that extra real estate, too. They slapped a generous three-inch LCD on the rear, and put a flip-up flash on the crest of the body, leaving plenty of room for finger placement on the left. The extra-large battery cavity creates a bulge that doubles as an extra-comfortable right-hand grip, too.
The interface is minimalist, also like an ELPH. The backside sports a few hot keys, including one each for face detection and exposure compensation. A selection wheel takes the place of the traditional compact-cam four-way pad. It’s a wise substitution, since it allows for quicker navigation through shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual focus modes. Up top, the mode dial, power switch, and forward-slanted shutter with an angled zoom-tilter are all well placed.
Performance and User Experience
The SX130 looks like a clunky old camera from 2003, but the user experience is as refined as anything out there in 2010. It’s a stretch to call it fast, but it is nimble and responsive. Start-up takes about two seconds, and shot-to-shot time is about one second. There is no burst mode, but it does reliably crank out one shot per second in continuous drive mode. The menus are responsive to commands, with minimal to no lag between the push of a button and a reaction. The zoom extends and retracts quickly in photo mode, though pretty slowly in video mode, as expected.
Canon’s typical stable of auto and scene modes appear here, including the Easy Auto mode. There’s zero thinking involved with that one, though Smart Auto doesn’t exactly require a PhD in brain surgery either. The SX130 also has Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual and HD Video modes. One bizarre issue with the test camera: The SCN (scene) setting on the mode dial queued up Smile Shutter mode (the shutter fires when a smile is detected). I’m sure I would’ve heard by now if this was a problem with other cameras, so it must have been an anomaly on my test unit. (If any SX130 users are reading this and have the same problem, leave a comment below and we’ll forward it on to Canon).
Autofocus is spot-on: fast and accurate in good conditions, and pretty good even in some tough ones. My favorite example was this tele-macro shot. I was trying to shoot the building as the telephoto companion to a wide-angle shot, but the focus locked on the branches and blended the background nicely. It focused quickly at night, too, though shots often came out blurry, which isn’t much of a surprise -- pretty much par for the course in this genre.
The menu system is as intuitive as it is on most Canons, with a few unique twists. Exposure compensation and face recognition each have their own standalone hot keys, which is unusual but useful. I noticed that the SX130 tended to underexpose shots in some situations (more on that below), so I used the compensation more often that I usually do. Canon must have known that this would be an issue, and adjusted the interface accordingly. Good response.
The selection wheel is also a boon to the interface. I disliked the wheel on the SX210 compact zoom earlier this year. It was unlabeled, and during the time I spent reviewing it, I never got the hang of which direction corresponded to which command, one of many little details on that camera that left me cold. Canon corrected that for the SX130, so now it’s as idiot-proof as a four-way pad, but much more adept at cycling through settings like shutter speed and aperture (if you choose to use those modes, of course).
And that brings me to manual focus. It’s rare to see this feature on such an affordable camera, and as head-turning as it is on paper, it’s not too useful in practice. First off, as helpful as the selection wheel is for manual settings, it’s only marginally effective here. You can do a rough focus at first and then fine-tune while the shutter is pressed halfway, but I wished that the wheel was more sensitive. MF mode also brings up a magnified area in the center of the screen to help fine tune the focus, but the quality is quite low since it’s a digitally zoomed image, and overall it distracts from composing the shot. It’s a nice thought that Canon included this mode and it can turn out some nice shots (left). MF mode is finnicky, but isn't a reason to ignore the camera, just a reason to ignore that mode. Some folks might find it helpful or fun to use, but that’s going to be a niche crowd.
As a whole, image quality is above average for the travel zoom class. In bright outdoor light, the picture quality is stellar for a compact camera. Canon’s color saturation might not be to everybody’s preference, but the shots that can come out of the SX130 look vibrant, even ready to print and frame in some cases. In grim outdoor conditions -- overcast skies in particular -- high contrast areas get blurry at a pixel level, but nothing too severe at more regular sizes. Overall, much better than average.
Indoors, things get a bit hairier, as is to be expected. I got some good shots along with a number of not-so-good shots. Some were blurry, some jaundiced from inaccurate white balancing, and some were underexposed. There are workarounds for all of these problems, but it detracts from the point-and-shootability. Indoor shots either require the flash, or a bit more patience from the user to tinker around with white balance, ISO sensitivity, and exposure compensation.
Like most of its compact zoom competitors, it’s neither good nor bad in dim lighting. The f3.4 lens and small CCD sensor are pretty much par for the course, though Canon’s excellent Digic 4 processor does help keep the noise in check at higher ISOs (it’s the same processor that Canon touts in its “high-sensitivity system” cameras like the SD4000 and SD4500). ISO 800 is still pretty clean, and even ISO 1600 isn’t too spotty or desaturated. The wealth of manual control can help nab some decent shots in poor lighting, but like most cameras of its ilk, the results will be hit or miss.
Video mode is pretty standard as cameras go in 2010. It shoots 720p motion JPEG movies with decent sound, but nothing to get too excited about. In other words, it’s decent, but not a reason to buy the camera.
If you’re in the market for a compact zoom camera, the SX130 deserves a serious look. It performs nearly as well as our site favorites from Panasonic and easily outdoes Canon’s other compact zoom, the SX210. The best part is that it’s much cheaper than anything else in the class.
It’s even a notable step up from its own predecessor, the SX120. It was popular for the same reasons as the SX130 will be -- it was the only compact zoom that ran on AA batteries, and it was one of the cheapest, too -- but last year’s model had a tiny sensor and super-narrow 36mm wide-angle. If you were turned off by those specs last year, rest assured that they’ve been upgraded this time around.
Since it performs pretty much as well as any compact zoom out there right now, the deciding factors will come down to the bulk -- it’s the least-compact compact zoom -- and personal preference for or against AA batteries. I’m docking half a point from the design score because it’s just too big to carry around in a pocket, but your mileage may vary. The point stands that the SX130 is a very good camera, one that will be the only camera that many buyers consider while others completely ignore it for the same reasons.