The Canon Powershot SX200 is the brand's first foray into the compact-zoom category, with a long-range 12x optical zoom tucked neatly into a slim, portable point-and-shoot style body. Panasonic has been turning out this type of camera for a few years now, with much success. Their TZ line (now the ZS line) of compact-zooms were very popular, and this year's release of the Lumix ZS3, which offers 12x optical zoom and a high-definition video mode (see our hands-on review here) has kept them in the game.
Canon is known for consistency, and the SX200 is no exception. It's an appealing digital camera capable of taking excellent, high-quality photos, and its marquee feature, the 12x optical zoom, performs admirably. That said, there are a few aspects of the SX200's build and design that are of some concern. While not complete deal breakers, they're clearly the little foibles that tend to appear on early models. Canon is working out the kinks on this new class of cameras, and the small irritations present here will undoubtedly be resolved on the next update.
The design of the SX200 is defined by a slight convex curve that rolls off the right-hand side of the camera, forming a subtle, yet sturdy grip. It's not the old, bulky A-series grip of yesteryear, but rather a restrained slope whose presence is nearly imperceptible except when holding the camera. It's an elegant solution that blends style and substance, and stands out as the SX200's most intriguing design element.
Other parts of the camera do not fare so well. The SX200 IS has a pop-up flash that emerges from the top of the camera when it is powered on. Once it has deployed, the flash cannot be tucked back into the body of the camera. It remains present even when the flash is disengaged and not necessary for a particular shot. The flash is encased in a plastic shell and is mounted on a plastic hinge; having it always out increases the chances of getting it snagged or stubbed on something, and breaking it. While it does feel solid and isn't rigid (in fact, it has quite a bit of give to it), it's still a concern.
The camera's interface also has a minor issue. Canon has made the SX200's interface exceedingly simple. The rear of the camera has only four buttons surrounding the traditional four-way directional pad, and is dominated by its large, 3-inch LCD display. For whatever reason, Canon decided to take this straightforward interface and make it a little more confusing by adding a circular scroll wheel, which hugs the directional pad like a halo. The scroll wheel is very, very thin, with small ridged notches. It's used for quickly scanning up and down the camera's menus. Keep in mind, pressing the down directional on the pad achieves this same effect, albeit not as swiftly. It seems to be a redundant feature. Canon should have either committed to a scroll wheel or directional pad, but not both at the same time.
The close proximity of the pad and wheel is what causes the real problem. When tapping any of the pad's four directions, it's very easy to slip and rotate the scroll wheel, which interferes with menu navigation. This happened several times during tests, and it never ceased to be frustrating. Users with large fingers will not be happy.
Canon's on-screen icons and menu system are large, bright, and easy to understand. Modes are accompanied by on-screen advice, explaining what they do and what situations they work best in. The tabbed menus are easy to read, though I do have one complaint about how Canon presents its HD video mode. Now, this isn't exactly a Canon-specific problem; lots of camera-makers have had trouble making their HD video modes clear to users, for some reason. On the SX200, when you navigate to video mode on the mode dial, the screen announces the change by displaying the video icon, with the text 'STANDARD,' beneath it. To me, that meant I was initially in standard-definition video mode. That was not the case; tucked in the corner of the display, I saw '1280,' denoting that I was shooting at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is high-definition. Never mind that they should represent it as 720 instead of 1280. The issue is that Canon calls their default high-definition movie mode 'standard,' to differentiate it from two other video effects modes, color swap and color accent. That's mighty confusing.
The SX200 is a very versatile camera, with full automatic and manual controls. This makes it an excellent option for both experienced photographers, and novices who'd like the opportunity to learn and expand their skill set while still being able to fall back on the automatic functions.
For those latter users, the "Smart Auto" mode makes using the SX200 a snap. Canon's Smart Auto is capable of reading a scene, taking into account various environmental elements to better adjust the camera's settings. It will automatically swap the camera's current scene mode. If you get up close to take a photo, the camera switches to macro mode. If the camera detects a face, it switches to portrait. Point it directly into bright light and it moves into a sunlight mode. I've recently reviewed two other cameras that feature similar 'Intelligent Auto' modes. One is the Panasonic ZS3, which I've already mentioned is quite similar to the SX200. The other is the Sony W290 (see our hands-on review). I'd have to say that in a direct head-to-head matchup, the intelligent auto modes on the W290 and ZS3 were quicker and more responsive than the SX200's. That's not to say that the SX200 performed badly, it just seemed a little more tentative than the competition.
Generally speaking, the photos taken with the SX200 came out very well. Canon has quality photography down to a science, and the bright, vivid colors and blur-free final products are a testament to that. The only caveat with regard to the camera's performance would be that it had difficulty handling intense sunlight. Automatic white balance settings could not adequately compensate for very bright scenes, and manual adjustments to the white balance were required. Other than that, there's very little to complain about. The SX200's sample photos should be proof enough that this 12.1-megapixel shooter is the real deal.
The 12x optical zoom worked wonderfully, and the camera's built-in image stabilization ensured that even shots at full extension were rendered crisply and without distortion. There were no blurry or shaken-up shots taken during the test run.
The Canon SX200 IS records high-definition video at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, at 30 frames per second. The camera uses the H.264 MPEG4 video format, similar to the AVCHD format used by the Panasonic ZS3. Consumers should be aware that the high-definition video modes on digital cameras will not compare to those found on high-end camcorders that cost three times as much. Nevertheless, these modes are becoming an excellent option for those who want higher-quality video at an affordable price.
The SX200's HD video mode is certainly among the top of its class, providing sharp, highly-detailed clips that retain the vibrancy and color of the original scene. It handles motion and panning very well, also. Compared to the Panasonic ZS3, I'd say that the video modes of the two are basically on par. Not surprising, considering they both have a similar video-format pedigree and feature-set. The SX200 definitely out classes the HD video mode found on the Sony W290, however, which did not produce results even approaching this level of quality.
One note: the 12x optical zoom is disabled in video mode. It's annoying, but common in cameras like this. The lens motor noise would show up to prominently on the clip's audio track. If you really need to zoom, you can pause your recording, then zoom out, then resume recording. It's just that you can't zoom in and out while the video is being recorded.
While there are some minor design concerns, they are hardly reason to dismiss the SX200's excellent still photo and video performance. Canon once again provides high-quality, consistent, and satisfying performance coupled with an array of appealing and powerful features. If you've been eyeing a compact-zoom, or a Canon in particular, you can feel comfortable investing in the Powershot SX200 IS.