This class of camera -- call it a travel zoom, compact zoom, fun zoom, or whatever you want -- is popular with consumers because it does everything from macro shots to telephoto shots to video recording reasonably well, in a pocket-sized frame. When a travel zoom is done right, it's an excellent all-in-one package for families and (you guessed it) travelers. Since they tend to offer manual exposure control, even discerning photo enthusiasts get excited about them, too.
That said, it's tough to pull off a truly great travel zoom. We've already looked at a handful of new models this year, only one of which (Casio FH100) really hit all the marks, in our opinion. For consideration today, the Canon SX210 IS. It's a 14 megapixel, 14x-zoom pocket camera with a 3-inch widescreen LCD, 720p HD video, and automatic and manual exposure for a smooth $300. It replaces the SX200, but I'd call it an update rather than an upgrade. The same design flaws that hampered our reviewer's experience with the SX200 are still present. But none of them really degrade the SX210's performance or the results, and in general, the SX210 performs well enough to warrant a close look from anyone looking for a powerful compact camera.
DesignWe'll start with the good stuff: The SX210 is designed in the sleek, minimalist spirit of the SD series, though longer and thicker than its ultra-compact forebears. Its predominantly metal body feels well built and has a nice heft to it. Most users should find its medium-sized frame (by compact camera standards) comfortable to hold. The three-inch, widescreen LCD is like a Cadillac: bigger than you really need, but quite luxurious. Pictures shot in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio are book-ended by black bars, like watching old TV shows on an HDTV, though the SX210's HD videos do fill the entire screen. It's about as bright as any Canon LCD, which is to say that it's visible anywhere but direct sunlight.
The button layout is standard, aside from the wheel that replaces the typical d-pad on the back. It was actually my first time using a compact camera with that feature. The four directions still correspond to the usual flash, focus, exposure, and timer hot-keys, but they're unmarked, so there was a bit of a learning curve. But the wheel can cycle through shutter speeds and apertures like a very fast thing, which, to me at least, justifies the fumbling I did at first. Those who will stick to the automatic modes probably won't find the scroll wheel as appealing.
Now for those design flaws I mentioned: For starters, the zoom "tab" on top is too small. I prefer a more tactile response from zoom controls. The mode dial on the back is always a welcome feature, but it's just too tight on the SX210. You might need to squeeze it between your thumb and index finger to turn it. And then there's the obnoxious pop-up flash. It's located right where my left index finger rests. It pops up automatically at power-up, but my finger was usually there when I hit the power button, so it stayed down. When it's down, you have to pull it up manually -- the interface even blocks the option for taking a flash picture when it's down. I suppose it's a convenient way to turn off the flash, but I viewed it as an irritating way to turn it back on. The flash caused me more frustration than any other aspect of the SX210.
PerformanceThe auto modes are spot-on and the typical slew of scene presets are available, so novices or anyone looking for an automatic-shooting experience will be just fine. But the SX210 also offers program, shutter priority, aperture priority, and full manual exposure control too. Hobbyists and experienced photographers will appreciate the extra control, and beginners will have room to grow with it.
Wide-angle 28mm (left) vs. telephoto 392mm (right)
I have no complaints about the camera's speed. It isn't blazingly fast, but the shutter is unnoticeable, it processes images promptly, and the 14x zoom extends and retracts quickly. The physical design might be dunderheaded, but Canon's intuitive menu system still remains, and above all, it's easy to get good shots. (And yes, you can zoom while filming videos. You'll hear some faint motor-noise, but nothing too distracting.)
Image QualityThe SX210's images in general are very good. Most people, most of the time, will be completely and utterly satisfied with the image quality. Details can be a bit blurry at the edges of wide-angle shots, but it's only an issue when you view the images at a high resolution, and it's less apparent in telephoto shots. So unless you're regularly making 8x10-inch prints, you probably won't notice.
Low-light image quality is nothing special. Noise is well controlled up to ISO 800, which is a little better than par for the course (the Samsung HZ35W I reviewed was noisy by ISO 400). The manual controls can help wrangle decent shots from dark scenes, not like the S90 can, but decently well.
Video quality is solid as well. It records in H.264 (Quicktime) format. There might be some pixelation, but that's difficult to avoid on a low-end video device like this. Still, the quality rivals that of a typical pocket camcorder -- that is, good enough for most purposes.
Bottom LineThe SX210 is an extremely versatile camera that can impress casual photographers and satisfy hobbyists, and travelers might find that it's an invaluable tool. It's compact enough to go anywhere, large enough to feel comfortable in your hand, simple enough for anyone to use, and powerful enough to capture some excellent images.
It's regrettable that Canon failed to fix the design flaws from the last generation that irritated so many users, because I've already seen several user reviews expressing frustration with those very same quirks. The reaction comes in part, no doubt, because of the price tag. I think $300 is a fair price for this camera, but most consumers -- understandably so -- think that a camera should be near-perfect at this price.
Competition is a great thing though. This travel-zoom category is crowded, and a handful of competitors churn out comparable (if not better) performance for less money -- the Samsung HZ30W and Casio FH100 spring to mind immediately and I've heard great things about the Panasonic ZS5. That knowledge makes the SX210 a little harder to recommend.
But the Canon name does count for a lot. They've earned their reputation for making reliable cameras that take sharp pictures with minimum fuss, and the SX210 is certainly in line with that. It's impossible to be everything to everyone all the time, but the SX210 is most things that most casual or hobbyist photographers could use most of the time.