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The camera's real quality, and the justification for that rather expensive price tag, comes in its overall performance. It starts up extremely quickly in a little over one second, and shuts down again nearly as quickly, but it is the autofocus system that really stands out. It is one of the fastest and most accurate AF systems I've ever seen on a compact camera, focusing in a fraction of a second in virtually all lighting conditions, including total darkness thanks to a very powerful AF assist lamp. I found it had no problem with moving subjects, and even the face detection system worked exceptionally well, quickly detecting and focusing on multiple faces within the frame, even at quite long ranges and in low lighting conditions. In single-shot mode it can shoot pretty much as fast as you can press the shutter button, easily maintaining approximately 1.2 seconds per shot, while in continuous shooting it can manage a speed of 0.7 seconds per shot, and appears to be able to keep this speed up until the memory card is full. The flash recharge time is also very quick at around four seconds after a full-power flash shot.
If you're paying £200 for a camera you should expect good image quality, and again the 860 IS does not disappoint. I used it in a wide range of situations, from a rather wild and drunken house-warming party to a tranquil sunset, and it provided outstanding results every time. The lens does produce some noticeable barrel distortion at the wide-angle end, but it is no more than I've seen from most other 28mm-equivalent compact lenses, and it disappears quickly at slightly longer focal lengths. Overall sharpness is very good, only really dropping off at the very corners of the frame, with no trace of chromatic aberration or purple fringing to be seen. The overall level of fine detail isn't as high as I've seen from some 8MP cameras, possibly due to some anti-alias filtering, but it is still good enough to produce first-class results in most circumstances. Exposure and colour rendition are pretty much perfect even in low light, and the auto white balance copes well with a range of indoor lighting. Image noise control is also very good, producing excellent results at 400 ISO, and printable quality even at 800 ISO. Only at the maximum 1600 ISO did I notice any real breakdown in image quality, with a slight change in colour balance in the darker areas of the image, but even this setting was usable at a push.
The Canon IXUS 860 IS is an expensive camera for an 8MP pocket compact, but it justifies it with stylish design, exceptional build quality, class-leading performance and outstanding picture quality. Its wide zoom range provides greater versatility than most other compacts, and it turns in excellent results in virtually any situation. It is certainly one of the best compact cameras on the market, and will no doubt make a welcome gift for many this Xmas.