The 1100D isn’t the smallest or prettiest entry-level DSLR on the market – that award would probably have to go to the Nikon D3100. While we don’t doubt the durability of the 1100D’s smooth and shiny plastic casing, it doesn’t impart a particularly premium feel. Likewise, while the finger grip easily accommodates three digits, it would really benefit from a rubberised finish to make it feel more secure in the hand – something the Nikon D3100, Pentax K-r and Sony A290 all offer.
Anyone new to using a DSLR might initially feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of buttons cluttering up the back of the 1100D. There are 13 in total including the D-pad keys – far more than any of the 1100D’s main rivals. That said, the 1100D’s buttons are both physically large and clearly marked, and so given a bit of time to familiarise yourself with the various menu quirks, the camera does eventually become quite easy to operate.
We like how the D-pad can be used to directly access four regularly used settings (ISO, Drive mode, White Balance, AF mode). The Quick Menu button is a nice touch too, and can be used to quickly access and change a selection of regularly used settings, from Picture Style settings to control over the 1100D’s pop-up flash. While in the Quick Menu the D-pad buttons are used to move between them. Once you’ve arrived on the setting you want to change, you can use the control wheel until you arrive on the setting you want.
Elsewhere, the Main menu button will take you to the camera's advanced settings, while the red-dot button switches the camera into live view mode. Note that if you want to record video, you’ll need to move the shooting mode dial on the top of the camera to the movie icon first, from where the red-dot button will act as the record/pause button.
Despite being nice and bright, the viewfinder is noticeably small and covers 95% of the scene, meaning the final image will contain a little bit more than you see through the viewfinder. Looking through the viewfinder you'll find nine AF points spread across the screen that light up as red dots, depending on which is being used as a focus point. Basic shooting information – including shutter speed, aperture, metering and ISO – is displayed underneath the viewfinder.
One area where the 1110D definitely does cut corners is with its 2.7in, 230k-dot LCD monitor. If that sounds small for a DSLR that’s because it is small for a DSLR – even an entry-level one. In fact, on paper the 1100D falls behind most of its main rivals: the Sony A290 gets exactly the same specs; the Nikon 3100 gets a 3inch monitor albeit with the same resolution; and the Pentax K-r trumps both with a class-leading 3in, 920k-dot display. In use, the 1100D’s screen proves perfectly functional for framing shots in live view and checking images you’ve already taken, however it’s not going to win any awards – we’ve even seen a number of compacts with bigger and better screens.
Start-up speed is pretty much instantaneous as long as you’re using the viewfinder, although you can expect to wait a couple of seconds when switching between the viewfinder and live view. Autofocus performance is near instant in good light although the 1100D’s built-in AF motor is quite noisy. In low-light AF performance does take a knock though, and as there’s no AF-assist light the 1100D struggles, or is even unable to perform autofocus in near dark conditions.
Used in live view, the 1100D’s AF Live mode suffers from the same problem we encountered with the 600D, namely that the contrast detect method it uses to find focus is really slow. If your subject happens to be stationary then this can be rectified by switching over to Quick View mode, which works by momentarily exiting live view mode to raise the mirror and quickly find focus using the traditional phase detection method. As we mentioned above, it’s not possible to use any kind of AF while the camera is being used to record movies.
The 1100D isn’t built with speed in mind, but the 3fps in continuous mode puts it on an even keel with the Nikon D3100 (3fps), makes it faster than the Sony A290 (2.5fps). The Pentax K-r, meanwhile, beats them all for speed with an impressive 6fps. As regards the memory buffer, we were able to shoot over 100 full-resolution JPEGs continuously without any slowdown, although switching to Raw reduced this to about four or five frames before the camera started to choke. In simultaneous Raw and JPEG capture we were only able to record two frames before the camera started to lock up.