The 600D is ready to start shooting the instant you flick the ‘off’ switch to ‘on’, with no discernable delay whatsoever. When not in live view the 600D autofocus system uses a phase-detection method that enables super-fast focusing. The 600D’s nine AF points are spread out in a diamond shape within the viewfinder, with only the central point being a cross-type sensor (equally as quick, irrespective of whether the camera is being held in landscape or portrait mode), with the other eight being linear. Ideally we’d like to have seen a bit more coverage across the viewfinder, although it is of course possible to bypass this problem by using the focus-recompose technique when shooting.
By way of comparison the recently announced Nikon D5100 offers 11 AF points with one central cross-type and the Sony A580 uses 15 AF points with three cross types. The Pentax K-r, meanwhile, betters all of three by offering 11 AF points, nine of which are cross-type. While the 600D just about holds its own, it’s hardly class-leading.
If the ability to reel off shots at speed is a priority then it’s worth noting that the 600D is no faster than then the 550D at 3.7 frames per second. In tests we found no buffer limits on the highest quality JPEGs, although shooting in Raw we were only able to shoot seven consecutive images before the buffer was full. Shooting Raw and JPEG simultaneously, we managed just five images before the buffer choked.
Switching over to live view you have two options of contrast-detect autofocus (the second simply employing it in partnership with face detection), or you can opt for Quick mode, which momentarily shuts live view down and swings the mirror back into place so that the camera can activate phase-detection autofocus, before returning to live view. The whole process in Quick mode takes momentarily longer than it would were you using the viewfinder.
We found that using Quick AF mode was the preferred option when shooting in live view, with the two contrast-detect options being just too slow for any kind of candid or spontaneous photography. This is fine for still life and landscape photography, but when it comes to capturing fast-moving objects the 600D’s sloth-like live view autofocus just isn’t up to the task.
It’s possible to use the two contrast-detect AF modes while recording movies, but it’s not a great user experience, being both incredibly slow and quite noisy – the latter being something the camera’s built-in microphone is sure to pick up. With a bit of practice you’ll get far better results by switching AF off altogether and using the manual focus ring on the lens instead. Sound is recorded in mono via the built-in microphone, although it is possible to connect a stereo microphone via a 3.5mm socket on the side of the camera.
Despite its operational shortcomings movie quality remains very high. White balance proves consistently reliable, allowing the 600D to produce naturally vibrant colours without over saturating things. The 18-135mm kit lens also does an admirable job of keeping things sharp with good detail.
While autofocus performance in live view falls a bit flat, there can be no such complaints about the performance of the LCD monitor. With a resolution of just over one million pixels it’s both pin sharp and crystal clear. Whether you’re composing images or movies with live view or reviewing images and movies you’ve already shot, it’s a pleasure to work with.
The 600D also scores very highly for overall image quality. While the choice of Picture Style does affect the characteristics of each image, there’s a consistency of quality that marks the 600D out as a rock solid performer. Used on the Auto Picture Style setting, JPEGs consistently deliver a pleasing degree of punch and vibrancy without looking over-worked or unnatural.
Set to evaluative mode, metering proved to be unfailingly accurate in all but the most high contrast scenes. When faced with a scene beyond its dynamic range we found that the 600D tends to retain shadow detail at the expense of highlights, although this can be fixed to a certain degree by the use of the Highlight Tone Priority function and/or by using the exposure compensation button that allows for /- 3EV to be applied. For extra flexibility the 600D also offers centre-weighted and spot metering options.
We had no issues with the performance of Automatic White Balance outdoors, although indoors under artificial light the 600D has a tendency to err on the side of warm. Noise is also very well controlled throughout the sensitivity range, with especially commendable performance in the mid to high settings of ISO 800-1600.
As might be expected of an 18MP APS-C sensor, detail and resolution are both very good, allowing plenty of room for aggressive cropping and manipulation of images in post-production if needed. While JPEGs come out of the camera sharper than their Raw counterparts, there is of course a lot more scope to sharpen Raw files than JPEGs using digital imaging software.
We tested the 600D with Canon’s 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens although the new model is also available with an all-new 18-55mm IS kit lens. The new 18-55mm contains exactly the same optics arranged in the same way as the old 18-55mm kit lens – the only thing that has really changed is the exterior styling of the lens.
The 18-135mm performed adequately enough, with quick operation and sharp centres. Our only real concerns were with edge sharpness when fully open and purple fringing on high-contrast borders. While neither trait is particularly desirable both are fairly common on cheaper kit lenses, especially those with large focal ranges. It's also rather noisy when autofocussing during video. The 600D would doubtless benefit from better optics and to this end it’s reassuring to know that it accepts lenses from the entire Canon EF and EF-S lens catalogue.
Given that the twelve-month-old 550D is set to remain in production for the time being as a kind of kid brother to the 600D, is the newer model worth the extra £150 or so? Well, of course, that very much depends on your priorities. If an articulated screen is at the top of your must-have feature list, then only the 600D can deliver this. In many other respects, however, the 600D is much the same camera as the 550D.
That’s not to do the 600D down in any way. The new model adds some improvements and refinements to what was already a very good camera. Movie recording issues aside, the 600D remains a well specified and easy-to-use entry-level digital SLR that delivers consistently good results. As with all new models we’d expect the street price to fall a bit before long, at which point it’s definitely a camera that deserves to be on your shortlist.