Start-up time for the SX260 clocks in at a fraction under 2.5seconds, which isn't too bad for a compact of this kind. Processing speeds are a little underwhelming though, which comes as something of a surprise given the SX260's speedy DIGIC 5 processor. Used in Single-shot drive mode you can expect to wait around 2.5seconds in between shots, during which time you're unable to shoot any new pictures. Switching to regular Continuous drive mode enables a capture rate of around 2.2fps; we managed 22 images over a timed 10-second burst. In Continuous drive mode with constant AF this does drop quite significantly to around 1fps, or 10 frames in 10secs. Used in High-Speed Drive Mode (accessed via the Scene mode sub-menu) the SX260 is good for the claimed 10fps, but only to a maximum of 10 frames at a time.
Autofocus options are a bit limited; in all of the SX260’s more automated point-and-shoot exposure modes the camera will automatically select its own AF points. This means that when you’re faced with a complicated scene there's no guarantee that the camera will focus on what you want it too – although, of course, this is a charge that can be levelled at most compacts sporting automatic AF. If you're primarily shooting people then it will definitely pay to switch on the camera’s Face Detection priority function.
Using the camera in one of the more advanced shooting modes does offer a choice of Single-point AF (centre), Face Detection AF priority, and Tracking AF. The first of these lends itself well to the focus-recompose technique, while the Tracking function is pretty reliable too, just so long as your subject isn't moving too quickly or erratically. There's also a Manual focus option that opens up an enlarged focus box in the centre of the LCD screen. From here you simply use the rotating thumb wheel to focus. It's a bit tricky and rather slow, but could occasionally prove useful for shooting still-life scenes with.
Regardless of which mode you use AF speed is a bit of a mixed bag – outdoors in good light it's almost instant as you might expect, although the Lumix TZ30's 'Light Speed' AF module still has the edge for speed. In poor light, or indoors under dim artificial lighting the SX260’s autofocus is noticeably slower, although still generally quite reliable. In really dark conditions a green AF assist light on the front of the camera can be switched onto help out.
The SX260's 20x zoom extends from 25mm to 500mm in two seconds flat when the rocker switch is fully held down. Feathering the zoom rocker for more precise control we counted approximately 35 individual stops between the two extremes. The zoom operation is smooth throughout the range, but also quite noisy – if you are recording video then the camera's built-in microphones will easily pick up the internal mechanical whirring. We do like how the camera displays the minimum focus distance as you extend or wind the zoom in.
In addition to the optical zoom, the SX260 also offers a number of digital zoom functions. These include 1.5 and 2x ‘teleconverter’ options (which essentially magnify the optical zoom by those amounts) along with a standard digital zoom setting that extends its reach right up to 80x. As might be expected image quality on all three options does take a hit the more you zoom in/magnify the image – at 35x images are pretty good (so long as you don’t intend to make large prints from the,) but at 80x images look pretty dreadful even when viewed small.
This being a Canon compact it should come as no great surprise to learn that overall image quality is very good indeed. As with most Canon cameras the SX260 offers a number of ‘My Colours’ JPEG processing profiles, each of which produces a slightly different overall look; from the super saturated tones of ‘Vivid’ to the much more muted palate of ‘Neutral’. During testing we mostly kept the function switched off, although we have found ourselves partial to the richly toned ‘Positive Film’ setting on occasion. There’s also a ‘Custom’ setting that you can tinker with to find your own happy medium with.
Straight out of the camera with My Colours switched off, the SX260 delivers pleasingly lifelike colour that’s neither too saturated nor too muted. Metering is generally very accurate too, albeit with the occasional tendency to slightly overexpose – especially in bright conditions. Automatic white balance is consistently well metered, although you can of course force the camera to your desired setting. Smart Auto and Live View exposure modes both offer some simplified on-screen slider controls that can be used to tweak white balance as you see fit, so you don’t necessarily need to be an expert in colour temperature to get the look you want.
The SX260 benefits from Canon’s own Image Stabilisation (IS) technology and we definitely found that it helped us to take sharper images, especially at wideangle and mid-range zoom settings. Shooting handheld at 500mm is always going to prove problematic, even for the most advanced stabilisation technology available, and while the SX260’s lens doesn’t do a bad job at the furthest reaches of its range, it doesn’t quite produce the sharpest results either. In addition, we also noticed some instances of purple fringing on high-contrast borders, although this is something that isn’t uncommon to superzoom lenses like this.
ISO performance is on a par with the competition. At the base sensitivity of ISO 100 images are free of noise, while at ISO 200 the appearance of noise is minimal and only really visible when pixel-peeping images at 100% or more. ISO 400 sees noise become slightly more noticeable, although the SX260 still manages to deliver pretty clean, sharp images. In terms of image quality ISO 800 is the cut-off point; that’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s also the point where the softening effects of the SX260’s built-in noise reduction begins to become visible at smaller image sizes. ISO 1600 is still just about good enough to make small images with, although you can expect images to be pretty soft with a fairly pronounced loss of shadow detail. The top setting of ISO 3200 isn’t great at all though, with a significant loss of detail especially in darker areas.
The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS delivers the flexibility of a 20x optical zoom in an easy-to-carry compact sized package. As such it’s a very likeable and easy-to-use travel compact that delivers good results and shows several notable improvements over the model it replaces, not least a longer zoom range and a much needed finger grip. Although it’s relatively well featured and offers a good range of exposure modes the lack of a one-touch Panorama mode remains a bit of an omission, while processing and AF performance isn’t quite top of its class either. In all other aspects though, the SX260 HS is a fantastic little travel compact that's well worth a closer look if you're in the market for such a camera.