- Review Price: £299.99
For the past eight years, since the launch of the first 2-megapixel model in the spring of 2000, Canon’s Digital IXUS range has pretty much defined the genre for stylish digital compact cameras, with class-leading performance and cutting-edge design. However once in a while even the most prestigious brands can stumble, and when it comes to the design of the new Digital IXUS 970 IS (sold as the PowerShot SD890 IS in the USA) Canon has done just that.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great-looking camera with a tempting specification. It has a 10.0-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor, a 5x zoom f/3.2 – f/5.7 lens equivalent to 37-185mm, a 2.5-inch 230k LCD monitor, optical viewfinder and a high-quality all-metal body. Advanced features include enhanced optical image stabilisation, DIGIC III image processor, motion detection and face detection AF. It follows such outstanding cameras as the 8.0-megapixel 4x zoom IXUS 950 IS, and the titanium-bodied 12.1-megapixel IXUS 960 IS that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
The 970 IS is brand new, so at the moment it is horribly expensive, selling for between £250 and £300. That’s a lot of money for a 10MP camera, even one with a 5x zoom lens. Comparable models include the 10MP 4x zoom Nikon Coolpix S600 (£220), the 10MP 7x zoom Olympus mju 1020 (£190), but the closest rival is probably the new Panasonic Lumix FX500, which is also just as expensive at £250-£300. These are all premium products, but even amongst such distinguished company the 970 IS is still pretty pricy. No doubt that price will fall over the next few months, but I doubt that it will ever be cheap. The IXUS 950 IS still costs around £180 eight months after its launch.
The IXUS 970 IS has the specification, the pedigree and the price tag to qualify as one of the top luxury compact cameras, but there is a problem; I have major reservations about the overall design of the body. Looking at it, and especially handling it, it seems to me that the designer has modelled the shape of the body on a well-worn bar of soap. Those smoothly curved lines may look very sleek and stylish, but the right-hand end of the body tapers off in a rounded shape that is virtually impossible to grip securely, and the beautiful semi-matt metallic finish is very slippery even with dry hands. If you try using the 970 IS with even slightly sweaty hands it slips out of your fingers like the bar of soap it resembles, which is an unfortunate tendency for a camera that will cost £300 to replace if you break it.
The rounded body shape also makes the camera difficult to balance on anything other than a very flat surface, despite the small and rather ineffectual feet on the bottom, so if you like self-timer shots you’re going to need a tripod. At least the bush for it is metal.
I’m not particularly keen on the camera’s controls either. Like the body, they seem to have been designed primarily for aesthetic appeal rather than ease of use. The four-position main mode dial is straightforward enough, but on some previous IXUS models this control was shaped so as to double as a thumbgrip. However for the 970 IS it has been made much flatter and smoother and doesn’t perform this role as effectively. The on/off button is rather fiddly, but the worst part is a truly horrible rotary bezel around the D-pad which is used to select scene modes and menu options. It is unresponsive and provides almost no tactile feedback. There is a slight lag to its operation, which means that it almost always overshoots the selection you were aiming for. What exactly is wrong with the conventional four-way D-pad, a perfectly simple control device used on everything from computer games to TV remotes, that designers are constantly trying to change it? There’s a lot to be said for the maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The zoom control is also less effective than most previous IXUS models. It is a rotary control around the shutter button, but the small raised tab that enables it to be turned is very small so as not to spoil the line of the body. Again it looks very pretty but is fiddly and awkward to use.
Fortunately the camera’s internal design is a lot better than the outside. The optical image stabilisation is exceptionally good, producing acceptably sharp images at full zoom and shutter speeds as low as 1/15th of a second, not bad for a focal length equivalent to 185mm. I didn’t have much chance to test the motion-tracking AF, but from what I was able to tell it works well, keeping moving subjects in focus as long as they stayed within the frame. However getting the multi-point AF to actually focus on the right subject proved to be more of a challenge. It seemed to pick subjects pretty much at random, and not always the closest object to the camera, or the closest to the centre of the frame. Most of the time I ended up switching back to the much faster and more reliable centre-spot AF.
One of the advertised features of the IXUS 970 IS is its creative movie mode, but in fact this is nothing too special. The only unusual modes are a time-lapse feature and a special “long-play” mode that doubles the available shooting time, but at the cost of higher compression and lower picture quality. There is no HD option, and anyway the movie modes have to be selected via that ghastly rotary bezel control, which is enough to put anyone off.
Overall performance is always an IXUS strongpoint, and here the 970 IS lives up to its pedigree. It starts up in a brisk 1.5 seconds, and shuts down again just as quickly. In single-shot mode at the highest quality setting it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of 1.8 seconds, while in continuous mode it can manage approximately 1.5 frames per second, which is pretty good for a 10MP camera. Power is supplied by a relatively large 1120mAh Li-ion rechargeable battery, for which Canon claims an impressive 320 shots on a full charge. I took around 100 shots over several days while testing the camera and the charge indicator was still showing a full three bars.
As I’ve mentioned, the AiAF autofocus system is a bit hit-or-miss, but in centre-spot AF mode focusing is generally very quick and accurate in good light. Unusually for Canon camera it seems to have some problems focusing at telephoto zoom settings, and its low-light performance isn’t as good as I had expected either. It will focus in low light, but it sometimes takes several tries to succeed. However at least it tells you very quickly that it can’t focus, rather than hunting around for several seconds as some rival models are known to do.
The main saving grace for the IXUS 970 IS is its picture quality, which is well up to Canon’s usual high standard. The JPEG files it produces average around 5MB each, which is large for a 10MP compact, and images are virually free of compression artefacts.
Exposure metering is seldom less than perfect, and the camera copes well with shadows and highlights despite its rather small and densely packed sensor. Colour reproduction is superb, with good detail even in very bright yellows, something that can be a problem. The lens performs well, with excellent centre sharpness, although it does produce quite a lot of barrel distortion at the wide-angle end, and there is some visible chromatic aberration in the corners. I did find the 37mm-equivalent wide-angle setting to be a bit restrictive after reviewing several 28mm wide-zoom cameras recently, but the 185 telephoto end is very useful for a bit of extra magnification on more distant objects.
Canon’s Digic III image processor has proven its worth in a number of previous models, and here it provides outstanding noise control, producing images at 800 ISO that are virtually free of colour noise, showing instead a pleasant fine-grained texture that would still produce very good prints. The 3200 ISO high-sensitivity scene mode is a bit of a waste of time though, since it restricts image size to only 1.9 megapixels, and even then the quality is very poor.
The Canon Digital IXUS 970 IS is a logical progression in specification from the earlier IXUS models, and its list of features is impressive. Build quality, performance and image quality are certainly up to the usual standard, and the extended zoom range is very useful. However the awful handling and horribly designed controls limit the appeal of what could have been an outstanding if rather expensive camera. Compared to other models in the same range it is a bit of a disappointment.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size images at the minimum and maximum ISO settings have been reduced for bandwidth purposes to let you see the full image, and a series of crops taken from original full resolution images at a range of ISO settings have been included in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality.”
This is the full frame at 80 ISO.
At the minimum ISO setting of 80 the image noise free and very smooth.
Virtually no difference at 100 ISO,
Still no real noise at 200 ISO.
Some luminance noise at 400 ISO, but no colour distortion.
Slightly more luminance noise at 800 ISO, but still no colour distortion. This would still make a decent print.
Image quality is suddenly much worse at 1600 ISO, the maximum full-size setting.
3200 ISO is available, but image size is reduced to just two megapixels. Pretty useless, but at least the colours are bright.
This is the full frame at 1600 ISO.
”A range of general test shots are shown over the next two pages. In some cases, the full size image has been reduced for bandwidth purposes, and a crop taken from the original full resolution image has been placed below it to show the overall image quality. Some other pictures may be clicked to view the original full-size image.”
Here’s the usual detail test shot of the West Window of Exeter Cathedral, for you to compare with other cameras. See below for a full res crop, or click to see the whole picture.
The level of detail is very good, but not really any better than any other 10MP camera.
The lens does produce some barrel distortion at wide angle.
Centre sharpness is excellent.
Corner sharpness is a little lower, with slight chromatic aberration.
The same building at the telephoto setting. There is a tiny amount of pincushion distortion.
”Here are some general test shots to help evaluate the camera’s overall image quality, including the zoom range of the lens. Some pictures may be clicked to download the full size original image.”
The wide-angle end of the zoom is equivalent to 37mm, a bit narrow by recent standards.
The 185mm-equivalent telephoto end is useful for bus spotters and private investigators.
Colour reproduction is excellent, with details even in bright highlights.
Despite its small sensor the 970 IS has good dynamic range.
Macro range is 2cm, but don’t use the AiAF feature at this range, because it will miss the target.
Correct exposure despite bright highlights.
Score in detail
Image Quality 9
|Camera type||Digital Compact|
|Megapixels (Megapixel)||10 Megapixel|
|Optical Zoom (Times)||5x|
|LCD Monitor||2.5 in|
|Flash modes||Auto Flash, Flash ON, Flash OFF, Red-eye Reduction|
|Video (max res/format)||640 x 480|
|Memory card slot||Secure Digital (SD) Card, Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) Card, MultiMediaCard (MMC), MMCplus|