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.
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