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Canon IXUS 990 IS Review

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £295.00

For over nine years now, since the launch of the original two megapixel Digital IXUS in early 2000, Canon’s IXUS range of luxury compact cameras have been the benchmark against which all others in this prestigious class have been measured, and it’s no exaggeration to say that no other range of cameras has been so good for so long. They have combined superb build quality, elegant style and class-leading performance, as well as staying at the cutting edge with the latest features and technology. Needless to say they also have an enviable reputation for outstanding image quality.


There are currently six models in the IXUS range, however Canon’s numbering convention is a little confusing. Until recently the 9xx models such as the 950 IS, 960 IS, 970 IS and the still-available 980 IS have included the highest possible sensor resolution, longer zoom lenses and optical viewfinders, however today’s review camera, the new IXUS 990 IS, breaks with that convention. It is a 12.1-megapixel camera featuring a 5x zoom lens and a 3.0-inch LCD monitor. It has optical image stabilisation, HD movie recording and an HDMI connector, but it has no optical viewfinder. Currently the IXUS 95 IS, 100 IS and 980 IS are the only models in the range with this much-requested feature.


Cameras like the 990 IS are as much about style and fashion as they are about taking pictures, and like most of its predecessors the 990 IS is a very handsome device. The body shape is all new, and it is a lot cleaner and more conventionally styled than the last couple of models in the series. The curved front panel is a little slippery (although nowhere near as bad as the 970 IS) but the subtle sculpting of the back panel makes the camera very comfortable to hold, and it sits snugly and securely in the hand. The distinctive control layout, with large triangular buttons, is actually very easy to use, especially if you have limited manual dexterity.


The body shell is a thin layer of aluminium over a plastic chassis, and the fit and finish is of the high standard we’ve come to expect from Canon. Unusually however it is only available in one colour, the attractive champagne-and-bronze two-tone shown here.


Although it has lost the optical viewfinder, one feature typical of the IXUS range that the 990 IS retains is the stupendously huge price tag. The 990 IS is currently selling for between £280 and £305, and if you think that’ll come down much, the IXUS 980 IS is still selling for £265 and that was launched last September. The 990 IS is a very nice camera and has plenty of modern features, but there’s no denying that it is extremely expensive. By comparison, the 12MP, 5x zoom Panasonic FX40 is around £250, the 12MP 7x zoom Nikon S630 is available for around £190, while the Sony DSC-W290 is around £185. In fact you can get an Olympus E-420 digital SLR complete with standard zoom lens for under £300.

There’s no doubt that you do get a lot of camera for your money though. The IXUS 990 IS has pretty much every feature you could hope to find on a modern digital compact., apart from a wide angle lens which is found on its sister model the IXUS 110 IS. Like all the best new compacts it has HD video recording, shooting at 1280 x 720 resolution at 30fps, although it only has mono audio and the optical zoom cannot be used, which is a little disappointing at this price level.


Other advanced features include a very effective optical image stabilisation system that operates in both still and video modes. Canon’s compact camera IS system continues to improve with every iteration, and the 990 IS can take shake-free pictures at some ridiculously slow shutter speeds. I was easily able to take sharp pictures at full zoom at 1/10th of a second.


As well as the video mode, the 990 IS has a number of still shooting modes, selected by a small and quite stiff slider switch on the top panel. They inclide Program, in which settings including sensitivity, white balance, metering, autofocus and drive modes and a wide range of colour settings can be manually adjusted, a list of 18 scene mode programs, and Auto, in which virtually all camera control is fully automatic. This includes automatic scene selection and a range of face detection features including blink detection and a clever face detecting self-timer. The automatic setting is reliable, and will usually take a good picture almost any lighting conditions, but I found that it had a worrying tendency to turn people’s skin bright pink in both indoor and outdoor shots.


The camera’s settings are adjusted via Canon’s very slick new live menu, which is all partial transparencies and gradient fill. It works extremely well in conjunction with the rotary bezel navigation control around the D-pad. The main menu has also had a facelift, and the whole operating system not only looks good, but it also runs very smoothly and responsively.


The hardware is also impressive, with a high quality 5x zoom f/3.2-5.7 lens, equivalent to 37-185mm, and an exceptionally good monitor with an ultra-sharp resolution of 461,000 dots, adjustable brightness and an anti-glare surface that actually works in bright daylight. The built-in flash is also very good, and surprisingly powerful for its size, easily filling a large living room and balancing well with ambient light in larger spaces or outdoors. The overall feel of the camera is solid and reliable, and at approximately 185g fully loaded it has the reassuring weight of something very expensive and well made.

Where the 990 IS begins to really shine is its overall performance. It starts up in comfortably less than two seconds and shuts down again even more quickly. In single shot mode it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.8 seconds, while in continuous shooting mode it can maintain just over one frame a second.


Partly this performance is due to the excellent autofocus system, which is quick enough in good light to reliably capture fast-moving subjects, and can track detected faces. In low light it is unfortunately less reliable, and despite the extremely bright AF assist lamp it has trouble focusing even on nearby subjects. However in this situation the camera appears to default to a pan-focus setting that will at least get most of the frame looking sharp.


The overall image quality is very good, as one might expect from such an expensive camera. The lens provides excellent sharpness with only a little blurring and a touch of chromatic aberration at the very corners of the frame, and wide-angle optical distortion is kept to a good minimum. Image noise is particularly well handled, with very good image quality at 400 ISO, although quality does drop off dramatically at 800 and the maximum 1600 ISO settings, particularly in lower light levels.


The level of detail is exceptionally good, and the compression rate is nice and low at around 10:1. The only real problem with the image quality is, as I mentioned earlier, a bizarre tendency to turn all Caucasian skin bright lobster pink when shooting in Auto mode, both in daylight and when using the flash. It is possible to avoid this by using the My Colours option in Program mode, but for anyone who relies on the Auto mode it’s obviously going to be a disadvantage.


”’Verdict”’

The Canon IXUS 990 IS is undeniably a very good camera. The build quality is above any reproach, the handling and performance are excellent, and the range of advanced features is as good as anything else on the market. The optical image stabilisation is particularly effective. However it is very expensive even when compared to its few direct competitors and it is not without a few minor faults, particularly low-light focusing and unnatural skin tones.

”Over the next few pages we show a range of test shots. On this page the full size image at the minimum and maximum ISO settings have been reduced to let you see the full image, and a series of full resolution crops have taken from original images at a range of ISO settings to show the overall image quality. These pictures were taken indoors using artificial light, with white balance set for the back board of the scene.”


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This is the full frame at 80 ISO.


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At the minimum ISO setting the image quality is superb, with smooth tonal gradients and no sign of image noise.


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The results are also pretty much perfect at 100 ISO.


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Still no real problems at 200 ISO.


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The noise reduction really kicks in at 400 ISO, but the results are very good, with excellent colour and only minor loss of detail.


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More detail is lost at 800 ISO, and darker areas are quite blotchy.


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Image quality is much lower at 1600 ISO, with considerable loss of fine detail, but still the exposure and colour are very good.


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This is the full frame at 1600 ISO.


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”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. ”


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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.


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The level of fine detail is excellent despite the overcast weather, and the low compression rate preserves a lot of it.


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The lens is nice and sharp, but there is some distortion at wide angle.


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Centre sharpness is superb.


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There is a little blurring in the far corners of the frame, and also some traces of chromatic aberration.


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”Here are some general test shots to help evaluate the camera’s overall image quality, including dynamic range, colour rendition and the zoom range of the lens. Some pictures may be clicked to download the full size original image. ”


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The wide angle setting is equivalent to 37mm, barely wide enough to get the whole Custom House in the frame.


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The long end is equivalent to 185mm, a useful short telephoto.


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The automatic I-Contrast feature boosts shadow detail in difficult lighting conditions.


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Colour rendition is good, but it does have problems with skin tones.


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The AF system is very quick in good light.


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The image stabilisation is fantastic. This was shot hand held at full zoom at 1/8th of a second.


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Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Value 5
  • Image Quality 9
  • Build Quality 10

Features

Camera type Ultra Compact
Megapixels (Megapixel) 12.1 Megapixel
Optical Zoom (Times) 5x
Image Sensor CCD
Image Stabilisation Optical
LCD Monitor 3 in
Flash modes Auto Flash, Flash OFF, Flash ON, Red-eye Reduction
Video (max res/format) 1280 x 720
Memory card slot Secure Digital (SD) Card, Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) Card, MultiMediaCard (MMC), MMCplus, HC MMCplus

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