- Review Price: £120.00
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen some budget-priced compact cameras that have been short on features but low on cost. However for just a few pounds more you can get a well-made and easy-handling camera that offers 8.0 megapixels, 4x zoom, manual exposure options and impressive performance. I’m talking about today’s review camera, the new Canon PowerShot A950 IS.
The A590 IS and its non-stabilised twin the A580 are the new mid-range models in Canon’s popular A-series of advanced compacts. Like the other cameras in the range it offers a range of features designed to meet the needs of the more creative photographer. It has an 8.0-megapixel 1/2.5-inch CCD backed by the DIGIC III image processor, a relatively fast f/2.6-5.5, 4x zoom lens with a focal length range equivalent to 35-140mm and equipped with Canon’s optical image stabilisation technology, a 2.5-inch 115k monitor and an optical viewfinder. It has a range of manual exposure controls and automatic scene modes, a useful selection of image customisation options and a maximum sensitivity of 1600 ISO.
With the recent expansion of Nikon’s P-series Canon no longer has the advanced compact market all to itself, but it’s certainly not giving up without a fight. The A590 IS has a similar specification and overall design to the Nikon CoolPix P60 which I reviewed last month, but with a current price of under £120 it beats its rival by around £40. The other main alternative is another Canon model, the £155 A720 IS, which has a similar specification but is fitted with a longer f/2.8-4.8 6x zoom lens. Oddly, the non-stabilised A580 is currently selling for around the same price as the A590 IS, so I can’t see it doing terribly well.
The PowerShot A-series is possibly the longest-running digital camera range still in production, having started with the 1.3-megapixel PowerShot A10 back in early 2001. While the basic shape has remained relatively unchanged since then, with a functional rectangular body and a handgrip holding AA batteries, the details have evolved over time and the result is a camera whose form fits its function almost perfectly. The body is made of plastic, but its rounded corners give it an inherent strength and while there are a few squeaks if you give it a squeeze the overall build quality is excellent. The A590 is finished in a high-gloss gunmetal colour, and this does make it a bit slippery, but the shape of the handgrip and the position of the controls make it very secure to hold. However I can’t help but think that a textured non-slip finish to the handgrip would be an improvement to the handling, especially for users with limited grip or manual dexterity.
It’s hard to find fault with the accessibility of the controls. Although it is by no means a bulky camera, measuring 94.3 x 64.7 x 40.8mm and weighing around 225g including a pair of AA batteries, it still has room on the back for a large, easy-to-use D-pad, four other buttons and a nice solid slider switch for record/playback selection, while leaving plenty of space for your thumb. The main mode dial on the top plate is a bit crowded with 13 settings, but it turns with a nice positive click and is recessed so it’s unlikely to be jogged accidentally. The zoom control, as usual on a Canon camera, is a rotary bezel around the shutter button, and it is easy to operate, although the zoom travel is a bit jerky and is stepped with only seven increments between minimum and maximum.
The manual exposure controls are a lot better than on some semi-manual compacts. Aperture settings from f/2.6 to f/8.0 and shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/2000th of a second can be selected in 1/3 EV increments, giving the A590 the potential for real creative photography. The optical viewfinder is also better than most; it is surprisingly large and bright, and since it is positioned almost directly over the lens it minimises parallax problems at close range. Its frame coverage is approximate 75-80%, which is about average for a compact camera.
I’m less impressed by the monitor screen, which seems to have been one of the few corners that have been cut to keep the price low. With 115k dots it isn’t particularly sharp, and its angle of view is also rather restricted, I would estimate to around 45 degrees either side of perpendicular. This means it is almost impossible to see if you are trying to shoot with the camera held above head height.
The A590’s overall performance is well up to Canon’s usual high standard. It starts up in less than two seconds and shuts down again almost as quickly. In single-shot mode it can take a picture every 1.5 seconds, while in continuous shooting mode it can zip along at 0.7 seconds per shot, a speed it can maintain until it either fills up the memory card or the batteries run out. Battery duration may be an issue however; Canon claims 200 shots on a set of standard alkaline batteries, but with a brand new set of Duracells I found the battery level indicator flashing red after only 120 shots. Perforamce using high-capacity NiMH rechargeables may be somewhat better though. The autofocus system is also just as fast as we’ve come to expect from Canon compacts, and for once the AiAF system appears to be less unpredictable, so it may have been tweaked slightly for this model.
In terms of image quality, I have to admit I am a bit disappointed, but largely because I have higher expectations of Canon compacts. The lens produces relatively little distortion, but it is only really sharp near the centre of the frame, with the edges exhibiting significant blurring and some chromatic aberration. The overall level of detail is about average for an 8-megapixel sensor, and dynamic range is also pretty good. However it does have a tendency to burn out highlights, and very bright colours also present a problem, with yellow and red flowers appearing as featureless blobs of colour with little visible detail. Image noise was also an unexpected problem, with noise plainly visible as low as 200 ISO and becoming a major problem at 800 ISO. Shots at the maximum 1600 ISO are virtually unusable. Considering the exceptionally good noise control of the A720, which has the same 8MP sensor and DIGIC III processor this is very puzzling, and a major disadvantage for an otherwise capable little camera.
Considering its low price, the PowerShot A590 IS offers an amazingly complete list of features, with high-performance optical image stabilisation, a useful range of manual controls and exceptionally good performance, especially in low light conditions. Build quality and handling are also well above the average for this price bracket. The only real disappointment is the slightly inferior image quality, especially when compared to the next model up in the range, the A720 IS. However for under £120 it is still a major bargain.
”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.”
This is a full-frame image at the minimum sensitivity of 80 ISO.
Image quality at the lowest ISO setting is superb.
At 100 ISO there is already some colour speckling visible.
Image noise is noticeable at 200 ISO.
At 400 ISO the noise is affecting the level of fine detail.
Very significant noise problems at 800 ISO.
At 1600 ISO the noise is so bad the image is virtually useless.
This is the full frame at maximum 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 fine detail is about average for an 8MP compact.
Barrel distortion at wide angle is not too severe.
Sharpness is good near the centre of the frame.
Corner sharpness is very poor however, with some chromatic aberration.
”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 range is equivalent to 35mm.
The telephoto end of the 4x zoom is equivalent to 140mm.
Colours are over-saturated, with little detail in the brightest colours.
Shadow detail is good, although highlights do get burned out.
Score in detail
Image Quality 6
Build Quality 9
|Camera type||Digital Compact|
|Megapixels (Megapixel)||8 Megapixel|
|Optical Zoom (Times)||4x|
|LCD Monitor||2.5 in|
|Flash modes||Auto Flash, Red-eye Reduction, Flash ON, Flash OFF|
|Video (max res/format)||640 x 480|
|Memory card slot||MMCplus, Secure Digital (SD) Card, Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) Card, MultiMediaCard (MMC)|