Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT SLR Review
How do you develop a successor to the most popular dSLR ever produced? Carefully, of course, but also daringly when you are the Canon engineers charged with producing the next version of Digital Rebel, aptly named the Digital Rebel XT. As with the original Digital Rebel, the XT borrows heavily from its prosumer sibling, the 20D. But unlike the original, the XT has been spared the full extent of the feature cutting that limited its flexibility; yes, the XT's features are a subset of the 20D's, but it retains a more complete set of creative controls than its predecessor. With their announcement of the Digital Rebel XT and the continued marketing the original Rebel at a reduced price, Canon has redefined the consumer dSLR market into two tiers while their competitors struggle to find their niche.
The first thing that strikes you about the Rebel XT is its diminutive (for an SLR) size. Weighing in at just 1 pound 11.5 ounces including battery, EFS 18-55mm kit lens, CF memory card and strap, it surpasses the Pentax *istDS as the lightest dSLR currently available. Despite its small size, the XT possesses good ergonomic qualities; it is comfortable to hold and its controls are both logically organized and easy to operate. The only issue I had was with its Drive Mode button; I accidentally depressed it several times and wondered why the shutter didn't actuate - it was in self-timer mode! The XT's controls are nearly identical to those of the original Rebel, with the exception of the Drive Mode button, and the left/right buttons of the 4-way controller accessing menu options for metering and AF mode respectively (functions not present on the original Rebel).
The Digital rebel XT is a somewhat de-featured EOS 20D, having the same CMOS sensor with slightly reduced (222,720 pixels) resolution, 1600 (vs 3200) maximum ISO, reduced continuous image capture rate (3 frames per second vs the 20D's 5fps), a reduced burst capacity, a plastic body vs the 20D's magnesium alloy, a pentamirror vs pentaprism based viewfinder, and slightly inferior AF tracking performance. But what it has is more important to most photographers than what it doesn't; the XT is more fully-featured than the original Rebel, with the ability to set both focus and metering modes independent of the shooting mode you are using, a useful set of Custom Functions, and a robust shooting performance. The Rebel XT is quite capable of capturing images of a quality equal to the 20D's; your choice will be made on price and features, much like the decision made when choosing from a variety of trim and performance levels of the same basic automobile.
Viewfinder quality is one of the distinct advantages a dSLR has over high-end point-n-shoot cameras. The XT's viewfinder presents 95% of the field of view of the image sensor regardless of the focal length of the attached interchangeable lens, and is not subject to the blanking and freezing effects of the Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) of consumer digicams. If you use continuous drive mode to capture images of moving subjects, you'll love the XT's viewfinder.
Like the original Digital Rebel, the XT has a pentamirror viewfinder, incorporating several mirrors to angle the light to the viewfinder rather than a pentaprism. Canon improved on the original; the XT's viewfinder is marginally brighter. Inside the viewfinder you will find seven AF-point box outlines for the focusing points. When these points are selected a small red dot lights up inside of it to let you know exactly what part of the frame the camera focused on. Along the bottom of the viewfinder is a digital display that indicates the most important camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, flash, flash exposure compensation, focus confirmation, exposure compensation, number of burst images available and more). The fixed focusing screen has a matte texture that helps with your manual focus efforts. The viewfinder itself is covered by a soft rubberized eyecup and offers a high eye point with a -3 to +1 dioptric adjustment for those with less than perfect eyesight.
You'll be using a combination of the monochrome LCD panel and color LCD monitor to control the camera's functions. The small monochrome LCD panel provides a nearly complete overview of camera settings, including shutter speed, aperture, white balance, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation, metering mode, focus mode, number of remaining shots, image size/quality and battery condition; unfortunately, ISO sensitivity is not included. The LCD can be illuminated so it can be read at night.
The 1.8-inch color LCD monitor is used to navigate the camera's menu system and for image playback; unlike point-n-shoot consumer digicams, the LCD monitor can not be used as a live image viewfinder. While I found the LCD large and resolute enough, its range of brightness adjustment was not sufficient for all conditions. At its brightest setting, the LCD appeared to have about the same intensity as the original Digital Rebel set at its medium setting, and it was difficult to use for menu navigation and image review in bright sunlight. This was particularly troublesome when setting AF mode, Metering mode, and ISO, adjustments that required use of menus rather than the monochrome LCD panel. The dimly-lit LCD contributed to the XT's efficient power use; I was able to capture more than 600 images before the camera warned of a low battery level.
Aside from the brightness issue, image playback functions were very effective. Images can be reviewed immediately after capture for a period of 2, 4, or 8 seconds, or held until the shutter button is depressed; this is useful for on the fly confirmation of image composition. Image playback offers options for up to 10x magnification for critical examination, and a histogram that allows you determine if the image was properly exposed. With a 4-gigabyte CF memory card, the XT is capable of storing over 1000 images even in Large/Fine quality; navigating through an enormous number of shots is simplified by the XT's Jump function, allowing you to go forward or backward by 10 images, 100 images, or by date of image capture. Playback speed is good, taking about 1 second to display each JPEG image while displaying thumbnails of RAW images instantaneously; be careful that you don't depress the left/right buttons for too long - the XT will move through a series of RAW images before you know it.
Overall performance of the Digital Rebel XT is very robust, significantly improved from its predecessor. Startup time is almost instantaneous, able to capture an image within 1/2 second, as is waking he camera from its power-saving sleep mode. This is a capture-priority camera meaning that when you are in review mode all you need do is tap the shutter release to return to capture mode. Going from review to capture in this manner requires less than 1/2 second. Shutter lag from a pre-focused condition was less than 1/10 second, while lag including the time to autofocus on a high contrast subject measured 2/10 second. In Single shooting mode, the XT was able to capture over 30 Large/Fine images at 4/10 second intervals, then slowing to 6/10 intervals; its RAW performance slowed to 7 images at 4/10 intervals with subsequent images captured at about 1.2 second intervals. Flash recycle time was good, ranging between 1 and 3.5 seconds depending on subject distance.
Continuous capture revealed more of the XT's improved performance. Shooting Large/Fine images, the XT captured images at a rate of 3 frames per second (fps) for a depth of 12 to 28 shots (depending on the size of the compressed JPEG file), slowing to ~2 fps for subsequent shots; it took about 6 seconds to clear a buffer full of Large/Fine images. This performance was observed using a fast Lexar 4-gb 80x CF memory card. A fast CF card brings out the best in the XT; replacing the 80x card with an older 256-mb 12x yielded a depth of 10 to 15 shots at full capture rate, subsequent shots slowed to about 1 fps, and it took 15 seconds to clear the camera's buffer. But the XT's performance improvement is not limited to capture rate, depth and buffer clearing times. Its DIGIC II processor appears to be capable of multi-tasking, allowing you to access the camera's menu system WHILE it is writing to CF; the original Digital Rebel did not permit this, displaying "Busy" instead of the menu! The XT felt MUCH more responsive than the original Digital Rebel during side-by-side testing.
Performance slowed when shooting RAW; the XT captured images at 3 fps but only to a depth of 6 shots, with subsequent shots coming at an average 1.1 second interval; it took 6.5 seconds to flush a buffer full of RAW images. The XT slowed further capturing RAW + Large/Fine images, shooting at 3fps to a depth of only 4 shots, subsequent shots coming at an average 2 second interval, and taking nearly 10 seconds to flush a full buffer. These test results were observed shooting Program Auto and AWB using a Lexar 4-gb 80x CF card.
The XT provides a useful set of Custom Functions that can tailor its operation to meet your needs; the original Digital Rebel provided none. The XT allows you to customize the functions of the Set and Cross keys, activate Long Exposure noise reduction, set the flash sync speed to 1/200 second in aperture-priority mode, control AE and AF separately, enable the flash-based AF-assist beam, set exposure level increment to 1/2 or 1/3 EV, enable mirror lockup to reduce camera shake, use Evaluative or E-TTL II flash exposure metering, and use 1st or 2nd curtain flash sync. Although these amount to only half of the 18 Custom Functions available on the 20D, they are the most commonly used and will be of real benefit to Digital Rebel XT users.
If you are a sports shooter, you will appreciate the XT's direct control over its focus mode. The original Digital Rebel chose the camera's focus mode based on the shooting mode you selected; the XT allows you to select from One-Shot AF, AI Servo, a form of predictive continuous autofocus, and AI AF, which automatically switches between One-Shot and Servo when it detects subject motion. I found AI Servo effective at tracking most moving subjects, but it had some difficulty with fast-moving race cars; for that, pre-focusing manually was most effective for capturing sharp images. The speed of the XT's AF system is quite dependent on the focusing speed, aperture and quality of the attached lens; your results will vary based on your lens inventory.
Overall, the XT's AF system was very effective, producing consistently sharp results. It was also quite flexible, allowing not only a choice of AF modes, but the selection of AF points (7) as well. The XT's AF system performed well in dim lighting conditions, and effectively uses its pop-up flash as an AF illuminator when necessary. Although it is not quite as responsive and does not provide as many AF points as the 20D, the XT's AF system easily handles most shooting conditions. Its responsiveness, flexibility and accuracy also distinguish the XT from high-end prosumer digicams.
The XT offers you considerable control over its in-camera JPEG processing. You can specify and later recall 3 sets of custom parameters for sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone; the settings have 5 steps, ranging from -2 to +2. In addition, there are 2 sets of default parameters; in the Basic zone, Parameter 1 is used, increasing contrast, sharpness and color saturation settings to +1, while the Creative zone uses Parameter 2 by default, with all settings at the neutral 0 value. The XT inherits a new Black and White process from the 20D, which not only removes color from the saved image, but also offers a choice of yellow, orange, red or green filter effects that enhance the B/W image. It also offers color toning, with choices of Sepia, Blue, Purple or Green.
The XT's image quality is excellent, indistinguishable (except for size) from that of the 20D, and quite improved at high ISO settings over the original Digital rebel. Noise is absent from images shot at ISO 100 and ISO 200, barely detectable in shadow areas at ISO 400 and 800, and noticeable in shadow areas at ISO 1600, but still usable. The XT's high ISO image quality distinguishes it from both competing consumer dSLR's and high-end prosumer digicams. Long exposures are essentially noise-free, even without the use of the Long Exposure Noise Reduction Custom Function.
Image quality, of course, is highly dependent on the optical qualities of the
attached lens. Our testing used the original 18-55mm EF-S kit lens for most
samples, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens for sports samples. Canon did not provide
us with the new 18-55mm EF-S Mark II kit lens, so we are unable to offer an
opinion on it.
Just as the original Digital Rebel set a new price/performance standard for consumer dSLR's, the Digital Rebel XT has set a new value benchmark for this class of camera, and competes well with many prosumer dSLR's offered by its competitors. Offering 8-megapixels of resolution, responsive performance, flexible autofocus, accurate metering and excellent image quality at a $900 body-only price, Canon is sure to sell a lot of them. Canon continues to offer the original Digital Rebel at a body-only price of $700; it's a terrific value for those on a budget who don't need the XT's improvements. If you need more responsiveness and the ability to shoot at ISO 3200, consider the highly-rated Canon EOS 20D; at some $600 more, it will put a bigger dent in your wallet, but we consider it the best prosumer dSLR available at the time of this review (April 2005). Canon has thrown a blanket over the dSLR market, offering a quality product in every price/performance category.
The sub-$1,000 price category also includes a number of high-quality prosumer digicams worthy of your consideration. If it's features you crave, the family-friendly prosumer digicam like the Nikon Coolpix 8800 may be your answer; you'll not find a dSLR with the 8800's smooth VGA-sized 30fps movies, built-in macro capability, Best Shot Selector, or flexible vari-angle LCD viewfinder. But you'll favor dSLR's like the Rebel XT if you need the versatility of interchangeable lenses, dSLR shooting performance, a bright optical thru-the-lens viewfinder and superior image quality (especially at high ISO). Be sure to have a look at our sample images before you decide which camera best meets your needs.
18-55 EF-S II Lens Update
We've completed an evaluation of Canon's new 18-55mm EF-S II kit lens. Physically, it is nearly identical to the original, a slightly narrower zoom ring and the "II" designation being the only distinguishing features.
Internally, the 18-55 II lens has a DC Autofocus motor, not the USM of the original lens. The absence of a USM slowed autofocus a bit, but the less than 1/10 second difference won't be noticed by most users.
But while the AF was a bit slower, image sharpness is dramatically improved at the lens widest aperture at all focal lengths. At moderate apertures, both the old and new lenses were equally sharp, and at the smallest apertures equally soft. Please see our samples page where we've added side-by-side comparison shots taken under identical conditions at various apertures and focal lengths.
On balance, the new 18-55mm EF-S II is an improvement over its predecessor, and represents a good value for those moving up to the Digital Rebel XT from point-n-shoot digicams.
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