Canon Powershot S400 Review

Steve's Digicams

Canon Powershot S400

Steve's Conclusion

For 2003 Canon took their ultra-compact PowerShot S230 and gave it numerous upgrades such as a more powerful 3x optical zoom lens. The S400 sports a new, matte finish Cerabrite front that's scratch resistant and tough. Another exterior change is the addition of a Mode Dial to quickly select the desired record mode. All of the Digital ELPH cameras are small (about the size of a deck of cards), built like tanks and perfect for today's active lifestyle users. Many of the ultra-compact cameras have impossibly tiny buttons or 4-way controllers that are difficult to operate. The Digital ELPHs have always maintained a good balance between small size and excellent user ergonomics and the S400 continues this tradition.

The majority of the S400's improvements are internal. It sports a new high-resolution four megapixel imager that yields still images up to 2272 x 1704 pixels. That's more than enough resolution to create 13 x 19 inch prints on a photo inkjet printer like the Canon S9000. A high-resolution camera has to process a lot of image data and process it quickly so Canon developed a highly integrated DIGIC processor. It not only processes image data quickly it also controls just about every other operation of the digital camera as well. Integrating all of these functions into one processor makes it fast, accurate and also extends the battery life. With this robust processor comes robust auto focus, white balance and exposure systems. It also allows the S400 to record full motion video in QVGA resolution up to 3 minutes in length with sound. Not the equal of a video camcorder but three minutes is considerably longer than the 30-second movies created by most other digicams.

The S400 is ready to go in under 3 seconds from pressing the Power button. This is pretty amazing considering that it must extend the lens and boot itself up. It's even a faster when powered down and once the lens is retracted into the body it is protected by an automatic cover so there's no lens cap to lose. In the Large/Fine image size the performance is impressive with a shot to shot time of just under four seconds in single frame mode. The timing is the same even when using the flash. Switching from record to playback brings up the image in about two seconds and it's about two seconds when going from image to image. The total shutter lag (time from pressing shutter to actually capturing) varies from less than a second to about a second, this is a little better than average.

The camera's auto focus system is as robust as its image processing and is enhanced by a focus assist lamp that insures proper focus lock even in total darkness. The auto focus employs a very accurate 9-point AF system that does its job quickly, even when the subject is not in the center of the frame. If the LCD is on you'll see which of the nine AF points were used for the focus lock. The Macro mode has excellent coverage from six inches to about two and a half feet and controls the flash perfectly even at the closest range.

The S400 features a high-resolution 1.5" color LCD with a non-reflective coating that makes it quite visible in bright light as well as resistant to nose smears. The image color and contrast on this LCD is most impressive, when reviewing pictures there's no doubt that you recorded what you wanted. The back light for the LCD is supplied by energy-efficient white LEDs. Small cameras require small batteries. The S400 is powered by a very good rechargeable lithium pack that's good for almost 200 shots when using the color LCD. With the LCD off it's easy to more than double that number. The new DIGIC processor has improved the overall battery life considerably. We still recommend the purchase of a second battery pack because the camera cannot be powered by any other type of battery. Canon includes a very compact and portable AC charger for the battery that takes a little over two hours to charge a fully depleted pack. The charger plugs directly into an 100-240V AC outlet and has fold-away prongs.

Images are stored on CompactFlash Type I cards, Canon includes an 32MB card which is OK for a starter card but you'll want to get a larger one. I'd suggest at least a 256MB size card which isn't too expensive nowadays and can be had for around $100. The USB port lets you easily transfer pictures and movies to your computer and with today's modern operating systems like Windows XP or Me all you do is plug it in. There are drivers included for older OS like Windows 98 SE and pre-OS 9 Macs. Canon includes the handy Remote Capture software that lets you operate the camera while tethered to the computer. Also included is a full suite of software that includes printing and panorama stitching applications as well.

Overall the image quality is excellent and there are a number of Photo Effects that can be applied such as Vivid color, Neutral, Low Sharpening, Sepia and B&W. If you like shooting night pictures then you'll appreciate the "Long Shutter" option that gives you access to 1 to 15 second shutter speeds. To insure the best possible image, Noise Reduction is automatically applied when the shutter speed is 1.3 second or longer. The ISO sensitivity is adjustable for 50, 100, 200, 400 or Auto. In addition to an excellent automatic white balance there are presets for sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, fluorescent H (daylight temperature) and a one-push custom setting for use with a white or grey card. The 3x zoom lens exhibits moderate barrel distortion in full wide angle and a little pincushioning at full telephoto but no more than most zoom lenses and better than some. The zoom mechanism is smooth and fairly quiet and the control is conveniently located around the shutter button. The optical viewfinder although a bit small has a good eyepoint and covers about 90% of the captured image, it lacks any dioptric adjustment.

For anyone who wants or needs a very portable and extremely durable camera it's hard to beat the Canon Digital ELPHs. Canon was the first to make these small but fully functional digicams and continues to make the best even better. On vacation the S400 makes an excellent "tourist" camera, toss it in your luggage without worrying about it getting damaged. If your vacation is at the seaside or in the tropics you might want to consider purchasing the underwater case that's rated for 130 feet depths. And in day to day use the S400 fits easily into the smallest pocket which means it's always ready to capture that special moment.

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