Canon Powershot SD900 IS Review
Building on the success of the SD550 from last year, Canon has introduced their new PowerShot SD900 to hold the "top of the line" spot in the Digital ELPH line. Many features have not changed, like the 3x optical zoom lens, 2.5-inch LCD, and 9-point AF system. The SD900 includes a new 10-megapixel sensor, increased ISO capabilities (up to ISO 1600), as well as a new XGA (1024x768, 15fps) movie mode. Designed with beginners in mind, it offers a multitude of fully automatic exposure modes to help you capture great photos in a variety of shooting environments. There's also Manual mode, which is really an auto exposure mode that allows you to control settings like Exposure compensation, ISO, White Balance, Metering, etc.
Ergonomics are good. This is a very compact model, about the size of a deck of playing cards, that can be tucked away in any pocket, yet still fits comfortably in your hands. The controls layout hasn't changed much, with only the DISPlay button being moved. I found they were in a comfortable position, just within reach of your fingertips. While we love to see the Zoom controls mounted around the shutter, I was a little disappointed with the control on this model. Due to the more round profile of this camera, and the fact that the "nub" on the control switch is so small, made it uncomfortable at times. I have larger hands than most, so this may not effect everyone.
While the SD900's LCD is the same size (2.5-inch) as the SD550's, I did notice that this display offers more resolution (207K pixels compared to 115K.) I was also happy to see Canon did not get rid of the optical viewfinder. While only covering about 80-85% of the captured frame, it's very useful when trying to conserve battery life as well as when following fast moving subjects in Burst mode. The LCD was very useable outdoors in bright sunlight, with only a few angles which reflect the sun. When shooting in marginal lighting conditions (indoors, at night, etc.), the display "gains up" well, which helps aid in framing. The onscreen menu system is very easy to navigate, and because of the size of the LCD, the text is easy to read. The "Touch Icon" heads-up display was also very useful, allowing you to visually see the quick settings you can change just by pressing the 4-way controller up, down, left or right. It pops up whenever you touch the 4-way controller; you can also turn this feature off via the menu system.
Shooting performance was impressive. Power up until the first image captured measured about 1.4 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous (less than 1/10 of a second) when pre-focused, and only 3/10 second including autofocus. In single frame drive mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.4 seconds without flash, and between 2.6 and 4 seconds with flash depending on battery life. Using the continuous (burst) mode, I was able to capture 10 Large/SuperFine JPEG images in just 4.0 seconds, surpassing Canon's claim of 2fps. When shooting in burst mode, the LCD only briefly displays the last image captured, making it difficult to follow moving subjects; this is where the optical viewfinder comes in to play. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Extreme III 1GB SD card, Manual mode, Large SuperFine quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The overall image quality of our 10-megapixel SuperFine images is awesome for a consumer model. Outdoors, it captures images that are sharp, show good exposure and pleasing color balance. Noise levels are low from ISO 80 - 800, becoming much more predominant at ISO 1600. There's also a dedicated scene mode called ISO3200. This will allow you to capture blur free images in lower lighting conditions where you would typically use the flash. When using this mode, the image size is dropped to M3 (1600x1200 or 2-megapixels), which explains why there is less noise than manually setting the ISO to 1600. You can see what I mean by taking a look at our examples on the samples page. This is a very useful tool in the battle against blur caused by camera-shake, especially since the SD900 does not feature any type of IS (Image Stabilization.)
Out indoor results were also pleasing. The built-in flash unit covers an above average range of approx. 17 feet (at wide angle and using ISO Auto), which is sufficient for individual and groups shots in small to medium sized rooms. If you need even more power, check out the HF-DC1 external flash unit. It can deliver proper illumination up to approx. 30 feet, at all zoom positions! When shooting within the limits of the flash, it produces nice portraits with natural skin tones and good exposure. Like we have seen with many of the past Digital ELPHS, the Red eye reduction mode is not as effective as your typical consumer model with a dedicated red-eye reduction flash mode. There's no delay when using red eye reduction, as the SD900 uses the bright orange LED of the AF-assist lamp rather than a pre-flash to cause the subject's pupils to close-down. However, this is easily fixed by spending only a few minutes in an image editor.
The SD900 features a high-quality movie mode, allowing you to choose from several resolution choices. Standard has options for 640x480 or 320x240 and a frame rate or 30fps or 15fps. You can also choose from Compact (160x120, 15fps), High Resolution (1024x768, 15fps), Color Accent and Color swap. Our movie samples were good, with very little compression noise present. When recording, it consumes about 2MB per second of card space, so be sure you get a large (1 - 2GB) SD card if you plan on doing a lot of video.
Power is supplied by a tiny NB-5L 3.7v 1120mAh proprietary Li-ion battery pack. Canon claims you can capture up to 230 shots with full-time use of the LCD. I was able to capture about 100 images and conduct other testing without any indication of low battery warning. Canon includes a very compact and portable AC charger that takes about 90 minutes to charge a fully depleted pack. The charger plugs directly into any 100-240V AC outlet and has fold-away prongs, which makes out to be very convenient for storing away.
Bottom line - Canon's PowerShot SD900 is a welcomed addition to the very popular Digital ELPH line. With robust performance, awesome image quality, loads of user-friendly exposure modes, and a durable Titanium outer shell, the SD900 is sure to stand the test of time and be a very popular model this holiday season. And, with 10-megapixels of resolution, the printing possibilities are almost endless. At an MSRP of US$499, we feel it offers a great value for a 10-megapixel model in the "ultra-compact" digicam class.
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