Canon Powershot SD960 IS Review
By Mike Flacy
One of several new Digital ELPH models Canon has released for 2009, the PowerShot SD960 IS is an ultra-compact camera that is loaded with powerful options, packed tightly into a diminutive shell. These options included 12-megapixels of resolution, a 4x wide view optical zoom lens, ture optical image stabilization system, clear and bright 2.8-inch PureColor II LCD screen, 9-point AF system with Face Detection, i-Contrast technology, and a 720p (1280x720) HD video recording mode.
Like all of Canon's Digital ELPHs, the SD960 is a simple-to-use camera that has been designed with all users in mind. This allows anyone, regardless of past photo or Digital photo experience, to confidently pick this camera up and start taking great snap shots. Some of the new updates on this camera over past models include an all new menu system, as well as a few changes to the exposure modes and quality settings. You can still choose fully-automatic operation with Auto and there are still plenty of pre-programmed Scene modes(18 in total). The more advanced 'Camera M' or Manual mode however, has been replaced with a Program mode. The functionality of this mode remains the same, only the label has changed. Lastly, the image quality or compression settings have also changed from SuperFine, Fine and Normal, to just Fine and Normal.
While the SD960's shell is only partially metal, it still offers a well built feel that should have no problems standing up to the active user's lifestyle. While not quite as compact as the SD780 IS, the SD960 is smaller than a deck of playing cards or about the same size as a small flip phone. Even with my large hands, the camera was easy to operate and comfortably hold. The controls are very simple, all are within easy reach of your fingertips. The 2.8-inch LCD performed well in various lighting conditions, gaining up well in dim sources. Canon's new menu system was very easy to use. Almost all of the camera functions are arranged as they are on past models, just the graphical interface has changed. The only thing I did not like about it was the operation of the new function short cut menu. For me, it seemed as if there was an added step in the process of making a change to an option; I much prefer the old menu design.
Our shooting performance results were very good. The SD960 was able to capture the first image in just 1.5 seconds from pressing the power button! Shutter delay, the amount of time between you pressing the shutter release and the time the camera captures the image, was almost instantaneous when the prefocused and just 1-2/10 of a second including autofocus. When shooting in single drive mode, the shot to shot delay was under 2 seconds between shots without the flash and about 3.5 seconds with the flash. This was with the review function off, turning it on added about 3/10 of a second to these times. The camera also has a continuous shooting mode that was able to capture 10 images in 10.0 seconds, about 1fps (surpassing Canon's 0.8fps claim). This mode also works with the flash, capturing 10 shots in 15.9 seconds. When using the continuous capture mode, the camera quickly displays the last image captured, making it somewhat possible to following a moving subject with the LCD as the viewfinder. All of our tests were completed using an ATP Pro Max (Class 6) 4GB SDHC memory card, Program mode, flash off, image review off, ISO auto and all other settings at the factory defaults, unless otherwise noted. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The SD960 shares the same exact 12-megapixel image sensor that's found in the SD780 we reviewed earlier this year. Therefore, our image quality findings were very similar. When shooting outdoors, the SD960 consistently captures well exposed images that are nice and sharp, and display beautiful colors. Colors are actually quite realistic, which means the images you capture will look as they did from your own eyes. The 4x optical zoom not only offers a nice wide viewing angle of 28mm, but also adds a bit more versatility when composing your shots compared to a standard 3x lens. While you won't be zooming in tight on far off objects, the equivalent focal range of 28 - 112mm is sufficient for day-to-day snap shots. Like almost all of Canon's PowerShot models, the SD960 also offers their true 'Lens-Shift' optical image stabilization system, which will help you capture better quality photos, especially when shooting in marginal (low) lighting. It will also help you record better hand-held movies. I found that this lens helps the camera produce sharp image throughout the zoom range, with little to no edge softness present. It does show some moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle, however this is typical on consumer models. Imager noise was present throughout the ISO ranges, becoming more noticeable as the sensitivity is increased. While you can detect traces in open blue skies and dark shadow areas at even the lowest ISO 80 setting, it's Highly unlikely that you will see this unless you're critically inspecting an image at 100% on a computer screen; there's very little chance you will see anything in your small to mid-sized (8x10-inch or larger) prints.
While shooting indoors, the camera was able to capture some great snap shots. The flash (like the camera) is tiny, so don't expect it to light up mid to large sized rooms. I found the flash did well when shooting no more than 5-6 feet away, using the mid telephoto end of the zoom for framing tight to subject. The Auto ISO setting did very well indoors, keeping the sensitivity as low as possible. This helps you produce images with less noise. The Face Detect autofocus setting did a terrific job of finding and locking onto faces within the frame, whether an adult or child. I felt that the camera controlled red-eye rather well, as I saw very few instances in our people photos. Instead of a pre-flash, which can cause you to miss a photo with small children, the camera will keep the AF-assist beam illuminated to help your subject's eyes adjust.
The SD960 offers a very appealing movie mode function that allows you to record video at HD (1280x720) or SD (640x480 or 320x240) resolution with a fixed frame rate of 30fps. While not comparable to a digital camcorder, the SD960's video mode works very well for quick movies, and the quality is quite good too. As long as there is plenty of ambient light, your movie clips will show virtually no compression noise, and playback is nice and smooth thanks to the real-time 30fps frame rate. When shooting in dimmer lighting, video can get a bit grainy, but this is to be expected. The only issues I had with this camera while testing the movie function was that the microphone picks up even the slightest breeze, and the exposure system had a few troubles. When shooing inside a dim lit bran, I noticed that where ever you could see bright light from an open door or window, the camera would display some strong vertical banding. This pretty much ruins the video all together. You can see an example by looking at out Indoor banding example. Like past models, the SD960 still offers some 'cool' modes (Color Swap and Color Accent) for those who like to be a bit more creative with their movies.
The SD960 uses Canon's proprietary NB-4L 3.7v 760mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery pack for power. This is a relatively small battery that offers a claimed battery life of about 200 frames. We were able to capture about 120 still images, 30+ short movie clips and conclude our other tests on a single charge. For a tiny camera, this is pretty good battery life, and you should be fine with the included pack for those who carry the camera with them for spontaneous snap shots. However, if you are planning an extended vacation, I recommend you purchase a second pack to keep charged and ready; there's nothing more aggravating than missing a once in a lifetime opt due to a dead battery. The pack is charged out of the camera in a compact and portable AC charger that features fold-away prongs, allowing you to quickly charge a battery anywhere that has an open power outlet.
Bottom Line - we've been big fans of Canon's Digital ELPH line ever since we reviewed the S100 back in 2000. The SD960 continues on in its predecessor footsteps, offering the latest and greatest of Canon's legendary technologies, powerful features, speedy performance, excellent image quality, and loads of exposure options, all packed in a 'Go Anywhere' frame. With a street price of US$329 or less, the PowerShot SD960 IS may be a bit more expensive than a couple of its competitors, however with the quality and features you are receiving we fell its well worth the extra cost.
Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.