Canon Powershot SD990 IS Review

Canon Powershot SD990 IS

Steve's Conclusion

Canon's Powershot SD990 IS replaces the popular SD950 IS from last year, and now holds the "top of the line" spot in this ultra-compact "SD" series of Digital ELPH cameras. Many of the SD950's high-end features have been carried over to the SD990, which include the 3.7x (36 - 133mm equivalent) optical zoom lens, Canon's legendary optical image stabilization (IS), 9-point AiAF autofocus system, Face detection technology, sensitivity range from ISO 80-1600, USB 2.0 High-speed connectivity, optical viewfinder, and a 2.5-inch LCD. However, this new model has been upgraded with a 14.7-megapixel image sensor, Canon's new DIGIC 4 image processor, i-Contrast technology, and a new Quick Shot exposure mode.

While this model is aimed towards users who want a simple point-n-shoot, the SD990 does offer several advanced exposure options that are available when using the Program AE or Manual modes. Beginners will appreciate the full Auto exposure mode as well as the addition of 17 pre-programmed "SCeNe" modes that are designed for specific shooting situations one might encounter. There's also several "cool" My Colors options that will allow you to explore your creativity. For those who hate spending time post-processing images on their computer, the SD990 offers in-camera editing functions for Red-Eye correction, i-Contrast, Trimming (aka Cropping), Resizing, Rotating, and My Colors.

Like all of the Digital ELPH models, the SD990 is a very compact, measuring just 3.81 x 2.45 x 1.10 inches (96.7 x 62.2 x 27.9mm). This allows the camera to be trucked into your pants pocket or small purse without a problem. Despite the small size, the camera offers a nice comfortable feel in your hands, even if you have large hands like I do. The curves and contours of the body on the right hand side further add to the comfort level. Theses curves also make one-handed shooting a breeze. The controls are laid out well across the back and top of the camera. They are arranged to be just within reach of your right thumb and index finger. One new control that we enjoined using was the "Control dial" that is mounted around the 4-way controller. It allowed us to quickly search the menu, search through stored images, and control several exposure functions depending on the mode being used. Another "cool" feature was the ability to set the Print/Share button as a dedicated Movie mode shutter release in record mode. This means you can capture video without having to rotate the mode switch to the Movie mode position. This button can also be set to one of a number of different settings and functions (White balance, Display overlay, Custom white balance, Red eye correction, exposure compensation, etc.).

Canon decided to leave the LCD alone, therefore the SD990 offers the same 2.5-inch display as seen on several of its predecessors. With 230,000 pixels of resolution, this is a high-quality display, which we found worked quite well in various lighting conditions. While shooting outdoors, I did still find a few angles which reflected the sun, and the display is Very prone to collecting finger prints. In marginal lighting, like indoors under incandescent lighting, the LCD "gains up" to help brighten the live image to help you see your subject for framing. Canon has continued to offer an optical viewfinder on many of their models. While this viewfinder is small and does not display any exposure info, I feel this is still a useful tool. It can come in handy when following fast moving subjects, trying to save battery power, or when using the Quick Shot exposure mode.

The SD990 is quite the little performer, with power up until the first image captured measuring only 1.7 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 2/10 of a second including autofocus. In single frame drive mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.9 seconds without flash, and 3.6 seconds with flash depending on subject distance. The new Quick Shot mode makes you use the optical viewfinder to frame, which Canon claims will help you "capture moving subjects without missing a shot". While using it, I did not notice any change or increase in performance over using Program or Auto exposure modes. The shot to shot delay still averaged 1.9 seconds between frames, and the shutter lag and burst mode times were also the same.

Using the continuous (burst) mode, I was able to capture 20 images in 12.7 seconds, with no variations in speed from a full buffer. That's over 1.5fps, which surpasses Canon's claim of 1.2fps. You can also shoot in burst mode with the flash, which is not common on most models. When shooting in burst mode, the LCD briefly displays the last image captured, making it possible to follow moving subjects; we feel you'll achieve the best results by using the optical viewfinder in these situations. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Extreme III 1GB SD card, Program mode, Large SuperFine quality, preview on, flash off, ISO Auto and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, subject distance, media, etc.

The SD990's 14.7-megapixel imager combined with the all new DIGIC 4 processor, allow this pocket-rocket to capture great images both indoor and out. While shooting our outdoor sample photos, I found the camera captures beautiful colors as well as good overall exposure. Images are also sharp, however I did notice a bit of edge softness on the left hand side of the frame in most of our sample photos. The 3.7x optical zoom lens will give you a bit more framing capabilities over they typical 3x zoom. Covering a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 36-133mm, this lens offers sufficient field of view for nice landscape shots as well as close up portraits. The telephoto end will help you bring a subject closer, however it lacks the power to zoom tight on distant subjects. There is also a 4x digital zoom option, but we urge you to use this sparingly, as image quality suffers.

Indoors, the SD990 is able to capture pleasing people or portrait style photos. The Face detection system works very quickly to find and lock onto faces in the frame. This system is so aggressive, that I found at times it would start targeting round objects (like the wheel in our canon shot) when I was shooting a landscape style subject. The built-in flash does well when shooting from less than 10 feet away, in fact, I achieved the best results when shooting from about 6 feet away using the mid telephoto end of the zoom. I also found that the IS (Image Stabilization) system on the SD990 was very effective. It allowed me to capture a nice handheld indoor couple portrait, without firing the flash. The camera was also able to keep the ISO speed down to a usable settings (200 for that picture).

Speaking of image noise, the SD990 produced nice results for a consumer model. The tiny image sensor that is stuffed with so many pixels was a concern for me at first. However, it seems Canon's new DIGIC 4 processor handles image noise well. The lower ISO 200 and below settings look great, with only slight amounts of noise visible when viewing an image at 100%. ISO 400 does show plenty of speckling at 100%, but when viewing at full screen (20-25% depending on your monitor and resolution settings), these images still look great. Both ISO 800 and 1600 start showing some detail loss from heavy noise reduction (aka NR), however I still feel that both of these settings can produce usable prints; especially the typical 4x6-inch that most consumer create.

I am a little disappointed that Canon has not included any kind of HD or wide format movie mode on many of their new consumer models. Instead, the SD990 offers several standard Movie mode options, with two resolution settings, 640x480 or 320x240, at a fixed frame rate of 30fps. For those who are more creative, there's also the Color Accent and Color swap modes. The length of a video clip is limited to the amount of space left on your memory card, up to 4GB (60 minutes). Our movie mode quality results were very pleasing, as the camera captures smooth video with accurate exposure and colors. It even did well indoors while shooting some short clips at a wedding reception. However, the position of the mic on the front of the camera concerns me a bit, as it will be prone to picking up the slightest breeze.

Canon has also continued the use of the tiny, but powerful, NB-5L 3.7v 1120mAh proprietary Li-ion battery pack to power the SD990. Canon claims you can capture up to 280 shots with full-time use of the LCD, and 700 shots with the LCD off. We captured about 100 sample images, several short movie clips and completed all of our other tests with plenty of battery power to spare; in fact, the battery level indicator still shows the battery as full. Also included with the camera is a very compact and portable AC charger (CB-2LX), that charges a fully depleted pack in about 2 hours. The charger plugs directly into any 100-240V AC outlet and has fold-away prongs, which are very convenient when traveling.

Bottom Line - Canon's PowerShot SD990 IS Digital ELPH is a great ultra-compact model that is stuffed with high-end features. For those of you who want the latest and greatest of technologies, all packed tightly in a small body that can be tossed into your pocket, the SD990 might just be the ticket. With robust performance, above average image quality, and loads of exposure modes, this camera is sure to be popular with everyone in your household or office. With a street price of US$379 or less, this model is at the higher end of the ultra-compact category. However, with the technologies, functions, and performance this little digicam boasts, we still feel the SD990 IS offers great "bang for your buck". One accessory we strongly suggest is at least a 2GB or larger SD/SDHC memory card, considering that the file sizes of these 14.7-megapixel images is between 5.5-8MB each.

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Sample Pictures

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