Pre-PMA 2008: We had a quick chance to get our hands on Canon's latest DSLR, the EOS 450D (Rebel XSi). It's a bigger step forward than the 400D was from the 350D, adding a host of useful improvements as well as the predictable feature tweaks. Based on our brief look at it, here's a rundown of the new features. UPDATED: Now includes battery grip information.

Canon EOS 450D brief 'Hands on'

The EOS 450D (Rebel XSi) is the latest incarnation of Canon's hugely popular entry-level digital SLR. Since the launch of the first truly affordable digital SLR (the EOS 300D) in late 2003 Canon hasn't tinkered too much with the basic concept, but each revision has seen a gradual 'beefing up' of the rather paltry feature set of the 300D (which was intentionally crippled to avoid cannibalizing sales of more expensive models).

After the slightly limp reception given to the 400D, which was seen by many as a rather uninspired upgrade, it's perhaps inevitable that its succesor is a much more significant - though still very conservative - step forward. Canon was never going to re-invent the wheel; the 400D and its predecessors have been best-sellers since the range was introduced, and contribute a significant amount to the company's botton line.

Thus the 450D is about refining features (and the list of improvements is impressive), improving image quality and speed of operation and, naturally of course, adding Live View (with contrast detect autofocus as an option).

We'll be publishing a fullly detailed preview (and of course a review) in due course, but for today here's a quick run-down of some of the new features and design changes.

Side-by-side: EOS 450D (Rebel XSi) and EOS 400D (Rebel XTi)

The 450D is a fractionally larger camera than the 400D, which gives it space for a larger screen. The flash bulge is also home to a larger viewfinder.

The larger screen at the back of the 450D is the most immediately obvious change but the differences run a lot deeper than that. Let's take a look at the key changes:

  • 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • SD/SDHC cards
  • Larger viewfinder
  • Live view mode, including contrast-detect AF
  • Improved 9-point AF system
  • Spot metering
  • 3.0" LCD monitor
  • Redesigned menus (including My Menu as seen in 40D)
  • Slightly redesigned info display
  • Continuous shooting at 3.5fps for up to 53 JPEG (6 RAW)
  • ISO setting displays in viewfinder and ISO button
  • New, larger, higher capacity battery
  • 14 bit A/D converter and processing
  • Multi-shot self-timer mode
  • Highlight Tone Priority (from 40D)
  • Auto Lighting Optimiser (boosts shadows after shooting)
  • Redesigned battery grip (BG-E5)

As well as the "bigger, faster, more!" changes that new models tend to bring (more pixel-dense sensor, larger screen, faster continuous shooting), there are a host of alterations that will appeal to photographers as well as the tech-heads and gadget lovers. The viewfinder is now nearly as big as the one that graced Canon's 30D (The 450D uses mirrors rather than a ground glass prism, but also costs around half the 30D's launch price). It also gains spot-metering - a first for one of Canon's baby DSLRs. Neither of these improvements will shift units by looking sexy on in-store displays but will make the photographic experience more pleasant for anyone willing to venture away from auto mode.

The 450D also adds this season's "must-have" feature - live view. We've had a play with an early sample of the 450D and the large screen shows a bright, clear preview image (though our sample seemed a bit laggy due to a relatively low frame rate). One useul option is the ability to switch from phase detect AF (with the usual mirror flipping wig-out every time you re-focus) to a more user-friendly, though slower contrast detect autofocus sytem (using the sensor). It works, though as we're playing with a beta camera we'll reserve judgement on the speed of operation. Unlike the Panasonic L10 the contrast detect AF system works with any Canon AF lens.

The other major change to the specification is the inclusion of a different kit lens (which we'd expect most people to buy). The standard 450D kit will include a redesigned, image stabilized version of Canon's 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens which will help it compete with the increasing number of competitors offering in-body anti-shake systems.

All-change on cards & power

450D is the first Canon DSLR to only accept the SD and SDHC cards popular on compact cameras. It also has a new larger capacity battery.

Existing Rebel owners thinking of upgrading are most likely to be affected by the change of memory format and battery type (the first new EOS battery in a long time). Of course, the price of memeory cards has dropped so much that changing formats it not the intimidating barrier it once was. They both offer advantages for the first-time DLSR buyers that will make up most of the market for this camera, particularly those with SD-compatible compacts. Meanwhile, Canon says production of the 400D (Rebel XTi) will continue so we'd expect to see the price drop to make way for its new sibling.

Many of the remaining differences between this model and its predecessor are little detailed things that users have been asking for: ISO displayed in the viewfinder, spot metering, an ISO button you can reach with the camera to your eye. There has also been some satisfaction in the office that it beeps, rather than shutting down, if you accidentally open the memory door. It'll be interesting to find out whether these tweaks, tricks and treats are enough for the EOS 450D to retain its position at - or near - the top of the entry-level DLSR tree; first impressions are certainly very positive.

Handling

Although you can't really see it when looking from above the EOS 450D's grip has been redesigned slightly, and it's a big improvement, though we'd still rather use the camera with the optional battery grip attached. The overall handling and ergonomics have been improved slightly, though again, this isn't a major redesign.

Battery grip

A new battery grip, the BG-E5, has also been launched alongside the 450D (Rebel XSi). It slots into the battery bay and can take 6 AA batteries or two of the 450D's new LP-E5 batteries. It provides a shutter button and control dial along with AE/FE Lock, exposure compensation and AF point selection buttons in a vertical orientation.