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Canon Powershot SX20 IS
12.1MP | 28-560mm (20X) ZOOM | $350/£300

The Canon Powershot SX20 IS is the successor to the SX10 IS but constitutes only a fairly minor upgrade. It is essentially the same camera with a slightly increased megapixel count (12.1 vs 10 MP) and a new 720p HD video mode. Lens, screen and most other items on the spec sheet remain unchanged. As such, the camera is the latest incarnation of Canon's popular series of superzoom cameras that can trace its ancestry right back to the PowerShot S1 IS of 2004. Like its predecessor the SX20 IS uses CCD technology to capture its images, but while the SX10 had a CMOS counterpart in the shape of the SX-1, in this latest generation of superzooms Canon does not (yet) offer a CMOS variant.

  • 12.1 effective Megapixels
  • 28-560mm equiv lens with 20x optical zoom and 4x digital zoom
  • 2.5 inch tilt/swivel-LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • Electronic Viewfinder with 100% field of view
  • 720p HD video recording
  • HDMI-output
  • Stereo microphone
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600 (ISO 3200 available as a scene mode)
  • Hot shoe for external flashguns
  • 12 shooting modes, 11 Scene Modes
  • Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Mode
  • DIGIC IV Processor for enhanced Face Detection and Intelligent Contrast Correction
  • Smart Auto mode with Scene Detection Technology
  • Optional accessories available, including Selphy Photo Printer
  • Battery life: Alkaline 340 shots, NiMH 600 shots

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Overview

After the Fuji HS10 the SX20 is the next largest and heaviest camera in this test. In terms of weight, dimensions and handling it is much closer to an entry-level DSLR than most of its direct competitors. It offers a great many external controls and some elements of the control layout bear a resemblance to Canon's entry-level Rebel DSLRs. There's also a separate card compartment, in contrast to most rivals' combined card/battery compartments. We've become grateful for this during the studio testing portion of this review since it means you can swap out memory cards with the camera mounted on a tripod.

On the negative side, there is no thumb control dial and the rear dial has to handled with care as it is possible to unintentionally press one of the four-way controller's buttons (usually the macro button in our experience) while turning the dial. Its weight gives the camera a solid feel, but the lack of any rubberized surfaces and the quality of the body plastic makes it appear a little cheap.

Overall the SX20 behaves, despite of its comparatively extensive feature set, pretty much like every other Canon compact currently on the market. Essential functions that don't have their own dedicated button can be accessed via the 'Func' menu and more fundamental parameters are located in the main menu. A custom mode (located on the mode dial), shortcut button and the MyMenu allow for fairly comprehensive tailoring of the user interface. We also liked the custom display function - not only can you configure how much information you want to appear on the two screen settings but you can also define different settings for the LCD screen and the electronic viewfinder, to suit your tastes.

Like most cameras in this group the SX20 records 720p HD video. There's a dedicated video button and stills can be shot during video recording (there is a noticeable 'gap' in the video footage though). The SX20 also records stereo sound, and offers control over the recording volume and a wind filter.

The SX20 is one of three cameras in this group that features a screen which hinges and/or rotates to offer a greater variety of shooting positions. This is particularly useful when filming video as the camera can be held at waist level. The 230k dot screen resolution is pretty much standard for this class of camera though. While most electronic viewfinders in this group test are of very similar size and specification the Canon's is significantly larger than the competition's and offers a genuine alternative to the rear LCD. The dimensions and weight of the SX20 mean that it isn't much more portable than a small DSLR but of course its 20x zoom lens offers much more flexibility than any SLR lens.

Key Features

Size- and weight-wise the SX20 IS is pretty close to an entry-level SLR. Consequently it comes with an SLR-like grip that ensures safe handling. Unsurprisingly the 20x lens extends quite a bit at full zoom but less so than some of the competitors in this test.
Like its predecessor the SX20 IS offers a fold-out tilt/swivel screen. The electronic viewfinder is also still a real 'standout' feature. It is considerably larger than any of the others and is a real alternative to using the screen. In comparison all the other cameras in this group have viewfinders that look like peering through a long tunnel.
There's only a small number of controls on the camera's top. The power button is joined by the mode dial and the shutter button/zoom rocker combination.
The dedicated movie button allows you to record movies without having to turn a mode dial first. Exposure compensation, play and metering mode buttons are located on the camera shoulder. There's also the ubiquitous four-way controller surrounded by a scroll wheel. Between this controller and the other external buttons, a great many common shooting settings are directly available without using the menus.
The SX20 is a large camera compared to its peers and, with the lens at wide angle settings, is not far off an entry-level DSLR with kit lens.
The design of the function menu has been slightly revamped but still offers the same settings. There is a white balance option but, because other important features such as exposure compensation have their own buttons, it is also home to slightly less everyday settings such as flash exposure compensation. Appropriately for a camera with a direct video record button, video size/quality is also included in the menu.
In line with ever more sophisticated video modes some latest generation models also offer better control over the sound recording. The SX20 IS allows you to set the recording level of its stereo sound and provides a wind filter function.

Image quality and performance

The Canon SX20 IS is overall one of the most responsive cameras in this test. Although Canon's Digic 4 processor has been around for a while it is still doing a decent job. The shutter lag is hardly noticeable and shot-to-shot times are, at just over two seconds, amongst the better ones in this group. If you are using the built-in flash they can increase to more than three seconds though, and flash recycling times can increase even further as the camera's AA batteries get weaker. The SX20 is the fastest camera to get ready after you press the power button; it only takes 1.3 seconds before you can take your first image. The zoom operates very quickly when you operate the zoom lever (1.3 seconds from wide-angle to full tele) and image browsing and magnification in review mode are well within acceptable limits as well.

The AF works generally very well. At approximately 0.4 sec it does well at wide angle and slows down a little at the tele-end of the zoom (0.6 sec) but surprisingly the performance suffers only very slightly in dim conditions. In our low light test the focus slowed down to 0.6 sec at wide-angle but maintained its speed at the long end, even in our dimly tungsten-lit test scene.

In terms of image quality the Canon SX20 IS is one of the best cameras in this group test and delivers good sharpness across the frame at all zoom settings. Color is natural and metering and focus usually spot on which means you can simply point and shoot and don't need to worry about interfering manually with any of the settings.

The only real point of criticism is the pretty strong chromatic aberration which results in colored fringes on high-contrast edges in many of the shots we took with the SX20IS. At some focal lengths the fringing is strong enough to be visible even in smaller prints although you'd probably only notice if you were looking very closely. Low contrast detail can become a bit smeared, even at the lowest ISO setting. However, on the plus side the Canon images are comparatively clean with relatively little grain. There's also some noise in the shadows but this is not worse than on any of the competitors. In any case you'll only discover most of this in a 100% view on your computer screen.

Flash exposures are generally good with efficient redeye reduction but in Auto mode the camera tends to default to comparatively high ISO settings. In our flash test shot the SX20IS used ISO 640 while most of the competitors stick with ISO 400 or even lower. In low light the Canon is amongst the best cameras in this group test. It applies quite a lot of noise reduction but also retains a relatively good level of detail. The end results are generally cleaner than those of most rivals.

The SX20's video quality is very decent as well. The footage is smooth, with very few compression artifacts and no exposure jumps or the like. On the downside the Canon's HD mode creates fairly large file sizes, so get a couple of large SD cards if you plan on shooting a lot of HD video.

The SX20 IS performs equally well as its predecessor, the SX10 IS, and gets all the important stuff (exposure, focus, white balance, color, sharpness and so on) right in a very reliable fashion. If you look at the SX20 output at 100% magnification you can see noise reduction smearing and shadow noise even at base ISO (see left image), but the results of the Canon JPEG processing look more pleasant than most of the competitors in this group test with good detail and sharpness. The only real point of criticism is that the SX20 still struggles with quite large amounts of fringing (CA) at a time when most rivals have got this much better under control.

Overall, despite the minor niggles described above, we quite liked the Canon's image output which is (together with the Panasonic FZ35) right at the top in this group test.

Summary

The PowerShot SX20 IS represents a fairly minor update to its predecessor. The SX10's successful formula of SLR-like styling, extensive manual controls and a solid build quality has largely remained the same and only been refined with a slightly increased sensor resolution and a 720p HD video mode.

Image quality doesn't vary a great deal within this group but the SX20 IS is without doubt one of the best across the ISO range. Its metering is excellent and the output features natural colors and very good sharpness across the frame. The Canon is also the quickest to be ready when turned on and generally one of the most responsive cameras in this group test.

Specification-wise superzoom cameras have moved on quite a bit over the last year or so and while in our last group test the SX10's 20x lens offered the largest zoom range, this time round it's close to the bottom end with many rivals offering both longer and wider zooms. Equally the SX20 doesn't offer any of the high speed features that its CMOS-equipped rivals can provide. Its video mode produces good quality footage and gives you some control over sound recording but cannot record 1080p or super slow motion video.

Overall the SX20 IS is a very solid performer and deserves to be on your short list. Just make sure its dimensions and weight are right for you (it's noticeably bigger and heavier than most in the group) and that you're sure you can live without the extreme zoom ranges and high-speed capturing features that some of the competitors offer.

  • We like: Responsive operation, best viewfinder in the test, articulated screen, good image quality across the ISO range, very reliable metering, focus, flash and white balance, effective image stabilization, flash hot shoe, separate SD compartment, good external controls, good video quality with sound control

  • We don't like: Chromatic aberration (fringing), lens quite slow at long end (F5.7), no RAW mode, relatively short zoom range
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Photographers who like to use the viewfinder and set their shooting parameters manually
Not so good for
Maximum zoom range applications such as shooting birds in the sky
Overall score
73%
The SX20 IS a solid performer that combines SLR-like styling, extensive manual controls and a good HD video mode. If you don't find it too large and can live with the, compared to some rivals, slightly shorter zoom you cannot go wrong with the Canon.
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