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Canon Powershot A590 IS
8.0MP | 35-140mm (4X) ZOOM | $130 US, £106 UK

The PowerShot A590 IS is the big brother to the A470 (and was announced at the same time). It is one of only two cameras in this group to offer a fairly comprehensive set of photographic controls (including Aperture and Shutter Priority modes) and its slightly bulkier, more traditional styling - complete with grip - shows it is clearly aimed at a more serious type of user wanting to take his or her photography beyond simple 'point and shoot' snapping.

The A590 IS is the latest in a long line of similar cameras that goes back to 2005 with the launch of the A610/A620. In the intervening years the screens have got bigger (but have lost their flip out and twist functionality) and the range has spread out a bit (there are now five similar A series models), but the price has dropped significantly, allowing the A590 IS to make it under our $150 threshold for this group. And for your $130 you get a pretty impressive feature set; 4x optically stabilized zoom lens, a wide range of controls and a smattering of Canon's latest headline technologies (face detection, motion detection, AF Point Zoom).

  • 8.0 effective Megapixels
  • 35-140mm equiv lens with 4x Optical zoom and up to 4x Digital Zoom
  • 2.5" LCD with 115,000 dots resolution
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • Movies: 640 x 480 pixels @ 20 fps
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600
  • Face Detection AF
  • 13 shooting modes, 7 scene modes including Easy Mode
  • Program, Shutter-Priority and Aperture-Priority Exposure Modes
  • 32MB internal memory
  • DIGIC III Image Processor
  • Available in Black and Grey
  • 5cm macro
  • Optional accessories available, including Selphy Photo Printer and converter lenses

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Overview

The A590 IS is a very conventional piece of design and none the worse for it. People won't fawn over it when you pull it from your pocket and it's unlikely to be a conversation piece. But, this does mean that it doesn't take too many risks - it fits very comfortably in the hand and can be held and operated very firmly (and a steady camera is the cornerstone of good photographs). It's also one of only two cameras in this test to have an optical viewfinder. This doesn't give a completely accurate impression of the final image but, in bright light when reflections can make the screen harder to see, some users do like to have them to fall back on - and they certainly help to reduce battery consumption.

Like the A470, the A590 IS has Canon's well-honed user interface that is without question one of the more intuitive systems in use at present. It's not a shooting experience that's likely to cause anyone a lot of excitement (there are no 'oh, that's clever' moments), but it's one that's been carefully thought-through so that the options you receive in each mode are commensurate with the complexity and level of automation of that mode.

Unlike most of the cameras in this group the A590 IS has a relatively full complement of photographic controls including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes, manual focus (and single or multi point autofocus), three metering modes (including Spot) and a range of color parameter controls. The 35-140mm zoom covers a useful range and can be extended using Canon's optional wide and tele converters.

Key Features

The A590 IS has a traditional, perhaps slightly dated, appearance. Smoothed corners are the only real concessions to styling but it's a perfectly sensible shape for a camera to be, offering a firm and comfortable way to hold it stable.
The A590 IS gains several buttons over its simpler brother, the A470, not least because zooming is now transferred to a zoom lever around the shutter button. It's all fairly conventional, easy-to-grasp stuff and there's plenty of external control meaning you won't spend all your time stuck in menus.
A large mode dial gives access to the camera's many different modes. There are five scene modes that can be directly accessed, with another seven found under the SCN setting. The manual modes are an unusual inclusion on a camera of this level, but they work well and can be ignored if you just want to take pictures.
A 4X, image stabilized zoom lens, starting at 35mm equivalent, is one of the better lenses included in this test (only two go wider), and gives the A590 IS a good degree of flexibility.
The A590 has a low resolution, 115,000 dot screen that puts it at a disadvantage compared to several other cameras in this test (which have 230,000 dot units). On the plus side you do get Canon's easy-to-understand user interface, with all the regularly changed settings grouped together in the FUNC menu.

Image quality and performance

We've tested many of Canon's A series compacts over the years, and have rarely been disappointed. The A590 IS is obviously built to a price (the low resolution screen, slightly plasticky body shell), but we'd hope Canon hasn't made too many compromises in the image quality department. Our findings were generally positive, but not entirely so.

The good news is that the colors are bright without being unnatural, the focus is very reliable and the sharpness / detail is consistently good across the zoom range. Like all the cameras here the output doesn't look that nice when viewed at 100% (pixel level) on-screen, with some smearing of low contrast detail (and subsequent over-sharpening) even at the lowest ISO setting, and noise creeping into the shadows as soon as you move above ISO 100. But for normal viewing sizes (prints up to 5x7 inches, for example), the output in the ISO 80-400 range is actually very good - amongst the best in this group.

One thing we did notice (which wasn't true of the A470) is that the A590 IS tends to occasionally produce slightly 'hot' results in full auto mode on bright days, with slight overexposure causing more highlight clipping than we'd like. The problem only seems to occur in very contrasty situations and is easily fixed at the point of shooting by adjusting the exposure, but it is an unwelcome blot on an otherwise impressive performance.

Performance wise the A590 IS is, like the A470, reasonably quick for a budget camera, though the use of AA batteries cripples the flash performance unless they're freshly charged (the flash can take up to 10 seconds to recharge in some situations). Focus is pretty fast at the wide end of the lens, even in low light, though it does slow down at the long end, especially in dim conditions - and the face detection was, in our experience, fast and accurate. As with the A470, playback is a little sluggish (scrolling from image to image is far from instantaneous), but overall - given what you get for the money - the A590 IS is a perfectly snappy performer that rarely feels like it's getting in the way of your photography.

The A590 IS performs better optically than the A470, with excellent edge to edge detail across the zoom range. As with all the cameras the results look a little soft and over-processed at 100% (pixel level) but at normal print sizes they're sharp and have nice, natural color. The tendency to occasionally slightly overexpose contrasty scenes can lead to clipping and you'll need to use exposure compensation to get the best results. High ISO performance, though not wonderful, is better than most here.

Summary

If you're looking for a simple point and shoot camera - or take a lot of pictures in the evening with flash - the A590 IS certainly wouldn't be high on our list of recommendations. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a camera with extensive photographic control that will allow you to learn about the craft of picture taking without breaking the bank, this is an absolute bargain (you can pick it up for under $130 if you shop around). There's not a huge variance in image quality at this level, and few compact cameras produce results that bear close scrutiny at anything above base ISO, but the A590 IS certainly outclasses most of the more consumer orientated slim point and shoot models in this group.

  • We like: Excellent range of manual controls, decent image quality, easy to use, stabilizer
  • We don't like: Slow flash recycling, choppy movie quality, occasional overexposure and highlight clipping on bright days
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