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Canon Powershot SD790 IS (IXUS 90 IS)
10.0MP | 35-105mm (3X) ZOOM | $230

The SD790 IS (or Ixus 90 IS in Europe) is the latest in a range that dates back to 2000 and helped popularize the small, stylized metal-bodied compact digital camera. The SD790 IS harks back to those early designs with its squared-off styling, in a range that has become increasingly smoothed off and rounded in recent years. Introduced in March '08, this camera sits towards the middle of the Ixus/SD range, with the less expensive, smaller-screened SD770/Ixus 85 below it for those buyers who prefer to have some kind of optical viewfinder, and the better specced (higher pixel count/wider lenses) 8X0 and 9X0 SD/Ixuses above it. As the name suggests, the SD790 IS offers image stabilization - a feature that generally improves the number of usable photos you get from any camera.

Canon doesn't really 'do' very slim cameras, and rarely makes decisions based purely on styling considerations, so the SD790 IS doesn't use folded optics and isn't quite as slender as the lithest models in this group. However it is, by a whisker, currently the slimmest PowerShot Elph/Ixus.

  • 10.0 effective Megapixels
  • 35-105mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 4x Digital Zoom
  • 3.0-inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600
  • VGA movies at up to 30fps
  • Face Detection AF and Motion Detection
  • 8 shooting modes 12 scene modes including Scene Auto Selector
  • 20MB internal memory
  • DIGIC III Image Processor
  • Available in Silver
  • Print/Share button
  • Optional accessories available, including Selphy Photo Printer

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Overview

The SD790 IS is one of the least slim cameras in this group and its squared-off styling makes it seem bigger than it actually is. It's exactly this angular design that helps the 790 stand out, though, and it's really no bigger than half the cameras here. The whole case is brushed metal, giving a real quality feel which is continued by the large 3.0" 230,000 dot screen. The seamless Star Wars style flexible-metal buttons (which are stamped out of the rear casing) are an acquired taste . We're not completely convinced that their angular design is consistent with the dial in the middle, but they're big and responsive enough that the our only doubts are aesthetic, rather than functional.

The user interface will be instantly familiar to anyone who's previously owned a Canon and that's no bad thing, since we feel the company generally does a good job of putting the most commonly changed features on the easy-to-access Func menu. As usual, it's been an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary progression, so it'll feel instantly familiar to anyone who's used a Canon compact before.

Key Features

Despite its solid, angular presence, the SD790 IS isn't significantly larger than any of the cameras on test here (in fact it's very similarly sized to most). It'll fit in the hand, handbag or pocket with ease.
In a style familiar from popular mobile phones (and the Galactic Empire's TIE Fighter?), the SD790 IS uses interesting angular flexible metal buttons for several of its functions. We were skeptical about these at first but having operated them while wearing thin gloves, this initial concern dissipated. The 3.0-inch screen is bright and sharp.
An image-stabilizing lens is a very valuable feature to have (this is one of only four cameras in this roundup to offer IS), but it doesn't compensate for the rather pedestrian range of the lens on the SD790. The 35-105mm (equiv.) lens doesn't offer any true wide-angle capability and lacks the shooting versatility of cameras offering a longer telephoto too. That said the majority of cameras in this class offer very similar ranges.
The SD790 IS uses a variant of the interface that appears across the whole of Canon's range, from cheapest compact to bank-balance threatening pro-level DSLR. The FUNC button gives quick access to all the key settings and grays them out if they're not available in the current mode so you always know where they're going to be.

Image quality and performance

Like all recent Ixus/Elph cameras the SD790 IS feels very fast and very responsive in everyday use, with focus speeds near the top of the group (although inevitably it slows down in dim conditions or at the long end of the zoom) and a zippy, responsive user interface. There's no discernible shutter lag when shooting in daylight, though turning the flash on does introduce a slight, but noticeable delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken (a common problem on Canon compacts).

Shot to shot times are pretty average (and slightly disappointing at this level), but as we've said before, if you want to take pictures more often than every couple of seconds or so you probably need a different kind of camera. Flash recycling is fast until you start to push it (i.e. when firing at full power, such as when using the long end of the zoom with relatively distant subjects) - in normal 'across the table' situations it has little impact on the overall performance of the camera. Battery life is excellent for this kind of camera, presumably because it's got a slightly bigger battery than most (330 shots, CIPA standard).

The SD790 IS may not be as svelte as some of the cameras here but it goes a long way to making up for this by offering some of the best image quality of the group; at ISO 80 (the default for daylight scenery) the output is surprisingly sharp and detailed across the frame, though viewed close it is a little over-sharpened for our tastes. Unlike many of the cameras here the SD790's tonal rendition (both color and contrast) is natural and considerably more subtle, which comes as welcome relief after looking at the some of the technicolor images they produce. The less full-on approach does a far better job of capturing the full range of tones in the scene being photographed and is far less prone to clipping. You can change the look of the output using the MyColors controls, but we were more than happy with the default settings.

High ISO output is noisy - visibly noisier than many of the cameras here - but that's because Canon uses a lot less noise reduction, so you do get a bit more detail. Whether you prefer grainy and sharp or smooth and featureless is a matter of taste, though in the end it doesn't make a huge amount of difference at small print sizes. And at least Canon's approach allows you to apply noise reduction yourself in post processing - you can't undo in camera NR no matter how hard you try.

Whether shooting in bright sunlight or dull, miserable conditions the SD790 IS continually impressed us with its sharp, clean detailed output and excellent, natural colors. Exposure is generally spot-on too, making the baby Canon the one to beat here for image quality.

Summary

With its chiselled, slightly understated design, the SD790 IS / Ixus 90 is probably the best looking camera in Canon's current Elph lineup, and with its responsive operation and surprisingly good image quality it does exactly what a pocket camera should do; take great pictures with the minimum of fuss. Sure, it's not the slimmest or cutest camera here, nor does it have the richest feature set (we'd love a slightly wider lens), but you can't help feeling that Canon chose to put performance above all else when designing the SD790 IS. The Canon sits in the middle of the pack price-wise, but feels more solid than most - and has possibly the best overall image quality, making it a serious contender for the top spot.

  • We like: Great image quality, reliable auto exposure systems, screen, user interface, build quality
  • We don't like: Lack of true wideangle, slight shutter lag with flash
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