The A520 bears a close family resemblance to the rest of the A series, and is externally almost identical to the A510, announced simultaneously. It's a little smaller and lighter than the A85 it replaces, and the design has been cleaned up a little. The basic external controls are roughly the same as those found on the A85, though they've been shuffled around a little. The body is constructed for the most part from metal (the grip is covered in high grade plastic), and loaded with a pair of AA batteries it has a satisfying weight to it. The styling is functional rather than super-stylish, although it is an improvement on its predecessors, and - though not quite pocketable - is fairly compact.
In your hand
First impressions of the A520 are remarkably positive for a 'budget' camera - it's very solid and seems very well put together, and the weight makes it feel very stable and nicely balanced in the hand. The grip - a little shallow for my liking (more so than its predecessor's) - is complimented on the rear of the camera by a textured area where your thumb sits. The large shutter release and zoom lever are well placed for single-handed shooting, though I found the A520 felt a lot safer - and steadier - when supported by both hands. You cannot fault Canon when it comes to the build quality of the A520; it does not feel in any way like a budget camera, and what it lacks in sex appeal it makes up for in fit and finish.
As with all A series PowerShots, the A520 is powered by AA batteries, though this time only two (which contributes in no small way to the size/weight reduction). No rechargeable (NiMH) batteries are supplied in the box, so you'll need to budget for at least one set. The good news is that battery life is superb - Canon quotes 300 shots (using the CIPA standard, LCD monitor on) from a fully charged set of NiMH cells. Our experience bore this out. Impressive.
The A520 continues Canon's migration to SD/MMC storage for its compact camera range (again, something that helps keep the camera size down). The card slot sits under a fairly sturdy spring-hinged door at the base of the rear or the camera.
Although the screen is slightly lower resolution than the A85's LCD (115,000 pixels, as opposed to 118,000), you wouldn't know to look at it. The screen is bright and clear and gains up (brightens) very quickly if light levels drop. The screen shows very nearly 100% of the scene, and our only complaint is that - like most screens - it can be very difficult to see in bright daylight.
The optical viewfinder is nothing to write home about; small, not that clear and has no dioptre adjustment and only shows around 80 per cent of the frame. If you do decide to use the optical viewfinder you can, however, extend the battery life to almost 800 shots on a single set of NiMH cells - and reduce shutter lag. Two LEDs to the right of the viewfinder indicate focus and flash status.
The small built-in flash is a little under-powered, but perfectly usable in most social situations. There are three flash modes available; auto, on (forced), and off. You can turn red eye reduction on or off using the on-screen menus. To get slow synch flash you need to switch to the night scene subject mode. The A520 is the first Canon compact to feature a zoom-linked flash, which should in theory allow for a slightly greater range at the tele end of the zoom.
Canon sells an add-on slave flash unit (the HF-DC1), which attaches to the camera via a bracket and extends the flash range to 30 feet.
One of the most significant changes over the A85 is a longer zoom range - the A520 sports a 4x optical zoom (covering a useful 35 - 140mm equiv. range). It's nice and fast at the wide end of the zoom (F2.6), less impressive at the long end (F5.5), limiting telephoto photography when light is low. As with previous A series cameras the ring around the base of the lens can be removed to allow the attachment of wide or tele converters.
The large shutter release sits on top of the grip. It has a nice positive feeling and a distinct 'half way' point, meaning you won't accidentally take a shot when trying to activate the AF. The zoom lever is a large circular 'collar' around the shutter release. The zoom action is a bit on the 'jumpy' side, which can make fine framing a little awkward (there are only 6 or 7 steps over the entire 35-140mm range).
On top of the camera, next to the shutter release, sit the main power (on/off) switch, activity light and mode dial. This is pretty standard Canon stuff - idiot-proof Auto mode, manual and semi automatic exposure modes, movies, stitch assist and scene modes. The power button requires you to hold it down for around half a second for anything to happen - to avoid accidental power up when the camera's in your bag - a little annoying when you're trying to grab a shot.
The four-way controller is used to navigate the on-screen menus, or - in record mode - to cycle through flash modes and activate macro or manual focus. Directly above the four-way controller is the main record/playback mode switch.