Operation and controls

Canon has found a formula for camera operation and control that works well, and the A520 will be very familiar to anyone who's used a Canon compact in the last few years. The control layout is almost identical to the PowerShot A85 it replaces, although the slightly different body design means a few of the buttons have moved. Despite being a 'budget' model the A520 - like the A85 before it (and the hugely popular A95) has a real wealth of photographic features, and though most advanced options are only accessible via menus (rather than via external controls), the interface is well designed and fast to use.

Rear of camera

The rear view of the A520 will find most Canon users in fairly familiar territory - it's very similar to the A85, and offers a similar set of controls to the more expensive G and S series cameras. Although I personally would like to see a couple more external controls (for drive mode, AE compensation, ISO setting for example), the excellent FUNC menu design means these settings are never more than a couple of button presses away.

Top of camera

It's not the slimmest camera you'll ever find, or the prettiest, but the A520 is a lot sleeker than its immediate predecessor. The top plate is home to the shutter release, zoom lever, mode dial, mini-speaker and power button.

Display and menus

Canon's menu and on-screen display system has - despite minor appearance tweaks here and there - remained admirably consistent across camera ranges and generations. There's nothing particularly new here - but then why change a system that works?

Pressing the DISP button cycles between three preview settings; off (use the optical viewfinder), preview image only (no information displayed) and - as shown above - full information. There's plenty of information ranged around the edge of the preview image. Half press the shutter and the camera will set the focus and exposure, indicating the focus point chosen (in AiAF mode), plus the shutter speed and aperture chosen by the AE (auto exposure) system.
In shutter and aperture priority modes the setting is changed using the left and right arrow keys. In manual exposure mode the SET button toggles the setting changed by the left/right arrow keys between the shutter speed and aperture. Half press the shutter and the display shows how far you are from the metered exposure as an EV value.
Novice photographers get a selection of subject-based 'scene' modes (accessed from the SCN position on the mode dial). Changing subject mode is again a simple matter of pressing the left and right arrow keys. A manual focus option (activated by pressing the Macro/down arrow twice) has the option - not turned on in this shot - to magnify the central portion of the preview for more accurate focus assessment.
Pressing the FUNC menu brings up the usual array of shooting options, covering everything from AE compensation to white balance, sensitivity, picture effects, drive mode, metering and image size/quality. It's fast, and doesn't clutter up the screen. Note that the menu is normally shown overlaid on the preview image - we've used a black background for clarity. The record menu is where you find controls you're likely to need much less frequently, including focus mode, red eye reduction, digital zoom and so on.
Scrolling through images feels a little slow - the A520 doesn't use low res previews, and you have to wait a second or so for each picture to load. The standard display mode gives only minimal information (you can also turn all on-screen displays off and just view the images). Pressing the DISP button allows you to pull up fairly comprehensive shooting information, including a histogram. It is also worth noting that the A520 has an orientation sensor, so can automatically rotate vertical images in playback mode, though this slows things down a little.
Pushing the zoom lever to the left (wide) displays nine thumbnail images. A further push of the zoom lever to the left allows you to 'jump' from one page of thumbnails to the next. You can zoom into (enlarge) saved images by repeatedly pushing the zoom lever to the right. The maximum enlargement is 10x. Incidentally, if you enable the instant review function and press SET whilst the image is displayed after shooting, you can magnify the picture just taken without going into playback mode.
Press the set button when magnified and you can jump from image to image at the same magnification. The play menu offers the usual range of options, including protecting, rotating and deleting images, plus slideshow's and print ordering (DPOF).
The setup menu - accessible in both record and playback modes - offers control over various camera-related parameters, including audio, file numbering, date and time and card formatting. As is now standard on Canon PowerShots the My Camera menu lets you customize start-up image, and camera sounds.