Operation and controls

Canon has found a formula for camera operation and control that works well and 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 A620 it replaces - as mentioned earlier the larger screen has meant the rear controls are a bit more squashed, but being a fairly large camera they are by no means cramped. As usual the extensive feature set is partly hidden away in menus, but for most everyday photography the A640 is actually a pleasure to use.

At one time the distinction between Canon's A series PowerShots and the company's 'premium' products was clear; 'A' cameras were aimed at the beginner, or those on a tight budget. In the past few years the gradual feature creep has blurred that distinction to the point where cameras such as the A620 offer a serious alternative to the G and S series cameras (which also get updated a lot more rarely). The A640 offers a huge range of photographic control that is hampered only marginally by Canon's (presumably marketing-led) decision to keep important things like White Balance, drive mode and ISO settings in a menu and to offer no customizable buttons and no control dials. Although I personally would like to see a couple more external controls, the excellent FUNC menu design means these settings are never more than a couple of button presses away.

Rear of camera

The rear view of the A640 will find most Canon users in fairly familiar territory - it's very similar to the A620. From the top we've got the play/record mode switch, AE compensation button (also used to alter exposure settings in manual mode and as a delete button in playback mode), direct print button, four-way controller (with the FUNC/SET button in the middle), display and menu buttons. The four-way controller is used to navigate menus, change exposures and to cycle through the flash and focus (auto, manual, macro) modes. Not wanting to bang on here, but why not use the print button as a custom shortcut or ISO button? Who really needs a direct print button anyway? Are you ever in that much of a hurry that you can't use a menu to print?

Top of camera

The A640's body is slightly wider than the A620 but otherwise the design is very, very similar - and still has that excellent grip. As you can see, the top of the camera is home to the main power switch, mode dial and zoom control / shutter release.

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?

You don't get any of Canon's fancy new interface dressing or playback transitions, but you ain't going to miss them unless you really do value the cover more than the book.

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. Note that the amount of information displayed will depend which mode you are shooting in. There is also an optional grid overlay and a new 3:2 framing guide (designed to show how the image will look printed on one of the standard paper sizes). Astoundingly there is no record-mode histogram.

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 P (Program) mode you can activate a program shift function by pressing the Set button after the exposure has been calculated, which is a bit fiddly, but useful.

In shutter and aperture priority modes the setting is changed using the left and right arrow keys. In manual exposure mode the +/- 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.
AE-compensation - available in all auto exposure modes except the 'idiot-proof' AUTO - is a simple case of pressing the +/- button and using the left/right arrow keys to change the value. The screen brightens or darkens to reflect the effect of any AE-compensation in use. 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 plain background for clarity.
The My Colors options have been moved to the FUNC menu (previously they had their own mode). There's a huge amount of control over color, contrast and sharpness on offer, plus a good selection of preset styles. 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. Here is also where you find the option to save the current settings as a custom mode.