Having finally received my SX1 (ordered originally back in January!) I thought I’d post a review with some of my early impressions (obviously this won't be in any way as in-depth as Gordon's own review on Cameralabs, but I hope as an 'average end-user' it might provide a helpful viewpoint).
I decided to purchase a Canon SX1 when my previous camera, a PowerShot A610 inexplicably ‘died’ on me. Given the cost of repair I thought the money would be better invested in a new model, and after extensive research I finally homed in on the new range of Canon SX models. I’ve always been impressed with the Canon image quality (the A610 was excellent) so was drawn towards the Canon range despite there being some very competitive products from other manufacturers such as Panasonic. Initially I was undecided between the SX110, SX10, an SX1. The SX1, obviously, sounded the most impressive, but as the most expensive of the three I wasn’t initially sure about ‘aiming that high’. In late December Canon ran a Cashback offer on the SX110 and SX10 which sounded good value, but for various reasons I missed out on that and come January, the Cashback deal had expired, which meant that the SX10 IS now no longer seemed as good value as it once had been. I felt reluctant to pay at least £30 more for one than I might have had to if I’d simply been able to go for the SX10 in December.
Ironically that drifted me back towards the SX1, which was now also available in the January sales at some good rates. I did more research and some professional reviews finally started to appear on the SX1 which rated it highly. I was very interested in its HD video facility, which not only seemed to offer a ‘cheap route’ into HD video (the difference between the cost of the SX10 and SX1) but also promised the convenience of having both stills and video in one camera. Previously I would have to choose which to take on a day out (stills or camcorder) but the SX1 would provide the flexibility of being able to take either. After finding various samples of the video quality of the SX1 on the Vimeo website – which were superb – I finally decided that buying the cheaper SX10 would, in the long run, be a false economy. So that decided it – the SX1 was the choice (not that I didn’t have any misgivings…. it is pricey compared to many compacts, especially when weighing it up against the Panasonic FZ28, and it is considerably larger than a pocket compact, but ultimately you have to weigh all these things up, and all things considered, taking into account the vast range of features offered for the price, the SX1 was the one I plumped for).
Despite having read all the specifications and many reviews, and seen many photos of the SX1, my first impression on opening the box was still that it was a little bit larger than I was expecting… and perhaps a little heavier. It’s all very subjective of course, and depends on what you are expecting, but this certainly isn’t a ‘pocket’ camera, and you certainly feel like you have a solid product in your hands (definitely think more ‘small DSLR’ than ‘compact’). I’ve seen some folk complain about the largely plastic construction, but personally I consider this to be a very solid, well, built camera - certainly no creaks or flexing! The lens surround itself is made of metal, and underneath there is a metal – not plastic – tripod thread, and with its darker grey hand grip I think it looks much smarter than its ‘sister’ camera the SX10. The SX1 feels comfortable and purposeful when held, and it’s weight should help to avoid camera shake (although with its excellent Image Stabilisation you probably don’t need too much extra assistance in that regard).
(One little thing to note here, is that if you ‘rock’ the camera gently whilst switched off you’ll hear a slight clunking noise, sounding a bit like a loose item in the camera. You don’t hear this noise when switched on. I read about this elsewhere on the web on a forum, and apparently Canon was asked about this and say that it is perfectly normal – in fact the SX1 should be making this noise. I thought I’d mention it so that no buyer out there is disconcerted if they notice it!)
The second thing that stood out, on loading the camera with batteries and a memory card, and switching it on, was the clarity of its display. The 2.8 inch screen is considerably larger than the one on my old PowerShot A610 and the image is really very crisp and colourful. The viewfinder display is less impressive, but useable, but as the main screen is so clear I can imagine myself using that in most situations.
As you can imagine with a 20x zoom the lens barrel is really quite long when fully extended, but its reach is very impressive. The lens cap, as others have noted is a bit of a pain – ideally Canon would have supplied a cord by which you could ‘tie’ it to the camera itself so that you won’t be likely to lose it, but at least it can be clipped to the neck strap. Still, if you’re used to smaller compacts you’ll miss the convenience of an ‘automatic’ lens cover, but there you go. As I said before, think more ‘small DSLR’ and you won’t be disappointed.
If you’ve used another of the Canon range of cameras in recent years, you’ll find the general operation, user interface and menus to be very familiar. There are certainly more menus here to navigate, given the range of features at your disposal, but they are all accessed via the standard Canon menu system, as well as via a number of ‘short cut’ buttons provided on the camera body (for example for MF, ISO, Macro, Self Timer, Exposure compensation and even a dedicated Red Video record button, just like on a camcorder, which is really useful – you don’t need to find your way into video mode before you can start filming, just press this button whichever ‘stills’ mode you happen to be in). The large 2.8 inch widescreen display is used to best advantage with menus, and displays, being neatly arranged to get the most out of the space provided. In ‘normal’ 4 by 3 photo mode this means that the image occupies the central area of the display with certain mode settings etc shown on the right and left hand sides, avoiding too much text obscuring the image. You can also switch to a widescreen mode for stills (but most usefully to access the HD video) in which case the image being shot occupies the full width of the display.
But let’s get to the important questions…. Just how does the SX1 perform when taking still images? Most especially, how good is its image quality (the ‘Six Million Dollar’ question for any camera). Overall, based on my early tests, I’d say the quality is very good.
Image quality can be a somewhat subjective thing, and there are a number of ways in which to judge it. There is the overall quality of a picture in terms of the sharpness of the shot, the focus, the trueness of colour, the exposure and so on, and then there is the more ‘technical’ quality of a shot, in terms of how much noise it contains, what it looks like at a pixel level and so on. In terms of the former aspect I’d say, after my initial tests, that I’m generally very happy. The colour and sharpness of the shots is good. There are one or two cases where I feel that the main subject could have been a little more in focus, but I think that probably comes down to my handling of the auto-focus. Out of the box the SX1 comes with face detection focusing on by default – you may wish to switch that off depending on what sort of shots you are taking.
Regarding the more ‘technical’ aspect of the image quality, in terms of the level of noise in the picture, from what I can tell the SX1 delivers good results. Many of my initial tests have been indoor shots in natural light (not that bright at this time of year), which is a good test of the camera’s abilities in a ‘worst case scenario’. If it can take a reasonable shot in these conditions, then it is sure to cope better in brighter light outdoors (light being the all-important factor in photography). Most of the shots I took were on ‘Auto’ and the camera selected 200 or 250 ISO usually. These shots came out clean and tidy. Viewed on a PC at a normal resolution (full screen), no real noise is visible. In fact you can zoom in to display the image at, say, 2, 4 or even about 6 megapixel resolution and the images are fine. Printed out they will look fine at 6 by 4, and probably even up to A4 size.
However, should you zoom to 100%, the 10 megapixel images do exhibit a degree of noise or ‘graininess’. But as I said this is not really noticeable when viewed normal size on a monitor, or if printed as a 6 by 4 print, and like I say, these are ‘worst case’ examples, being indoor shots in natural light. But this does demonstrate one thing about the ‘race for megapixels’ in modern compact digital cameras, which to my mind are generating image sizes which are probably a bit larger than their small sensors are really geared towards. These SX1 shots are taken at 10 megapixels, whereas my old A610 was only 5 megapixels, and there is probably a bit more graininess in the 10 megapixel shots viewed at 100% than in similar A610 5 megapixel shots at 100%, but of course reduce the SX1 image down to 5 megapixels and they become very similar. Therefore it could be questioned whether the newer camera is really capturing a great deal more detail at 10 megapixels than the older model – at least in low-light, indoor shots. Take it outdoors however, on a bright day and I think that is when the difference will really be seen. With good light, I’m sure the SX1 is capable of producing some superb shots, even at the full 10 megapixels, and these would present a lot of opportunities for cropping and enlarging.
Indeed, I have taken a number of outdoor shots also, and despite the weather being dull and cloudy, they have come out very well. I’m looking forward to a bright, sunny day to see the SX1 really stretch its legs! And I’ll update this review accordingly when I’ve had more time to put the SX1 to the test. (One thing I did notice was that by default the SX1 had ‘fine’ JPEG compression setting selected, yet you can change this to ‘Superfine’ which will give even better results – worth doing!)
The lens delivers a great range, with the full 20x zoom allowing you to get in very close to subjects. I found I could zoom right in on a small plant in my garden, from the window, at around 8m distance. Also, the wide angle (28mm) lens is great for group, and indoor shots.
(* Since writing the original draft of this review the weather turned brighter giving me the opportunity to do further testing in brighter light.... with excellent results!
Outdoors, on clear days, the SX1 delivers great shots. Very sharp, utilising the full 10 megapixel potential. I got shots, which viewed at 100% pixel level exhibited no grain or noise at all. Every detail on faces was present with finely defined edges. Colour reproduction was just right, and images were sharp. Obviously the camera is able to use 80ISO in such conditions which, as is to be expected, would result in the best shots, but this shows what it can do in the right circumstances.
I've also done a number of tests indoors using the flash, and these result in similarly sharp images. Obviously the backgrounds can be dark compared to lit up faces, but as long as you don't get too close to your subject (overexposing) the results are very good.)
FULL HD VIDEO
Well, for many, and certainly myself, a large attraction of the SX1 will be its Full HD video recording (1080p). This is the first consumer priced stills camera to offer such high-quality video (the other main model being the Canon EOS 5D II, which at £2000 is considerably more expensive!!), and as such it is pioneering in this field.
As I’ve noted with various sample SX1 .mov video file downloaded off Vimeo.com, my first test video, transferred to my PC, when played back through Apple QuickTime jerked, because QuickTime plays back the video at 24fps, even though it is shot at 30fps. Essentially it drops 6 of the frames every second, which causes quite a judder. The simple workaround for this is to either play back the video using another player (Canon’s own Zoombrowser supplied with the camera works fine) or convert the video to another file format which others players can playback smoothly at 30fps. As I’ve done with other videos I converted my .mov file using the free WinFF video conversion tool (see winff.org) into a WMF file which I could play back in Windows Media Player. Using settings of 30000 bps, 30fps, 1920 by 1080 and 2 passes, I produced a nice WMF file which played back perfectly on my PC first go. I also produced a smaller 1280 by 720 version initially, which for many would be high enough resolution, but I thought I might as well examine the full 1080p quality. My PC monitor can show 1600 by 1200 so it is ‘almost’ Full HD for playback.
The quality was superb. My first test played back fine, and was crisp, smooth, colourful and every bit as good as hoped for. And what was surprising was that I shot this with a Class 4 memory card (Sandisk Ultra II, 8 Gig), not the faster Class 6 that Canon recommends. A Class 6 card is definitely on the shopping list (better safe than sorry) but I was most pleased to find the Class 4 perform fine. To be sure I shot a longer sequence over 2 minutes in one shoot, and that was fine too. It may be that certain situations will ‘trip it up’ but for these videos (shot indoors in average light) it performed fine. And on that last point…. Yes the indoor quality was fine. I’ve read some reports moaning about indoor performance of video on the SX1… my advice – ignore them. Indoor quality was just as good as my standalone camcorder (a Standard Definition Panasonic digital camcorder).
Another criticism I’ve seen levelled at the SX1 video capture is its handling of exposure. The SX1 it is said, has a ‘tendency to overexpose’, meaning that if you have a bright sky, or sunlight through a window, or bright snow, you may get the sky/window/snow shown as a white area in the shot. Well, it is true that you can get this effect, but I have to say, that this is no worse than my ‘normal’ camcorder. I have very similar shots from that which do the same thing. As long as you ensure you don’t have highly contrasting subjects in the same frame (very bright window and a dark room) then you won’t get the effect. In reality, this is a problem which can affect any camera or video camera, and is relatively easy to avoid. Not only that, but the SX1 offers exposure adjustment whilst filming so you can easily adjust the exposure to darken down the bright areas if they are affecting your shot. In conclusion then – I don’t consider than to be ‘an issue’.
One other aspect of the HD video which is really quite superb is the fact that you can effectively grab 1920 by 1080 (2 megapixel) stills from your video. Given that you shoot video at 30fps this is somewhat like having a 30fps continuous ‘burst mode’ on the camera (at 2 megapixels). To extract stills I simply converted the .mov file to .wmv (as described above) and opened the file in Windows Movie Maker. In its playback window, as I played the video, I could pause it, and then click the little camera icon which saves a still JPG image to your hard drive. The quality really is excellent, and at 1920 by 1080 you’ll get perfectly decent 6 by 4 prints from it. No camera with less than FULL HD can achieve this.
*UPDATE: 10th March. I've uploaded a few sample still frames taken from SX1 HD video to Flickr, which I've linked to below. The originals are at 1920 by 1080, but unfortunately the maximum size Flick seems to show it at is 1024 pixels across, which is what is shown below. Nevertheless hopefully this still demonstrates the image quality sufficiently.
The following shot is taken at the same scene as that shown above but zoomed in to 80x zoom level. This is using the full 20x optical zoom with a further 4x digital zoom applied. Obviously there is a quality drop, but not terrible considering the zoom level (the SX1 IS actually has a 'safety zoom' which it can apply to HD video, given that the 1920 by 1080 image is much smaller than its full 10 megapixel sensor, and this allows it to zoom in much further than the optical 20x with no loss of quality... although 80x might be going a bit beyond even that reach I think!). Anyway, this shot is interesting as it picked out detail in the distance which I just couldn't see with the naked eye at the time.
In all then, the HD video is all I hoped it would be. It shoots fine, looks superb, captures great CD quality stereo sound, is easily transferred to my PC (no more waiting for video software to ‘capture’ video from a tape) and, using the right software (eg. WinFF or good editing software), good results can be achieved in terms of playback and editing.
It’s early days, and I’ll see how I get on with more experimentation, but I believe the HD video of the SX1 really does give you the facility of an HD camcorder in a stills camera. You’ll want a card large enough for reasonable capacity (8 GB gives 28 mins, 16GB would give about 56 mins), but with 16GB cards available at about £20 that’s fine. The SX1 doesn’t fit as much video on a card as many HD camcorders do, but that is for one simple reason. Most entry level HD camcorders shoot at a bit rate of between 15 and 24 Mbs (that governs the image quality). The SX1 shoots at, I believe, 43Mbs…. And it shows!
(* Again, the onset of brighter weather meant that I've now also been able to take more HD video with the camera, including outdoor shots, with, again, excellent results. This included fast moving subjects and various lighting conditions. Also impressive was how long a set of 1700mah batteries lasted me. I shot about 200 photos and 20 minutes of HD video (as well as an amount of playback etc) on the camera before the batteries needed recharging. I thought this was pretty good. A 2700mah set should be even better.)
My early conclusions on the SX1? A great, all-in-one, ‘bridge’ camera. Simple as that. Well built, great zoom, great wide angle, feels solid, takes good pictures, and takes superb video. There are a bunch of features to be explored, manual controls, macro, 4fps burst mode, and so on, and you get a lot for your money. The box includes a neck strap (I think you’ll need it…) and a very useful remote control with which you can take photos, take video and control playback. It also has a standard composite video lead for TV playback, and a USB lead, as well as PC software for photo and video playback. One downside is that the main manual is supplied only on CD (at this price I think Canon should have supplied a printed version) and users wishing to playback stills & video on an HD TV set will need to purchase an HDMI cable which isn’t included as standard. As other reviewers have noted the camera also takes 4 AA batteries, which is either an asset or a failing depending on your point of view. I consider it an asset – it makes having spares with you very easy, as AAs are easily obtained, and 4 high power rechargeables should give a good number of photos or video shooting time.
In many ways, I’m just repeating what other reviewers here have said already (but perhaps I’m a little more verbose in my comments!). The SX1 is a great camera. It isn’t a ‘small compact’ and it isn’t a DSLR and if you want either of those ‘extremes’ then the SX1 is perhaps not for you, but if you want something that isn’t quite as big and bulky as a full DSLR, and which provides high zoom range for a lot less than a DSLR setup would cost, and if you want HD video in a stills camera (and Full 1080p HD video with stereo sound at that!) then the SX1 is the ideal choice. It really does do ‘what it says on the box’.
As I said, this is based on my ‘first impressions’ and I intend to ‘add’ to this review when I’ve had more time to explore the SX1 and its capabilities, but for now I’d say ‘HIGHLY RECOMMENDED’!