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Canon PowerShot A800 Ken McMahon, April 2011
 

Canon PowerShot A800 review

The Canon PowerShot A800 is a budget compact with a 10 Megapixel sensor, 3.3x optical zoom lens and a 2.5 inch LCD screen. Announced in January 2011, it is the cheapest and most basic PowerShot money can buy. It replaces the A490 / A495 launched a year previously and, like those models, takes two AA batteries and shoots VGA (640 x 480) resolution video.

Canon has simplified its A-series line up replacing both the A495 and A490 with a single model - the A800. Though the A495 remains available that's unlikely to be the case for long and, at this end of the market you're, unlikely to make much of a saving going for the older model. However, as there's not a huge difference in the specification, it's certainly worth taking a look.

The next step up the Canon product range is the PowerShot A1200. Also powered by a pair of AA's, the PowerShot A1200 has a bigger 12.1 Megapixel sensor, a wider zoom range, a bigger screen, more shooting modes and 720p video.

The budget compact market is a competitive place and other manufacturers are going all out to provide the best value for money deal. Features that were once the preserve of mid-range and high end models are trickling down. Nikon's COOLPIX L24 boasts a 14.1 Megapixel sensor, a 3 inch screen at around the same price as the A1200 - and only a little above that of the A800.

So can the PowerShot A800 provide most of what the slightly more expensive budget compacts have to offer, or is it worth shelling out a little extra, about the cost of a spare SD card, for the added features that the PowerShot A1200 and Nikon COOLPIX L24 provide? Read our full review to find out.

   
 


Canon PowerShot A800 design and build quality

Minor cosmetic changes aside, the Canon PowerShot A800 doesn't depart radically from the styling of its predecessor. It retains the trademark wedge shape which makes for a very comfortable and secure grip, now augmented by a slightly indented front panel which provides a ridge for the fingers of your left hand.

The lens is exactly the same, but the bezel has been reduced slightly in size and the AF illuminator moved from under the flash to the opposite side where, if you're not careful, you can obscure it with your fingers.

 
 
 
 

The camera has a slightly 'blockier' look and feel, and of all the PowerShot range it would be fair to say it's the least attractive. Though in terms of build quality the PowerShot A800 is sturdy and well made, its looks mark it out as a budget model.

The control layout is exactly the same as on the older PowerShot A490 / A495, the only difference being the design of the buttons, perfect roundels replacing the older model's rounded square buttons. Unlike other A-Series PowerShots, the A800 lacks a mode dial, instead a button cycles though the available options on screen. Next to it is a button that activates the menu system and above them is the familiar four-way control pad. This is used to navigate menus and for one-touch activation of exposure compensation, flash, self-timer and macro focussing. At its centre a Func.Set button activates a shortcut 'Function' menu providing quick access to commonly used settings like ISO sensitivity, continuous shooting and image size and quality settings.

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Above the Control pad is a playback button and above that a thumb-activated zoom rocker. The lack of a mode dial and positioning of the zoom controls on the rear panel leaves the top of the camera clear and uncluttered with only the flush-mounted lozenge-shaped on/off button and the large round shutter release button.

On the bottom panel the combined card and battery compartment is located on the right side or thick end of the wedge. The SD (HC, XC) card slot sits behind the AA cells. It's a small point but you need to make sure the camera is upside down before opening this cover otherwise the batteries go flying. The tripod bush is located slightly off-centre next to the battery compartment door, so there's no changing batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod.

On the lower right side of the body a small flap opens to reveal a USB connector and an AV port. A USB cable is supplied, but if you want to connect the PowerShot A800 to your TV to view photos and video you'll need to buy the optional AVC-DC300 cable.

The PowerShot A800's built-in flash has a quoted range of three metres at the wide angle lens setting. Without an ISO setting this figure doesn't mean a great deal, but in use the A800's flash provided bright even illumination for subjects reasonably close to the camera. The flash takes around seven seconds to charge between shots, that's slow both in comparison with Lithium-Ion battery powered models and even other AA-powered models like the Nikon COOLPIX L24.

Canon's Smart Flash system, introduced on the A490 / A495, automatically adjusts the illumination for the prevailing conditions, for example using the flash to fill-in shadow detail in daylight exposures.

In Program mode the PowerShot A800 has four flash modes; auto, which fires when the situation requires it. forced on, off, and slow Syncro for fill in illumination in low light. There are two options for eliminating red-eye, the AF illumination LED can be activated which causes the subject's pupils to contract. If that isn't sufficient, the image can be automatically post processed in-camera to remove the red-eye. You can also apply red-eye correction in the playback menu after the image has been shot.

The PowerShot A800 uses two AA batteries as its power source. We were critical of the A495 for its poor battery life, with 150 shots from a set of fully charged alkaline AA's and Canon has responded magnificently, achieving an amazing 100 percent increase to 300 shots for the PowerShot A800 using the CIPA (Camera Imaging Products Association) standard testing procedure. If you replace the AA batteries with Canon NB-3AH NiMH batteries, or those from another manufacturer with a similar rating that figure goes up to 500 shots.

Though the PowerShot A1200 and the Nikon COOLPIX L24 also use AA's, they are in a small minority, with most compacts powered by proprietary Li-Ion batteries. Each has its pros and cons, the main drawbacks with AA's being their size and weight, often slow flash recycling, and, of course, if you're using alkaline batteries, environmental considerations. It's convenient to be able to pick up replacements on the high street when your batteries suddenly expire, but, if you don't have some already, a couple of rechargeable NiMH batteries and are charger are a worthwhile addition.


Canon PowerShot A800 lens and stabilisation

The PowerShot A800 retains the 3.3x, 6.6 - 21.6mm (37 - 122mm equivalent) optical zoom lens of its predecessor. In the budget price bracket a three to four times zoom range is fairly typical and the zoom is there to help you nicely frame your shots and get in a little closer for portraits. If you're planning a safari holiday, or want to get closer to the action on the school sports field you're going to have to rethink your budget.

Canon PowerShot A800 coverage wide
Canon PowerShot A800 coverage tele
6.6-21.6mm mm at 6.6mm (37mm equivalent)
  6.6-21.6mm mm at 21.6mm (122mm equivalent)

 

When the on switch is pressed the lens extends and the camera is ready to shoot in just over two seconds; there are faster cameras out there, but you pay a lot more for an advantage measured in fractions of a second and speed which you'll only rarely need. One advantage of a short zoom range is that you can cover it quickly - it takes a little over a second to zoom from full wide angle to maximum telephoto and the action is smooth, if a little noisy. There are five discrete positions on the zoom range which you can easily set by nudging the rocker. You can't use the optical zoom while recording movies, but there is a 4x digital zoom albeit with the severely degraded image quality that results.

There are two criticisms we'd make of the A800's lens. The first is that, while few people would expect anything other than a moderate telephoto on a budget compact, the lack of a decent wide angle means that panoramic landscapes, interiors and group shots could be a problem. Secondly, lack of image stabilisation means that in low light it's going to be difficult, if not impossible to get the kind of results you could expect with a stabilised lens. If you do a lot of low light photography these are things to bear in mind.

Though it lacks Canon's optical image stabilisation the PowerShot A800 does have one method for dealing with the problem of camera shake in low light. The Blur Reduction scene mode detects motion in the frame and sets an appropriately high ISO sensitivity to allow a shutter speed fast enough to eliminate movement. The big drawback is that it produces 2M images with a size of 1600 x 1200 pixels. While it's no substitute for real image stabilisation and merely automatically chooses the best settings for a given situation, it's a useful additional scene mode for those who want good results in low light without having to think too hard about it. The more expensive PowerShot A1200 also lacks image stabilisation and the Electronic Vibration Reduction post processing on the Nikon COOLPIX L24, isn't nearly as effective as physical systems. So if image stabilisation is important to you a better budget choice might be the Sony Cyber-shot W510.

>
Canon PowerShot A800 Smart Auto mode / Blur Reduction scene mode
100% crop, 6.6-21.6mm at 21.6mm, 1/20, 650 ISO, Smart Auto mode.
 
100% crop, 6.6-21.6mm at 21.6mm, 1/100, 3200 ISO, Blur Reduction mode (1600 x 1200).

 

The crops above are taken from two images shot with the PowerShot A800. For both images the lens was zoomed to its full extent. The crop on the left was shot in Auto mode where the A800 selected an exposure of 1/20th of a second at a sensitivity of 640 ISO. The crop on the right was shot using the Blur Reduction scene mode which selected a sensitivity of 3200 ISO and a shutter speed of 1/100th. This is obviously no substitute for 'proper' image stabilisation, but for inexperienced photographers it could make the difference between getting a useable low light shot and not.

 
 
 
 

Canon PowerShot A800 screen and menus

The PowerShot A800's 2.5 inch LCD screen has 115 thousand pixels and displays a bright contrasty image that's noticeably pixellated compared with the bigger, higher resolution 230k screens typical on other budget compacts like the PowerShot A1200, COOLPIX L24 and the Sony Cyber-shot W510. The PowerShot A800's screen also has quite a narrow angle of view and the images darkens appreciably unless you're looking at it straight-on. While there's no denying that slightly more expensive budget compacts with bigger more detailed screens provide a better viewing experience, the PowerShot A800's screen is perfectly adequate.

In shooting modes the PowerShot A800's menu functions are displayed on a two-tabbed screen which is activated by pressing the menu button. Shooting settings - AF mode, Digital zoom, flash settings, display overlays and the like are displayed on one tab and camera settings including formatting, date and time, power saving and so on another. The Camera settings are mostly of the 'set once and forget about' variety and even the shooting settings aren't things you're likely to want to change that often.

     
     

The commonly used functions - ISO sensitivity, white balance, My colours, continuous shooting, metering mode, image size and quality - can all be found on the Func menu which is activated by pressing the centre button on the control pad. The Func menu overlays the image display and is arranged down the left side and along the bottom of the screen. It's quick and simple to use and works as well on this budget compact as on all including the most expensive PowerShots. Nonetheless it would have been good to see Canon's Hints and Tips feature, which explains menu functions as you select them, on this entry level model.

     
     

 

Unlike the PowerShot A1200, which has a dedicated DISP button for toggling display overlays, the A800 relegates this function to the shooting settings menu, but it has the same options including grid lines and a 3:2 guide in shooting modes. In playback mode you get the choice of standard and detailed info overlays, the latter displaying a reduced size thumbnail with clipping alerts showing blown highlights alongside detailed exposure information and a histogram. There's also a Focus check display which shows a magnified view of the focus areas.

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Canon PowerShot A800 exposure modes

The PowerShot A800 has four shooting modes - Auto, Program, SCN and movie. The Auto mode uses The Digic III processor's Smart Auto exposure system which identifies the scene in front of the camera. Intelligent Auto determines whether there are people in the scene, if it's a landscape, or if there are subjects very close to the lens, it then analyses the lighting conditions to work out if it's bright or dark and if the main subject is backlit.

Once it's worked out which category a scene fits into it displays the appropriate scene mode icon in the top right corner of the screen. Most of the time Smart Auto gets it right, though it can occasionally have trouble recognising people. If it can't make sense of a scene it defaults to auto exposure without scene recognition.

Program mode drops the scene recognition and provides control over a range of settings falling short of any kind of manual exposure control. You can, however change the ISO sensitivity, white balance, colour rendering, metering mode (evaluative, centre-weighted average or spot), continuous shooting mode, compression and image size.

There are also 13 scene modes to choose from including Blur Reduction Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, Beach, Super Vivid, Poster effect and Low Light which takes 1600 x 1200 pixel shots at high sensitivity settings up to 3200 ISO. Like its predecessor, the A800 also has a Sunset scene mode which goes some way to compensating for the lack of sunset recognition in its Smart Auto system.

There's no smile recognition, but the A800 does have versatile self timer options. As well as a 10 and 2 second self-timer, you can set a custom self-timer with a delay of up to 30 seconds after which up to 10 shots are fired. There's also the Face self-timer scene mode which shoots up to 10 frames when a new face enters the frame.


Canon PowerShot A800 focusing and face detection

The PowerShot A800 has two AF modes, the default Face AiAF detects when there are faces in the frame and tracks them, setting both focus and exposure accordingly. One of the distinctions between the older A495 and A490 was the Number of AF areas - 9 on the former and 5 on the latter. The PowerShot A800 has inherited the lesser of the two systems with 5 AF areas, in practice, though, it doesn't feel like second best and is quick to spot faces and hold onto them well, even when they're some distance to the camera and not facing front-on.

When there are no faces in the frame the AF system uses the 5 areas to detect high contrast edges and, again, it's responsive and reliable in almost all situations. If you need an alternative you can switch to centre AF and choose one of two AF region sizes. Used in conjunction with focus locking, which locks the focus temporarily when the shutter is held halfway down and AF lock, which permanently lock the focus when the right control pad button is pressed, centre AF provides more control than the default method, allowing you to point and focus, then recompose before shooting.


Canon PowerShot A800 movie mode

The PowerShot A800 can shoot movies at VGA 640 x 480 pixel resolution at 30 frames per second with a long play version of the same format which compresses the video into a file half the size. There's also a 320 x 240 pixel 30 fps size. Files are saved in a AVI wrapper using a Motion JPEG codec. VGA resolution movies are encoded at an average bit rate of around 14mbits/s which means you'll fit around half an hour of footage on a 4GB card. 4GB, or one hour is the maximum continuous shooting time, so at the long play rate you'll get around an hour befor recording stops

Shooting video is one activity where the lack of optical image stabilization really shows, particularly at the longer focal lengths. As with most Canon compacts you can't use the optical zoom while shooting - instead you have to zoom first, then film, or make do with the digital zoom and the pixellated results it produces. Registered members of Vimeo can download the original files shown here for closer evaluation.


Canon PowerShot A800 sample video 1: outdoors, sunny, handheld pan with digital zoom
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

The video quality of the PowerShot A800 is good, but it's nowhere near as good as the 720p offerred by the PowerShot A1200. It's quite difficult to keep the camera steady without image stabilisation.

 

Canon PowerShot A800 sample video 2: outdoors, sunny conditions, tripod pan with digital zoom
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

Things are much smoother with the camera mounted on a tripod and the PowerShot A800 copes quite well into the sun, often a problem for CCD sensors. The digital zoom results in such a drop in quality it's probably best ignored, you can, of course, use the optical zoom to frame your shot before shooting.

 

Canon PowerShot A800 sample video 3: indoors, low-light, handheld panning
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)

The PowerShot A800 copes quite well in this low light interior panning shot, responding rapidly to the changing light conditions and maintaining good white balance, despite the changing illumination.

Canon PowerShot A800 drive modes

The PowerShot A800 has a continuous shooting mode that shoots full resolution 10 Megapixel images at a quoted speed of 0.8fps. In our tests it managed a slightly slower 0.75fps which, at these slow speeds makes little difference. While it's not the fastest of the budget compacts, they're nearly all in the same ball park when it comes to continuous shooting with the PowerShot A1200, Nikon COOLPIX L24 and Sony Cyber-shot W510 all managing in the region of one frame per second.

Canon PowerShot A800 sensor

The PowerShot A800 has a 10 Megapixel sensor that produces still images with a maximum size of 3648 x 2736 pixels. ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 1600 ISO. It has two levels of JPEG compression, normal and fine, the latter producing images around 3MB and able to be printed up to 12 x 9 inches. To see how the quality of the PowerShot A800 measures-up in practice, take a look at our real-life resolution and high ISO noise results pages, browse the sample images gallery, or skip to the chase and head straight for our verdict.

 

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