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Canon Digital IXUS 980 IS / PowerShot SD990 IS Digital ELPH Gordon Laing, August 2009

Canon IXUS 980 IS / PowerShot SD990 IS ELPH verdict

Canon’s Digital IXUS 980 IS, or PowerShot SD990 IS ELPH as it’s known in North America, is a good solid compact camera with some strong features. With a considerable 14.7 Megapixels, it’s the highest resolution model in the IXUS / ELPH range, and also the only one which offers manual control over exposure. Add to that a small but great quality screen, an optical viewfinder which can massively extend battery life, and Canon’s latest fast DIGIC 4 processor and you’ve got a good all-round performer.

The camera’s unique grip shape, which resembles a squashed figure-eight from the side, looks and feels a little odd at first, but before long offers a comfortable and secure grip. And like all of Canon’s higher-end compacts, the build quality and finish are excellent.

The presence of an optical viewfinder is unusual in today’s compact market (indeed one of the few others is Canon’s own IXUS 100 IS / SD780 IS), and its physical location limits the size of the screen to 2.5in. Like other compact optical viewfinders, the coverage and accuracy are also comfortably less than 100%. But the major benefits of having an optical viewfinder are easy composition in direct sunlight when the screen struggles, and the potential to greatly extend battery life – indeed shoot with the optical viewfinder alone and you could enjoy a massive 700 shots per charge. While few will shoot exclusively with the optical viewfinder it is very handy to switch over to it when your battery is running low to squeeze out some extra shots. And while the screen is modestly sized at 2.5in, it does deliver a bright and vibrant image.

The manual control is a nice addition, although as described in the main review, it may be of limited use. Like most compacts, the depth-of-field is inherently so large that even choosing the smallest f-number is unlikely to blur a background on portrait shots, and the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS is also limited to just two aperture settings at any given focal length. But manual control does give you considerably greater adjustment over your exposure than normal compensation, so if you really want to massively under or over-expose for a special effect, you’ll be able to do so here.

The headline feature is of course the very high resolution, with the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS actually sharing the same sensor as the higher-end PowerShot G10. As you’d expect, noise levels are fairly similar on both models, and like most compacts, you should stick to the lowest sensitivities, with undesirable artefacts becoming visible at 200 ISO and obtrusive at 400 ISO when viewed at 100%.


That’s not to say the flagship IXUS / ELPH shares the same overall quality as the G10 though. The lens in front of the sensor isn’t as good as the G10’s, and in our resolution tests it performed similarly to 12 Megapixel models. Under ideal conditions, it can certainly resolve a lot of detail, but don’t buy it over a 12 Megapixel model expecting a noticeable difference.

It’s also disappointing to find true wide angle coverage missing from this top model, and that even the modest 36mm widest setting suffers from softening in the corners. Of some consolation though are respectably sharp edges when zoomed-in.

Amazingly for a camera launched less than a year ago, the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS is also already showing its age compared to the latest models, even in Canon’s own range. There’s no HD movies or HDMI port for example. It’s also unforgivable to lock the optical zoom while filming, although this curse also afflicts many of Canon’s latest models.

These are issues for any compact these days, but especially one representing the top of the IXUS / ELPH range. While the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS boasts a very high resolution sensor, optical viewfinder and manual control, many buyers would expect to find a wider lens, bigger screen and HD movies on a flagship model. So how does it compare to key rivals within Canon’s range?


Compared to Canon IXUS 870 IS / PowerShot SD880 IS


Canon’s IXUS 870 IS / PowerShot SD880 IS was launched alongside the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS, and at first glance seems to fall short with ‘just’ 10 Megapixels, no optical viewfinder and no manual control over exposure.

But making up for these ‘shortfalls’ are a broader 4x 28-112mm optical range which includes proper wide-angle coverage and a great-looking 3in screen. As a late 2008 Canon compact, there’s still no HD movies or HDMI port, but many may prefer the combination of features over the flagship model.

The prices have become roughly similar, so the choice between them boils down to whether you prefer the higher resolution, optical viewfinder and manual control of the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS or the wider lens and bigger screen of the IXUS 870 IS / SD880 IS.

As both models are getting-on now in digital terms, keep an eye open for bargains. See our Canon IXUS 870 IS / SD880 IS review for more details.


Compared to Canon IXUS 100 IS / PowerShot SD780 IS


Canon’s IXUS 100 IS / PowerShot SD780 IS shares the 2.5in screen and optical viewfinder of the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS, but enjoys a number of key benefits over the ‘flagship model’. Most importantly, it’s the slimmest IXUS / ELPH to date, with comfortable rounded corners allowing it to slip discreetly into small or tight pockets.

It’s only a few months newer than the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS, but as part of a slightly newer generation it boasts an HDMI port and HD movies in the 720p format, although still no optical zooming while filming. The DIGIC 4 processor may be the same, but the camera now features blink-detection and scene recognition in auto.

The lens is a 3x model which may zoom a fraction wider (33-100mm equivalent), but that doesn’t make much difference in real-life, so the slightly longer reach of the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS’s 3.7x range is preferred here. The flagship model also features two extra Megapixels and manual control over exposures.

But many will ultimately prefer the IXUS 100 IS / SD780 IS with its slimmer body, HD movies, HDMI port and cheaper price tag. Indeed, it currently represents a compelling combination of features and price. See our Canon IXUS 100 IS / PowerShot SD780 IS review for more details.


Compared to Canon IXUS 990 IS / PowerShot SD970 IS


Canon’s IXUS 990 IS / PowerShot SD970 IS costs roughly the same price as the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS, although like the earlier IXUS 870 IS / SD880 IS, offers an alternative range of features which you may find preferable.

In its favour, the IXUS 990 IS / SD970 IS features a longer 5x zoom (although with a 37-185mm range there’s still no true wide angle), a larger and more detailed 3in / 460k screen, an HDMI port and HD movies in the 720p format, although again still no optical zooming while filming.

In its favour, the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS features two extra Megapixels, and optical viewfinder and manual control over exposures; it also has an optional underwater housing, which isn’t available for this newer model.

While there’s still no wide angle coverage on the IXUS 990 IS / SD970 IS, many will still prefer its combination of a longer zoom, bigger screen, HDMI port and HD movies, over a model with slightly higher resolution, manual control and an optical viewfinder. As always, it’s a case of weighing up which features are most important to you.


Canon IXUS 980 IS / PowerShot SD990 IS final verdict

As we said at the top, Canon’s Digital IXUS 980 IS / PowerShot SD990 IS is a good solid compact camera with some strong features which allow it to stand out in the crowd not to mention within Canon’s own broad range. It may not be the newest model, but still features the highest resolution sensor of any IXUS / ELPH to date, and is still the only one with manual control over exposure. Add an optical viewfinder which greatly extends battery life and you’ve got a compelling camera.

But you have to think carefully about how useful these benefits will be for you in practice, and whether a model with a different feature-set will be more appropriate. Having 14.7 Megapixels in a compact body sounds impressive but in our tests it offered little benefit over a good 12 Megapixel model. The manual control may allow you to make massive under or over-exposures for special effect, but like most other compacts, don’t expect to achieve a shallow depth-of-field by simply opening the aperture. And while the optical viewfinder will definitely extend your battery life, the tiny view and lower accuracy compared to the screen will put some people off.

Even if you do find all of these benefits useful though, there’s the undeniable nagging feeling about paying for a flagship compact which doesn’t have wide angle coverage, a big screen or HD movies. Of the three models compared above, two have a bigger screen, two have HD movies, and one has a wider lens. There’s still no single model that offers it all from Canon yet, but you’ll undoubtedly find one combination of features more useful than another.

If high resolution, an optical viewfinder and manual control tick your particular boxes though, then the IXUS 980 IS / SD990 IS is a fine choice and comes Recommended. It does however miss out on our top award due to its lack of HD movies and true wide angle coverage.

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Good points
High resolution images.
Good screen with optional viewfinder.
Great battery life with viewfinder.
Manual control over exposure.

Bad points
Lacking true wide-angle coverage.
No optical zoom while filming.
No HD video or HDMI port.
Modest burst mode at 1.3fps.


(relative to 2009 compacts)

Build quality:
Image quality:


18 / 20
16 / 20
16 / 20
17 / 20
15 / 20


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All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2017 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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