Canon’s Digital IXUS 870IS (or PowerShot SD 880IS Digital ELPH as it’s known in North America) is a 10 Megapixel compact with a 4x optically-stabilised zoom and 3in screen. Announced in September 2008, it’s the successor to the IXUS 860IS / PowerShot SD 870IS. The new model adds two extra Megapixels, extends the optical zoom range a little to an equivalent of 28-112mm, enjoys redesigned controls and features the latest DIGIC 4 processor.
DIGIC 4 is probably the most significant upgrade here, equipping the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS with more efficient H.264 compression for movies, improved face detection which better handles profiles, and a new Servo AF mode for tracking subjects in motion; Canon also claims improved noise reduction. The previous IXUS 860IS / SD 870IS was one of our favourite compacts, so the new model has much to live up to. Find out whether it’s a worthy successor in our review where we’ll detail the new features and directly compare the image quality against key rivals.
Measuring 94x57x24mm and weighing 180g with its rechargeable battery, the new IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS shares virtually the same vital statistics as its predecessor, although has slimmed down by 2mm. While still on the chunky side of the compact market, the 2mm reduction does make it look and feel a little more svelte than the IXUS 860IS / SD 870IS. Either way, it’s best-suited to bags and larger coat pockets than shirt or trouser pockets.
The exterior shape is essentially the same as its predecessor with a couple of small tweaks. In terms of a front grip, your right middle finger still has to perch on the cross-hatched Canon logo, although a slightly thickened right-hand edge makes it a little more comfortable. Interestingly the vertical ridge which previously ran alongside the right of the screen as a thumb rest has now been switched for a small patch of raised triangular shapes; we preferred the previous arrangement, but the new patch still allows for an effective thumb rest. The build quality is essentially the same as its predecessor, feeling solid and confident with no creaks or poor joins to worry about. Since it’s slimmer, the previous underwater casing won’t work with the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS, but Canon offers a new WP-DC26 accessory that’s good to depths of 40m.
Canon’s taken the opportunity to redesign some of the controls, which may be in the same positions as before but now feature newly shaped buttons. The biggest change in terms of controls is a swap from the touch-sensitive circle on the rear of its predecessor to a more conventional wheel which simply turns. In use this is much more tactile, responsive and consistent than the touch wheel, which we frequently found frustrating.
The IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS is powered by the same NB-5L rechargeable Lithium Ion battery pack as its predecessor, which Canon claims is good for 310 shots under CIPA conditions – around 40 more than before, thanks no-doubt to the lower power consumption of the newer image processor. The battery compartment also houses an SD memory card slot, and alongside the door, just off-centre, is a metal tripod thread. Behind a small flap on the right side of the body you’ll find a combined USB and TV output – the camera’s only port.
Canon’s slightly extended the optical zoom range from 3.8 to 4x, although this makes little difference in real-life and is more likely a decision made for marketing purposes. So the previous 28-105mm equivalent range has now become 28-112mm, giving the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS 7mm longer reach than its predecessor. At least the 28mm wide angle coverage is still present though, and unusually remains a rare specification on Canon’s current range of compacts. As always, wide-angle coverage is invaluable when you’re faced with expansive landscapes, large buildings, cramped interiors or big group shots. You can see an example of its coverage below, and further examples of how you can use it in our sample images Gallery.
Canon IXUS 870IS / PowerShot SD 880IS coverage
5-20mm at 5mm (28 mm equivalent)
5-20mm at 20mm (112mm equivalent)
The lens extends rapidly upon power-up with the camera ready for action in around 1.5 seconds. A rocker around the shutter release operates the zoom motor with the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS lurching a little between increments – we counted 10 steps between wide angle and telephoto. The focal ratio remains f2.8-5.8 but the closest focusing distance when zoomed-out has been improved from 3cm to 2cm – this allows for impressive close-up shots although it’s difficult not to cast shadows on the subject at the closest distance.
The IS in the camera’s title stands for Image Stabilisation, which helps combat camera shake. It’s an optical system and Canon offers three modes: Continuous where the system operates all the time, Shoot Only which only applies stabilisation as you take the photo, and Panning which only stabilises in the vertical axis for when you’re moving the camera horizontally as you take the photo – for an example of using the latter, see the Blurring Action tutorial at our sister site, DSLR Tips.
Canon IXUS 870IS / PowerShot SD 880IS Image Stabilisation off / on (Continuous)
100% crop, 5-20mm at 20mm, 1/10, 100 ISO, IS off
100% crop, 5-20mm at 20mm, 1/10, 100 ISO, IS on
Above are examples taken with and without Continuous stabilisation with the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS fully zoomed-into its maximum equivalent of 112mm. Traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/112 to eliminate camera shake, so by achieving almost complete sharpness at 1/10 with stabilisation proves the system is good for around three stops of compensation.
Round the back is a 3in screen with 230k pixels – the same spec as its predecessor, but using one of Canon’s latest Pure Colour II panels which claims brighter colours and a wider viewing angle. In use the screen certainly looked very good and is one of the best 3in / 230k models we’ve seen.
Like other recent Canon compacts, the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS features a useful superimposed Function menu which runs vertically down the left side of the screen when you press the FUNC SET button. Pressing the up and down buttons will highlight each setting available in the current mode, with the options for each shown in a strip running along the bottom of the screen; you then simply press the left and right buttons or spin the rear wheel to set the desired value. This system allows you to quickly and easily adjust aspects like the image quality, white balance, metering and exposure compensation.
The direction buttons double-up outside of the Function menu to offer direct adjustments over the ISO sensitivity, flash, drive and focus modes, again with the wheel offering quick and tactile control over the options. Above these are the play and direct print buttons, while below are the Menu and DISP buttons.
While shooting, the DISP button switches between a clean view of the image or one with shooting information. You can enable a three-by-three grid in one of the menus, but sadly there’s still no live histogram.
During playback, the DISP button cycles between a clean view and ones with basic or detailed shooting information, the latter including a brightness histogram. An additional page in playback shows a thumbnail of the image alongside an enlarged portion showing the active focus area. If the photo was taken with Face Detection, then the enlargement will show the primary subject’s face, allowing you to quickly check their expression and confirm the focus. You can also zoom-in further on the detail if desired, or switch between other focus points – it’s a handy feature in practice. Turning the camera to the side will rotate the image by 90 degrees to always remain upright – handy for filling the screen with a portrait aspect shot.
The IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS has access to shutter speeds from 1/1600 to 15 seconds and two aperture settings, but like its predecessor, there’s no means to manually adjust them. If you want manual control over the exposure from an IXUS or ELPH, you’ll need the IXUS 980IS / SD 990IS, although while this additionally boasts 14.7 Megapixels and an optical viewfinder, it loses the 28mm wide-angle and 3in screen.
A three-way switch on the top of the body sets the camera between movie mode, scene presets and normal recording. In any of the three main modes, the rear thumb wheel is used to select sub-modes. For example, with the switch set to normal recording, the wheel will switch between full Auto and Program modes. With the switch set to Scene, the wheel offers a choice of 17 scene presets (including stitch assist and Canon’s Colour Swap and Colour Accent modes). Finally, with movie selected, the wheel switches between Standard, Colour Accent and Colour Swap. That’s a broad array of options, although there’s still no scene recognition boasted by several rival models, and sadly the time-lapse movie feature of its predecessor is also no longer offered.
The movie mode can capture 640×480 VGA or 320×240 QVGA video at 30fps. The new DIGIC 4 processor compresses the video using the modern H.264 format and encodes the audio as Linear PCM at 16 bit / 44.1KHz, then stores the result in a QuickTime MOV wrapper. Canon claims H.264 compression is more efficient than its previous video codec, and indeed the best quality VGA mode here typically consumes 1.2MB per second compared to the 1.9MB of its predecessor.
Of course the compression level could simply have been increased, but movie files from the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS look very good when played back: smooth motion with lots of detail and few artefacts to mention. It’s a decent upgrade provided by the DIGIC 4 processor, and we look forward to seeing how it handles the 1080p HD video of the PowerShot SX1 IS and EOS 5D Mark II.
That said, it is a shame the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS doesn’t already record HD video – after all, its rival the Panasonic Lumix FX35 offers a 720p mode, and the company has long-offered standard definition recording in widescreen. It’s also worth noting the Canon’s optical zoom is locked once you start filming, with only a increasingly fuzzy digital zoom at your disposal. The maximum movie length is around one hour or when the file size reaches 4GB.
The IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS can also record one minute long audio clips which are attached to images, or like its predecessor can alternatively be used as a voice recorder, storing up to two hours per file at sampling rates of 11.025, 22.050 or 44.100 KHz – handy if you’re taking longer spoken notes or conducting an interview.
DIGIC 4 also brings a number of enhancements to focusing. The IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS now offers a Servo AF mode which keeps tracking a subject while the shutter release is half-pressed. Face detection has also been improved with faster response and better recognition of profiles – in our tests the IXUS 870IS / SD 800IS certainly stayed locked onto faces turning to profile longer than models employing the previous DIGIC 3. There’s also a clever Face Self-Timer mode which waits until it sees another face enter the frame before pausing for two seconds then taking three photos. Finally, DIGIC 4 offers I-Contrast options which can tweak the brightness of dark areas in the frame to improve their appearance.
The IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS offers a basic continuous shooting mode that may fire until you run out of memory, but at a relatively slow rate of 1.4fps which isn’t really appropriate for any kind of action photography. We fired-off 20 frames in a relatively pedestrian 14 seconds, confirming the quoted rate of 1.4fps. It’s a shame there’s no faster option, either with a reduced number of frames or at a lower resolution.
Sticking with drive modes, the usual 10 and two second self timers along with the Face timer mentioned above, are complemented by a custom option which lets you set the countdown to as long as 30 seconds, and have the camera take one to ten shots at the end. This is handy for maximising your chance of successful poses and expressions in timed group shots.
At the heart of the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS is a 10 Megapixel CCD sensor measuring 1/ 2.3in; the same as the cheaper PowerShot A2000 IS, albeit with a different image processor. The sensor delivers images with a maximum resolution of 3648×2736 pixels, which can be printed up to 12x9in at 300dpi. Four lower resolutions and a cropped 16:9 mode are available, and images can be recorded with the choice of three JPEG compression levels: Normal, Fine and Superfine. Unsurprisingly, there’s no RAW mode – you’ll need the PowerShot G10 for that.
Set to 10 Megapixel resolution, these compression settings deliver files that typically measure 1.2, 2.5 and 4.3MB respectively. Like other Canon compacts, there’s no built-in memory, but Canon supplies a 32MB SD card to get you started – since this is only good for about seven or 12 Superfine or Fine JPEGs though, you’ll be wanting to fit a bigger card sooner rather than later.
The sensitivity ranges from 80 to 1600 ISO at full resolution, with a 3200 ISO Scene Preset operating at a greatly reduced resolution of 2 Megapixels.
Finally, Canon claims DIGIC 4 offers improved noise reduction, so to see how the quality of the IXUS 870IS / SD 880IS 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.