Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
Written by Gordon Laing
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS verdict
Canon’s PowerShot SX20 IS delivers a number of minor but mostly useful enhancements to its predecessor, and therefore makes a best-seller an even more compelling prospect. Of the new upgrades, the most welcome is without a doubt the inclusion of HD video recording, while along with an HDMI port better completes the overall feature-set.
The earlier PowerShot SX10 IS already enjoyed great movie functionality with stereo sound, the ability to optically zoom while filming, and a handy red button on the rear which could start recording at any time. The only thing which disappointed was the VGA quality, which fell way below the 720p mode of its arch rival at the time, Panasonic’s FZ28. By now equipping the SX20 IS with a 720p option, it’s become much more useful, although it should be noted Panasonic’s also taken a couple of leaves in return by fitting stereo mics and a record button to its latest FZ38 / FZ35. It’s also interesting to note both new models feature HDMI ports too.
Scene detection was another area where Canon’s previous super-zoom fell behind its major rival. Panasonic has long offered scene detection in full Auto, and now thankfully the SX20 IS has it too. Canon’s system, first seen in models like the SX200 IS, also boasts the ability to detect different lighting conditions, which certainly prevents any nasty surprises in strongly backlit situations. The camera can also warn if it thinks anyone has blinked in a shot.
The PowerShot SX20 IS is also friendlier throughout than its predecessor, offering brief explanations of various settings – these hints and tips can be disabled if you prefer though. And if you’re the kind of person who liked seeing the date and time burnt into the corner of old film photos (and we know there’s a few of you out there who really did), then you’ll love the Date Stamp option.
These new features enhance what was already a very solid specification, where the highlight remains the 20x optical zoom range. This is extremely flexible in use, taking you all the way from decent wide-angle to serious telephoto, with effective stabilisation ironing-out most wobbles.
The screen may be no bigger or detailed than before, but it still twists and flips to any angle, allowing you to easily compose at unusual angles – this is a key advantage the camera has over its rival from Panasonic which may have a slightly larger screen, but one that’s still fixed in position.
Another advantage over the Panasonic is the hotshoe which can accommodate most of Canon’s external Speedlites – handy for when you need more light.
So far so good, but there are of course some disappointments. Starting with the new features, the 2 Megapixel boost in resolution was an unnecessary, although inevitable ‘upgrade’, in order to play the marketing numbers game – although to be fair, Panasonic has done exactly the same with its FZ38 / FZ35. In practice, you won’t notice significantly more detail over the previous 10 Megapixel models, and comparing our results with the earlier SX10 IS reveals greater noise reduction at higher sensitivities with undesirable softening and smearing artefacts.
Before you think the SX20 IS has actually taken a step-backwards in photo quality though, the SX10 IS was no angel above 400 ISO either, and while it enjoys a slight edge at the upper-end of the sensitivity range, you’d really want to avoid using either model at these settings where possible. In their comfort zone of 200 ISO and below, there’s little between them.
Of greater concern is the coloured fringing around high contrast subjects – a problem on the SX10 IS inherited here. To be fair, fringing is an inevitable side-effect of packing a super-zoom range into a compact body, and the Panasonic FZ38 / FZ35 equally suffers from it. But the big difference is the FZ38 / FZ35, like its predecessor, digitally corrects the fringing from its JPEGs for an eerily clean result. This was a major difference one year ago, so it’s disappointing to find Canon hasn’t done anything about it in the new model.
Sadly there’s still no RAW files on the SX20 IS, so no chance of automatically correcting any fringing in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software either. Again, another advantage of the FZ38 / FZ35, which like its predecessor, can record RAW files. Before you think Panasonic takes the lead in image quality though, another thing the FZ38 / FZ35 inherits from its predecessor is a daft Program line, which often selects smaller apertures than it really needs to. This is an issue for compacts, as diffraction (resulting in an overall softening of the image) can kick-in as soon as f5.6, and this is an aperture the Panasonic regularly selects under bright conditions, when the Canon more sensibly sticks at f4 for sharper results. You can see an example of this in the results page of our Panasonic FZ38 / FZ35 review.
But back to the SX20 IS downsides, which include even slower continuous shooting than its predecessor. If you thought the 1.4fps of the SX10 IS was useless, then how about having 1fps on the SX20 IS? You may be able to keep shooting until you run out of memory, but with most action sequences over in a second or two, you’re unlikely to capture them with this camera.
Before making our usual comparisons with rival models, it’s finally worth noting a couple of handy features from the SX10 IS have mysteriously disappeared. The Sound Recorder, buried in the SX10 IS’s playback menus, could capture up to two hours of high quality audio – great for interviews, but sadly not present on the new model.
The SX20 IS may now have scene detection, but the Auto ISO Shift facility of the SX10 IS has gone. This could optionally suggest a higher ISO if it thought your manual setting would result in camera shake. A little nannying, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Arguably the worst omission though is the absence of its predecessor’s SuperFine JPEG option. Now the SX20 IS is limited to just Normal or Fine compression, and it’s quite revealing to compare file sizes in our Galleries between it and the Panasonic FZ38 / FZ35 – given both share the same resolution. Big memory cards are cheap, so it seems odd to remove any milder compression settings for no good reason. Which now brings us to our comparison with its rival models.
Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35
Panasonic’s Lumix FZ38 / FZ35 is the biggest rival to the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, and both share a great deal in common. Both cameras sport 12 Megapixel resolution, optically-stabilised super-zooms with wide angle coverage, 720p video with stereo sound, full manual control and DSLR-styled bodies with HDMI ports, but beyond these, there’s pros and cons to each model.
Most obviously the SX20 IS has a slightly longer 20x zoom range, a slightly smaller but fully-articulated screen which allows comfortable composition at any angle, a flash hotshoe for mounting external Speedlites, and an electronic viewfinder with the same resolution but a bigger apparent size. Both cameras may have full manual control, but spinning the large thumb wheel of the Canon felt ergonomically superior to us than prodding the tiny joystick on the Panasonic. Finally, the Canon may be larger and heavier, but many will prefer its heft, along with the convenience of picking up spare AA batteries almost anywhere. It’s a small point, but the SX20 IS’s lens cap also won’t prevent the lens from extending, and its lens hood is more portable.
The FZ38 / FZ35’s optical range may be slightly shorter, but as seen on our Features page, it doesn’t make a significant difference in practice – and more importantly, the Panasonic digitally corrects the coloured fringing seen towards the corners in many of the Canon’s images. It’s also worth noting the maximum aperture of the FZ38 / FZ35 when zoomed-into 486mm is a brighter f4.4, compared to f5.7 of the SX20 IS from 460-560mm, and in our High ISO results, the Panasonic also had the edge above 400 ISO. We additionally found the FZ38 / FZ35’s stabilisation was approximately one stop more effective and the AF speed slightly faster.
Unlike the SX20 IS, the FZ38 / FZ35 also features RAW recording facilities, manual control over the exposure in the movie mode, potentially longer movie recordings (on the FZ35 version anyway), a longer maximum exposure of 60 seconds, and some usable burst options, albeit either with a limited buffer or at a reduced resolution. Some will also prefer its rechargeable Lithium Ion battery pack to the AAs of the SX20 IS, and while the EVF is smaller, it’s noticeably less coarse.
The FZ38 / FZ35 is also a smaller and considerably lighter camera, weighing 414g with its battery compared to the 680g of the SX20 IS when fitted with four typical AA batteries. It additionally sports a slightly larger – albeit fixed – 2.7in screen which looks more vibrant in use. Finally, depending on the shop, the price of the FZ38 / FZ35 is a little cheaper than the Canon.
As always you need to carefully think about which of the features described above will mean most to you in practice, for example the articulated screen, hotshoe and AA batteries of the Canon versus the RAW mode, fringe-correction and slightly better AF and stabilisation of the Panasonic. One thing’s for certain though, the FZ38 / FZ35 is a superb super-zoom which is likely to become another best-seller. See our Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38 / FZ35 review for more details.
Compared to Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS is the closest model to the SX20 IS, sharing essentially the same body and exactly the same 20x optical zoom range. It costs roughly one third more than the SX20 IS, but boasts three key advantages: 1080p Full HD video, 4fps continuous shooting and RAW facilities. It also offers a digital teleconverter option for the movie mode which effectively doubles the focal length without compromising quality.
Interestingly, when the SX1 IS was launched alongside the earlier SX10 IS, two of its key differentiators were HD video and an HDMI port. Now that Canon’s upgraded the new SX20 IS with an HDMI port and HD video – albeit at a lower resolution of 720p – the gap has narrowed between the two models.
There are a couple of other differences worth mentioning. First, the SX1 IS employs a 16:9 widescreen viewfinder and monitor, which match the shape of its HD movie mode. That’s great news when filming, but the flipside is when shooting in the best quality photo mode, you’ll have a squarer image with blank vertical strips running down each side. So if you mostly shoot stills in 4:3, the active area on the screen and in the viewfinder will be smaller than on the SX20 IS; this is accentuated by the SX1 IS’s viewfinder, which even in widescreen appears fairly small.
The second difference worth noting is their resolution, with the SX20 IS enjoying an ‘advantage’ of two extra Megapixels, although the bottom line is it doesn’t make a significant difference in quality.
So screen shape and resolution aside, the key benefits of the SX1 IS are higher resolution 1080p video, faster 4fps continuous shooting, and official support for RAW files. Ultimately you have to ask yourself if it’s worth paying the extra for these features. Some will jump at the chance, while others will find the SX20 IS sufficient, and there’s a chance the CHDK hack may unofficially add RAW in the future. Check out our Canon PowerShot SX1 IS review for more details. Check out our Canon PowerShot SX1 IS review for more details.
Compared to Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
The Canon SX1 IS isn’t the only super-zoom camera with a CMOS sensor, fast continuous shooting and better than 720p video. Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 also offers all of that and at a price that’s much closer to that of the Canon SX20 IS.
In its favour, the HX1 boasts much quicker 10fps continuous shooting (albeit for only ten frames and tying the camera up for a while, but still ten times faster than the Canon), higher resolution HD movies (1440×1080 vs 1280×720), a larger 3in screen which may not be fully-articulated but still tilts, smile detection, and Sony’s unique Handheld Twilight, Anti Motion Blur and Sweep Panorama modes.
In its favour, the Canon SX20 IS features three extra Megapixels, a fully-articulated screen (albeit one that’s smaller) and a flash hotshoe. It’s also a little cheaper.
While many people considering the Canon SX20 IS will be most closely comparing it against the Panasonic Lumix FZ38 / FZ35, Sony’s Cyber-shot HX1 has gradually fallen in price to become an equally compelling rival. Certainly if you’re into action photography, it’s one of the best choices out there. See our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 review for more details.
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS final verdict
Canon’s earlier PowerShot SX10 IS was one of the best super-zooms around, so while the enhancements on the new model aren’t radical, they’ve made a great camera even better. Two out of three requests we made last year have been addressed here, with the addition of HD video recording and an HDMI port, and we’re not surprised to find the third, RAW recording, remains absent.
So it will come as no surprise to find the SX20 IS an easy camera to recommend, but it’s important to note the competition hasn’t stood still. Panasonic remains an arch rival, and its latest super-zoom, the Lumix FZ38 / FZ35, has also become even more compelling than before. Interestingly both cameras also grow ever-closer, with Canon adding 720p movies, Panasonic fitting stereo mics and a dedicated record button, and both companies equipping their latest with 12 Megapixel sensors and HDMI ports.
Drill-down though and a number of key differences emerge. The Canon initially looks strongest with an articulated screen and flash hotshoe in its favour, but the Panasonic counters this with RAW files, slightly better AF and IS, longer recording times, manual exposures in movies, more usable burst options and automatic correction of coloured fringing. It’s also worth noting Canon has mysteriously removed some features of its predecessor, including the sound recorder and Super Fine JPEG option; indeed some omissions or poor performance (like the lack of mild compression or disappointing continuous shooting) seem there only to greater differentiate it from the SX1 IS. We’ve detailed all the differences above.
But the bottom line is the PowerShot SX20 IS is a great super-zoom camera overall and one which rarely disappoints in use – indeed by effectively taking the SX10 IS and equipping it with HD video and an HDMI port, it’ll make many people very happy. As for choosing between it and the Panasonic, you simply have to weigh-up which features mean the most to you – and be honest as the while the flash hotshoe on the Canon or RAW files of the Panasonic could influence a decision, how much would you actually use them in practice?
Ultimately our final words are the same as those on our Panasonic review: like its predecessor, the SX20 IS it delivers a compelling array of features for the money and easily comes Highly Recommended. Just ensure you compare it very closely with its arch rival.
(relative to 2009 super-zooms)
17 / 20
17 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20