On paper, the Canon PowerShot SD4500 has the specs to be the only carry-around camera you'll ever need: A compact body built around a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor for fast performance, 1080p video, and good low-light shooting, with a 10x lens slapped on the front, all for a reasonable $300.
Of course, any camera that tries to do it all has to make compromises here and there, and the SD4500 certainly does. Despite good intentions, its performance boost doesn't outweigh the design limitations, and the SD4500 comes up short of the mark.
Body and Design
The SD4500 is average-sized for a compact-zoom camera. It's slightly longer and wider than an iPhone, and it’s a bit thicker than a deck of cards. It can easily fit into coat pockets and maybe into loose pants, but it’s a bit too bulky to carry around in jeans or tighter pants.
As we’d expect from an ELPH, the design is minimalist and modern, and it most closely resembles the SD4000, only larger. It’s available in one color, brown, which seems like an odd choice rather than, say, black, silver, or any color of the rainbow, for example. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the SD4500 won’t be winning any beauty pageants.
The layout and control scheme are also very ELPH-like. There’s no mode dial, just a three-way switch up top for video mode, camera mode, and Smart Auto mode. A 3-inch widescreen LCD dominates the rear panel, flanked on the right by a dedicated video button, menu button, playback button, and a selection wheel with a function button in the center. The flash is fixed into the front panel -- it is not a pop-up flash.
Canon slapped the HS (“high sensitivity”) system tag onto the SD4500, which means that it's built around a 10 megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor and a DIGIC 4 image processor. BSI CMOS sensors are capable of speedy burst shooting and 1080p HD video recording. They usually churn out better high-ISO shots than their traditional CCD counterparts, too, which is helpful for low-light shooting. BSI CMOS sensors are the "next big thing" for compact cameras, and the SD4500 is Canon's first attempt at putting one in long-zoom camera. Canon also uses the DIGIC 4 processor in higher-end models like the S95 and T2i; if it’s good enough for those cameras, it’s good enough for the SD4500.
The HS system brought very solid low-light shooting to the SD4000, but that camera had an f/2.0 lens. The SD4500’s lens is a weak point by comparison. The maximum aperture is just f/3.4, which can be a major hindrance to low-light shooting, and it starts at 36mm, making it one of the narrowest compact-camera lenses on the market. It does extend to a relatively generous 360mm, however.
Performance and User Experience
It’s an ELPH at heart, so the SD4500’s interface is intuitive and mostly automatic. The software reliably chooses the right settings in most cases. Users can adjust ISO and white balance settings, as well as play around with pre-set scene modes and Canon’s popular in-camera filters and effects, which are always a lot of fun. Basically, it's a good fit for novices and casual shooters.
But this is a $300 camera with possible enthusiast appeal, so the lack of aperture and shutter priority modes is odd, and sure to be off-putting for hands-on users. Those manual modes would be helpful in challenging shooting situations, too -- the SD4500 is marketed as a low-light shooter, after all, so the extra control would've been appreciated.
I did run into one clever control feature that I hadn’t seen before. As usual, the selection wheel on the SD4500 doubles as a four-way selection pad. And as usual, the selection wheel is unlabeled; this usually leads to a guessing game where unfamiliar or forgetful users struggle to find the flash toggle, the timer toggle, and so forth. But on the SD4500, half-pressing the wheel in any direction brings up a legend on the LCD. Mystery solved. This is a clever feature that should be on every camera with a selection wheel.
For a camera with a BSI CMOS sensor, the SD4500 is on the slow side, but not terribly so. It takes about 3 seconds to start up, and about 2 seconds between shots, though shutter lag is negligible as long as the camera is pre-focused. It’s capable of shooting 3.6 full-resolution frames per second in continuous mode; that’s speedy compared to standard CCD-based cameras, but much slower than other MOS-type cameras. The buffer is unlimited however, so it's a legitimate continuous mode. High-speed burst mode picks up the pace to 8.8 fps, but drops the resolution down to 2.5 megapixels. Speed isn't an asset, but it's not a problem either.
The SD4500 has the weakest battery I’ve come across in any compact zoom camera, even shorter than cameras with battery-sucking GPS units. I got about 120 shots from each charge, a far cry from the usual 180-220 I get from most similar cameras. It dies with little warning, too; once the indicator gets down to the final bar, the battery has about 5 shots left on it, not one-third of the charge. It's way behind the competition here.
Image and Video Quality
Canon wants the world to see the SD4500 as an adept low-light shooter. It outperforms most compact zooms in dim settings, but it’s not a night-and-day difference, and the low-light boost comes at the expense of overall image quality.
Let’s start with the good parts. As expected, it takes some nice shots in bright outdoor conditions, though it’s tough for any camera to botch pictures in that setting. They're well-exposed, the details are decently crisp, the colors are vibrant, as expected from a Canon. Under artificial indoor lighting, it still does pretty well. Automatic white balance doesn't compensate correctly for certain kinds of lights, leaving shots jaundiced, but a manual white balance clears it right up (really, it's not that hard to do). The flash is a bit weak, but still useful across a room. For regular computer-screen viewing and even medium size prints, it's all good.
The SD4500 handles high-ISO shots well for a small-sensored camera. Colors stay saturated and chromatic noise is well controlled through ISO 800, and even ISO 1600 is OK. In particular, outdoor nighttime shots are nice and clear. There is a Handheld Nightshot mode, which appears to be code for HDR mode (high-dynamic resolution photos combine a few separate shots, each taken with a slightly different exposure, into one image). It's not all that effective -- you won't pull beautiful shots from un-shootable situations -- but it's a nice option to have, and enriches colors.
But like other BSI CMOS-backed compacts, shots throughout the ISO scale are soft. Around ISO 400, the wet-watercolor effect kicks in. Textures and edges start to look like they were dabbed on with a paintbrush. Like I said, this isn’t a big deal for viewing photos on computer screens, or even medium-sized prints. But it is distracting at a pixel level, and large prints could look a bit “soft-focus.”
Harsher image quality problems pop up at the pixel level as well. There's obvious barrel-distortion at the edges and corners of shots, especially at the wide-angle. There’s often some heinous green and purple fringing in those peripheral areas as well, much more noticeable than with most cameras.
Even with great high-ISO performance, the SD4500 is not a foolproof low-light shooter. I tried shooting at a local venue, sans flash, and the results were just as blurry as with any CCD camera I’ve used. That’s one of the toughest situations for any camera, and I wasn't expecting dSLR-quality shots, but I have seen it done with a compact zoom: the Nikon S8100 fakes it convincingly.
Video quality is a strong point. The highest-quality mode, 1080p at 24fps looks quite nice, on par with some standalone pocket camcorders and much better than smartphones. As expected, low-light filming is above average here. Optical zoom is available in video mode; while it's slow, the motor noise picked up by the microphone is pretty quiet for a compact camera. The audio, recorded via built-in stereo microphone, is nice and clear as well.
The SD4500 has a few good things going for it: The overall image quality is good enough for most folks, the 10x zoom range is satisfactory, the 1080p video is quite nice, and high-ISO image quality is some of the best in the class.
But it just has too many flaws to really stand out in the crowded compact zoom niche. The battery life is atrocious. The lack of manual control is frustrating. And it's not as nimble in the dark as I'd hoped: despite the clean high-ISO shots, it's not as good as the Nikon S8100 at pulling something usable from tough lighting conditions. In other words, the SD4500 takes more realistic shots than the S8100, but the S8100 is more likely to get a good exposure. That is, if you take side-by-side shots in a dark room without the flash, the SD4500 will churn out a dark, muddled shot with few details -- exactly what the room looks like in the dark, in other words -- while the Nikon S8100 will produce a visible scene. It may not be true-to-life, but at least it’s something.
Outdoors, neither camera is particularly great, but they’re flawed in different ways -- the Canon has those gnarly IQ issues at the edges and corners, while the Nikon tends to blow out highlights and dull the colors. Pick your poison, though we side with the Nikon S8100: It’s marketed as a low-light shooter, and it gets at least decent low-light shots every time. It’s also smaller, lighter, and ships with a much longer battery life.
The SD4500 tries to be everything to everybody, but falls short of what it promises and will inevitably let down many users. It has some redeeming qualities in its video mode and with high ISO shooting, but with a better option out there and a many more on the way, it's best to skip the SD4500.