Canon's latest and theoretically greatest entry into the increasingly competitive and increasingly narrow superzoom or "bridge" camera class, the SX1 IS is a 10-megapixel, 20x zoom, 1080p HD video-capable beast that shoots for the stars. Since its first S-series cameras, Canon has had a solid place in the class, with great image quality and expansive feature sets. However, Panasonic's FZ and Olympus's UZ entries have given the company a run for its money, and recently Olympus jumped far ahead in the zoom stakes. The SX1 IS is Canon's attempt to take the lead once again. Can it take the title of world's greatest bridge camera? Let's find out.
Like all of the super-zoom cameras in Canon's PowerShot line, the SX1 IS has an extremely intuitive design that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used a similar product or even a dSLR. In fact, the SX1 IS wants nothing more than to be seen as a mini-dSLR for those who don't want to muck about with interchangeable lenses and so on. Reinforcing this image is an included lens hood and a very solid SLR-style neck strap.
The camera is centered around a massive zoom lens and a huge articulating LCD screen. In this case, it's a 20x (28-560mm) lens and a 2.8" widescreen LCD of 230,000 pixels. The matte black plastic body has a solid build and a significant heft enhanced by four AA batteries in the grip. The ergonomics are good—the grip is well-shaped and an array of necessary controls is planted directly under the user's thumb.
The front of the camera is entirely free of buttons, though it does sport stereo mics on either side of the lens below the flash housing. On top, moving from left to right, you'll find the flash setting button, a popup flash and external flash hot shoe, the mode control dial, the on/off button, and the shutter, surrounded by the point and shoot-style zoom ring. The back of the camera features the aforementioned articulating LCD (tilts, swivels, slices and dices) surrounded by a bevy of buttons including: widescreen/4:3 toggle, dedicated video recording, recording/playback toggle, EV compensation, and focus point selection. Below these, to the right of the screen, a combination scroll wheel and four-way control offers options for manual focusing, ISO, and continuous shooting, macro, and self-timer modes, surrounding a central Function/Set button. Finally, display and menu buttons round things out.
Like other bridge cameras, the SX1 IS lacks an optical viewfinder. Instead, it offers a 0.4" electronic viewfinder with 148,000 pixels of resolution. While generally decent, it's nowhere near the best on the market (as seen in cameras like the Panasonic G1) and is even inferior to the one found in its own little brother, the SX10 IS.
The compartments for the SDHC card and batteries are well-designed. Their spring-loaded covers fit flush to the body and snap smartly into place. The covers for the AV outputs and power jacks, on the other hand, are unimpressive, being made of rubber and simply pressed into place. Other minor design quibbles include a video recording button that is perhaps too far to the left to be easily reached with the right thumb, a flimsy and hard to put on lens hood, and a lens barrel with an odd glossy finish that seems to be a lightning rod for dust, smudges, and general gunk.
The camera is, generally speaking, very quick and responsive. From pressing the power button it takes less than a second before it's ready to shoot, including the time taken to extend the lens. Focusing is pretty speedy as well, except in certain low light circumstances, where the lens has a tendency to hunt for focus. In these conditions it sometimes gives up entirely, and more often oscilates back and forth for quite a while before finding lock. This is not uncommon for digital cameras of any stripe, but still worth noting for one this expensive. Zoom controls are smooth and intuitive, though for my taste the zoom ring is perhaps a bit too easy to turn (leading to accidental zooming in or out). I have to say I wish Canon had included on-lens focus and zoom rings, for more precise control over each and for a more SLR-like feel.
The SX1 IS has Canon's standard menu system, which has been largely unchanged for several years. It's easy to navigate and doesn't abbreviate menu items in the way that some brands do, making it easy to tell exactly what setting you're changing.
On-screen display icons are generally easy to understand as well. The number of them varies depending on which Display setting you choose (using the DISP button toggle)--in Program and Manual modes, for instance, you'll get a histogram overlay that's quite useful for properly exposing your images and a nice addition by Canon. The camera offers Tv (shutter priority), Av (aperture priority), and C (custom user setting) modes as well as program and full Manual, taking it one step closer to dSLR territory.
Playback is also fluid, with a smooth zoom function for all you pixel peepers. Photos can be selected by date, category, folder, and other options via the unique "Jump" menu. A built-in accelerometer determines the camera's orientation and rotates the image for the best possible view (this works pretty well, with a few infrequent glitches). Paging between photos includes a pleasant fade-in/fade-out effect. Video playback looks fantastic on the LCD screen.
I'm sorry to report that the image quality from the SX1 IS is something of a mixed bag. When shooting in JPEG at ISO 80 and 100 it is very good, with well controlled image noise and noise reduction that isn't too overbearing. In bright sunlight and at a narrower aperture (f/3.2 and above) the images are sharp, contrasty, and have a nice depth of color. But go far above ISO 200-400 or shoot in dimmer conditions and things start to look a bit more grim. Canon's image processing algorithm applies a hefty dose of noise reduction at these higher ISO settings, more or less wantonly destroying fine detail. Moreover, the camera's dynamic range seems to be somewhat weak. This is compounded by the fact that rather than underexposing to preserve detail it has a tendency to overexpose, leading to blown-out areas of pure white in bright scenes with a lot of contrast.
This is disappointing for a camera with so much going for it on the design front, and for a camera that costs as much as this one does. With a MSRP of around $600, it is more expensive than some dSLRs. Given that price level, I'd expect it to produce images that are at least comparable to those produced by the cheapest dSLR/kit lens combo. But alas, that's not the case.
That said, there are bright spots to be found. For one thing, the lens is really quite nice. While at a wide open aperture of f/2.8 it displays some chromatic aberrations (purple fringing), stopped down a bit it's surprisingly sharp and has better bokeh (smoothness in out of focus areas) than most cameras in its class. As stated above, in bright light it's an able performer, cranking out well-exposed, contrasty shots with vivid colors ideal for the consumer market. Visible distortion is low, with the expected barrel distortion at the wide end and slight pincushion at telephoto, but surprisingly well controlled throughout.
It also boasts, among its impressive array of shooting modes, an excellent "Super Macro" mode, a staple of the S and SX superzoom lines, which allows the lens focus on objects that are touching the lens glass (don't do this with anything sticky!). The effect can be quite stunning, and it's a mode that will get a lot of use from flower lovers and those fascinated by creepy crawlies.
RAW shooting is a great addition to a bridge camera like this, giving the user a much greater range of control over post-shooting "developing" than they would have with plain JPEG shooting. This feature alone brings the camera much closer to dSLR territory, and will undoubtedly help to save some of the lesser shots it will put out—that is, if any users choose to use it.
The SX1 IS uses a CMOS sensor, the same sort of sensor (albeit physically smaller) used in Canon's dSLR line. The "little brother" SX10 IS uses a more traditional CCD sensor. Presumably the switch to the CMOS sensor is to better facilitate the camera's HD video recording and to enable a quicker continuous shooting rate. Interestingly, the image quality from the SX1's CMOS sensor is reportedly somewhat lower than that of the SX10's older CCD technology. Our editor Mike Brady was quite high on the SX10's image quality in his review, but I can't claim the same enthusiasm for the SX1.
1080p HD video on the SX1 IS is quite good in general, though at times in high speed panning motions it does display a certain kind of distortion that I've seen before (namely in the Kodak Zi6). Essentially, when panning quickly, the image seems to tear, or slant to one side in the direction of the panning motion—in essence, it makes the image look like Jell-O until the panning slows again. Aside from this issue (and it's far less pronounced than on the Zi6), the HD video is bright, crisp, and has relatively low noise, at least in good light. In addition, the camera is equipped with two high-quality mics for excellent stereo sound in video playback.
Despite my many gripes, the SX1 IS is still quite an impressive feat of engineering, and will be an attractive camera to many consumers. With a 10-megapixel CMOS sensor, a fast 4fps continuous shooting mode, crisp 1080p HD video, an articulating 2.8" widescreen LCD, full manual controls, RAW shooting, and an incredible 20x zoom lens, it's one of the most attractive packages on the market. And while the image quality could certainly be better, and the electronic viewfinder could be larger, it's an extremely fun and intuitive camera to use.
The real problem with the SX1 IS is how it fares against the far less expensive SX10 IS. At roughly 60% the cost of the SX1, the SX10 offers slightly better image quality with the same number of megapixels. It also has a slightly better viewfinder, and possibly better battery life as well. On the other hand, it lacks HD video recording, lacks RAW recording, and has a slower continuous shooting mode. Aside from these differences, the cameras are nearly identical. It's up to the consumer to decide whether the difference is worth an additional $200.