Canon PowerShot A3100 IS Review
Canon PowerShot A3100 IS Introduction
The Canon PowerShot A3100 IS replaces the A2100 as the new top-of-the-range model in the affordable PowerShot range of digital cameras. Featuring a 12.1 megapixel image sensor, 4x optical zoom lens complete with image stabilizer and 2.7 inch LCD screen, the A3100 IS sports a slim and lightweight body in three different colours. Other highlights include 18 shooting modes including Smart Auto and Easy modes with Scene Detection Technology for point-and-shoot operation, Face Detection, Face Select & Track, FaceSelf-Timer, i-Contrast and Auto Red-Eye Correction technologies, the DIGIC III image processing engine and VGA movie recording. Available in red, silver and blue for $179.99 / £189 we find out if the Canon PowerShot A3100 IS deserves its place at the top of the Canon A-series range.
Ease of Use
The Canon PowerShot A3100 IS is outwardly very similar to the more expensive and better-specced A2100 IS camera, which has now been dropped from the range, and the cheaper and less-capable A1100 IS, which is still listed as an available model. Despite its budget price-tag, the A3100 a well-made and compact digital camera with a serious matt-blue plastic body and excellent overall finish. It's easily small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, mainly thanks to the new 4x optical zoom lens that's equivalent to a 35-140mm focal length and an excellent maximum aperture of f/2.7. Although the zoom range on offer is smaller than the 6x of the A2100, it does make the A3100 a slimmer and lighter camera, measuring 2.8cms thick when turned off and weighing 30gms less at 155gms without the battery or memory card fitted.
Every aspect of the Canon A3100 IS has a quality feel with nothing feeling flimsy or ill-thought out. The main criticism that we leveled at previous PowerShots, namely that the tripod mount was plastic instead of metal and positioned in the extreme left corner of the bottom of the camera, has been rectified by the A3100's central, metal mount, so kudos to Canon for listening to user feedback. One of the most significant changes to the A3100 is the use of a Lithium Ion battery rather than AA batteries, which virtually all previous A-series Canon cameras have used. This helps make the camera lighter and significantly improves the battery life to around 225 shots from a full charge, but it does take away the flexibility of using widely available AA batteries and makes it more expensive to buy spares.
The A3100 continues to lack any kind of hand-grip. Older PowerShot models were comfortable to hold thanks to a chunky, rubberised hand-grip, but this has been completely removed on the A3100 (and the previous A2100), replaced instead by a smooth, flat finish, embossed with the Canon logo. This makes it more difficult to hold the camera than it really should be, especially as there's only a tiny horizontal row of three raised dots on the rear of the camera to assist you. On a more positive note, the majority of the external controls are well-made and easy to operate, with the action of the shooting mode dial stiff enough to resist being inadvertently turned to the wrong mode when stored in a pocket or bag. There are no real innovative features here, but everything that the Canon Powershot A3100 IS does, it does well.
The Canon Powershot A3100 IS has relatively few external controls, just 11 in total, which reflects the fact that this is quite a simple camera in functionality terms with only limited photographic control on offer. Compared to older A-series models like the popular A720 IS, which offered a full range of creative shooting modes, this continues the more simplistic approach that Canon have taken at this price-point. It's not a big deal for the less-experienced snapper, who will get more use out of the point-and-shoot Easy and Smart Auto modes, but for many keen photographers looking for a second, pocket camera, there is no longer a cheap but capable compact in the Canon range. If you really want a fully-capable PowerShot, then the S90 or the G11 are much better but also much more expensive alternatives.
Looking from the rear from left to right, located on top of the A3100 IS are the microphone holes, On/Off button, small Shutter button and the Shooting Mode Dial. The latter is now rather inconveniently placed to the far-right of the top-plate, which is where the shutter button would more naturally be positioned. More annoyingly, the push/pull zoom lever of the previous A2100 / A1100 models has been replaced by thumb-operated zoom out / zoom in buttons, which are less precise and slower to operate. On the bottom of the A3100 are the tripod mount and the battery compartment, which also houses the SD memory card slot.
On the rear of the A3100 is a now standard 2.7 inch LCD screen which offers 100% scene coverage, an average resolution of 230k dots, a wide viewing angle from left to right, and is visible in all but the brightest of sunlit conditions. There is no optical viewfinder on this model. There are a number of controls positioned to the right. You can directly access the various focus and flash options by clicking left and right on the navigation pad, whilst up and down are respectively used to set the exposure compensation and timer options. There is no dedicated button for ISO speed, which is a commonly used feature - instead you have dip into and out of either the Function or Main menus. The Function/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad opens a vertical sub-menu of icons, which, depending on the selected shooting mode, allows you to set the ISO speed, white balance, colours, metering, continuous shooting and image size/quality settings. This system is a good compromise given the size of the camera's LCD screen and therefore the limited space for external controls.
If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the comprehensive and fairly easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. Unfortunately Canon have chosen to cut costs and only supply the full manual as a PDF on a CD, rather than in printed format (there's just a short printed guide to the camera's basic features). Not much use if you're taking pictures and need to find out what a particular option does. There's no memory card supplied as standard and no internal memory either, so make sure that you buy an SD / SDHC card at the same time as the camera. The A3100 also usefully supports the brand new SDXC format which makes it more future-proof.
The menu system on the Canon Powershot A3100 IS is extremely straight-forward to use and is accessed by a dedicated button underneath the navigation pad. Quite a lot of the camera's main settings, such as white balance, exposure compensation and ISO speed, are accessed elsewhere, so the main menu system isn't actually that complicated. A row of 2 icons along the top of the LCD screen represents the Camera and Setup sub-menus, with most of the options being the kind that you set once and then forget about. Due to the large and bright LCD screen, the various options are easy to access and use, especially as only 5 are shown onscreen at one time. The A3100 IS offers an intuitive menu system for beginners thanks to the 'hints and tips' text bubbles that pop up when the user alights on a particular setting. More experienced users can also deactivate this feature via the menus should it start to prove tiresome.
The Canon Powershot A3100 IS offers the usual Program mode and a comprehensive range of different scene modes aimed at the user who just wants to point and shoot, making this camera particularly well-suited to the beginner. The A3100 IS' Smart Auto Mode is similar to Panasonic's Intelligent Auto, automatically determining the subject's brightness, contrast, distance and overall hue, then selecting the best scene setting from 18 possible modes, which is more than most competitors. The A3100 uncannily selected the right kind of scene mode for almost every environment that I tried it in. There's also the Easy Mode, where the camera automatically sets every shooting setting, preventing the inexperienced user from changing anything at all, apart from turning the flash on and off. In addition Easy Mode works in the same way as Smart Auto Mode - it really does turn the A3100 into a true point and shoot camera, perfect for use by children for example.
Unlike most mid-range compacts from the last 6 months, the A3100 IS doesn't offer HD movies. Instead it records video at 640x480 VGA at 30fps with mono sound. The Long Play mode lets you store roughly twice as much footage on the same sized memory card by applying more aggressive compression (with a subsequent drop in quality).
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The Canon Powershot A3100 IS has an anti-shake system called IS Mode - turn it on in the menu system and the A3100 IS automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds. There are three different modes. Continuous is on all the time including image composition, Shooting is only on when you press the shutter button, and Panning as the name suggests is best when using the camera to track a moving subject. In practice I found that it does make a noticeable difference, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos.
The start-up time from turning the Canon Powershot A3100 IS on to being ready to take a photo is quite quick at around 1.5 seconds, and it takes about 3 seconds to zoom from the widest focal length to the longest. Focusing is quick in good light and the camera happily achieves focus indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the focus-assist lamp. It takes about 0.5 second to store an image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is a very quick LCD blackout between each image. In Continuous mode the camera takes a disappointing 0.8 frames per second at the highest image quality, which is slow for this class of camera, although the shooting rate is at least maintained until your memory card is full.
Once you have captured a photo, the Canon Powershot A3100 IS has a pretty good range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can scroll through the images that you have taken, view up to 36 thumbnails, zoom in and out up to 10x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, trim, resize and rotate an image. You can also set the print order and the transfer order. The Red-eye Correction options fixes red eye after you have taken a photo (useful if you forgot to activate it before). The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and white balance, and there is a small histogram available during playback which is helpful in evaluating the exposure. A third press of the Display button shows the image alongside a small, magnified section, useful for quickly checking the sharpness.
In summary, the Canon Powershot A3100 IS is a compact and capable digital camera that is particularly well-suited to its beginner target audience.