Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Review
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The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is a new 10 megapixel digital camera featuring a 10x zoom lens complete with optical image stabilizer. Successor to last year's SX110 model, the Canon SX120 IS offers a focal range of 36-360mm, 3 inch LCD screen, DIGIC 4 image processor, and Face Detection complete with Face Select & Track and Face Self-Timer modes. The SX120 IS has 20 shooting modes including Smart Auto and Easy Mode for complete beginners and full manual control for more experienced photographers. A high ISO setting of 1600, 30fps VGA movies with a Long Play mode and is power in the form of readily available AA batteries completes the SX120's headline specifications. The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is priced at £229 / $249.99 and available now in black.
Ease of Use
We reviewed the SX120's predecessor, the 9-megapixel 10x zoom SX110 IS, in October 2008, and, additional million pixel boost aside, outwardly very little appears to have changed at first glance. There's the same tactile control layout with reasonably large buttons and dials to intentionally keep things family friendly, plus that identical optically stabilized zoom range equivalent to 36 to 360mm in 35mm terms.
Though like its forebear the SX120 IS is chunky compared with the average point and shoot, it is smaller than the typical super zoom or bridge camera pitched at enthusiasts. There are no higher end features here such as a hotshoe for additional flash - merely one of the pop up variety - while power is again provided by two standard alkaline AA batteries that slot into the base of the handgripas does the 128MB SD card supplied in the box. While these features are indicative of a budget model, so too is the mainly plastic build, though it's handily disguised by a matt black finish. Those two AAs also add weight and, as we found with the SX110, generally the camera feels substantial when gripped in the palm.
The front of the SX120 IS is dominated by that behemoth of a lens, the majority of which is hidden flush to the body when not in use, rapidly extending (in a couple of seconds) to maximum wideangle with a press of the slightly recessed but clearly labeled lozenge-shaped on/off button up top. On initial inspection the front of the SX120 and SX110 are identical, but look very close and you'll see that the handgrip on the left is just a little wider. Three narrow slits indicate the built-in microphone nestling top left of the lens, and over to the right-hand side of the lens we find the same rounded window housing the AF assist/self-timer lamp as found on the earlier SX110.
While the above changes are largely cosmetic, when it comes to more practical considerations there's a more important omission. As on its predecessor there's no optical viewfinder or EVF - the space instead occupied by the built-in flash. Continuing around the slight curve of the handgrip we find a loop for attaching the supplied wrist strap and a sturdy pull-open plastic cover for the AV out, DC in and USB ports.
The top of the SX120 is likewise identical to its predecessor. The SX120 has the exact same user-friendly control grouping as the SX110, namely a shooting mode wheel, on/off button and shutter release button encircled by a zoom lever. The mode dial is almost flush with the top of the body, although fortunately the dial itself has enough of a ridged surround to be able to turn it decisively with your thumb, and there's a cutaway portion at the camera back to allow access. It has a stiff action with a distinct click, so you're highly unlikely to shoot past the setting you want in the heat of the moment.
With the camera taking a couple of seconds to get going from cold, once again the action of the optical zoom is smooth and steady, though its motions are still sound-tracked by an audible mechanical buzz. More positively, with a half press of the shutter release button the SX120 is lightning fast in determining focus and exposure, while there's no noticeable shutter delay as you go on to take the shot. Operational speed is slightly improved than before, with the new DIGIC 4 processor on-board, although current SX110 IS owners would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Starting at the new Smart auto mode, which automatically chooses from 18 different scenes, and moving clockwise around the mode dial are the more creatively enticing settings of program auto, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual. The chosen mode is also shown as a virtual version on the screen, so you don't need to take your eye off your subject while making adjustments. Continuing clockwise we get a dedicated VGA-quality video mode (with a long play feature plus a further 320x240 pixels alternative), a selection of scene modes (including fireworks, snow, aquarium and an ISO 3200 mode), an optimized indoor setting mode, a dedicated children and pets mode, a night scene mode, plus landscape and portrait settings and finally the no frills 'Easy mode', which turns the camera into a purely point-and shoot experience, perfect for complete beginners.
The handy auto red-eye correction feature is accessible via a flash settings option that's rather hidden away among the SX120's menu screens. Red eye reduction can also be turned on/off in capture mode by delving into the same menu; like the SX110 it's not included among the options accessed via the dedicated flash switch at the rear, but at least here it's 'on' that handily appears to be the default setting rather than 'off'. The quality of the video - although disappointingly still the standard 640x480 pixels resolution, rather than High Definition - is again commendably sharp with 30fps allowing for more realistic motion, and the sound, though mono, is equally respectable. Another remaining disappointment is that the 10x optical zoom can't be used when shooting video, though a 4x digital zoom can (albeit with a certain loss of quality).
Moving to the back of the SX120 IS, we find a 3-inch, 230k dot LCD, identical to its predecessor's. The direct print button on the SX110 IS that was positioned top left of the screen has disappeared, presumably because most people didn't use it. The display and menu buttons are located beneath the rather fiddly four-way control pad-come-command wheel that remains centre right of the LCD. A press of 'menu' in capture mode brings up two folders on screen, one with shooting options and the second with more generic set-up features. A press of 'menu' in playback gives access to both image review plus print selection folders, while the third folder is the same set up menu. If you've used a Canon camera before, the menus will be immediately familiar: their design pretty basic but easy to navigate because of it. Mirroring these two buttons above the command wheel are a dedicated face detection button (on/off) and exposure compensation button (-/+ 2EV).
Face Detection has been improved, with the DIGIC 4-powered system now capable of recognising up to 35 faces in a scene and automatically adjusting the focus and exposure settings. Face Detection includes the Auto Red-Eye Correction, Face Detection AF/AE/FE, and Face Self-Timer technologies – the latter is a new feature that waits until it detects a new face in the frame before taking the shot. Face Select & Track allows a particular face to be tracked as they move around the frame, making sure that your chosen subject is always in focus and well-exposed.
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Playback again has its own button on the camera back, rather than squeezing in among the modes on the top dial. As noted in our review of the SX110, when you come to access the options set at four points around the control pad/command wheel it's easy for your thumb to slip round to the adjacent setting. Being pre-aware of its liveliness, this time around it didn't irritate so much, but it's a little too easy to inadvertently change the wrong setting.
Ranged around the control dial, which additionally features a function set button at its centre, are a means of accessing ISO speed (Auto, Hi, ISO 80 to 1600), flash setting, self timer or continuous shooting, plus macro or manual focus – whereby users are presented with an enlarged central portion of the screen to check focus, its distance dialed in using the aforementioned wheel.
As you'd expect when up-ending the camera, the base of the SX120 features a screw thread for a tripod and a compartment storing the two AAs and SD memory card, opened by flicking the substantial catch and pressuring it proud of the unit. Closing it is a little awkward however as you have to press down on the two AAs as you're sliding it shut.
In summary, the SX120 IS is far more evolutionary than revolutionary, falling into the incremental yearly update cycle that a lot of modern digicams seem to follow, with slightly faster processor times and the improved face detection system being the new standout highlights.