Canon's A-series of digital cameras have been the company's mainstay in the budget market and the new A520 (there's also an almost identical 3.2MP, A510 version too) is the new top of the Canon budget tree. A thorough revamp brings it right up to date and sees a very competitive £175 asking price, making it an affordable little camera and one sure to appeal to the masses.
The changes from its A85 predecessor are not immediately obvious (unless you have both to hand) but the A520 is smaller and lighter by 70-grams thanks largely to the new model using just two AAs, the 'bloatier' A85 needed four of the blighters. Another change for the smaller is the adoption of SD/MMC memory cards, forsaking good old Compact Flash and something Canon is running out across all its lower-end models.
Another bonus is the new lens, which provides a 3.6x optical zoom range of 35-140mm that has a fast, F/2.6 maximum aperture. The new camera uses a slightly larger, 1/2.5-inch sensor (the A85 used a 1/2.7-inch CCD) the camera has a slightly faster capture rate of around 1.9fps, up from 1.5fps in the A85.
The camera uses a very reliable evaluative metering and AF set up and not less than 20 different shooting options. There are 15 scene modes including an Auto mode, a Panoramic ‘stitch' setting, Beach and Snow modes and a Kids and Pets setting. But I believe the real crowd pleaser is a full set of manual options including aperture and shutter priority, full manual control and a program mode and you get AE-compensation to +/-2EV.
The 9-point AiAF setup is fast and reliable as is the great metering system, with well rendered flash exposures; white balance settings are excellent in all but tungsten lighting where the auto white balance fails to live up to the standard of the others.
The flash unit is a little under-powered but it makes up for this lack by being linked to the optical zoom, as the lens moves in and out so does the flash, so you can achieve a better overall coverage.
Other neat specifications range from spot and centre-weighted metering options and PictBridge direct printer/printing support to playback histogram display and an optical viewfinder. However the optical viewfinder lacks the finesse the rest of the camera displays, it's blurry, there's no dioptre adjustment and it's quiet small.
All the controls are neatly placed with on/off button and a large, top plate mode dial providing the route into all the main shooting options. Start up time is quite slow and there's noticeable shutter lag.
A lower-resolution colour screen than on the A85 (it's a 115,000-pixel screen the A85 had a 118,000-pixel LCD) is still very usable in all but the brightest of direct sunlight. Menu controls and options are displayed clearly with Canon's ‘FUNC' (tion) menu providing shooting control outside (or rather on the inside menus) the controls on the body with direct access to exposure compensation, resolution and compression changes, white balance changes and ISO controls to name a few.
Image quality is very good indeed. Colours are natural and bright, the in-camera processing provides plenty of detail, in spite of highlights looking blown out on some spectral highlights. Higher ISO present a problem where noise and the affects of noise reduction processing clean away some detail but overall, very good.
The Canon PowerShot A520 might look a style icon compared with some of its brethren, but it is probably the ideal model for anyone buying a digital camera for the first time. It's simple to use, has resolution enough for prints of up to, say, 8 x10in and it takes cracking photos too. It also has a good range of auto and manual controls, so that as you become more confident, you can grow with your photography without quickly outgrowing the camera. Last and best of all, it's a cracking price too.