On the face of it, the 860IS looks a mere million-pixel tweak over its 850IS forbear but it has had a few kit changes over that camera and that look significant improvements. As always, I’m not sure simply adding extra pixels helps image quality as the more densely packed (usually smaller) pixels often can make issues surrounding image noise worse.

However, the 860IS has had exactly that treatment, the 7.1-megapixels of the 850 boosted to 8-megapixels here; the focus system has an improved Face Detection AF set up that links the exposure control system into the equation as well so helping get better exposed portraits, and on the (ahem) face of it, the system works well on both flash and natural light portraits.

The AiAF system had issues on the 850 but these have apparently been ironed out here, as I had none of the same hit and miss focusing issues of that camera, which is a vast improvement. Another is the camera’s new and larger PureColour 3-inch colour screen which is both very clear and bright and benefits from an extra 23k pixels (from 207,000 pixels to 230,000 pixels) to help boost the clarity and detail for both composing and reviewing images. My one concern is the screen is almost flush with the body and can quickly become smudged and scratched so a case is a must to help protect the camera when not in use.

However, here we also encounter the first thing that has been trimmed out when compared to the 850. Canon has until now been the bastion of including very usable optical viewfinders on all but some of the company’s smaller and newer digital compacts, Canon have been stoutly defending the camera’s “proper” viewfinder lineage. Not so on the 860II, which is easily large enough to accommodate the device (as it was on the 850) and I feel this is a significant omission, particularly when you look at the camera’s price.

To help balance the lack of a viewfinder the new VGA movie mode can be used to the limit of the space on the camera’s SD/MMC external storage that now encompasses SDHC and MMCplus and HC MMCplus memory cards. Auto ISO shift is another whereby you can set the ISO range the camera will use in Auto mode to help balance the sensitivity, noise and image capture versatility at your command.

The camera’s active lens optical image stabilisation remains from the previous model and is combined with the boosted ISO set up to provide both anti shake and anti blur at the ISO 1600 maximum, the full range starts at ISO 80 and runs through the usual steps but also includes a dedicated “Hi” mode as well, so you have plenty of sensitivity tools to help when the lighting gets tougher.

The F2.8 to F5.6, 28-105mm lens provides the same excellent focal range as the 850 before it but the 860IS has another new tricks up its sleeve, a thing called Safety Zoom with a built-in Digital Tele-Converter. This helps get either 1.6x or 2x extra magnification at the long end of the zoom and allows you to get at that extra focal range without adversely affecting the image quality; it works well enough too.

17 scene modes include typical settings for landscape, portrait and night scenes, plus you get My Colours (where you can adjust the colours to suit your mood) and a you can apply colour accents and even swap colours in shot for funky effects. In terms of handling, the camera is pretty much the same as the 850 (but without that viewfinder) with a set of neat controls to the right of large screen and that include the neat four-way jog wheel control. Spinning your finger on the dial activates an animated menu system that spins attractively on the screen.

However, it’s actually quite hard to use particularly when you want to stop at the required setting as it takes a while to get used to it without overshooting the mode you want. Alternatively, you can simply press the corresponding part of the dial to select and change the setting as required and as normal. The central FUNC/SET button is the entrance to your main shooting options including white balance and the image quality or size for example, so pretty much business as usual in control terms.

That is part from a new slider switch on the top plate next to the shutter release and surrounding zoom lever and the on/off button. The slider is used to change the shooting mode: shooting stills, shooting still s using the scene modes (menus change to match the setting selected) and a movie setting where you can get at really rather neat movie modes. These include a time-lapse movie setting; 640 x 480 long play movies and a compact movie mode ideal for emailing or web use for example.

But what of the all important image quality? For a start, the metering system is pretty much flawless; exposure control is exceptional. Focusing is much improved over the 850, which seemed so unreliable, not so here but there has been an impact from the extra million pixels. Noise is quite distracting above ISO 800 and poor at ISO 1600 where colour and detail is very poorly controlled.

Low ISO image quality is very good however and although the optics are unchanged over the 850, the lens seems to be able to handle the extra detail offered up by that higher resolution. White balance is a concern however; in mixed lighting, the white balance appears to wander (when watched on the screen) prior to shooting and is inconsistently recorded range from yellows to cold blue hues. When set to the correct light source however there are no such issues. Colour capture is excellent as well with natural rather than boosted looking colours out of the box, but of course you have a whole host of colour controls to play with if you wish from vivid to aforementioned funky colour swapping features.

Verdict

The IXUS 860IS is typically well made and very nice to use as well as being very easy to use, noise issues are not helped at higher ISOs by the increase in resolution but over it is an accomplished if pricey snapper.