Canon IXUS 120 IS digital camera review

4 out of 5
£299

For

Slimline styling and build, HD video, image quality at lower sensitivity, 4x optical zoom lens, Face detection AF

Against

Controls are a little fiddly, price, underpowered flash, high ISO image noise, no optical viewfinder, metering, slight pixel fringing

Canon's new Digital IXUS 120 IS is only 20mm thin, which is great in terms of pocketability but not so clever when using it if you have larger fingers - or bite your fingernails.

The IXUS 120 IS is a 12-megapixel digital compact that is the slimmest wide angle Digital IXUS to emerge from Canon's factories having an all-metal body that's just 20mm thin. It's a smoothly stylish, pocketable compact snapper that comes in silver, blue, black and brown.

The thin streamlined lines are only disturbed when you switch the camera on via tiny on/off button on the top plate and the excellent 4x optical zoom lens emerges quickly into the shooting position.

The lens has the equivalent focal length of 28 to 112mm, a 4x zoom with excellent sharpness and little distortion; it's a focal range suitable for most general snapping tasks from wider vistas to reasonable close ups. Canon has created a tiny snapper that is ideal for anyone traveling, wanting a small stills camera and yet capable of good quality video.

A great 2.7-inch screen dominates the camera's back plate, the 120 IS lacks an optical viewfinder - as you might expect but it's still a regret. The small controls are placed to its right and provide a route for changing the shooting mode (auto, Program AE and video modes) playback, menu and display toggle; FUNC(tion)/Set and flash, exposure compensation, self timer/delete, macro and Landscape settings, all are a bit of handful because they're all so small.

This is of course a compromise that you cannot escape on such small cameras but worth thinking through since anyone with larger fingers will struggle to quickly control key aspects of the camera, since selecting the correct item can be a challenge.

Above the controls you find the USB/AV out and HDMI sockets under a small flap that just will not stay out of the way when you're plugging anything into the camera. However, the HDMI out means you can output video and images direct to a HD TV and/or connect it to a computer to offload images, from the SD/SDHC storage. This memory card slots into a port underneath, adjacent to the small rechargeable Li-ion battery.

Handling is probably the main issue we have here, since the shutter release is small, the lens' zoom control that surrounds it is also very small and along with the small controls on the back plate the overall effect is a camera that's a bit of a handful despite its small size. Menus are clear and easy to understand and use. The central FUNC button (on the back) activates shooting related options such as sensitivity, scene modes, white balance (WB) and imager quality while the Menu button brings to life the settings menus such as date and time settings for example.

In the full auto (Smart Auto) mode the menu options are reduced to a simple choice of resolution settings as the camera automatically tries to take care of subject selection for you, this is a "smart" system first seen on Panasonic's Lumix compacts and now finding its way across most maker's digital models.

Smart auto detects the subject (a face or landscape say) and sets the camera accordingly and is also able to boost the sensitivity - as needed - when movement of subject, camera or both is detected, but that can introduce unwanted noise at higher ISOs.

In video shooting mode, menus offer options to change the video resolution, WB and the "My Colors" option where you can adjust the way colours are recorded such as vivid, sepia, neutral; this is also available to use in Program AE stills mode.

In terms of image quality, images, while detailed enough lack a little sharpness and bite; the metering left a little to be desired where it seemed biased to the centre, even in evaluative metering mode. Centre-weighted and spot metering (in program mode) help with more problematic situations but not to the degree we'd have liked.

The overall effect is one of frustration, as there's not much leeway between over exposed and underexposed shots when shooting, say, a landscape with bright sky and deeply shadowed foreground. You can meter to one or the other, but (seemingly) not both and even with Canon's iContrast system, aimed at preventing blown highlights or deeply shadowed foregrounds it seems to struggle to get things right. Thankfully exposure compensation is included and helps and little more.

Image noise is well controlled at lower ISOs, 80 to 400; higher ISOs over ISO 800 and you have image noise issues; noise and the noise suppression software eats into detail in a similar way to the recently tested IXUS 200 IS.

However, the 720p HD video capability is great, image quality is very good but audio is problematic on such a small device, but you're able to shoot 720p at 30fps to the limit of the SD card capacity, so that's around 21-minutes of HD video on a 4GB SD card. You can digitally zoom while shooting to crop in but you can't zoom the lens itself while videoing, which is disappointing as the digital zoom reduces quality. AF is fixed while shooting too.

However when taking stills, the AF is a little slow and this is compounded a little from shutter lag but it's by no means serious more typical for digital compacts. In terms of colour and white balance (WB), colour is natural and well rendered while WB performs well in auto WB mode, particularly when capturing video, in stills you get a slight orange cast in mixed lighting.

Set the correct WB (you get the usual modes for cloud, sunlight, tungsten, incandescent, etc.,) for the lighting at hand and things are much better and add zip to the final image. Another plus is the Image Stabilisation, which can be used in still and movie capture and it really helps keep things steadier, particularly when shooting video at full zoom.

Face detection AF works nicely and seems speedier to get a grip on subjects than just the "normal" half press of the shutter release, so that fits nicely with the target market who'll usually shoot in Smart Auto mode anyway.

Other slight niggles we have are some pixel fringing around high contrast areas of a shot, there's also a question mark over the position of the flash and it is underpowered, it's position means it's prone to being blocked by your finger (another issue around such small camera size) and we found redeye a problem when shooting at closer distances to your subject.

On the plus side, the battery life is not bad given its small size and after 2 days of snapping and around 100 shots and 20-minutes of video, it was still going strong and downloading direct form the camera (for some reason the camera would not mount on my computer I had to use the supplied Canon solutions software, which is very slow to use and download data) so you won't always be required to carry the charger and power lead around with you when out and about.

Overall then this tiny camera offers a surprisingly neat package of HD video and 12-megapixel stills able to stand up to most competitors on the market today at this level. And so this camera makes a great option for those looking for a pocketable snapper able to fit into a pocket or handbag while offering great video and stills capture for this level of spec, if it is a tad pricey.

Verdict

The Canon Digital IXUS 120 IS is very svelte indeed and has a set of controls that are a little fiddly, certainly the small size presents handling issues for those with larger hands. And yet this is a very stylish little camera. The £299 asking price looks quite expensive when compared with some better-specified, similar priced compacts out there.

And while the 120 IS may not be to everyone's liking, at least in photographic terms, it is undeniably a stylish snapper and one that's ideal for nights out, travel or for those wanting to combine high quality HD video with stills in a tiny stylish package.