Going for a decade now, the Canon IXUS family of credit card sized digital compacts has become synonymous with blending substance with a heavy dose of style. They don’t quite offer the same extent of manual control as the compacts towards the top end of the parallel PowerShot range (S95, G12, etc), but typically deliver above average results for those happy to just point and shoot.
The latest example is the 12.1-megapixel IXUS 310 HS that differs from the norm in offering a huge 3.2-inch 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio touchscreen at the back, proffering good visibility. There’s only a single physical button on the back plate and it’s the one for playing back images.
Delivering that wow factor, screen visibility is aided by a 461k-dot resolution, the kind of spec normally found on premium compacts. Yet this one was retailing for a street price just under £250 at the time of writing. Like the equally touchscreen-sporting and identically priced Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX77 (also worth a gander), as expected there’s no room for an optical viewfinder.
The large screen may or not be the reason for the IXUS 310 HS being moderately broader in depth than your typical slimline IXUS, a fecund look amplified by a subtle bulge to the faceplate and sloping edges. The folded zoom lens incorporated within its chassis, only protruding when the camera is switched on, is of the modest 4.4x optical variety, image stabilised to provide a four stop advantage and boasting a focal range equivalent to a wide angle 24mm to 105mm on a 35mm film camera. Overall camera proportions are 100.6 x 55.4 x 25mm and it weighs a substantial feeling whilst also portably lightweight 185g with battery and card inserted.
The “HS” suffix here stands for High Sensitivity, an addendum justified by Canon via the camera’s backlit 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, bright F/2.0 maximum aperture optic, DIGIC 4 image processor, plus maximum light sensitivity setting of ISO 3200 at which noise is amazingly well controlled (if detail slightly suffers). We also get a Low Light mode (at 3 megapixels) and Handheld Night Scene mode that takes three pictures in quick succession to get around the usual problem of blur from camera shake.
Apart from a smattering of top plate buttons for the essentials of turning the thing on and taking a picture, as well as a switch for alternating between Smart Auto and more expansive Program Auto modes, the operation of the Canon IXUS 310 HS is almost wholly reliant on touch. You’d expect this to eat up battery life, and 180 shots from a full charge is indeed fewer than the 230 or so shots the non-touchscreen IXUS 115 HS and 220 HS manage. On a more positive note, provided time and date have been preset, the IXUS 310 HS readies itself for action in just over a second, which is fast by any standard.
When shooting regular 4:3 aspect ratio photos, the LCD screen is cropped with black bands left and right onto which most of the touchscreen options are overlaid so as not to obscure the image before your lens. For alternatively shooting video it’s not a surprise to find that its maker has, like Sony with its touchscreen snapshots, included a red dot of a video record button at the top right hand corner of the LCD.
Give this a press and Full HD 1920 x 1080 24fps recording begins instantly, which is helpful, as is the fact that sound is in stereo too. But the virtual button’s location also means that it is easy to start filming accidentally via the thumb of your right hand when merely gripping the camera. There’s nothing in the way of a handgrip at the front, but at the back there is a raised edge to the left-hand side of the pebble-like camera to prevent your thumb slipping off it entirely. Incidentally the full extent of the optical zoom can be utilised when recording video, though the adjustment speed slows right down to better disguise any mechanical buzz. Mini HDMI output is featured for hooking the camera up to a flat panel TV for slideshows, alongside regular AV out and USB 2.0.
A half press of the shutter release to take a picture and, after the briefest of pauses while focus and exposure are determined, the camera follows through with a prompting bleep signalling the shot’s ready for the taking. Take the picture and a maximum resolution JPEG is committed to optional SD, SDHC or SDXC card in 2 to 3 seconds. There’s no internal memory cache as a back up - Canon seems to have stopped bothering with that.
It took us a little while to get used to the IXUS 310 HS screen’s responsiveness. At times it felt like we were racing through options too quickly making it easy to go past the one we actually wanted and had to double back, whilst at other times we’d be frantically stroking the screen to tab through function settings a little faster. This had us wishing for a dedicated shooting mode wheel as a shortcut, or a Quick Menu button to jump instantly to key settings like the one offered by the Panasonic range and its key competitor in the FX77.
As with that rival, on the Canon there is also the option to tap a subject on-screen for the IXUS 310 HS to bias focus toward. If you then re-compose the shot, the AF point will perform a little dance across the screen as it attempts to keep up with the original subject.
Useful for sports shots perhaps, but the modest zoom range isn’t exactly ideal for anyone wanting to shoot action. An entry level DSLR-like 3.4 frames per second at maximum resolution is slightly better, with the extra option to drop down to 3 megapixels in return for an improved capture rate of 8.2fps.
As on the IXUS 220 HS and 15 HS compacts released alongside this model, Canon has introduced a Casio Exilim-alike slow motion movie capture feature. We get the choice of either recording at 320 x 240 pixels at 240fps, or 640 x 480 pixels at 120fps so we can watch our pals moving as if surrounded by invisible treacle. Canon additionally throws a fun Movie Digest feature that records a short 4-second video burst at the point a still photo is taken. When automatically stitched together these obviously disparate and so slightly jerky short clips form a little standalone “movie” of their own. A nice little extra if you’re spending the day sightseeing and with the “choppy” quality they reminded us slightly of old Super 8 footage, which has a certain charm.
As well as being able to adjust colour tones and choose a “vivid” option to add punch via Canon’s familiar “My Colors” tools, aperture and shutter priority settings are provided along with a smattering of digital effects filters. These are to be found by tabbing through the rest of the main shooting mode icons, with up to six on-screen at once; whichever is in use at the time displayed top left-hand corner of the screen.
On the Canon we get the usual fisheye, monochrome, and pinhole camera style effects, a super vivid setting which is the Pop Art filter found on Olympus compacts by another name, plus a miniature effect. This apes the result from a tilt and shift lens to give the illusion that you're looking at a photograph of a model rather than an actual building.
The impression here is that Canon has packed a lot of potentially fun creative options into the IXUS 310 HS, heading off any accusations of style over substance. Images are well exposed, colourful and display a very respectable level of detail for a humble snapshot camera.
That said, of course there are familiar bugbears such as pixel fringing occasionally visible between areas of high contrast, and under very close scrutiny a mild loss of sharpness towards the corner of frame at maximum wide angle. What’s more of a revelation however is its performance in lower light. Here the top setting of ISO 3200 when combined with an F/2.0 maximum aperture produces a result that is actually usable in being free from noise unless scrutinising particularly closely.
The Canon IXUS 310 HS’ wow factor is delivered by the implementation of the monolith-like back screen, but we did find ourselves missing those physical controls on occasion when in a hurry to find particular settings. If you’re not sold on the idea of a touchscreen, a coolly minimalist appearance as a result, or the idea of manually tweaking aperture or shutter speed, then the cheaper IXUS 220 HS and 115 HS point and shoot models offer much the same functionality for less than £200. We were very impressed with the camera’s image quality however, particularly with regard to the lack of noise visible in shots as we moved up through the ISO 100-3200 range. In that respect it betters what we expect of a snapshot camera.