Canon EOS 650D

The Canon EOS 650D - otherwise known as the Rebel T4i or Kiss X6i to our worldwide readers - is the first DSLR to include a touchscreen LCD.

It was only a matter of time. With the introduction of HD movie capture in stills cameras and the compact system camera market making headway with hands-on touchscreen technology, DSLR cameras have been slow to move forward. The 650D bucks that trend and introduces a variety of improvements to try to better its predecessor the 600D.

But does a touchscreen belong in a bulkier DSLR set up, and can the 650D leap the mid-level EOS range forward?

Design

Canon’s long heritage of building cameras means it’s got design down to a tee. The 650D isn’t going to confound expectations; it’s a familiar design that current Canon owners will find normal and newcomers will be able to pick up as they go along.

If any moan can be made then it has to be the plasticky finish. It’s been a gripe for several Canon models in this particular EOS line. It’s not that the material isn’t tough or durable - because it is - it’s just that it feels and looks, well, cheap. Something that the near-£800 price tag wouldn’t seem to suggest.

Ignoring that, however, and the design incorporates plenty of decent features. Although the rear LCD screen is much the same as its 600D predecessor, this can only be a good thing. It’s 3 inches in size and laden with 1040k-dots, making it one of the most resolute screens found on any consumer DSLR.

Of course the new touchscreen panel can see the camera used in an altogether different way. But you needn’t worry about the touchscreen if you don’t like the idea of it, as any given feature can be accessed in the usual thumbwheel and rear d-pad. We're glad that user choice is maintained, rather than forcing the touch settings.

But the hands-on approach does work well throughout the menu system, including the quick menu. There are occasional blips, such as the main menu's top tabs being far too small for sense, but otherwise the hands-on approach makes menu digging far quicker.

It’s a responsive screen too. Not quite smartphone responsive, where a deftness of touch works to greater effect, but the camera’s capacitive touch panel is certainly as good as, if not better than, any other touchscreen camera out there on the market.

It’s also clever enough to respond to two-finger "pinch" control to zoom in and check images in playback, or a "swipe" between shots. These smartphone-esque functions are great to have, not fiddly to use and show Canon's careful consideration of the current market.

Performance

When it comes to autofocus the 650D has taken a leap forward. Although the camera has the same number of autofocus points - nine in total - each of these is now a cross-type sensor, with an f/2.8 sensitive one at the centre. This system, which has been pulled directly from the far pricier 60D, means greater sensitivity in both portrait and landscape orientations.

We found even in low-light that the 650D produced the goods. We did a shoot in a dim-lit cinema room, and there was no sign of a struggle when focusing. In fact we’d go as far to say it puts a question over the 60D series altogether; with the inclusion of the 650D and the higher-spec 7D there’s little the 60D offers in terms of price point or features by comparison.

However the 650D's irritating pre-flash - that’s sometimes used to acquire focus in low light - is far from subtle. It’s an ongoing feature in Canon DSLRs that we think should be ditched in favour of an AF illuminator lamp. Sometimes the pre-flash mechanism is unnecessary too; in one example when using aperture priority mode to snap a low-light scene the camera focused just fine using the basic 18-55mm lens, whereas after flicking the mode dial to Auto+ the pre-flash came into play and the central subject was then ignored by the focusing system. An occasional oddity and frustration.

One moan we had with the 600D was its inefficient burst mode. Despite having the same 18-megapixel resolution it seems the 650D’s 5fps (max) burst mode is still little wiser. With a Class 10 SD card inserted the camera was able to snap only three raw + JPEG files before it slowed. To put that in context, the Nikon D3200, which has a higher resolution output at 24-megapixels, is able to capture eight raw + JPEG files before slowing. So the 650D’s buffer lacks efficiency.

However, pop the Canon into JPEG Fine only and we were able to capture anywhere between 30 and 160 shots before there were any signs of slow down (the number - which Canon quotes as a mere 22 on its website - differed depending on the complexity of the scene, hence the higher numbers we achieved in some scenes).

Although the 650D has the same resolution as its 600D predecessor, the sensor itself now includes a hybrid AF system for speedier autofocus in both live view and movie modes.

We were excited to see how Canon had been able to push the envelope in this department. Unfortunately, despite notable speed increases compared to its predecessor, the focus speed isn’t a patch on the likes of the Sony Alpha A65 or many compact system cameras. It’s a step in the right direction, but in those final moments when focus is being acquired the camera sure does take its time to seal the focus deal.

Higher-end users who want to experiment with off-camera flash - and you can do some really cool stuff so long as you have a little know-how and the relevant kit - will be pleased to see the 650D’s inclusion of a built-in Speedlite transmitter. This means the camera can "talk" to flashguns without the need to buy an additional transmitter. It’s all included in the price and is an ideal feature to grow into in the future as you begin to experiment.

Other more advanced features include both exposure bracketing (AEB) and white balance bracketing, despite there being no manual white balance selection (in Kelvin (K)) available beyond the custom and preset white balance options.

Image Quality

A significant reason to buy a DSLR is to take benefit from the large sensor size and the increase in image quality that's above and beyond compacts, smartphones and the like.

The 650D features an APS-C-size CMOS sensor paired with the latest DIGIC 5 processor and is structurally different from the 600D, thanks to the new hybrid AF system. This on-sensor AF system introduces extra pixels for autofocus that are arranged - as far as we understand - between those used for image capture. So does this affect image quality in any way?

Generally speaking, not really. But that’s not to say there isn’t a difference. For the most part you’d struggle to tell the difference between the 600D and the 650D at the low-mid ISO settings. Things change at higher ISO. At around 3200-6400 the new processing - and quite possibly the inclusion of the hybrid AF system - means the 650D’s images have, at least to our eyes, more colour noise than those of its predecessor.

That’s not to say we’re not impressed with the camera and its shots. The ISO 3200 sample image above demonstrates that the quality is still very high.

From ISO 100-800 the 650D offers plenty of detail, and even ISO 1600-3200 are more than usable despite this difference in sensitivity. Taken in isolation, however, and they're still of good quality when compared with other DSLR cameras around this price range.

The 650D's inclusion of ISO 12,800 does push the boundaries of acceptable quality and ISO 25,600 is what we’d describe as "beyond usable". We suspect that's why neither is included as an option within the the auto ISO settings.

White balance can be a little muted, but that’s easily adjusted in post processing where needed, while exposure is accurate thanks to the iFCL (intelligent fluorescence, colour and luminance) system.

Movie Mode

What can the latest sensor do for movies? It’s here that the hybrid AF and touchscreen make an impact on movie clip capture.

Although autofocus in live view feels a little like it's almost trying too hard, the AF system is somewhat more relaxed when it comes to focus in movie mode. Tap the screen to reposition the focus point and the camera will then adjust the focus while usually avoiding unwanted over- or under-focusing.

But it's not foolproof. The lens' noises from focusing and/or image stabilisation systems can be problematic, and focusing, while better, still isn't perfect. For the sound issue there's an easy fix: the 650D includes a 3.5mm microphone jack so you can plug in an external - and possibly sock-shielded - microphone for the best possible sound.

The screen’s vari-angle mount also comes to great use when capturing movies, particularly if a natural waist-level or below-eye-level position is taken.

Quality is good too, as the camera’s 1080p capture can be adjusted to suit 30, 25 or 24 frames per second.

So why buy?

With its £799 price tag, the EOS 650D nestles itself firmly in the mid-level DSLR category.

We’ve already had lots of readers ask us whether the 650D is "better" than the Nikon D3200. We can see the comparison between the two, but the Canon is a grade above the Nikon in terms of autofocus performance, whereas the Nikon blurs the boundaries of what it’s supposed to be - a bit entry-level, a bit mid-level.

Granted the D3200’s 24-megapixel files are cracking, but it’s the Canon 650D that puts the Nikon on the back foot when it comes to autofocus speed, accuracy and low-light focusing.

Although it hasn’t appeared yet, it’ll be the rumoured Nikon "D5200" that will be the 650D’s main competitor, with what we’d anticipate to be a more balanced features list and performance capabilities.

But for existing Canon users, does the 650D add that much more to warrant an upgrade? If you’re a 600D or 550D owner then, frankly, no, it probably doesn’t.

But if you’re a newcomer to the market then there’s plenty here to get excited about. The 650D is one of those cameras that’ll last a casual user a long time and has enough features to grow into, plus the vast range of Canon lenses available make it good value for money.

Verdict

The 650D's improved autofocus system (as per the 60D) is a big step forward and the HD movie mode makes best use of the new touchscreen technology.

The camera's 18-megapixel sensor produces great quality shots direct from camera, but the limitations at higher ISO settings and small buffer when shooting raw files in burst mode are sticking points. The hybrid AF system is a definite leap forward, but it's still not as smooth or quick as the likes of the Sony SLT system or that found in many compact system camera.

If you’re brand new to the DSLR market then the Canon EOS 650D will make a sterling purchase. Future-proof features such as the built-in Speedlite transmitter escalate the camera up a notch, while vari-angle screen is highly resolute and looks great. The touchscreen won't be for everyone, but as it's optional to use we reckon it's on the money when it comes to making autofocus point adjustments.

As a whole, this is one solid DSLR. It might be a little pricey at its initial launch, but it's the kind of camera that will last you for years to come.