Sometimes budget precedes all else. Often that would put a Canon compact camera out of the purchase picture. But not so with the Canon PowerShot SX160 IS: this £140 budget compact not only has the price on its side, but also comes equipped with a wide-ranging zoom that can capture wide scenes or zoom right in on more distant subjects. Too good to be true or a budget compact camera bargain?
The SX160 IS sure does sound good from its spec sheet. It's the zoom that's the biggest selling point as it ranges from a 28mm equivalent through to 450mm. But as it's packing so much in, the camera body isn't the teeniest out there, which may make it a tad too chunky for some. That's one of the things about cameras though: it's either a case of small with a similarly small zoom range, or larger with a more substantial zoom range.
The "IS" element of the SX160's name also describes another useful feature: image stabilisation. And on paper this isn't any naff, electronic-based stabilisation system as would often be the case for budget compact cameras. Nope, the SX160's lens can move its elements by microscopic amounts to help keep a shot steadier in preview. It's also meant to keep captured shots that bit sharper, which is a big help when zooming right in. However - as we'll come to later - we haven't found the SX160's lens to be particularly sharp at all. Which is an obvious disappointment, but perhaps an expected one given the slender price tag.
That's the bulk of what the SX160 amounts to really. Despite lots off attractive specs for the price point, none of it ever really takes off to the same degree that some higher quality - and inevitably pricier - Canon compacts can.
Performance Pips The Price
Fire up the SX160 IS and it's ready to use in little time. There's a main mode dial on top which can be used to flick between the auto "point-and-shoot" mode, as well as scene modes and a variety of manual options.
Canon SX160 IS - ISO 500 sample image
The manual modes - comprised of manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and programme auto - offer a good footing into the concept of exposure control, and can be useful for better exposing low-light shots at night, for example. However, as the lens has a restricted f/3.5-5.9 maximum aperture range, with f/8.0 as its smallest aperture at any given zoom extension, there are limits to what can be achieved. If the very mention of apertures, shutter speeds and the like are throwing more questions than answers into your mind then, as a starting point, the SX160 is a successful budget way to explore what it is to shoot with manual control, but without the expense.
The Canon SX160's autofocus system is capable given the price point, though there aren't mountains of options. In general it's either the automated focus system with optional face detection, or a centre-only single focus point which is outlined on the screen. There is also Tracking AF, which can be beneficial in following moving subjects, so long as they don't move too quickly.
Rather than a rechargeable battery you'll also need to keep two AA batteries close at hand as that's what the SX160 uses. We're not big fans of AA-powered compacts as they tend to eat through the power, and the Canon SX160 IS is no stranger to this concept. If you rarely use a camera than this may not be a bother, but more avid snappers will be munching through batteries like hotcakes.
But our one biggest qualm with the SX160 is the LCD screen's quality. Yes, it's 3-inches in size and 230k-dots in resolution which is manageable. But the viewing angle is horrid.
Picture Quality: It Underwhelms
The point of a camera is, obviously, to take pictures. While the SX160 is fairly capable in capturing various scenes and the wide-ranging zoom is useful, it's the pictures themselves that are underwhelming.
Canon SX160 IS - ISO 400 sample image
Nothing is bitingly sharp, while at full scale shots reveal plenty of processing artefacts throughout. Image edges also suffer from purple fringing, technically known as chromatic aberrations, and softness further prevails. It's a fairly long list of disappointments.
However, as the SX160's 16-megapixels is far more than most people will need - just think, your 1920 x 1080 HD telly is a mere 2-megapixels - so resized shots will be more than good enough for online use, whether in emails, on Twitter, Facebook or the like.
Canon SX160 IS - ISO 800 sample image
One way to deal with dim lighting conditions is to increase what's known as the ISO sensitivity. However, this boosts the signal received by the image sensor which then generates more artificial "noise" than at lower sensitivities. In turn, this creates digital noise in an image - take a look at the gallery's 100 per cent images where white/black flecks are visible. The SX160's ISO 100-1600 range is best kept to its lowest setting, as higher up the ISO range softness becomes more of an issue, although, at least to some degree, all the available options have practical use.
Overall the images aren't going to excite photo fanatics, but the SX160 IS gets the job done.
The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS has a decent spec considering its slender price tag, and it performs reasonably well for the money too.
But don't expect too much: the LCD screen's viewing angle is poor, we're not fans of the AA batteries, and the pictures are soft and underwhelming.
But if money is the dominant factor and you're seeking a wide-ranging zoom compact camera then the SX160 IS has enough points for it to be a serious consideration. It's an average camera that's helped along considerably by the low price, as any more cash outlay and the score wouldn't stretch as high up the scale as it has.