The Canon PowerShot SX220 HS is a 14x zoom camera, the follow on from the neat PowerShot SX210 IS of last year. The travel zoom category is more competitive than ever, with all the major manufacturers having their take with some great models to choose from. Thanks to increasingly compact designs, the travel zoom category sees long zoom lenses packed into a body that in many cases is only fractionally larger than regular compact dimensions.
So is the case with the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS. It measures 105.7 x 59.3 x 33.2mm and weighs 215g including the battery (good for around 210 shots). It’s still pocketable and light enough to port around with you but still manages to pack plenty of features and controls into its frame. Inevitably this means there is no real grip for your right hand - you’ll end up with your thumb lying over the controls, resting on the shooting mode dial. The left hand is equally foxed by the pop-up flash, which sits on the left shoulder of the camera, so pretty much where your left index finger will be sitting.
This is something we complained about on the SX210 as well, although the camera doesn’t complain if you resist the flash opening, it just accepts that it can’t deploy - the flash can be thereafter flicked open and closed as needed, with the on-screen icon telling you that the flash has moved from cancelled auto.
Otherwise the design is fetching, the concave silver waistband contrasting nicely with the dark grey of the body of our review model. As mentioned the controls lie to the right-hand side of the 3-inch 16:9 widescreen display, with only the shutter and encircling zoom control sitting on the top.
The power button finds its way onto the back slope which we found to be conveniently placed to hit when needed and avoid when not. The mode dial on the rear instantly grabs your attention, set slightly to an angle and offering up a knobbly grip to make changing modes quick and easy. Below sits the instant video capture button above a dial incorporating a four-way controller with a central function/set button and finally you get display and menu buttons. It’s certainly busy, but the abundance of controls lets you know that this is a little more than just a point and shoot camera.
The mode dial offers up a collection of common scene shooting modes - portrait, landscape, etc, as well as the full scene mode, Canon’s effects mode and Movie digest mode we saw recently on Canon IXUS models, intelligent Auto mode which will determine and select the shooting mode for you and an easy mode which pairs down the display and options and is designed to work for kids with no potential for confusion. The mode dial rounds out with the normal run of program, aperture and shutter priority and finally full manual control. Technically there is a lot crammed in here, but it does give you potential for a high degree of control, aping many of the settings you’ll find on Canon’s high-end PowerShot S95 and their DSLR cameras.
Power on the camera, the rear display blinks to life, the lens extends to the widest 28mm (equiv.) position and the flash pops-up. Deploying the lens to the full 392mm (equiv.) zoom takes about 3 seconds; an additional digital zoom is offered thereafter, accepting that this mostly leads to a degradation in quality and an exacerbation of any handshake.
The 3-inch screen offers up an average 461k dots, but is bright enough and didn’t pose a problem when composing shots in bright conditions. The absence of a viewfinder means this is essential and the size thankfully means it is a pleasure to use, accepting that when you're not shooting in 16:9 you'll have black bars down the sides. You can shoot stills at the top 12-megapixel resolution in 4:3, alternatively you can opt for 9-megapixel 16:9, 11-megapixel 3:2 or a 9-megapixel 1:1 shot.
Control of the camera is pretty much straightforward, despite the level of control offered in such a compact bundle. In most cases, hitting the Func/set button will bring up a left-hand menu on the screen, where you can scroll through the icons and change the relevant settings. You are only offered settings which apply to that shooting mode, so in Auto you can’t change the ISO for example, but if you change the aspect ratio then this applies across the whole camera.
When it comes to changing settings in the manual modes, the rear dial will change the pertinent setting (i.e., aperture in Av). The same dial offers shortcut functions too, although these are not printed on the physical button, instead being portrayed on the display. It takes a delicate touch to ensure you don’t just trigger the shortcut behind. Not printing the control means that these can also be context sensitive: you get subject tracking in Auto where you get focusing controls in other modes for example.
Shooting in the manual mode is simple thanks to the on-screen exposure meter which will let you know whether you are over or under exposed given the settings you’ve chosen. The shutter speed runs from 15 secs to 1/2000 which is reasonable and the aperture from F/3.1 at the widest angle to F/8.0; at the far end of the zoom the max aperture is reduced to F/5.9 making it relatively slow.
When it comes to the fun shooting modes, you’re well catered for in the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS. Split across the scene modes and effects you’ll find that you get panoramic stitching, you get miniature mode, colour swap, a toy camera affect that recreates a Lomo look and fisheye.
Video capture swings in offering 1920 x 1080 at 24fps, with various lower settings on offer too, including slow motion at lower resolution. The camera features a mini HDMI so you can connect directly to your TV to view the results. The quality is impressive and stands-up on a large screen, something that not all compact cameras can claim. Low light video naturally shows noise, but generally speaking you’ll be happy with the video you get from the SX220 HS. And yes, it will let you use the full range of the zoom whilst filming, accepting a purr as the lens moves.
Focusing in video is generally good, although it can pulse a little as it confirms the subject is sharp. In static scenes this is more noticeable, but where there is lots of movement it is less of an issue. The sound quality is good.
Internally the SX220 HS offers you a 12.1-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor and Canon’s DIGIC 4 processor. Paired together, a high sensitivity sensor and this processor gain the camera the HS moniker that we’ve seen applied to a number of recent Canon launches. The aim is to deliver better results in lower light conditions, better coping with higher ISOs than previous generation cameras.
When it comes to capturing that all important image, the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS is fast to resolve focus. If it won’t detect the subject you want, then in Auto mode the subject tracking makes it really easy to select the focal point and then recompose to get the shot you want. The metering and white balance are generally very good so when you press the button to capture that shot you invariably get usable results which is exactly what you want from this type of camera.
The ISO offers you from 100 to 3200, although as you’d expect noise is detrimental at the higher settings and we detected noise at low ISOs too, which might limit the extent to which you can blow up your images. It you’re planning on making full sized prints you’ll likely find that the quality is insufficient but that’s not really what this camera is designed to do, so we can’t hold that as a negative too strongly.
Generally speaking the results are good, colours are vibrant and there is plenty of detail in shots (accepting that full sized images don’t stand up to scrutiny). The quality of results diminish as you zoom, so at the far end of the 14x zoom you’ll find that details aren’t crisp and colours aren’t as sharp, as is often the problem with this type of camera. As such this isn’t a camera that will give you perfect results at the extreme zooms, but in such as compact package it does give you a good range of composure options.
At the wide and middle of the zoom the results are much better and barrel distortion wasn’t a huge problem at the wide angle - a common problem for this type of camera - but if your straight lines are important you might want to consider zooming in a little and taking a few steps back to retain fidelity. Purple fringing can be a problem with high-contrast subjects and more so as the zoom moves out. This isn’t unique to Canon and one of the compromises you’ll often have to accept from a lens that gives you such a wide range in such a tight package.
Overall the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS is a worthy successor to the SX210 IS that we liked last year. The range of options on offer makes it a camera that will perform for those who just want a point and shoot and those that want the benefit of a long zoom in a pocketable camera. The effects and manual options provide versatility, so you’re not restricted by a camera that’s too simple.
It’s good value for money too currently available for around £220 online, making it a viable competitor to the likes of the Panasonic Lumix TZ18. The step-up SX230 HS adds GPS to the package if you have problems remembering where your travels have taken you.
Overall, a highly enjoyable camera to use, affordable a packed with features and control options. If you’re looking for a versatile camera in a small enough package to suit all situations, then the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS may well fit the bill.
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