Canon’s IXUS range of pocket point and shoot cameras has always been as much about form as function - an approach that sets it apart from the parallel PowerShot family that concentrates more on function than form.
By way of an unofficial celebration of ten years of digital IXUS, 2012’s IXUS 500 HS harks back to the very first digital model in terms of its boxy almost retro design, sporting defiantly square edges rather than the gentle curves we’ve seen of late.
Good zoom, interesting design
When held in the palm the IXUS 500 reminds us of a travel set of playing cards you might purchase for a long train journey, and in fact the IXUS 500 HS has the air of a travel camera about it, not least because of the larger than average 12x optical zoom shoehorned into its modest frame.
Canon claims that this IXUS is the world’s slimmest camera at 19.2mm in depth to feature a zoom of this size, offering a focal range equivalent to 28-336mm on a 35mm film camera. The camera lens is supported by a seven-mode image stabiliser to help prevent the blurring effects of camera shake. There’s also a latest generation Digic 5 processor on board to ensure operation zips along, the zoom gliding through its entire range in 2-3 seconds. Powering up ready for the first still or video takes just a couple of seconds.
Overall camera proportions are 87.1x53.9x19.2mm and its metal body weighs a lean yet solid feeling 155g. Capture timings are pretty much what you’d expect from a pocket camera; the briefest of pauses while the camera adjusts focus and exposure with a half squeeze of the shutter release button, then, following a full squeeze, a wait of 3-4 seconds for a super fine JPEG to be committed to memory.
The maroon coloured sample we had for review made it resemble an enlarged throat lozenge but the IXUS 500 HS certainly looks the part for anyone wanting a stylish snapshot that doesn’t ignore the essentials. Blue, black or silver are the alternative UK finishes. What is perhaps less of an enticement is the price.
Expensive but capable
At a suggested £305 the cost of this "auto everything" snapshot is top end and in fact is getting close to a more fully featured bridge camera or even the street price for a premium compact like the PowerShot S100. Sure, bridge cameras with all those manual controls, knobs and dials aren’t as pretty and minimalist, but then again looks aren’t everything.
Get past the IXUS 500 HS’s appearance and drill into the feature set and of course you’ll discover Canon’s imaging expertise hasn’t taken a total backseat. The "HS" suffix of this model denotes ‘high sensitivity’ - in other words it suggests this is a camera optimised for a better performance in low light - an approach that starts with a back illuminated 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor not overly swamped with pixels.
Top stills resolution here is, for example, a modest 10.1 effective megapixels, which falls short of the 16 megapixels that is the across-the-board standard for point and shoots. However a by-product of fewer pixels crammed onto its smallish chip is less noise visible at higher ISOs, with a range stretching from ISO100-3200 offered here.
Compact cameras are hard to hold
If you deactivate the flash and attempt low light shots handheld, you’ll quickly discover there is not much of this camera to get a firm grip on, leading to camera shake at longer telephoto settings, and if you do support it with both hands and choose to use the integral flash, it’s very easy for a finger to stray in front. This is because the flash bulb is positioned near the edge of the faceplate. While not unworkable by any means, it’s symptomatic of the fact that the more you cram onto a physically small camera the more there are going to be compromises.
There’s no room for a traditional shooting mode dial here – nor is there an obvious button for alternatively accessing them, while the camera also omits the familiar four-way control pad or cross keys. Indeed, here the macro, flash, display and exposure compensation buttons (+/- 2EV) are arranged in the closest the camera comes to offering a cross keys formation, and are in fact used for tabbing through menu and toolbar options. As the button marking suggest otherwise to the new user, this operation is slightly confusing - which is not what you want from a regular point and shoot.
However below these is a "function set" button for subsequently implementing any features alighted on through use of said keys, with an initial press summoning up a toolbar shortcut of options along the left hand side of the screen. It’s here w e can set the file size, adjust IOS, metering and white balance in Program mode, or select from the range of "My Colours" modes, that include our favourite of the saturation boosting Vivid, which adds more punch to what can at times be a rather flat default standard setting. Equally self explanatory to this control, at the very bottom of the backplate is a standard "menu" button.
The camera’s top plate is equally sparce at first glance, though in fact features the essentials of a slightly raised shutter release button encircled by lever for operating the zoom plus teeny on/off button, playback button and, in lieu of that missing mode dial, a switch for flicking between full "smart" auto, which selects any one of 58 pre-optimised settings dependent on the subject being photographers, and program auto, which allows for more hands-on user control.
Video mode too
However the IXUS 500 HS does find room for a video mode with its own record button, capable of nigh instantly capturing full HD 1920x1080 pixels clips with stereo sound at 24 fps.
The camera also features a higher than average 460k dot resolution LCD back screen, at 3-inches in size and 4:3 in aspect ratio, which means that it swallows up most of the available real estate. As we’d expect from an IXUS, the space into which the backplate controls are crammed is relatively narrow and the buttons themselves tiny enough to require fingertip activation.
Tiny microSD isn't well suited to cameras
Despite there being room for the SD card format most widely used by digital cameras as the removable media of choice (there’s no internal memory), here Canon like Samsung has opted for the even smaller fingernail-sized microSD.
This means that while it’s easy to lose the miniscule card on a busy desktop, an adapter is also required for older card readers. In fairness to Canon however, the slot at the base provided is tight and compact, so that the card pops sufficiently clear with a downward press for it to be delicately pinched between finger and thumb. In other words you’re not "fishing" for it.
To enable HD video and slideshows to be watched back on your flat panel TV, the Canon IXUS 500 HS finds room for an HDMI port at the side of the camera, which nestles next to a joint port for USB/AV connectivity. The third covered compartment is for the provided lithium ion battery, which suffers slightly from the camera’s overall economy of scale in being a tad smaller than a standard AA battery and offering a battery life of an unspectacular 190 shots from a full charge. So you’ll want to pack the provided mains charger for anything longer than a weekend break.
In terms of picture quality, if light is not ideal - a cloudy day as opposed to blue skies – shots can look rather flat and soft straight out of the camera, whereupon it’s better to concentrate on close up subjects rather than risk those at the telephoto end of the zoom.
For low-light work, selecting anything up to and including ISO1600 delivers a very usable noise-free result however, as long as you can take advantage of a steady surface or tripod to rest on. In summation then, we’re not getting a quality that’s a great deal better than an average snapshot camera costing £100 less. And if it’s a big zoom you really need, then around £300 will buy you a 20x zoom on the likes of one of Panasonic’s current TZ series models, which also fit in a trouser pocket while providing extras such as integral GPS.
If a camera looked this good, offered the same 12x optical zoom and cost £200, we’d be praising it to the rafters. Unfortunately this example costs 50 per cent more, so a premium is being charged for the fashion conscious fascia presented here.
Of course that won’t prevent those who value gadgets that look more obviously like "designer" brands splashing the cash, but the IXUS 500 HS is not the best value for money when rated purely in terms of feature set and performance.
On a more positive note, it’s useful that the broader than average zoom range can be accessed for video as well as stills. Plus it is certainly is much more impressive a specification than the 3x or 5x zoom reach formerly found on cameras of this prettified ilk.