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Canon SD600 Overview

By: Dan Havlik
Review Date: 06/21/2006

There's no arguing with it -- Canon makes some of the most consistently appealing compact cameras around, mostly because they don't skimp on image quality. With the new PowerShot SD600 Digital ELPH, that steady attention to imaging detail continues with several new small but substantial improvements. In particular, the SD600 is the latest camera from Canon to tackle one of the hottest issues in digital cameras right now: low-light shooting.

To allow flash-free photography in low light, the Canon SD600 offers selectable ISO settings up to 800, an extraordinarily high sensitivity rating, previously available only on higher-end and professional cameras. If you're less inclined to be fiddling around with ISO while taking pictures, there's also a new High ISO Auto setting (along with regular ISO Auto) which automatically sets exposure using the higher (400 and 800) ISO levels. For quick access to these settings there's a dedicated ISO button on the multi-controller on the back of the camera. While improving low-light performance has the potential to be revolutionary for consumers, in other areas, the SD600 plays it safer.

 

Canon SD600 User Report

By: Dan Havlik

The SD 600 may not dazzle you with its looks (it's pretty much the same basic Digital ELPH design we've seen for a number of years) or with its firepower (its top-line specs are about average for this camera class) but under its surface beats the heart of a solid imaging machine. And that's become Canon's rallying cry for its still popular digital ELPH series. In the past, Digital ELPHs with their classy style and snazzy features were the belles of the ball. These days though with so much R&D being put into design by other manufacturers, the standard Digital ELPH has gotten (dare I say it?) a little long in the tooth.

If you want more flash, look to the SD700 IS, or even to the SD630 (a $50 upgrade from the SD600) which both feature more curves and a luxurious two-tone finish in brushed silver and lacquered black. Furthermore, while the SD600 features a 2.5-inch LCD, this size doesn't set it apart from other cameras in its class which have mostly all gone to larger screens. If large displays are important to you, spend the extra $50 and get the SD630 which has a 3-inch display. You will, however, be giving up the tiny optical viewfinder that sits atop the SD600 -- a traditional holdover that many consumers still love. For their imaging chops though, the SD600 and SD630 are exactly the same, both featuring 6-megapixel sensors, 3x zooms, Canon's DIGIC II image processors, and all the high ISO capabilities that make them ideal for shooting in low-light without a flash. I'll look at the significance of these capabilities in this review and discuss why being able to shoot relatively low-noise images at higher ISOs is such a plus.

If It Ain't Broke...

There's no messing with the concept ELPH (IXUS in most of the rest of the world) designer Yasushi Shiotani came up with in the new Canon SD600. Known as the "box and circle," Shiotani's design has had a simple elegance to it from the very beginning; and the SD600, I'm happy to report, still sports this classic and still classy style.

a5-aa.jpg
Switch and speaker swapped. With the switch as a thumb rest, the speaker can be heard with ease while you remain in shooting position.

Though there's not much straying from the basic formula here, there are some nice small touches on the Canon SD600. For one, the speaker and the mode switch on the back of the camera have been flip-flopped, giving you easier access to the switch with your thumb. The switch also serves as a good thumb rest and ensures a better grip on the camera. At the same time, the speaker is not covered up with your thumb as it had been. As I mentioned, the design changes are small but considered. Other than that and the larger LCD on the back, the SD600 is the same metallic silver charmer that has helped Canon vault to the top of the digital camera heap. Though not an "ultra-slim" model, at 3.39 (W) x 2.11 (H) x .85 (D) the Canon SD600 is certainly small enough to fit in most pockets. The metal composition of the SD600 also gives it enough weight -- about five and a half ounces with the battery and a card -- and balance to let you know you're not dealing with a toy.

Though the LCD Screen is the same size as its predecessor, the SD450, on the SD600 it has 173,000 pixels of resolution compared to the SD450's screen which had only 115,000 pixels. The difference is noticeable with the SD600's screen rendering live previews and image playback beautifully. If you really feel that 2.5 inches is not big enough for your screen, be forewarned that while the SD630's larger 3-inch LCD offers more real estate, it also has 173,000 pixels of resolution, which means playback and live view won't be as sharp as on the SD600. Both cameras come equipped with a great new transition effects. One setting darkens and then brightens each image as you scroll through, and another slides one image over the other like shuffling through a deck of cards. Again, these are small changes but when I showed the sliding card effect to someone, I got a very audible "cool" from them. Details count.

Fast as Always

Canon's DIGIC processors (now DIGIC II) have become so accepted as the standard bearers of speed it's almost easy to take them for granted. If you've ever used a camera from a competitor with a less than fast processor though, you'll recognize the difference right away. The Canon SD600's predecessor, the SD450, also used DIGIC II and speed results are about the same, with the new model powering on in 1.8 seconds (time to first shot). If you prefocus the SD600, shutter lag is virtually non-existent, clocking in at 0.076. Shot to shot, the SD600 outperforms most cameras in this class, registering about 1.61 seconds for large/fine JPEGs with the buffer clearing almost immediately after each shot. In Continuous shooting mode, you can snap off just over two frames per second on the SD600, which is about average for this class; but since the buffer clears immediately, you're ready to go again much faster than most rival models. Since speed issues are generally the number one digital camera complaint by consumers, the Digital ELPH series and their DIGIC II processors working in concert with Canon's 9-point AiAF focusing system, have consistently been a good antidote to sluggish snappers.

A Low-Light Performer

In most reviews, compact digital cameras generally score high in outdoor daylight settings while seriously lagging in low light. This is the first review I've written though where I have to say I prefer the pictures I took with the SD600 indoors in low light to those I shot outside in the middle of the day. That might simply have to do with the fact that I used the camera in New York City during a rather dreary and overcast week, leaving most of my outdoor shots lacking sparkle. Or it might be because this camera's performance at ISOs 400 and 800 was so surprisingly good I've perhaps skewed the results a bit. Either way, Canon has definitely accomplished something in its latest ELPHs. Shots I took indoors without flash at 800 were better than most camera's shots at ISO 400 -- and by that I mean even including higher-end digital cameras that approach SLR quality. Furthermore, shots taken at ISO 400 were on par with most competitor's ISO 200 or even 100 settings.

To be more specific, where most entry-level digital cameras struggle in flashless photography at high ISO is in the amount of "noise" that appears in the images, which some people have compared to "film graininess" in traditional photography. I think the grain comparison is actually being too kind. To me, digital noise has always resembled that obnoxious snowy fuzz you get on your TV when it's stuck between channels. The triumph of Canon's recent digital SLRs is that they've been able to shoot at high ISOs with low incidence of noise. With these new ELPHs it appears Canon has been able to bring its low-noise/high ISO expertise to a non-professional audience which is very good news for consumers. Most people have gotten so used to shooting with a flash in low light that they're amazed when they see the results without one. Instead of blown-out faces and blacked out backgrounds you have nice natural skin tones and detail of the room behind your subject. While there's still a greater chance of blur when you shoot without a flash -- even at the SD600's speedy ISO 800 setting -- if your subject's relatively still, results with this camera look sharp.

Even more importantly, when I printed 4x6s of some of my low-light shots with the Canon SD600, the presence of noise was barely detectable. Things increased slightly with 8x10s but results were still impressive. The one criticism I could level at the SD600 on this subject is the somewhat confusing choice of ISO settings. Along with being able to select between ISO 80, 100, 200, 400 and 800, you can pick from two automatic settings -- ISO AUTO or ISO HI. After a bit of investigation, it appears that in regular lighting conditions both the AUTO and HI settings perform similarly; it's only in lower lighting that the HI setting automatically cranks up the ISO to 800. According to Canon, the only other difference between the two settings is that the HI ISO setting will almost always yield a higher shutter speed than ISO Auto. If you want to play it safe, I'd say always go with the HI ISO setting since the benefits are greater. Canon's thankfully included a dedicated ISO button on the camera's multi-selector on the back so accessing all these settings is easy.

Special Modes

The ELPH series aren't the best cameras for changing quickly between scene modes, because they are hidden within a couple of menus. The SD600, like its predecessor the SD450, does have most of the basic modes -- if you can find them -- including Digital Macro, Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, and Underwater. To get to the special scene modes, though, you have to first hit the Function key, then scroll down to the shooting modes selection, slide over to the right till you get to "Kids & Pets," and then hit Menu to find the rest. The Digital ELPH's relatively spartan interface with few buttons and knobs does have its limitations.

Canon's My Color Modes are useful for changing settings to mimic various picture styles including sepia, B&W, or "positive film" which makes red, green, and blues more intense -- along with a host of other lighter, darker, and more vivid color settings -- but I've found using the unusual Color Accent and Color Swap features to be somewhat frustrating with the results just mixed. In Color Accent you can pick a specified color in the LCD and have it retain its tone while the rest of the scene becomes black and white. Using Color Swap you can switch colors in a scene so that an apple becomes purple and a green sweater becomes red. While these features are unique to Canon cameras, I do have to wonder how many people actually use them.

The Canon SD600 also has four movie modes with sound and a maximum size of 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second. If the My Colors modes are your thing, there's a movie feature that lets you shoot with Color Accent or Color Swap.

One other special mode that's worth noting is the SD600's ability to shoot in 16:9 widescreen format for its still images so they can be played back on widescreen TVs. This appears to be a carryover from Canon digital camcorders which all have 16:9 modes now. Why Canon decided to import 16:9 Widescreen for its still images on the SD600 but not for its movies is a bit of a mystery.

Limited Control

Overall navigation is fairly straightforward and hasn't changed much from previous ELPH models. Manual control is still fairly limited; and don't be fooled by the M for Manual setting, which gives you just limited control over things like exposure compensation, white balance and various photo effects, not true control over aperture or shutter speed. If you want more manual features, look to Canon's A-Series cameras which offer great creative options but are not as small and sleek as the ELPHs.

Though the Canon SD600 has an optical viewfinder, it's not very accurate, cutting off quite a bit of the image. I'm not someone who feels especially attached to optical viewfinders in small digital cameras for this very reason. If you really want to see what you're shooting in anything but extremely bright circumstances, get used to using the viewfinder on the back of the camera which will give you a much more accurate representation. The screen on the SD600 also has a wide viewing angle, which makes it easier to show off your shots to your friends.

Unfortunately, using the LCD will drain the battery considerably, giving you approximately 160 shots, based on CIPA standards. With the LCD Monitor off, you'll get about 600 images. You'll also get approximately four hours of image playback on the SD600's fully charged battery.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

Packaged with the Canon PowerShot SD600 are the following items:

 

Canon SD600 Recommended Accessories

Canon offers an assortment of accessories for their SD-series cameras. Here's a list of selected Canon accessories for the PowerShot SD600, complete with shopping links:

Accessory Model No. List
Price
Function
Leather Case
PSC-90 $20
(shop)
Excellent protection with stiff leather and a hard backing (we recommend keeping the LCD facing this hard back for impact and compression protection). Includes a belt loop on the back and a deluxe leather wrist strap. Also available in red
Spare Battery
NB-4L $60
(shop)
We recommend a spare battery, especially if you're going on vacation
Waterproof Case WP-DC4 $175
(shop)
Protect and take your SD600 where you never would have with the DC40 waterproof case
High Power Wireless Flash
HF-DC1 $100
(shop)
This interesting wireless flash not only has three power settings, it zooms with the camera. It is controlled wirelessly, though it does mount to the camera with an included special bracket
AC adapter
ACK-DC10 $50-90
(shop)

Run the camera from AC power. (Frankly, not really all that necessary, given the good battery life. Might be handy for extended slide shows, with the camera sitting atop a TV though.)

Battery/charger kit
CB-2LV (shop) $29-60
Same as the charger that comes with the camera, in case you decide you need two or if you need a replacement

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Good low-light performer
  • Low noise at high ISOs -- 400 & 800
  • Vibrant, appealing color
  • Good skin tones
  • Fast start-up and virtually no shutter lag if you pre-focus
  • Auto white balance handles a wide range of lighting well
  • Better than average exposure accuracy
  • Good lens, generally low distortion (some chromatic aberration at wide settings though)
  • Good shutter response at wide angle settings
  • Very simple user interface
  • Accurate LCD screen with good resolution
  • Effective Long Shutter mode
  • Case design fits both large and small hands well
  • Good download speed when connected to a computer
  • Difficult to quickly access special scene modes
  • Very inaccurate optical viewfinder with just 80% coverage
  • Only white balance and EV compensation options in Manual mode
  • Shutter response at telephoto focal lengths is a little slow
  • Contrast is a little high, tends to lose highlight and shadow detail under harsh lighting
  • Battery life is rather short when using the LCD (and you'll need to use it, because the optical viewfinder is so tight)

 

If the SD600's classic Digital ELPH design fails to dazzle like it used to that's mostly because Canon's competitors are finally starting to catch up. So while this silver metallic 6MP camera probably won't turn heads as it might have done in the past, there's more going on underneath the hood now that should please true digital camera lovers, not just the style conscious. Along with providing solid image quality in regular lighting conditions with good color and accurate skin tones, the SD600 incorporates many of Canon's technological advances for shooting with high ISOs. Boasting an ISO 800 setting is one thing -- several rivals have also started offering these ISO levels and higher -- but Canon backs up this ISO sensitivity rating with real, usable results. Many shots I took without a flash and the ISO set to 800 on the SD600 were leaps and bounds better than images I captured with competing cameras set at ISO 400. Noise was kept to a minimum on the SD600, even at ISO 800, allowing me to print low-light shots with confidence in sizes up to 8x10 inches. Though other than increasing the resolution to 6MP, there's little that's different on this camera from the SD450 which we rated highly last year, and that's actually a good thing. Canon's DIGIC II processors continue to produce great results in a number of areas, particularly by nearly eliminating shutter lag when you pre-focus. As I've said before in this review, if you want a slightly snazzier looking Digital ELPH with a larger screen, spend the extra $50 and buy the SD630 which has a 3-inch screen compared to the SD600's 2.5-inch display. These minor quibbles shouldn't prevent you from considering the SD600 though, which is an excellent camera in its own right, and deserving of a Dave's Pick.