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Canon SD790 IS Review

by Mike Pasini, Siegfried Weidelich, and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: 09/05/08

The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS is smaller than a deck of playing cards, yet conveys a sophisticated and substantial look and feel, thanks to its solid, streamlined and modern digital camera design.

The Canon SD790 IS Digital ELPH features a 10-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD imager and a Canon-branded 3x optical zoom lens with image stabilization, which covers a fairly standard range of 35-105mm equivalent -- a moderate wide angle to a moderate telephoto. Exposure is fully automatic, but you can tweak it with 2.0 EV of exposure compensation and four metering modes to handle difficult lighting, including a mode which ties metering to the camera's face detection system. Twelve scene modes keep the Canon SD790 approachable for beginners. A long-exposure mode in the Canon SD790 IS ELPH lets you set exposure times as long as 15 seconds manually, and a large 3.0-inch PureColor LCD II display helps when framing images, leaving no space for an optical viewfinder. The Canon SD790 derives its power from a proprietary NB-5L lithium-ion battery pack, and is rated at 330 shots per charge with the LCD on (CIPA method).

Canon SD790 IS Pricing and Availability

The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS Digital ELPH ships from late March 2008, and is expected to retail for about US$350. Be sure to check our shopping links for better prices.

 

Canon SD790 IS User Report

by Mike Pasini

Intro. Canon offers so many digicams, it's hard (but possible) to distinguish one from another. The Canon SD790 IS is an attractive 10-megapixel ELPH with optical image stabilization and a DIGIC III processor. Its main drawback is that its optical zoom range extends only three times to 105mm. If you can live with that limitation, well, you won't find many others in this remarkable, if automatic, digicam.

Closed. It's small enough to fit in a watertight Otter box.

Look and Feel. Size has always been at the heart of the ELPH's allure and the SD790 IS maintains that advantage, adding a bit of charm with a symmetrically sculpted look that is attractive standing on-end or sideways.

Even the back is attractive with its 230,000-pixel, 3-inch LCD and simple die-cut buttons above and below the rotating navigator dial. That new dial doubles as a sub-mode dial (if a bit awkwardly). The top two buttons are Print/Share and Playback. The bottom two are Display and Menu. The Control Dial uses the Up arrow for ISO, Right for Flash modes, Down for Trash/Shutter Release modes/Self-Timer, and Left for Focus modes. Look closely and you'll find the "thumb grip" of eight raised bumps between the top buttons and the LCD.

Open. It's quick on the draw, thanks to the Canon SD790's DIGIC III processor.

A speaker is all you'll find on the left side (or bottom) of the camera, while the opposite end holds a neatly covered USB port and an eyelet for the strap. The bottom of the camera is equally uncomplicated with the sliding door to the battery/card compartment and a metal tripod socket under the center of the LCD.

On the front, the design highlights the protruding lens with a chrome accent flange interrupted only by the flash in the top right corner and the focus-assist lamp next to it.

Top. Nicely grooved so the Power button protrudes without snagging.

The top panel is neatly grooved so the slim Power button is easily discovered without protruding beyond the profile of the case. There's a small microphone grill just to the front of it. The large Shutter button is ringed with the Zoom lever and a very slim Mode switch is on the beveled back edge. The Mode switch can be a problem because the small bump that makes it easy to grip also makes it easy for pockets and bags to grab and move the switch to a different setting. Once you're aware of the issue, it's easy enough to avoid, but it's a vulnerability that caught me off guard a couple of times.

Back. A big LCD and just a few controls.

The 3-inch LCD is the only viewfinder on the Canon SD790 IS, but it's a high-resolution one with 230,000 pixels. And you can see it in direct sunlight without squinting.

The rotating Control dial spins to select any of the various Auto mode options (including Auto, Camera M, Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, and Stitch Assist).

Controls. The die-cut buttons work well, but the rotating Control Dial is a bit awkward, not responding reliably to each turn of the wheel.

The Control dial also navigates Canon's menu system. You access the system by pressing the Menu button. Then either rotate the Control Dial or press the Up/Down arrow keys to scroll through the selections. To change a setting, you press either the Left/Right arrow keys to scroll through your options, or the Set button to access another screen of options. The Set button also confirms your selection.

Bottom. Neatly arranged with a strong cover and a springloaded metal hinge, the door covers the battery and SD card slot. Note also the metal tripod socket.

The lens is the 35mm equivalent of a 35mm to 105mm zoom. That's wide enough to capture a small room, and long enough for middle distance landscapes. The 4x digital zoom gets you close enough (420mm equivalent) to compose less-detailed photos of far-away subjects. Among digital zooms, it isn't great quality but about average.

The "IS" in the camera name stands for Image Stabilization. That means that the Canon SD790's lens has an element that shifts to compensate for camera movement. That stabilizes those 420mm digital zoom shots, but, more importantly, lets you take more natural-light shots without resorting to flash by steadying the image at very slow shutter speeds.

Lens. Only 3x optical zoom.

Interface. As it happened, I had the Canon SD790 IS for a couple of weeks, so it became my pocket camera. I found it easy enough to use that at certain events like dinner parties it was no trouble to hand it off to someone who had never seen one before and ask them to take my picture.

All I had to show them -- no matter their age -- was where to find three buttons: the Power button, the Shutter button and the Zoom ring. The big screen made it easy to compose the shot and check the capture.

Of course, there are buttons and a dial and they do offer useful functions, as we detailed above. But the beauty of this ELPH is that you rarely have to use them.

Camera M. The most control with EV, White Balance, Metering, and more.

Modes. An ELPH is an automatic camera. Slide the Mode switch to Auto and forget about it. If you see something strange on the LCD, try a Scene mode by sliding the Mode switch to the middle. But Auto does very well.

If you've got some shooting experience, you'll probably prefer Camera M as your default shooting mode because Auto only lets you change file size and compression in the menu system. If you want to change EV or set the white balance or change the exposure metering (and who doesn't?), you want Camera M. To get to Camera M, set the Mode switch to Auto and spin the navigator. The screen will display the Auto options (which include some fun things like Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, and Stitch Assist).

Shooting modes are surprisingly extensive.

They include Auto, Camera M, Special Scene (Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, ISO 3200, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, Stitch Assist, and Movie. You can use digital zoom in Movie mode and there's even a time-lapse option.

Click to view movie. AVI player required.

High Quality Movie. A 10.7MB file lasting six seconds. Digital zoom, too.

Playback modes are just as extensive.

Still image modes include Single, Magnification (approximately 2x to 10x), Jump, Auto Rotate, Rotate, Resume, My Colors, My Category, Transition Effects, Histogram, Overexposure Warning, Index (9 thumbnails), Sound Memos, Slide Show, Red-eye Correction, Raw, Trimming, Resize, and the helpful Image Inspection Tool. Movie modes include Normal Playback, Special Playback, Editing, Auto Rotate, and Resume.

Image Inspection Tool. Here the SD790 IS is showing us the focus point and letting us examine a magnified view of it.

Storage and Battery. The Canon SD790 IS has an SD memory card slot, which can accommodate SD/SDHC memory cards, MultiMediaCard/MMC Plus cards, and HC MMC Plus cards. It does not have any internal memory storage.

File sizes vary quite a bit, but my shots at the highest resolution with the least compression were typically about 4.6MB, although a few ran as high as 5.2MB. A nearly black image is about 2.2MB for comparison (yes, I had one of those).

Slide Show Options. The bar second from the bottom lets you select various groups of images.

The NB-5L lithium-ion battery never failed me, holding a charge through any of the events where I used the camera. CIPA testing standards (which tax the battery a good deal more than I do, using quite a few flash shots) rate the capacity at about 330 shots or 420 minutes of playback time.

Performance. With Canon's fastest processor (the same one used in its digital SLRs), you'd expect the SD790 IS to score above average on our essential tests -- and it does indeed.

Define Playback. You can define the Playback bottom function.

Its 1.5 second startup time (as the lens extends) and 1.1 second shutdown time are both safely above average for current compact digicams.

More importantly, its combined autofocus lag is only 0.541 seconds (0.48 wide, 0.60 tele), also above average in a field that's getting pretty responsive. Nobody who shot with this camera complained about shutter lag. Prefocus lag is a very brisk 0.072 second to ice that cake. Cycle time was only average for a 10-megapixel digicam though.

Download speed was swift at 5,831K bytes a second. I used both a folding USB/SD card and an Eye-Fi wireless card in the camera rather than plugging a USB cable into the neatly capped port in the top corner. But there's no penalty for using a cable at that speed.

Zoom Range. 35mm to 105mm to 4x digital zoom.

Flash cycle time was only average at 6.7 seconds with a full-power discharge. While the flash is competent, reaching 11 feet at wide angle using only ISO 250 and 6.6 feet at telephoto using ISO 200, it isn't going to light up big rooms.

The 3-inch LCD ranks above average, while 3x optical zoom is just average. This isn't the camera to take sightseeing. But few ELPHs really are. Weight was a trim 6.31 ounces, but that's a bit heavier than average. I have no complaint with that, however, since it helps stabilize the camera in your hand.

In short, the Canon SD790 IS gets high marks for performance with the usual compact flash syndrome.

Image Quality. Performance is important when you're using the camera, but what you are left with is image quality. How good are the SD790 IS images?

Like other digicams in its class, barrel distortion at wide angle was high at 0.9 percent, but pincushion at telephoto was low at less than 0.1 percent. Chromatic aberration was high at wide angle, as well, exacerbated by corner blur. That sounds worse than it is. I can't think of a single compact digicam that doesn't suffer the same fate.

While there is some oversaturation of reds and blues, color was generally vibrant and pleasing. That's saying something because in this class the tendency is to oversaturate, to make images "pop," to really dazzle you. Except if you walked around town being dazzled, you'd probably be run over by a bus. Natural color is something we all prize around here and the Canon comes very close to it.

Our lab shots get to the meat of the matter. The ISO 100 Still Life does exhibit issues with corner blur (yarns are sharper at the bottom) and highlight bleeding (see the white napkin under the dark coffee cup or the top edge of the Samuel Smith label). But you can still distinguish the mosaic pattern on the Hellas vinegar bottle, and the proportional scale looks pretty good.

The high resolution Multi Target shows the extent of the chromatic aberration we mentioned in the corners but also the very sharp resolution at the center of the image.

Red. A natural rendering.

When we talk about natural color, the best illustration is a cherry red car. The very first gallery shot is one such, the vehicle parked under a blue and red Bank of America sign with a scarlet Memorial Day notice on the door. None of those reds is oversaturated (although they are certainly bright for a foggy day). The effect is natural.

My shot of an AA battery illustrates the quality of Digital Macro mode. I was just a few inches away with the lens at wide angle. If I had wanted more of the battery in focus, I would have tapped the ISO button (Up arrow) and changed the ISO to 400.

ISO 3,200. Reduced image size only.

The dolls are a good illustration of the value of the DIGIC III chip. I actually prefer the ISO 3,200 shot to the ISO 1,600 shot. The 1,600 shot is full resolution (2,736 x 3,648) while the 3,200 shot is smaller (1,200 x 1,600). But color is better at the smaller size.

My fire hydrant torture test shows almost no highlight blooming from the white hydrant into the dark hedge. That is really pretty remarkable. Our lab's outdoor shot didn't do quite as well, however. Still, many more expensive digicams can't do as well. We also shot that at -2/3 EV after looking at the 0 EV shot in the LCD but on the computer the original 0 EV shot looks about right.

So despite the typical ultracompact issues, I have no complaints about image quality. Would that every digicam did as well.

Appraisal. The Canon SD790 IS has only one strike against it and that's its 3x optical zoom. You might think the lack of a Manual mode would be another, but the Canon SD790 IS is designed for taking great snapshots. With its DIGIC III processor, it does just that.

 

Canon SD790 IS Basic Features

 

Canon SD790 IS Special Features

 

In the Box

The Canon SD790 IS ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Canon SD790 IS Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • One of the more elegant ELPH designs
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Large, high-resolution LCD
  • Face and motion detection
  • Simple buttons
  • Good heft
  • Good Macro performance
  • Good color
  • Very high resolution
  • Excellent image quality
  • Good performance up to ISO 800
  • Excellent low-light capability
  • Focuses well in low light
  • Good shutter lag times
  • Fast download speed
  • Above-average battery life
  • Optical zoom is just 3x
  • No true Manual mode
  • Mode switch snags on bags and pockets
  • Control dial is awkward
  • Slightly soft corners at wide angle
  • Moderate chromatic aberration at wide angle
  • Noticeable barrel distortion at wide angle
  • Flash is not very robust
  • Some softening due to noise reduction
  • ISO 1,600 and 3,200 are best avoided for loss of detail
  • Very small 32MB card included

 

With a generous 10-megapixel sensor and a high-resolution, 3-inch LCD, the chiseled Canon SD790 IS ELPH is hard to ignore. Add Canon's Face Detection and Motion Detection technology, all handled by the company's premier DIGIC III image processor, and even what you don't see is impressive. Like all compact digicams it suffers from slightly noticeable corner softening and chromatic aberration at wide angle. But that's forgivable. We're less inclined to forgive the meager 3x zoom, particularly if you do a lot of landscape shooting. But when it comes to image quality, the Canon SD790 IS impressed me with its dynamic range and natural color capture. Small enough to take anywhere, you'll never want to be without it. The Canon SD790 is an easy Dave's Pick.