(#3 in our 2011 Travel Zoom Shootout!)
Canon SX230 HS User Report
by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: 06/15/2011
The $350 Canon SX230 is the third GPS-equipped digicam I've reviewed in 2011, following the Casio H20G and the Panasonic ZS10. We've certainly been getting our 10,000 steps a day with these assignments.
How do they stack up? The Canon is the best camera among the three as far as image quality goes, but trails the Casio H20G slightly in GPS implementation, lacking location names and Playback mapping. It does include logging, as well as a mapping application. The Panasonic ZS10 lags behind both of these cameras in image quality and GPS implementation.
If this were dot racing (and it is dot racing season once again), the finish line would see Canon, Casio and Panasonic, in that order, although you could argue that Panasonic, lame as it was, might never make it that far.
Canon has packed a lot more than GPS into the Canon SX230, though, including slow-mo video and enhanced low light shooting. That makes it fun to fiddle with even if you're not going anywhere this summer.
Look and Feel. Except for the GPS radio bump on the top panel, the Canon SX230 is identical to the SX220, and the two of them aren't much different from last year's SX210. But the differences are worth pointing out.
The stereo microphones have moved from the SX210's top panel to the front of the new cameras, sitting 2.25 inches away from each other on either side of the lens. Nice move.
And the Power button has slipped off the top panel to the top ridge on the back panel of the new models. And the Zoom control has morphed into a ring surrounding the Shutter button. Another nice move.
The flash is still a popup, and still pops up every time you turn on the camera. There's no way to disable that in Setup unfortunately. Even if you set the Flash mode to never fire, it still pops up. The only solution is to keep your finger on it when you power up until the latch returns to the lock position to hold it down. The popup flash is a great idea but its implementation is a nuisance on the SX230.
This is a beefy model (in fact, your filet mignon may resemble nothing more than the Canon SX230). But there's no thought to providing a grip except the slightly askew Mode dial on the back, which also serves as a thumb pad.
The front panel hosts the large 14x zoom lens, identical to last year's model. An autofocus-assist lamp is at the eleven o'clock position near the lens and one of the stereo mics just to its side. A dark plastic panel is above them and just under the GPS radio bump, presumably to improve GPS reception. The other stereo mic is on the other side of the lens just below the little tab for lifting the popup flash manually.
On the top panel, from left to right, you have the popup flash, the speaker (nope, not stereo), the GPS radio, and the Shutter button surround by the Zoom lever.
On the back panel, there's a 16:9 widescreen LCD and controls to the right, including the Power button on the ridge above the LCD. The Mode dial is in the top right corner, the Movie and Playback buttons just below it. Just off five o'clock from the Mode dial is a small green status LED, which indicates startup, card write status, computer connection, GPS logging, and other functions.
The four-way navigator, which also functions as a scroll wheel, has a Function/Set button in the middle and sits right above the Display and Menu buttons in the common Canon configuration. Missing are any icons or labels on the four-way navigator to indicate their function (lightly touching the ring, though, brings up a map of available functions on the LCD). Up is EV, Right cycles the Flash modes, Down is the Self-Timer, and Left cycles through the Focus modes.
On the right side is the eyelet for the wrist strap and the cover to the mini-HDMI port and AV/USB port.
On the bottom panel the metal tripod socket is right on the hinge for the battery/memory card compartment.
Controls. The Power button was easy enough to use but I was glad to find out the Playback button also has an on/off function because it won't extend the lens when you just want to see what you've shot.
The Shutter button was big and responsive, the half-press point easy to find. The Zoom lever was smooth and slow enough to use in Movie mode or to refine your still composition.
The Mode dial was packed with settings, which I'll detail below. There's more than one auto mode these days and several Scene modes made it to a spot of their own on the dial.
There are no special or dedicated buttons apart from the Movie button.
Lens. The 14x optical zoom in the Canon SX230 ranges from 28 to 392mm in 35mm equivalents, including a good wide angle that can fit the whole room into the frame and an aggressive telephoto for those faraway subjects. It's extended by a 4x digital zoom for a total 56x zoom range. With optical stabilization.
Focusing Range extends from 2.0 inches (5cm) to infinity at wide angle and 3.3 feet (1m) to infinity at telephoto. In Macro mode, the range at wide angle is 2.0 inches to 1.6 feet (5-50cm).
Maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.1 and f/5.9 at telephoto.
Shutter speeds range from 15 to 1/3,200 seconds, depending on the mode (with the fastest flash sync at 1/2,000). ISO ranges from 100 to 3,200.
Our lens quality tests show the lens to be slightly soft in the corners at both wide angle and telephoto, with very mild barrel distortion at wide angle, which becomes barely perceptible pincushioning at telephoto. Some mild chromatic aberration is visible at both wide angle and telephoto.
Modes. One of the delights of the SX-Series cameras is that they retain the PASM manual shooting modes of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual.
There are also two automatic modes in addition to Program: Auto and Easy mode.
And there are a set of Scene modes in addition to the commonly used ones on the Mode dial itself for Portrait, Landscape, and Kids&Pets.
In addition to Movie mode, there's also a Movie Digest mode to make a short movie of your day from stills.
Let's take a closer look.
Program gives you the most control over camera functions except for the shutter speed and aperture. You control Flash mode, EV, White Balance, ISO, the aspect ratio, Release mode, Focus mode, Metering mode and more. What you can't do is select from a range of shutter speed and aperture combinations with the equivalent exposure.
Aperture Priority additionally lets you select the aperture from a range of f/3.1 through f/8.0 at wide angle and f/5.9 to f/8.0 at telephoto. The Canon SX230 displays the shutter speed in orange instead of white to indicate improper exposure. You can then adjust the aperture until the shutter speed appears in white. Alternately, a Safety Shift option in the Record Menu system will automatically adjust for correct exposure.
Shutter Priority provides the same control as Aperture Priority but lets you control the shutter speed. The options range from 15 seconds to 1/3,200 second. Flash sync is as high as 1/2,000 second. Any shot taken at 1.3 seconds or slower employs noise reduction processing, which can slow shot-to-shot times. The Canon SX230 displays the aperture in orange instead of white to indicate improper exposure. You can then adjust the shutter speed until the aperture appears in white. Alternately, a Safety Shift option in the Record Menu system will automatically adjust for correct exposure.
Manual mode gives you control of both the shutter speed and aperture. When you press the EV button you shift from one to the other, which you can set (as in the other modes) using the scroll wheel. A vertical exposure guide appears in the bottom right corner.
Smart Auto, which also works for video, analyzes up to 32 shooting scenarios before setting the camera. An icon is displayed to show you what scene type the camera recognized. The Canon SX230 can recognize portraits, landscapes, macro, backlit, sunset, spotlights and night scenes and various combinations.
Easy mode adds instructions displayed on the screen while limiting control to the Zoom lever, Shutter and Movie buttons plus the Right button to toggle the Flash on or off. It also works in Playback mode, setting the Function/OK button to start a slide show and the Down button to erase images.
Movie Digest creates a movie by saving a two to four second video clip of the scene when you capture a still and then assembling all the clips into one movie. Standard definition clips are captured and assembled by date, so only one film can be made for each day.
Scene modes include Portrait, Landscape, and Kids & Pets on the Mode dial itself plus the options under the Scene mode. Those include Smart Shutter (Smile, Wink Self-Timer, and Face Self-Timer), High-speed Burst, Best Image Selection, Handheld Night Scene, Low Light, Beach, Underwater, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, and Stitch Assist.
Creative Filter. Like another set of Scene modes, these options include Fish-Eye Effect, Miniature Effect (video, too), Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Color Accent, and Color Swap.
Movie modes include Standard, iFrame Movie, and Super Slow Motion Movie. Movies can be captured in High Definition (1,920 x 1,080 at 24 fps or 1,280 x 720 at 30 fps) or Standard Definition (640 x 480 or 320 x240 at 30 fps).
An iFrame Movie is captured at 1,280 by 720 and 30 fps. (iFrame is a format developed by Apple that is based on industry-standard codecs designed to simplify video editing.) Super Slow Motion can capture up to two minutes at 320 x 240 pixels and 120 fps or up to four minutes at 240 fps. The sample at right is 240 fps.
Menu System. Canon fans will be instantly familiar with the company's traditional menu system. And new Canon owners won't take long to figure out the two basic rules:
- Use the Menu button to make changes to general camera behavior for Recording, Setup, Playback and Printing.
- Use the Function/Set button to make changes to exposure settings.
In addition, the four-way navigator arrow buttons provide a few handy shortcuts as explained in the Controls section above.
GPS. To record location data with each image, you first have to turn on GPS in the Setup Menu. There's also an option to enable GPS logging, so if you want to map your route (using the included Canon software), you should enable that, too.
Like other GPS-enabled cameras, turning off the Canon SX230 does not turn off the GPS radio. That lets it maintain contact with the satellites so when you next power on the camera, you're already in sync. It also lets it continue to log your position as you travel.
Sync status is displayed on the LCD with three satellite icons. A solid satellite indicates sync has been achieved. A flashing satellite icon indicates sync is being established. A satellite with the circle bar icon indicates no GPS signal was found.
See the sidebar below for important tips on getting a good GPS signal. You have to be patient -- then leave it on.
GPS Log. If you opted to log your route, a page icon will appear in the upper right corner of the screen. Consider that a warning not to format your memory card, which will also erase any log files.
As long as the GPS radio is on and you've enabled logging, the Canon SX230 will periodically record its position in a log file (in the CANONMSC/GPS/ folder of the SD card).
Canon doesn't specify the interval between GPS updates on the Canon SX230. Typically it's about five minutes. When traveling by car, that can introduce some inaccuracy in the route.
Once a good sync was established, I found the Canon SX230 to be as accurate as other GPS cameras, if not a little more so.
GPS Fields. Here are the GPS-related fields captured by the Canon SX230:
GPSVersionID: 188.8.131.52 GPSLatitudeRef: North GPSLongitudeRef: West GPSAltitudeRef: Above Sea Level GPSTimeStamp: 20:02:11 GPSStatus: Measurement Active GPSMapDatum: WGS-84 GPSDateStamp: 2011:04:01 plus GPSAltitude: 80.2 m Above Sea Level GPSDateTime: 2011:04:01 20:02:11Z GPSLatitude: 37 degrees 46' 15.70" N GPSLongitude: 122 degrees 28' 22.24" W GPSPosition: 37 degrees 46' 15.70" N, 122 degrees 28' 22.24" W
After software installation, the Canon Utilities folder will include the MapUtility, which can display either a GPS tagged image or a log on a Google map.
Finally, just a warning that if you post your photos publicly, you may not want to reveal location data. Turn off GPS when you don't want location data written to the Exif header.
Storage & Battery. There is no built-in memory on the Canon SX230, which relies on the SD-format card you insert. Memory card format support includes SD/SDHC/SDXC Memory Card, Eye-Fi Card, MultiMediaCard, MMCplus Card, and HC MMCplus Card.
You can store 1,231 Large Fine 4:3 images or 14 minutes 34 seconds of Full HD video (1080) or 20 min. 3 seconds of 720 HD video on a 4GB card. Use at least a Class 6 high-speed card for HD video capture.
The Canon SX230 is powered by an NB-5L lithium-ion battery. Canon estimates about 210 captures or four hours of playback from a fully-charged battery. An AC adapter kit (CA-DC10) is also available.
The battery has come in for some online battering for being a weakling but I didn't have any issues with it. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though.
One is simply that turning off the camera does not turn off the GPS radio. And that will wear down any battery. You might want to do this if you're tracking your route, but if you want to break off a route or just give the battery a break, make sure the GPS feature is off. We also strongly recommend carrying a second battery.
Image Quality. I have no quibbles with the image quality of the shots I took with the Canon SX230.
I will note a slight blooming along the edges of some bright subjects, but concede that's pretty common. It was almost frightening with the Olympus XZ-1 (see the log shot), whose quality I admired, and the Canon SX230 never approached that.
If you fear the 12.1-megapixel sensor might lack resolution, take a look at the shot of the Ferry Building (YIMG_0183.JPG), where you can tell the time (which I could not do with my naked eye), or the fig leaf (YIMG_0210.JPG), whose every vein is sharply captured.
Color was likewise a delight, whether it was cherry blossoms against the blue sky or an old aluminum alloy engine. The shot of the poppies was faithfully captured, as was the low light shot of a reading book end.
Distortion was mild, as noted in the lens section above. See our reports on lens quality below.
Shooting. My first outing with the Canon SX230 was up Twin Peaks to take the zoom series. Metallic turquoise would not have been my choice for a body color, but nobody laughed at me up there.
The optical zoom range was excellent, showing me detail I just couldn't see with my naked eye -- including the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge seven miles away. And the digital zoom range was usable, clearly showing the gear on the roof of the Bank of America building, bringing the Canon SX230 nearly to megazoom range.
I was biking so there are no comparison shots of the logs but I did take a black and white comparison shot in Golden Gate Park as I made my way to the beach. The color and black and white shot of the olive tree trunks were in shade and both look significantly overexposed.
There was no EV adjustment and exposure was automatic but I notice that the auto ISO was set to 200. The sunlit shots were all ISO 100.
ISO was still on auto when I shot the engine, going all the way to 1,600. And in the cabin, shooting the stick shift knob at macro range, it was 640. Canon isn't shy about using high ISOs on the Canon SX230.
The bookend shot shows why. At ISO 1,600, it is among the clearest of those I've taken, the text on the spines clearly readable.
In fact, you'd be hard pressed to see any advantage to the Low Light Scene mode shot of the mandolin and the straight ISO 3,200 shot of it. The Low Light shot is smaller, the pixels averaged to minimize noise, but it wouldn't have been worth it to switch to Low Light from Program for that shot.
I also took the Canon SX230 to a birthday party where the light level was generally pretty low and provided by ceiling cans and a huge HDTV. Not the greatest situation, but the camera did well.
I didn't record GPS data with these shots but the Leninade bottle says enough about the white balance and low light capability.
Overall, the Canon SX230 HS was a gem of a long zoom, its many facets well-polished.
See below for our lens and image quality analysis, and below that for our conclusion.
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS Lens Quality
Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Very soft at upper left
Tele: Sharp at center
Tele: Soft, upper left corner
Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Canon PowerShot SX230's zoom shows a fair amount of blurring in the upper left corner of the frame, though blurring isn't as strong in the other three corners. Blurring also doesn't extend very far into the image area. At telephoto, performance is a little more consistent from center to corner, though some mild blurring is present.
Wide: Minor barrel distortion; only slightly noticeable
Tele: A small amount of pincushion distortion, quite minor
Geometric Distortion: Barrel distortion at wide-angle is actually quite low (0.4%), as is pincushion distortion at telephoto (0.2%).
Wide: High and bright
Tele: Also high and bright
Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration is high at both wide-angle and telephoto zoom settings, and pixels are very bright. The effect is quite strong, and extends fairly far into the main image area.
Macro with Flash
Macro: The Canon PowerShot SX230's Macro mode captures a sharp image with well-defined detail. Blurring is somewhat high in the corners of the frame though, particularly the left, and some chromatic aberration is present (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Minimum coverage area is 2.30 x 1.72 inches (58 x 44mm), which is good. The PowerShot SX230's flash produced a very uneven exposure, with strong shadowing in the lower right from the lens. When it comes to shooting this close, existing lighting will be your best bet.
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS Viewfinder Accuracy
Wide: LCD Monitor
Tele: LCD Monitor
Viewfinder Accuracy: The Canon PowerShot SX230's LCD monitor showed just over 100% coverage at wide-angle and slightly below 100% at telephoto, which is excellent.
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS Image Quality
Color: The PowerShot SX230 HS performed pretty well here. Bright blues and reds are a little oversaturated, while strong yellows are a bit muted, but saturation overall is actually a little better than average. Hue shifts are relatively minor, with the exception of a stronger push in cyans toward blue. Yellows are also pushed toward green, and orange toward yellow, but most hues are fairly close. Dark skin tones show a small push toward orange, but lighter skin tones are pretty accurate. Overall, very good results.
Good, though a bit yellow
Incandescent: Manual white balance handled our incandescent lighting much better than the Incandescent setting, which came out too pink. Auto produced better results than average, though with a slight yellow tint.
Horizontal: 2,000 lines
Vertical: 1,800 lines
Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,000 lines per picture height horizontally, and to about 1,800 vertically. (Lines are fairly distinct at 2,000 vertically, but begin to merge just a hair.) Extinction of the pattern occurred at around 2,400 lines per picture height.
Tele: Bright, with falloff
Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) shows bright results at the rated wide-angle distance of 11.5 feet, though the camera increased ISO to 400 to achieve this. The telephoto test also came out bright at the rated distance of 6.6 feet, though with some faint vignetting at the edges and corners. (ISO was again increased to 400.)
Auto flash produced bright results in our indoor portrait scene, retaining some of the ambient light by using a slower shutter speed of 1/40 second, and raising ISO to 400. Any movement of the subject could be problematic at this shutter speed, though the SX230's optical image stabilization should eliminate the need for a tripod. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.
ISO: Noise and Detail: The Canon PowerShot SX230 HS captures a lot of fine detail with strong definition at ISOs 100, 200 and even 400, though details are a hint soft here. Even results at ISO 800 are better than expected. Though luminance noise does distort definition here slightly, overall fine detail is still quite good. At ISOs 1,600 and 3,200, results are fuzzy, but the camera holds on to a lot of detail. See Printed results below for more on how this affects prints.
Print Quality: ISO 100 images look quite good printed at 16x20 inches. True to CMOS cameras, there is a little more softening in fine detail than we'd see with a CCD, especially in reds, but the Canon SX230 does far better than others in this respect for the 2011 model year.
ISO 200 shots also print well at 16x20 inches, with very fine noise appearing in shadows.
ISO 400 images are good, but a little softer at 16x20 with more pronounced luminance noise in the shadows. Softness is reduced by printing at 13x19, but really doesn't go away until 11x14 inches.
ISO 800 files are usable at 11x14 inches, but are a little soft in the detail department. This goes away when printed at 8x10.
ISO 1,600 shots are usable at 8x10, only slightly soft.
ISO 3,200 shots are pretty good at 5x7.
Hair also gives CMOS sensors trouble, but the Canon SX230's sensor handles the hair in our INB test shot better than most, looking good printed at 13x19 inches.
Overall, the Canon SX230 HS does remarkably well in this test, showing that Canon was wise to go from the 14-megapixel CCD that appeared in the SX210 to the 12-megapixel CMOS sensor in the SX230.
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS Performance
Startup Time: The Canon SX230 takes about 2 seconds to power on and take a shot. That's quite good for a long-zoom model.
Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is good, at 0.40 second at wide angle and 0.53 second at full telephoto. Prefocused shutter lag is 0.090 second, slower than most, but still pretty quick.
Cycle Time: Cycle time isn't outstanding, capturing a frame every 2.03 seconds in single-shot mode. Canon rates the SX230's full-resolution burst mode at 3.2 frames per second, which is not as fast as some competing CMOS sensor models. There's also a High-speed Burst mode rated at 8.1 frames-per-second that captures 3-megapixel images.
Flash Recycle: The Canon PowerShot SX230's flash recycles in about 6.2 seconds after a full-power discharge, about average.
Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to midway between the 1/8 and 1/4 foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, though the camera was able to focus in complete darkness with the AF assist lamp enabled.
USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS' download speeds are pretty fast. We measured 8,308 KBytes/sec.
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Canon PowerShot SX230 HS camera
- Battery pack (NB-5L)
- Battery charger (CB-2LX)
- Wrist strap (WS-DC11)
- AV cable (AVC-DC400ST)
- USB cable (IFC-400PCU)
- Digital Camera Solution CD-ROM
- Extra battery pack for extended outings
- Large capacity SDHC memory card. These days, 4GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity, but if you plan to capture many movie clips, 8GB should be a minimum.
- Medium camera case
Canon SX230 Conclusion
In general, I found the Canon SX230 to be a nimble companion on my jaunts for a week, whether by bike, on foot, or in the car. GPS locations were generally accurate and the logging useful.
While I wasn't wild about this particular body color, the Power button or the Mode dial, none of them were deal breakers. And I could find hardly anything else to complain about.
The only thing missing from the GPS implementation is location names and I didn't miss that at all. It would have been nice if the Canon SX230 had a mapping function in Playback mode like the Casio H20G, though.
Fun as GPS recording was, I was greatly relieved to know I didn't have to worry about image quality. I took shots in a variety of situation and the Canon SX230 always got the job done, often doing it much better than I'd hoped. And that earns it a Dave's Pick.
To see how the Canon SX230 compares to its competitors, see our Travel Zoom Shootout!