Canon PowerShot N Review
Overview by Mike Tomkins and William Brawley
Shooter's Report by William Brawley
One look at the unusual, square-shaped Canon PowerShot N -- its front panel dominated by an image-stabilized 8x optical zoom lens -- is enough to tell you it's different from the average camera. Were it not for the strap lugs jutting from either side, it would actually look more like a network camera than your typical point-and-shoot compact. The PowerShot N doesn't even have a shutter button. In fact, the only physical controls on the whole body are the power, Mobile Device Connect and playback buttons, plus a mode toggle switch, all found on the camera's sides.
Unique shutter and zoom controls. Instead of the typical button and rocker for shutter and zoom control, both variables are controlled with rings around the lens. The outer ring controls lens zoom, while the inner ring controls the shutter -- though it doesn't turn. Pushing down on the top of this inner ring slightly from any angle -- even with the camera upside down -- works similarly to a shutter button being half-pressed. Push harder, and you take a photo. If you don't find this comfortable, you can also use the touch shutter function on the LCD monitor, which occupies almost the entire rear surface of the camera.
Key features. While its unusual interface defines it, on the inside the Canon N has much in common with other PowerShot models. There's a 12.1-megapixel CMOS image sensor, and a DIGIC 5 image processor. The lens starts at a 28mm-equivalent wide angle and zooms out to a 224mm-equivalent at full tele, all supported by Canon's Intelligent IS image stabilization. On the rear, the 2.8-inch LCD has a top-mounted hinge allowing it to tilt (or fold) upwards for viewing from difficult angles or for self-portraits, rather than the side-mounted tilt/swivel design more common in Canon cameras. As noted previously, the screen is also an input device, thanks to a capacitive touch-sensitive overlay. Power comes from a proprietary lithium-ion battery, and the PowerShot N features in-camera USB charging, plus an unusual Eco mode that detects when the camera is stationary and puts it in sleep mode after 10 seconds.
With almost all control happening through the smaller-than-average LCD monitor, ease of use is key, and Canon provides for this with a Hybrid Auto mode and Face ID functionality that allows the camera to recognize your most important subjects, then adjust the exposure and focus appropriately. There's also a Creative Shot mode which captures six separate exposures -- as opposed to some cameras which simply take a single exposure and then render it with different styles -- then applies six different Canon-selected filter effects to each image. In addition to stills, you can shoot 1080p high-def video clips at 24fps.
Wi-Fi sharing. And there's Wi-Fi wireless networking connectivity, too, helping you get your images off the camera and onto other devices or social networks. Press the Mobile Device Connect button, pair once with your Android or iOS smartphone / tablet, and the connection can be recreated with a simple two-step process in future. Images can be uploaded through the device's internet connection to Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, or sent via email, and instead of a generic message accompanying the images, you can add your own brief notes. You can also transfer images to your desktop or notebook computer through your mobile device without any fuss. Each image is temporarily uploaded to the Canon Image Gateway service, where it can reside for up to ten days. Simply switch your PC on in that time, let it connect, and the original images are pulled back down automatically. If you don't get online in time, the images will be deleted from Canon's server, but you'll get an email reminder after seven days to help you remember this.
Available since April 2013, the Canon PowerShot N is priced at US$300. Two body color options are available: white or black.
Facebook Ready version. In August 2013, Canon released a special version of the PowerShot N with one notable change -- a Facebook Connect button for uploading your photos and video directly to your Facebook account. Canon has done away with the one-press "Mobile Device Connect" button in favor of this dedicated Facebook button. The Mobile Device Connect features are still included to allow you to connect directly with your smartphone or tablet or to other wireless devices like printers or computers.
Spec-wise, the PowerShot N Facebook Ready features the same 2.8-inch tilting, capacitive touch screen LCD as well as the unique dual-ring zoom and shutter button system as the older model. The lens is also identical with an 8x optical zoom lens for providing a 5-40mm (28-224mm equivalent) focal range along with Canon's Intelligent IS image stabilization system. The new camera also features a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and DIGIC 5 image processor with Full HD 1080p video recording at 24 frames per second.
The Facebook sharing feature lets users quickly and easily share their photos and videos to the social networking site. After a one-time setup, the camera will connect directly to the user's Facebook account with a single button-press. Naturally, users will need to connect the camera to a network or Wi-Fi hotspot to post their images. Unlike the original version of the camera, the Canon PowerShot N Facebook Ready is a Canon Direct exclusive and it can only be purchased from Canon's online store. It started shipping in September 2013 in the white color only for US$300 (the same price as the original PowerShot N).
Shooting with the Canon PowerShot N
by William Brawley
In good lighting, the Canon PowerShot N is capable of producing some sharp, finely detailed images.
In the wake of the smartphone explosion, point-and-shoot digital cameras have taken a substantial hit in the market. People just aren't buying these small, pocketable cameras as much nowadays thanks to smartphone cameras’ inherent convenience and their ability to produce quite decent, if not surprisingly good images. However, that’s not stopping camera manufacturers from trying to woo buyers back to take another look at their compact digicams.
Enter the Canon PowerShot N -- a novel, square-shaped camera with a small sensor, tilting LCD screen, Wi-Fi and no traditional shutter button. This ultra-compact seems squarely aimed (pun intended) at fashionable, social, party-going young people who want a camera to create quick, sometimes-stylized snapshots and videos. The question we wanted to answer in our review of this camera was: Why would anyone pick the PowerShot N over a camera phone?
Full disclosure: I don't own a pocket camera. I mainly rely on my smartphone -- a Samsung Galaxy S4 -- for candid shots when I'm out with friends and family. Despite my relative youth, I'm not the target market for the PowerShot N, so it was going to have to do something pretty special to win me over.
In the hand. The PowerShot N is definitely a standout camera when it comes to its physical design. It almost doesn't look like a camera -- at least not a whole one. In fact, my first thought when I saw this camera was of the Ricoh GXR, with its interchangeable lens/sensor modules. There’s a nice heft to this camera, thanks to its all-metal body. The metal construction gives this camera a nice, premium feel (and it should with a US$300 price tag), and makes it seem quite durable. As a camera whose purpose is a casual party camera that may be shared around a lot with friends, it’s nice to know that it could probably withstand the accidental drop or two.
The front of the N is dominated by a relatively large lens encircled by two control rings. It’s otherwise devoid of knobs or dials. There’s a small power button on the left side, and the right side houses the mode toggle switch, the Mobile Device Connect button and the playback button. On either side, there are also two metal lugs for mounting a wrist strap on either side (depending on if you’re left- or right-handed), or possibly a neckstrap. The back of the camera is simply a screen -- a tilting, 2.8-inch capacitive LCD touchscreen. The back panel tilts to a 90-degree angle, allowing for easy low-angle shooting. For overhead shooting, you simply flip the camera upside down.
Shooting with the camera. Now this is where it gets interesting. When I first handled the PowerShot N, I didn't see any kind of instructional stickers or tags on the camera itself, and I did not look at the owner's manual. Instead I just dove right in and began playing with it, as I usually do with new cameras and gadgets. Unfortunately, the camera was not very intuitive to operate, and at first I couldn't figure out how to take a photo with it -- at least on purpose. Again, there is no traditional shutter button on the PowerShot N, and the touch shutter option is disabled by default.
Yes, I wound up taking a number of shots by accident in the process. I wasn't sure what the two outer rings did, but I eventually found out through trial and error. I thought the large front (inner) ring controlled different camera functions, but it acts solely as the shutter release. You can "half-press" this shutter ring by pressing it in slightly -- either at the top or bottom -- and then pushing further down to snap a shot. The second ring is the zoom ring, which encircles the shutter ring. The zoom ring is rather slight, and only sticks out marginally beyond the shutter ring. Several times I inadvertently took photos when I just wanted to zoom.
The 8x optical zoom, of course, is one big advantage the Canon PowerShot N holds over most smartphone cameras. This makes the PowerShot N much more versatile, allowing you to shoot landscape scenes, portraits and distance subjects easily. It also has digital zoom out to 16x and 32x, although that introduces a severe reduction in image quality.
16x (2x digital zoom)
32x (4x digital zoom)
Now, seeing as the Canon N is a social kind of device, I assume one of the big use cases would be a group of friends passing around the camera, having people take photos of each other at a party or out at an event. However, unless you’re familiar with this camera, I can see it being a little frustrating. And so I did a little experiment with this. I gave the camera both to my college-aged brother and a couple of his friends, as well as my parents, and simply asked them to take a picture with it. No one figured out on his or her own that you must press the big ring on the front. In fact, the first thing my brother did was tap on the screen.
I found using the touch shutter feature to be the preferable way to take photos with the PowerShot N. But it seems a bit strange that in the day and age of touchscreen phones and tablets, that the touch shutter option isn't enabled by default. For me (and others), the shutter ring proved to be just a bit too awkward to use, and if you’re shooting from a difficult angle with the tiltable screen, a touch-based shutter mechanism also seems to make more sense.
Other functions of the camera are a little strange, too, such as deleting images in playback mode. Other than using the small physical button to enter playback mode, the rest of the playback controls are accessed via the touchscreen. It took three taps to delete a photo using the most logical, straightforward way -- that may be OK for a DSLR, but not for a device like this that should be fast-and-intuitive to operate. After I did take a peek at the manual, however, I found that there's a second way to delete photos that's faster.
There’s a whole set of advanced touch gestures in the playback mode. A swipe up reveals options to either tag a photo as a favorite or send it over to your paired smartphone. A swipe down shows the option to delete or begin a photo slideshow. You select whatever option you want by finishing the swipe into the corresponding corner. So, to delete a photo, I could simply swipe down and to the left, then choose erase. Two steps instead of three -- and kind of fun. But I would never have known about these touch gestures unless I had read the manual or swiped up or down by accident. Too many of the PowerShot N's controls like these were just not easy to figure out.
Shooting modes. The PowerShot N has two different still image shooting modes, a straight still-image shooting Auto mode with typical point-and-shoot functions and adjustments, and a Creative Shot mode that snaps six separate photos and automatically applies a range of special effects filters. In the still-image shooting modes, you have a subset of modes like you would normally find on other compact digital cameras, including a full automatic mode, where all exposure and scene settings are adjusted for you by the camera. You can also shoot in Program Auto mode, allowing you to customize the exposure settings somewhat. Unsurprisingly, advanced exposure modes such as Aperture or Shutter Priority, as well as Manual, are completely missing. There are also a variety of special effects filters like a Fish-Eye and Toy Camera effects, shown in the table below:
Canon PowerShot N: Filters & Effects
Auto (no effect)
The Creative Shot mode is an interesting and quirky, if not a bit gimmicky, shooting experience. Rather than simply taking a photo and applying a series of filters by making multiple copies of that image, the N actually takes six individual exposures and applies a random effect to each one. Not only will it apply color filters and other effects, it may also crop certain shots to "emphasize the subject," as the manual states.
I tried shooting a handful of shots using the Creative Shots mode, and I immediately ran into issues. This mode works fine if your subjects don't move. But since the camera takes six separate shots in a row, if you have moving subjects, expect either blurry or poorly composed shots (especially the ones where the camera automatically crops). This issue is exacerbated in low-light scenes with resulting slower shutter speeds. Overall, the Creative Shots mode is a cool idea with some major limitations.
Gallery Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, MOV, Progressive, 24 fps,
Download Original (222MB MOV)
Video. The PowerShot N can also shoot videos at Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 (24p) and 1,280 x 720 (30p) HD resolutions as well as at 640 x 480 (30p) standard-definition resolution. Another video-related feature is called Hybrid Auto mode that lets you take short 2-4 second "digest movies" while taking a still image. In this mode, the camera records a short movie clip right before taking a still photo, and then stitches them together automatically for playback. Users can also shoot slow-motion videos at non-HD resolutions: 240 frames per second video at 320 x 240 resolution and a 120 fps at 640 x 480.
The video quality at Full HD is actually pretty decent with a fair amount of detail and pleasing colors. Of course with such a small sensor, the dynamic range is quite limited. If the camera set the auto-exposure for the shadowed or darker area, the highlights were very blown-out, and vice versa.
One thing that I found that I really liked were the ergonomics of filming with the camera and its tilted screen. By tilting the screen out a bit, I was able to have a good, balanced hold of the camera, and I could then film nice low-to-the-ground shots with smooth sweeping motions. If I got it just right, I could practically balance the camera on my finger for effortless camera moves.
I shot video outside in bright daylight, and found that I had no issues seeing the screen in these conditions. Sure, there were reflections and a little glare depending on the angle, but I was still able to see images on the screen without issues.
Wi-Fi. One of the big features of this digicam is its Wi-Fi connectivity and functionality that lets users browse and share photos and videos from the camera via their smartphones and tablets. It does require a specific app -- Canon CameraWindow -- which is a free download for Android and iOS devices.
To get connected is pretty straightforward and painless. After I downloaded and installed the Canon app on my smartphone, I pressed the Mobile Connect Device button on the side of the camera, which searched for available Wi-Fi access points. After it found my Wi-Fi network, it then asked me to start the app on my smartphone and then connected to it. It was interesting that even though the camera saw my Wi-Fi network, it never asked for the network password, and paired easily once I had the app running on my phone.
Once connected, I could browse all the photos (and video*) on the camera's memory card via the app, and then share them on my social networks, email them, text them, save them to Dropbox and a number of other options. I tested sharing a photo to Dropbox, and although there was a bit of a wait while the app was processing the photo, it downloaded fairly easily, and was the same size as the original. I was worried that the shared photo might have been compressed or resized.
(*Although I could see the video files listed amongst the photos, I couldn't play any of them. On my Android device, it seems that you need a separate app called Movie Converter that converts MOV movies to MP4 since Android doesn't natively support the .MOV format.)
The Wi-Fi features with the N are strictly about sharing and printing. There is no option for remote shooting or control of the camera via the app. That's not unexpected, but a bit disappointing to me, especially since I've become hooked on wireless remote shooting.
Image quality. Image quality from the PowerShot N proved to be a bit hit-and-miss. In good lighting, the N can produce images with a good amount of fine detail and decent colors. I shot a few photos side-by-side with my Samsung Galaxy S4, and it was pretty difficult to tell them apart until I zoomed in 100%. As you'd expect, the PowerShot N with its larger sensor and higher megapixel count was able to resolve more fine detail than the smartphone.
In low-light scenarios, I ran into some odd behavior with the Canon N. Trying to replicate how people would likely use the camera, I shot most of the time in full Auto mode, with the camera automatically determining when to use the "flash" (it's actually an LED). In one instance, I tried to take a photo of my father and brother sitting across from me at a table in a restaurant. The flash fired, as I expected, yet the resulting photo was extremely underexposed. Perhaps the lighting in the restaurant confused the camera’s metering into thinking there was more ambient light and therefore it toned down the flash exposure.
However, this behavior was quite inconsistent, as our test shots using the flash around IR HQ looked OK (see right). When I did get properly exposed shots at higher ISOs, the resulting images were pretty soft and mushy thanks to a heavy dose of noise reduction. The relatively small CMOS sensor in the N, understandably, just can’t handle high ISO images like larger-sensor compact cameras can.
Summary. The Canon PowerShot N is an attractive-but-odd little camera that seems to struggle finding its place in today's compact versus smartphone marketplace. With image quality that just isn't distinguished enough from today's high-end smartphones (other than optical zoom capability), the PowerShot N failed -- especially given its price -- to make me want to switch to this camera over my smartphone.
Canon PowerShot N Demonstration
In the two videos below, IR founder and editor-in-chief Dave Etchells demonstrates how to snap pictures and zoom with the Canon PowerShot N, as well as how to use the camera's novel Creative Shot mode -- which captures six separate exposures and automatically applies a different Canon-selected filter effect to each.
Canon PowerShot N Image Quality Comparison
Below are crops comparing the Canon PowerShot N with the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS. We chose this quick comparison as the SX260 has the same size sensor as the N, and it's a good example of a popular Canon PowerShot that we found to produce excellent image quality for its class. Additionally, the SX260 HS is still available for purchase with a street price that's very comparable to the N.
NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings.
Canon N versus Canon SX260 HS at ISO 100
Canon N at ISO 100
Canon SX260 at ISO 100
At base ISO, the N and SX260 HS are very similar, however the biggest difference is seen in the fabric crops, where the SX260 does significantly better with the red leaf pattern.
Canon N versus Canon SX260 HS at ISO 1,600
Canon N at ISO 1,600
Canon SX260 at ISO 1,600
In the Box
The Canon PowerShot N retail box contains:
- Canon PowerShot N digital camera
- Wrist strap WS-800
- Battery pack NB-9L
- Compact power adapter CA-DC30
- Interface cable IFC-400PCU
- Digital Camera Solution CD
- Extra battery pack (NB-9L) for extended outings
- Large capacity microSDHC memory card. These days, 16GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity. Canon recommends Speed Class 6 or faster to record HD video.
Canon PowerShot N Conclusion
The Canon PowerShot N stands as quite a unique camera, and Canon has designed it for a pretty unique use-case scenario -- a pocketable, social party cam for young people. The camera is certainly striking looking and will definitely draw a crowd. It's also well-built and feels substantial in the hand; it's not a mere toy. However, the PowerShot N's funky controls -- especially the shutter and zoom rings -- unfortunately make it very unintuitive and often frustrating to use. If this camera is meant to be shared around amongst your friends and family, be ready to explain to them how to use it -- over and over again.
Since practically everyone already has a smartphone nowadays that takes decent snapshots, and can easily and quickly share them, the Canon PowerShot N has a difficult challenge to make itself an appealing alternative or supplement. Obviously, the camera's 8x optical zoom range is a big advantage. And you'd also think the same would hold true for its larger, 12.1-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch CMOS imaging sensor.
Unfortunately, the image quality from the PowerShot N is not much to write home about. In good lighting, the camera can produce some decent snapshots with nice detail and decent color that may match the output of other Canon compact cameras in its class. However, in low light, as with most small-sensored models, the PowerShot N shows its weakness with soft, mushy images thanks to heavy noise reduction. Most smartphone cameras may not be able to resolve as much fine detail as the Canon N, but they're not leaps-and-bounds behind. And thanks to a never-ending supply of available (and often free) photography apps, smartphones actually boast more creative effects and filters at their disposal than are built into the N.
Much the same can be said about the Canon N's video quality. Though it's capable of shooting at Full HD 1080p and captures good detail and pleasing colors, its dynamic range is limited. And, besides, most video shared on the Web with friends and family probably won't be viewed at Full HD anyway.
Despite its 8x zoom lens, trendy appeal and novel approach to photography, we can't quite recommend the Canon PowerShot N as a Dave's Pick -- primarily because it doesn't definitively outduel a device you likely already have in your pocket.
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