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Canon PowerShot A50

Canon's "Digital ELPHs" goes megapixel plus - great picture quality, superb portability!

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 7/10/1999

"Executive Overview"
In response to reader requests, we've begun including brief overview sections with all our digital camera reviews, to let people quickly get a sense of what a digicam is like, without having to read the full 15+ page review to do so. Herewith our "executive overview" of the PowerShot A50: (The various sections of the main review (see the index above) cover the same topics, but in much greater detail.)

The Canon PowerShot A50 is a logical extension of their earlier A5 and A5 Zoom models, upgrading the sensor resolution to a full 1.3 megapixels, while maintaining the same compact, "go anywhere" all-aluminum body. The enhancements go far beyond just an increase in sensor resolution though, as the images are in every respect superior to the earlier A5 models, and indeed are very much at the top of the 1.3 megapixel class: Colors are bright, saturated, and accurate, shadow detail is excellent, and the exposure range is unusually broad. Couple this with a compact body reflecting the design of Canon's tremendously popular ELPH film cameras, and an aggressive price point, and you have what we believe is a sure winner.

One of the features we look for and report on in digital cameras for consumers is a compact form factor: A camera that takes great pictures, but spends its days in a drawer at home does little good! The PowerShot A50 should never suffer that fate though: At only 4.1 x 2.7 x 1.5 inches (103 x 68 x 37.3 mm), it's one of the smallest cameras we've tested. Weighing only 9.2 ounces (260g) without batteries, or 12.2 ounces (344g) with, it's also light enough to carry in a pocket without feeling lopsided. As a final touch in the portability department, it has an automatic metal shutter that slips over the retracting zoom lens when the camera is shut off, protecting the lens from harm, and neatly avoiding the perpetual problem of the lost lens cap. Despite its small size, we found the A50 comfortable to grip, and easy to shoot with one-hand. (Although operating the zoom controls while holding it with one hand did feel a bit precarious.)
The 1.3 megapixel sensor produces bright, sharp 1280x960 images, and this was one area where we found significant improvements from the earlier A5 series: We felt that the color produced by the A50 was some of the best we've seen in a digicam: Bright, clean, well-saturated, and accurate. About the only fault we could find with the A50's image quality was a somewhat high contrast, contributing to a tendency to lose highlight detail: In general, you want to expose digital camera images to preserve the highlights (like slide film, in the conventional photo world), and this is particularly true of the A50. Images are stored on the supplied 8 megabyte CompactFlash card using JPEG compression, with large/fine images occupying anywhere from 300 to 500Kbyhtes, depending on image content and how well it compressses. Like other Canon digicams, the PowerShotA50 also has an optional "CCD Raw" capture mode that compactly stores the raw data from the CCD in an uncompressed format, at about 1.5 megabytes per image. The resulting files must be opened using Canon's host software, but this has the advantage of providing uncompressed image storage in about a third the space that would be required by standard TIFF files.
The sensor's light sensitivity is rated at ISO 100, although it supports a special "binning" mode at the 640x480 resolution level that quadruples its sensitivity to ISO 400. Normal shutter speeds range from 1/6 to 1/750, but two low-light modes ("slow shutter" and "night shooting") allow for automatic shutter speeds as slow as 2 seconds. The camera does quite well under low levels of illumination, easily handling light levels as low as EV 7, and producing usable images (albeit requiring a fair bit of post-exposure modification) all the way down to EV 5. The automatic exposure system was very accurate in our tests, but a manual adjustment range of +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments is also provided. An on-board flash works from the minimum macro-mode focusing distance out to 8 feet (2.5m) in telephoto mode, or 11 feet (3.5m) in wide-angle mode. A number of white balance settings are available, including automatic and the usual range of manual options.
The PowerShot A50's lens is a 2.5x optical zoom, covering a range of 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 28-70mm. This range is shifted a bit toward the wide-angle end relative to many other digicams, which should make the A50 a natural choice for applications such as real estate, involving a lot of indoor shooting. In our testing, the lens appeared to be of particularly high quality, with very low distortion and chromatic aberration. The maximum lens aperture ranges from f/2.6 at wide angle to f/4.0 at telephoto, but th documentation doesn't state what the minimum aperture is. The camera has both optical and LCD viewfinders, and you can turn the LCD off when not needed, to (dramatically) increase battery life. The optical viewfinder is about typically accurate among digicams we've tested, while the LCD finder registers 95% of the final image captured by the CCD.
Bottom Line
The Canon PowerShot A50 brings a new level of functionality to the ultra-compact digicam market: With excellent image quality, 1.3 megapixel resolution (as sharp as any we've tested), and a true optical zoom lens, it's a full-function digital camera in a very compact package, and with an aggressive price to boot. The rugged all-metal body, complete with automatic metal lens cover, makes for a camera you can confidently toss in any pocket or purse and bring along. Highly recommended!

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