The PowerShot SX230 HS is Canon’s top compact megazoom featuring a 28mm-equivalent wide-angle lens with a 14x zoom. It’s the same lens used in 2010′s SX210 IS and the body is for the most the same, too. The major change is to the camera’s imaging sensor; the SX210 had a 14-megapixel CCD while SX230 has a 12-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS. Without getting into the technical differences, what you need to know is that the new sensor produces better low-light photos and has faster shooting performance than that of its predecessor. Canon also built in a GPS receiver for geotagging your photos while you’re shooting–a first for a PowerShot.
However, while its photos–and movies–are pretty great for its class, the SX230′s shooting performance is a bit behind the competition. Its lens isn’t as wide or as long as similarly sized models and Canon doesn’t do as much as others with the GPS capabilities, either. Plus, everything about the design that was off with the SX210 is still off with the SX230. You’ll have to decide if my issues are deal breakers for you, though, because it’s otherwise a very good compact megazoom.
The SX230 HS has some of the best photo quality I’ve seen from a compact megazoom, particularly at higher ISOs. While photos do get softer and noisier above ISO 200–typical for point-and-shoots–ISO 400 and 800 are still very usable. The noise and noise reduction are well balanced so you still get very good color and detail at these higher sensitivities. Colors desaturate some at ISO 1600 and 3200, subjects look very soft, and detail is greatly diminished, but photos are still usable at small sizes for prints or on a computer screen. Basically, if you need to shoot in low light or want to freeze action, this camera is one of the best options in its class.
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS
There is some asymmetrical distortion on the left side of lens visible at its widest position. When the lens is extended there is slight pincushion distortion, but it’s barely discernible. Sharpness is very good and consistent from edge to edge and in the corners–pretty rare on a compact megazoom. The SX230 exhibits a high amount of fringing around high-contrast subjects. It’s typical of compact cameras, but the amount is above average for its class, visible even when viewed at small sizes.
Color performance is a strong point with the SX230 HS. Everything turns out bright, well-saturated, and reasonably accurate. Exposure is generally good, though it really struggles with highlights, blowing them out every chance it gets. White balance is fairly accurate, too, but Auto goes warm indoors. You’re better off selecting the appropriate preset for your lighting or using a custom setting.
Video quality is also excellent. It shoots in full HD, but it’s at 24 frames per second. That’s not ideal for shooting fast-moving subjects as you’ll see some judder that’s typical of the video from most compact cameras. The same goes for quickly panning the camera. Otherwise the results are impressive, even at its lower resolutions. The zoom lens does function while recording, but you will hear the movement in quiet scenes. There are stereo mics on front, but the left mic is too easily blocked if you’re not paying attention to your hold on the camera.
Shooting options on the SX230 HS run the gamut from simple point-and-shoot options to full manual controls. The manual shooting options are better than most compact megazooms. You get semimanual and full manual control over shutter speed and apertures as well as manual focus with a safety for fine-tuning. Apertures include f3.1, f3.5, f4, f4.5, f5, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, and f8. With the lens fully extended, you only get three settings, though: f5.9, f7.1, and f8. Shutter speeds can be set from 15 seconds to 1/3,200 second (1/2,500 is the fastest with the lens extended). There are options for setting color saturation, sharpness, and contrast, too, and the flash strength can be easily adjusted. A flash exposure lock, which adjusts flash output for what you’re focused on, can quickly be activated as well; it functions well for keeping the flash from blowing out subjects.
If you just want to point and shoot, there’s Canon’s Smart Auto, which determines the appropriate settings based on the scene you’re shooting. An Easy mode works similarly, but heavily limits settings. Frankly, the Smart Auto is easy enough and this spot should have gone to a custom mode. Canon also put on the mode dial three popular scene selections–Portrait, Landscape, and Kids Pets–and a SCN choice for accessing other scene settings like Low Light, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, and Panorama Stitch Assist. There’s an Underwater option, but it’s for use with an optional casing; the camera is not waterproof. Canon includes its Smart Shutter option to the Scene mode, too; this includes a smile-activated shutter release as well as Wink and Face Detection Self-timers. Wink allows you to set off the shutter simply by winking at the camera and the Face Detection option will wait till the camera detects a new face in front of the camera before it fires off a shot. Both work well.
Canon’s Creative Filters are now all located under a spot on the mode dial. The filters include Canon’s standard Color Accent and Color Swap options as well as Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Fish-eye Effect, and Miniature Effect. While some may find these to be a bit goofy, they can be a lot of fun to play with, if only to add some interest to what would otherwise be a boring shot. I particularly liked the results from the Toy Camera Effect, which has Standard, Warm, and Cool settings. All but the Toy Camera and Fish-eye are available for movies. Also available for movies is a high-speed option for capturing 30-second slow-motion clips at 120 or 240fps at resolutions of 640×480 and 320×240 pixels, respectively.
This model also has a new Movie Digest mode that records a few seconds of VGA-quality video before you take a picture. The camera then takes all of those clips for a day and strings them together into a single movie recapping your day. Since it’s a separate mode you have to remember to use it regularly throughout the day. Also, because it automatically stitches the clips together, if there’s something you don’t want, you’ll have to edit it out yourself. It would be nice to have the option to create the movie or just store the clips as well as have it create a movie with the photos you took inserted between the clips. Still, the result is actually cooler than I thought it would be; you just really have to pay attention to what you’re doing before you shoot a picture for it to be good.
Though it doesn’t focus as closely as others in its class, the SX230 HS is a capable macro shooter. You can get within 2 inches of your subject and come away with some nice fine detail as long as you keep your sensitivity below ISO 200.
One of the biggest benefits to CMOS sensors is their fast speed compared with CCD sensors. That’s certainly true of the SX230 HS, getting a noticeable performance jump from the CCD-based SX210 IS. On the other hand, it is slightly slower than CMOS-based compact megazooms from other manufacturers. The camera goes from off to first shot in 1.6 seconds with shot-to-shot times averaging 2.4 seconds without flash and 3.6 seconds with flash. Its shutter lag–the time it takes from pressing the shutter release to capturing a photo–is 0.4 second in bright lighting and 0.8 second in low-light conditions. The SX230′s burst mode is capable of capturing at 2.2 frames per second, with focus and exposure set with the first shot. It can shoot until your memory card fills up, though, which is nice; competing cameras have a burst limit and make you wait while images are stored before you can shoot again. The camera also has a continuous with AF, but it is really too slow to be useful for sports or other fast-moving subjects. The camera also has a high-speed burst mode that can shoot 3-megapixel photos at up to 8.1 frames per second. The results are very good compared with similar modes on other cameras I’ve tested, suitable for small prints and definitely for Web use.
The SX230′s design doesn’t change much from its predecessor; it basically looks like an extra large PowerShot Elph, and kind of a dull-looking one at that. The 14x zoom lens front and center is the only thing keeping this from being slipped easily into a tight pocket; there’s no problem dropping it in a handbag or coat pocket, though. Still, you’ll probably want to invest in a protective case or risk scratching the fine finish of the metal shell. Canon continues to make the flash pop up every time you start the camera, regardless of the camera’s settings. (Simply putting a finger on it when powering on will keep it from coming up, too, hopefully not damaging the lift mechanism.) With the flash up, the camera is very awkward to hold because you don’t really have anywhere to put your fingers. The LCD is decently bright, but I still had problems seeing it in direct sunlight. Also, despite being 3 inches on the diagonal, you’ll only be using 2.5 inches for framing your shots unless you switch to one of the camera’s 16:9 wide-screen resolutions.
The camera’s controls are a mix of good and bad; they’re also a bit small and cramped for larger hands. On top is the shutter release and zoom ring. When gripping the camera, your thumb sits on the sizable shooting mode dial. It clicks firmly into each selection, so there’s little risk you’ll inadvertently change modes. The power button is positioned above the right edge of the LCD and close to the mode dial. Depending on the size of your thumb, it can be a little difficult to press.
Directly under the dial are a dedicated record button for movies and a playback button. Below those is an unmarked Control Dial/directional pad. Touch the dial and a button description displays on screen so you know which direction to press to change flash, exposure, self timer, and focus settings. The dial allows for fast navigation and for quick changes to aperture and shutter speed in the manual and semimanual shooting modes. It moves freely, but you can feel individual stops when rotating it. In the center of the dial is Canon’s standard Func. Set button for accessing shooting-mode-specific options and making selections. Under the dial are a Display button for changing the shooting or playback information that’s shown on screen and a Menu button for basic operation settings. In all, operation is straightforward, but you’ll certainly want to read the manual, which is in PDF format on the bundled software disc.
Including a built-in GPS receiver makes the SX230 HS competitive with the high-end compact megazooms from Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and Casio. However, those manufacturers offer greater functionality; Canon uses it to geotag photos with elevation, longitude, and latitude data and updating the camera’s clock. It can also keep a log file of your travel, e.g. the path you take while walking through a city. But that requires you to leave the GPS on all the time and make sure it’s always able to connect to satellites. So if you go indoors and forget to shut off logging, your battery will continue to drain. Canon didn’t make it easy to turn on and off either, burying it at the bottom of the camera settings menu. Plus, there’s no mention in the manual as to what the camera does should you lose your connection. Does it automatically search again? Do you have to go into the menu and turn the GPS off and on again to get it to refresh? If it refreshes on its own, how often will it search until it gets a signal?
Should you want to connect to a computer, monitor, or HDTV, there are Mini-USB and Mini-HDMI ports on the body’s right side. The battery and memory card compartment are on the bottom under a nonlocking door; however, the door closes firmly. The battery does not charge in camera and its life is fairly short, hastened by using the zoom, GPS, burst shooting, and capturing movies. You’ll want to invest in a second battery.
The Canon PowerShot SX230 IS might not be the fastest compact megazoom or have the longest lens. It’s also Canon’s first crack at putting GPS in a PowerShot and it shows. However, its photo quality is excellent for its class and with all of its shooting options, including semimanual and manual modes, it’s a great choice for beginners and enthusiasts or as a family camera.
Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Smaller bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)
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