You don't need to pay a lot to get a pretty good digital camera. Solid budget models are becoming less expensive and offering better performance every year. The Canon PowerShot A470 is one of the best examples of this trend. With a price tag less than $150, it produces surprisingly good pictures. It isn't the prettiest camera available and it doesn't have any flashy features, but for the price, it's hard to beat.
Canon tries to give the A470 a much-needed injection of style by offering four color choices: gray, blue, red, and orange. Unfortunately, colorful accents can't hide the camera's chunky, unattractive design. It feels like a king-size candy bar, measuring almost 4 inches long, 2 inches thick, and more than an inch and a half wide. At 7.6 ounces with an SD card and two AA batteries, it also weighs in as one of the heftiest budget cameras available. The lens and LCD screen both jut out uselessly from the body, giving it a bumpy, uneven feel. Compared with the huge selection of budget point-and-shoots on the market measuring just an inch thick or less, the A470 is downright huge. On the bright side, the camera's large body makes it easy to grip and hold, and its wide design leaves room for large, simple controls that even bigger thumbs can comfortably manipulate.
A barebones feature set accompanies the A470's barebones price tag. The camera's 38-to-132mm-equivalent, f/3.0-5.8 lens offers a slightly longer than usual reach, but offers a narrower field of view than most snapshot cameras' 35mm-equivalent-or-wider lenses. A 2.5-inch, 115,000-pixel screen is the only method of framing your shot, and can be difficult to use on sunny days. You won't find a lot of controls on the A470, but adjustable ISO, exposure controls, and manual white-balance settings offer some flexibility when shooting. It features the standard handful of scene preset modes, plus a movie mode that can record QVGA (320x240) movies at 30 frames per second, or VGA (640x480) movies at a slower-than-usual 20fps. Finally, the A470 includes face-detecting autofocus and autoexposure, an increasingly popular feature that's still a bit surprising to find on such an inexpensive model.
Despite a very slow flash, the A470 proved to be a surprisingly fast shot. In our lab tests, the camera took 2.1 seconds from power-on to first shot, and could capture a new picture every 1.4 seconds after with the flash disabled. With the onboard flash turned on, however, that wait exploded to 5 seconds. With our high-contrast (bright light) target, the camera's shutter lagged a respectable 0.5 second, and with our low-contrast (low-light) target, the shutter lagged a truly remarkable 0.9 second. Most cameras, especially budget models, tend to lag over a second when shooting subjects in low light. Between the low shutter lag and long flash recycle time, the A470 proves bittersweet in low light. While it can snap a shot very quickly at first, you'll be waiting a while before it can fire the flash again. Finally, the A470's continuous shooting mode captured 30 7-megapixel shots in 33 seconds for a rate of 0.9 frame per second.
Noise mars the A470's otherwise very nice pictures. Grain starts to appear at ISO 200, and becomes quite noticeable at ISO 400. From ISO 800 to the camera's maximum sensitivity of ISO 1,600, fuzz saturates the picture, giving everything a felt-like texture. Besides the noise, however, the camera's pictures look good. Fine details appear crisp and clear, especially for a sub-$150 camera. Minor barrel distortion appears on the edges of pictures at the widest lens position, but it doesn't seriously hurt picture quality. Colors look generally neutral, though they sometimes appear slightly cooler than usual. If you keep sensitivity low, the A470 will produce good-looking prints. Even at higher ISO settings, pictures look clear enough to e-mail or post to the Web.