Canon put substance over style when it designed the PowerShot A590 IS, and in doing so it made a great camera. While the clunky-looking 8-megapixel shooter looks bland when compared with colorful, ultraslim, style-minded cameras, its impressive insides help produce some of the nicest photos you'll shoot for less than $200.
The chunky, practical design gives the A590 IS a functional and easy-to-handle feel at the expense of aesthetics. A large protrusion houses the camera's two AA batteries on the right side of the body and also provides a steady grip. The 2.5-inch LCD screen leaves enough room for an optical viewfinder, a convenient sliding mode switch, and several large, responsive buttons. While it won't slip as easily into a pocket as an ultracompact camera, and won't elicit any impressed gasps from your friends, the A590 IS simply feels comfortable to use.
As with previous PowerShot A-cameras, Canon built the A590 IS around a large, bright, flexible lens. The 35-to-140mm-equivalent, f/2.6-to-f/5.5 lens offers a slightly longer reach and wider aperture than the 3x, f/2.8 lenses found in most compact cameras. It incorporates Canon's Optical Image Stabilization system, which shifts lens elements to help reduce image shake. The camera can also accept conversion lenses with an optional adapter that fits over the base of the original lens. Unfortunately, the adapter retails for about $25, and conversion lenses retail for $100 or more, so outfitting your A590 IS with wide and/or telephoto conversion lenses can cost almost as much as the camera itself.
Skilled photographers will appreciate the camera's myriad controls and options. Like other PowerShot A-series cameras, it offers program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full-manual exposure control modes. Of course, if you don't want to use any of those features, you can still shoot in the automatic mode, or with the camera's several scene presets. Finally, the camera adds a new "Easy" mode, which further simplifies and automates the interface.
Slow shot-to-shot speed hindered the A590 IS's otherwise very quick performance. After a 1.8-second wait from power-on to first shot, the camera could capture a new picture once every 2.3 seconds with the flash disabled. With the flash turned on, that wait more than doubled to an anguishing 5.2 seconds. Burst mode further disappointed, capturing 9 full-resolution shots in 11.2 seconds for a rate of 0.8 frames per second. On the other hand, its shutter performed admirably, lagging a scant 0.45 seconds with our high-contrast target and an even more impressive 0.7 seconds with our low-contrast target. Whether you shoot in low light or outside on a sunny day, you can expect the camera to grab the shot quickly, and then leave you waiting a few seconds before you can shoot again.
Last year, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100 wowed us with its remarkably crisp picture quality. Though the A590 IS retails for far less than that camera, it manages to produce photos that are nearly on a par with those from the T100. While the A590 IS's automatic white balance does a great job for a camera in its price range, it's not quite as good as the automatic white balance in the T100. The A590 IS does a good job of neutralizing colors shot under incandescent light, but leaves a hint of warmth. It also leaves more of a green cast than we'd like to see on a camera like this when shooting under fluorescent lighting. Its tungsten setting did a wonderful job of neutralizing our very yellow tungsten hot lights. While noise remains extremely low from ISO 80 to 200, we did see some noise even at the camera's lowest sensitivity setting. Still, at these lower ISOs pictures look very good for a camera of this price, and fine textures such as fabric and fur appear consistently crisp. Noise becomes prominent at ISO 400, though details still come through clearly. Like most compact cameras, the A590 IS produces significant grain at ISO 800 and its maximum of ISO 1,600, covering the picture and damaging details with a fuzzy sheen. Overall, the A590 IS produces very nice images and can even yield usable small prints at ISO 800, which is impressive for a camera of its class.