The Canon PowerShot A650 IS proves that you don't need to invest in an SLR to get manual controls and large, detailed pictures. As the new high-end member of Canon's PowerShot A-series line of cameras, the 12-megapixel camera comes packed with manual exposure controls and other photographer-friendly features. Its bulky form won't win any beauty pageants, but the camera's substance more than makes up for its relative lack of style, and its sub-$500 price tag makes it look that much sweeter.
At 13.6 ounces with four AA batteries, the A650 IS weighs in as one of the heftiest "point-and-shoot" cameras I've yet seen. While technically a compact camera (smaller than a digital SLR), the A650 IS measures over 2.2 inches deep and fits much better in messenger bags and backpacks than any sort of clothing pocket. A camera this heavy and bulky really should include a neck strap, but the A650 IS unfortunately lacks that option. It includes only a single lanyard mount, so unless you plan to physically modify the camera, you have to choose between keeping it on the included relatively sturdy wrist strap or tucked in a bag.
All this heft and bulk adds up to a solid-feeling camera with plenty of room for its display and controls. The batteries that power the camera sit inside a prominent, deep grip that feels comfortable in large hands. Comfortably sized dials, switches, and buttons sit on the camera's back and top side, with all but the print button easily accessible to the thumb and forefinger. The camera's large design also leaves enough space for the flip-out 2.5-inch LCD screen. Like the screen found on the A640 and A630, this screen flips out and pivots 270 degrees, an invaluable boon when shooting over crowds or up from the chest or waist.
With the same 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch sensor and 35 to 210mm-equivalent f/2.8-4.8 image-stabilized lens as the higher-end PowerShot G9, the A650 IS sits securely at the very top of Canon's A-series line. In fact, were it not for a slightly different control scheme, a smaller flip-out LCD, and lack of RAW file support, the A650 IS would be nearly identical to Canon's pricier midrange camera.
Like most of the A-series, the A650 IS comes packed with a full complement of manual exposure controls. You can access Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual modes easily on the camera's mode dial, along with a selection of scene presets and a handy custom mode setting for keeping your preferred shot settings. You can even use manual focus in any of the four PASM modes and most of the scene presets. Obviously, you can get a higher level of control from the aperture, shutter, and manual modes in an SLR, but the A650 IS gives you a great platform with which to learn about photography or just a higher level of control than you'll get with a lot of compact cameras.
In our lab tests, the A650 IS performed with mediocrity, save for a particularly perky shutter. After a 1.6-second wait from power-on to capturing its first shot, the camera took an arduous 2.8 seconds between every shot thereafter with the flash turned off. With the flash enabled, that wait slightly increased to 3 seconds. Burst mode produced similarly lackluster numbers, capturing 10 full-resolution pictures in 11 seconds for a rate of 0.9 frame per second. On the bright side, the camera's shutter lagged less than 0.5 second with our high-contrast target, and just 0.9 second with our low-contrast target. The A650 IS' slow shot-to-shot and burst numbers can be best attributed to its higher resolution; processing 12-megapixel pictures simply takes longer than lower-resolution pictures. Other 12-megapixel cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX100, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W200, and even Canon's own PowerShot G9 each take a second or more between shots with the flash disabled. That said, some aspects of the A650 IS' performance do feel sluggish.