Canon's latest PowerShot S-series flagship, the 8-megapixel PowerShot S80, stands out just about every way you look at it. It's a fun little camera that packs a wallop in terms of features, performance, and photo quality. Its automatic-exposure modes and intelligent processing will impress casual shooters who want good images without a lot of fuss. Its manual controls and advanced features will provide enjoyment for fiddling amateurs. And its big 2.5-inch LCD, elegant good looks, and excellent build quality will please any shooter. This camera is packed with useful photographic features, and it looks great, too. The Canon PowerShot S80 is attractive and sturdy, covered in glossy-black aluminum with a matte-silver trim and textured black-rubber accents that not only look classy but help improve your grip. The panels and the doors fit snugly, and the camera's density just screams quality. The S80 isn't as small as the ultrathin models out there, but it will easily fit in a jacket or a loose pants pocket. Simultaneously justifying and belying the camera's size are a big 2.5-inch LCD plus an optical viewfinder, which is a rare combination these days. While the ultrathins tend to have those big LCDs, they're usually too small to accommodate viewfinders as well.
The camera's controls are fairly easy to understand, though some icons may send you to the instruction manual. Useful touches include a four-way switch that also doubles as a scrollwheel, à la the iPod, and a shortcut button that you can program to control image size, white balance, color mode, metering mode, or autoexposure lock, among other settings. For a photographer trying to work in a quickly changing situation, this button can help keep that once-in-a-lifetime shot from getting away. Other quick-access settings are drive mode, ISO sensitivity, autofocus point, flash mode, macro mode, and manual-focus mode. Unfortunately, switching the control wheel from aperture adjustment to shutter-speed adjustment in manual-exposure mode requires an extra button push. When you do need to invoke menus, Canon has made it as clear a process as possible. Captions accompany cryptic icons, and the LCD's large size makes reading the menus easier. Like its predecessors, the Canon PowerShot S80 is packed with features for both casual shooters and more advanced amateurs. It incorporates the same f/2.8-to-f/5.3, 28mm-to-100mm (35mm equivalent) lens as the PowerShot S70. The lens is on the slow side and doesn't offer a very high zoom range, but it provides a relatively wide-angle focal length.
We miss uncompressed image formats such as TIFF and raw, which would take advantage of the camera's 8-megapixel sensor. Other features, however, work to compensate. Three exposure modes include a spot mode for more precise control and a well-designed evaluative mode that handles backlighting and mixed lighting very well. A noise-reduction algorithm automatically kicks in for exposures longer than 1.3 seconds, but unfortunately the effect is subtle. It also doubles processing time, and you can't disable it.
For tinkerers, the Canon PowerShot S80 offers some interesting color tools. Though not entirely practical they are fun without being too cheesy, and are certainly better than the hokey frames and the preset captions many other cameras offer. In Color Accent mode, every color in the frame except one the user selects is converted to black and white, for that hand-painted look. Color Swap mode replaces one selected color with another--turn that green apple red or that red light green (not to endorse insurance fraud!). Users can also customize the camera's color palette by adjusting the individual red, green, and blue channels or a special Skin Tone channel.
Those interested in shooting short movies with the Canon PowerShot S80 will appreciate the full-motion VGA mode, at 640x480 pixels and 30 frames per second (fps), and the less common 1,024x768-pixel mode, at 15fps.
The S80 caters to underwater photographers with a special white-balance setting and an optional waterproof housing. For creative enthusiasts, it also has an optional wireless external flash and optional wide and telephoto add-on lenses. Thanks to its Digic II processor and some savvy programming, the Canon PowerShot S80 is a snappy performer in the right places, beating many competitors and higher-end models in several speed tests. The S80 takes only 2.8 seconds to snap your first shot after start-up, and while its shutter lag of 0.7 second in good light isn't notable, its ability to maintain that speed under low-contrast lighting is quite impressive. Its upgraded autofocus sensor is probably responsible for its good low-contrast performance. Canon claims the S80 is one stop more sensitive than its predecessor, the S70. Despite a sluggish continuous-shooting rate (between 1fps and 1.3fps), the S80 has a whip-fast shot-to-shot time, firing off two frames in 0.7 second--1.4 seconds with flash.
The S80 performs quickly and responsively when you're navigating and changing menu settings, reviewing shots, or formatting memory cards. It doesn't just sprint, either. It's also great over the long haul, with its proprietary lithium-ion battery providing excellent battery life. We took more than 1,000 top-resolution shots on a full charge, half of them with flash, with about 100 full zooms and 10 power-downs in between--the battery-level indicator didn't even change.
The big 2.5-inch LCD could be brighter, but it refreshes quickly and renders colors accurately. The tiny optical viewfinder lacks diopter adjustment for people who need eyesight correction, but optical viewfinders are rare on big-LCD digital cameras anyway. Manual focus is difficult: the S80 automatically magnifies the view in manual-focus mode, but the LCD image is too grainy for the task.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Shutter lag (typical)||Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
When we closely inspected the image at 100 percent magnification, we saw chromatic aberration, color artifacts usually caused by heavy backlighting or high-contrast environments. The casual observer will find the effect minimal, though. Shots of power lines and trees against a bright sky showed very little fringing or color bleeding. Though we would have liked to see how this sensor performs with an uncompressed image format, JPEG compression artifacts such as blocky color areas, jagged diagonal lines, and halo effects in high-contrast areas were also minimal.
Canon's legendary creamy smoothness keeps noise under control. The S80's images sharpen well in image-editing software and look especially pleasing at ISO 50. ISO 100 shots are almost as noise-free at a casual glance, but the dreaded artifacts rear their ugly pixels more noticeably at ISO 200 and 400. The noise pattern is one of the more natural ones, however, giving images a diffuse, filmlike look. The inherently sharp lens-and-sensor combination on the S80 clearly resolves text and fine details in macro images.
The 28mm-to-100mm lens has some problems at the wide end, particularly with softness at the corners and vignetting, in which corners appear darker than the rest of the frame. This happens even when the aperture is stopped down to f/8, which usually minimizes or eliminates the problem. We also noticed some barrel distortion at the wide end. All these problems may be a result of the lens reaching the relatively wide 28mm length in a compact enclosure. Zooming to the middle or the end of the lens's range significantly helps the softness and the vignetting and adds a barely distinguishable pincushion effect that's normal for all zooms. Except for the vignetting, most of these effects are hard to spot in real-world snapshots.
The Canon PowerShot S80's very intelligent metering system even employs the orientation sensor in its exposure algorithms. It properly exposed the backlit foreground in both horizontal and vertical landscapes shot with a bright sky.
The Canon PowerShot S80's movie mode is a bit disappointing, despite its impressive high-res specs. In movies shot at 1,024x768-pixel resolution, which are limited to 15fps, just about every line appeared jagged. We got better results by upsampling a 30fps, 640x480-pixel movie in software.