Though a 20x zoom lens may be yawn-inspiring in these days of 24x and 26x lenses, I think 20x is plenty, and perhaps even a bit too long given the difficulty of making a good lens that can cover so broad a focal range as the Canon SX10 IS' 28-560mm equivalent. The SX10 offers some significant upgrades over its predecessor, the S5: in addition to a huge jump in lens range, from 12x to 20x, it also bumps up a couple megapixels to 10 from 8. The latest generation of Canon imaging processors, Digic 4, adds tweaks to face detection, Servo AF, Face Detection Self-Timer, and Intelligent Contrast Correction.
Keeping a mostly similar design to the S5, the SX10 follows in its footsteps as a very comfortable to hold and shoot camera, retaining perks like the articulated LCD and four AA-powered operation. It's a little heavier, 1.5 pounds, which makes it feel like a dSLR, but the big grip gives you plenty of holding room. While it offers the same set of manual, semimanual, and automatic controls, they're differently designed and laid out. Gone is the multifunction power switch, leaving a plain old button in its wake. Now you have a more traditional button to jump into review mode; it sits near the indented thumb rest on the back, joined by the exposure compensation and focus area selection buttons. Unfortunately, the labels, light blue on gray, are pretty difficult to see in dim light and can be obscured by the glare off the iridescent plastic in bright.
On the right side of the back is a dial concentric to a four-way navigation switch with the function button in the middle. Canon uses this control layout for some of its recent compact point-and-shoots, and in many ways it's a vast improvement over the S5's configuration. But while I generally like the controls, the dial feels too mushy. It doesn't respond appropriately, and it feels like it needs to spin too far or not as far for any given operation. As a result, for example, I frequently overshot desired shutter speeds. Perhaps it just takes more getting used to than I had time for, but it really feels like it needs better tactile feedback. The zoom switch didn't feel terribly exact either. While that's a typical problem with stepped zooms (these lenses don't really cover a continuous zoom range, instead stopping at a series of preset distances), the SX10's felt even less accurate than usual, likely because of the wide range it has to cover. I expect to see this problem even more as we test this year's 24x and 26x lenses.
Of course, the flip-and-twistable LCD remains a user favorite, but in tradeoff it's quite small--only 2.5 inches compared with the new trend of 3-inchers. Unfortunately, the electronic viewfinder isn't particularly great. It updates slowly and looks pretty coarse. More annoyingly, the camera lacks a dedicated toggle between the LCD and EVF. Instead, you have to cycle through the four different display settings: low-info LCD, detailed LCD, low-info EVF, detailed EVF. That makes it nearly impossible to quickly jump back and forth; I frequently ended up cycling past my target. In contrast, the dedicated movie record button hits the right note of efficiency. As does the mode dial, which, unlike most cameras, rotates a full 360 degrees instead of forcing you to reverse direction to get to the modes at the other end. A small but welcome change.
Though a movie mode remains on the dial, it's become rather superfluous; in addition to the dedicated button, Canon integrated the movie resolution settings into the function menu along with the standard white balance, color adjustment, exposure bracketing, flash compensation, metering, and still size and quality controls. Some of the more novel features include a Face Self-timer, which shoots a specified number of seconds after a face is detected and a custom timer which lets you also specify the number of shots to take (sort of a limited intervalometer since you can only take up to 10 shots). New to this camera is Canon's Servo AF, the company's AF tracking mode. With this camera, since the continuous shooting is so slow, I find that the Servo AF has too much time to get confused, and since EVFs black out when a shot's taken you can't verify that it's focusing on the right thing; I have lots of in-focus fences and out of focus people in my test shots. (And lest you suggest I should have used the Face Detect AF, that doesn't work unless you're shooting faces looking at you, not moving crowd shots.)
The rest of the capabilities, for the most part, are the same as on the S5 and the competition. These include PASM, full auto and a handful of scene modes; my favorites are a custom setting slot on the mode dial and 3.9-inch macro and zero(!)-inch Super Macro modes. It supports 30fps VGA movie capture. On the upside, the camera retains the separated stereo mics from the S5 and can zoom--pretty quietly--during recording. But while the video quality is fine, if a little soft, 720p HD would be nicer. (Need more details about the standard feature set? Check out the PDF manual.)