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Hands-on preview: Canon 60D delivers major changes over 50D

It's not the video-optimized powerhouse a lot of indie filmmakers have been hoping for, but based on our field testing of the 60D it seems like a worthwhile successor to the 50D. With T2i-quality video, updated autofocus and metering systems, and an articulated LCD, there's plenty here for prosumers to like at a decent price.

Canon EOS 60D
Canon USA

As it seems with every other generation of Canon dSLRs, the EOS 50D was a solid, if somewhat uninspired follow-up to the extremely well-received 40D. Now it's the 60D's turn to be the interesting model. It combines some of the best elements of the T2i and 7D in an updated--and occasionally frustrating--redesigned body. I, along with a few other reviewers, got a chance to shoot with the camera--as per our policy CNET footed the bill for my trip rather than Canon--and have sample photos and some preliminary analysis of the photo and video quality and ergonomics of the camera.

The most notable enhancement over the 50D is, of course, video capture, and the 60D offers the set of frame rates and manual exposure controls that have made Canon's dSLRs a favorite among the small but vocal group of indie filmmakers. The built-in microphone is mono, but has a stereo mic input; it has a wind filter and the same sound controls as the 5D Mark II. The 3-inch articulated LCD is also a great boon for shooting video. While it's a very nice LCD, though, I frequently had trouble viewing it in direct sunlight.

Of more interest to straight photographers, the 60D gains an improved autofocus system--better than the 50D but not as good as the 7D--as well as the advanced iFCL metering system of the T2i and 7D and a built-in wireless flash controller like the 7D. Canon's provided a welcome update to the scene modes, making them a little less rigid; they're less automatic, allowing you to adjust some parameters. Though the camera still only supports a 3-shot bracket, the range has been expanded to 3 stops. And at users' request, the company has added a 3:2 aspect ratio setting. Although the sensor resolution is the same for all the current midrange cameras, the T2i and 60D have 4-channel readouts rather than the 8-channel readout of the 7D's imager, making it slower. Despite rumors to the contrary, the 60D incorporates the same Digic 4 image processor that's been around for the last few years.

Here's Canon's current consumer dSLR lineup, plus the 50D, for comparison:

  Canon EOS Rebel T2i Canon EOS 50D Canon EOS 60D Canon EOS 7D
Sensor (effective resolution) 18-megapixel CMOS
(4 channel)
15.1-megapixel CMOS 18-megapixel CMOS
(4 channel)
18-megapixel CMOS
(8 channel)
22.3 mm x 14.9mm 22.3 mm x 14.9mm 22.3 mm x 14.9mm 22.3 mm x 14.9mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400/ 12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3200/ 12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6400/ 12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 3.7 fps
6 raw/34 JPEG
6.3 fps
16 raw/90 JPEG
16 raw/58 JPEG
8 fps
15 raw/94 JPEG
magnification/ effective magnification
95% coverage
95% coverage 0.95x/0.59x 96% coverage
100% coverage 1.0x/0.63x
Autofocus 9-pt AF center cross-type 9-pt AF center cross-type 9-pt AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 19-pt AF all cross-type; center cross-type to f2.8
Shutter speed 1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability n/a 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Metering 63-zone iFCL 35 zones 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL
Live View Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
(corrected 8/27)
None H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
LCD size 3 inches fixed
1.04 megapixels
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches articulated
1.04 megapixels
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Wireless flash No No Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 550 shots 640 shots n/a 800 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 5.7 x 4.1 x 3.1 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 18.6 29.8 26.6 (est) 35
Mfr. Price $799.99 (body only, est) $1,099.99 (body only) $1,099.99 (body only) $1,699 (body only)
$899.99 (with 18-55mm lens) n/a $1,399.99 (with 18-135mm lens) $1,799.99 (with 18-135mm lens, est)
n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ship date March 2010 October 2008 September 2010 October 2009

From a specification perspective, there are some backward steps. The 60D seems to use a less durable shutter mechanism than the 50D, and it's slower for continuous shooting--the latter is usually a side effect of bumping up the resolution without a concomitant upgrade in other camera systems. It still feels pretty fast during burst operation, though.

Canon EOS 60D
Canon USA

As far as I can tell without having any directly comparable shots (yet), the photo and video quality are about the same as the 7D, which is what I'd expect given the similar sensor and same image processor. My biggest gripe is with the design. It's as if Canon purposefully tried to deviate from the very functional 7D layout just to be different, or--even worse--to make the camera less fluid to use in order to "persuade" commercial shooters to buy the more expensive model. For instance, the new mode dial has a locking button to prevent accidental turns. That's good. But the button is in the middle of the dial, and pressing it down while turning is quite awkward. Worse, rather than offer a dedicated Live View/Video switch as on the 7D, the 60D has a video mode on the dial. When you do a lot of jumping back and forth between still and video, having to constantly rotate the dial back and forth almost completely around gets foot-stompingly frustrating. And the custom settings still don't support most video options. Canon has also replaced the wheel and joystick controls with a wheel with a multiway rocker switch inside it. I found the switch too flat with little tactile feedback.

The 60D's predecessors have always been in an oddball price class. The only real competitor at one point was the Nikon D90, which is almost 2 years old; rumors have an imminent replacement possibly in the same price range as the 60D. Olympus' also long-in-the-tooth E-3 has dropped in price to the 60D's neighborhood, but that's also probably going to be superseded soon. There's the Pentax K-7, but the company has failed to send me an evaluation unit so I can't make any substantive comments on how it compares. And in any case, it's more than a year old, too.

Canon EOS 60D
Canon USA

I'm really looking forward to getting a formal evaluation unit in for some serious testing, and I suspect that given a little more time I'll be able coax better photo quality out of it than my sample images currently reflect. But I really doubt those usability niggles will go away. I anticipate getting one within the next month or so.

In addition to the camera, there are the usual accompanying lens announcements. The coolest sounds like the EF 8-15mm f4L fisheye ($1,400, available January 2011), which will be Canon's widest angle lens to date. There's also an update to the pro telephoto zooms with a 70-300 f4.5-5.6L IS ($1500, available October). And Canon's revving its pro 300mm and 400mm f2.8 lenses with its latest coatings, improved sealing, a new on-prefocus IS mode, and a security lock, as well as making them about 10-20 percent lighter than their predecessors ($7,000 and $11,000 respectively, available in December).