Top Elph for the moment, the Canon PowerShot SD990 IS has the highest resolution in its family--15 megapixels--but otherwise its specs fail to impress given its price tag. That said, the SD990 delivers excellent photo quality, it offers plenty of shooting options, and its looks--while not for everyone--are characteristic of Canon's recent willingness to play with design.
The follow-up to the Canon's SD950 IS, the SD990 IS shares its predecessor's body design. It's pocketable, though not ultracompact slim, at 3.8 inches wide by 2.5 inches high by 1.1 inches thick and weighing 6.5 ounces with SD card and battery. The right side has a slight inward curve that provides a comfortable grip. With your middle finger in that nook and your pointer finger on the shutter button, your thumb naturally rests on the left of the mode dial, which slopes downward to the left and positions so your thumb rests solidly between it and the raised edge surrounding the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD screen.
Below the mode dial, you'll find the rest of the camera's buttons, except for the on/off button located to the left of the shutter and its surrounding zoom ring on top. The only problem here is that the zoom ring's tiny nub is so small that steady control could be tricky for some users. On back, the little directional pad for menu navigation and quickly changing flash, ISO, drive mode, and focus is encircled by a rotating ring that makes zipping through options fast. It's particularly handy when shooting in Special Scene mode (SCN), with its 16 shooting selections. In the center lies a Func button for accessing mode-specific settings. Everything is a touch cramped for my big, clumsy thumb, but average-size or small hands shouldn't have a problem navigating.
Above the LCD is an optical viewfinder for those times when the LCD may be impractical or operating in the new Quick Shot mode. As with all point-and-shoot cameras, you shouldn't count on the optical finder for accurate framing, since it doesn't show the entire frame, as the LCD does, and tends to cut off a significant portion of the frame. In Quick Shot mode the camera automatically adjusts focus and exposure for either faces detected in or at the center of the viewfinder. This is all so you can shoot without prefocusing via a half-press of the shutter. It works as advertised and does well with moving subjects like animals, kids, and sporting events.
If you want more control over your results, the camera offers both Program AE and Manual modes; in the latter, you're limited to a choice between two apertures at any given focal length, and there are no semimanual priority-exposure modes. Or if you want nothing to do with settings, you can switch it into Auto, of course. It supports move capture, but only at 30fps 640x480, unlike the 720p HD video available from other manufacturers' similarly priced models.
The 3.7x f2.8-5.8 36-133mm-equivalent lens is typical point-and-shoot, disappointing considering the camera's flagship status. The less-expensive SD880 IS has a 4x f2.8-5.8 28-112mm lens--a hair longer, but much wider. It does provide optical image stabilization to combat image blur from hand shake at slower shutter speeds. There's face detection, too, that locates up to nine faces in the frame and automatically sets exposure, focus, and flash accordingly. Sensitivity ranges from ISO 80 through ISO 1,600. Though Canon does include an ISO 3,200 scene preset, it lowers the resolution to 2 megapixels.
Performance is mixed with the SD990 IS, but respectable overall and generally better than its predecessor. From off to first shot takes nearly 2 seconds, which isn't great and slower than before. At between 0.5 and 0.6 second under most conditions, shutter lag is pretty good, and its typical shot-to-shot time is on par with the category at 1.9 seconds. Turn on the flash though and you'll be waiting 3.6 seconds between photos. Continuous shooting averaged a decent 1.3 frames per second.