The Canon Digital IXUS 90 IS is in the middle of the latest trio to join the ever-popular and ever-stylish IXUS range. The question is, as ever, whether these cool kids of the compact camera world are just a severe case of style over substance.
This 10-megapixel model, known as the ELPH SD790 IS in the US, has a recommended retail price of £259. Our first impressions of the classy exterior are good, but how long will they last when we take the camera out to test?
As always, Canon doesn't disappoint us on the styling front. The IXUS 90 has a retro, boxy feel, but with angled elements to give it a modern twist. The inflexible metal frame and clean lines radiate understated élan. The lens is flush-folding, and the rear of the camera sports a large 76mm (3-inch) screen. If we had a quibble with the design, it's that the symbols on the controls look cluttered.
The controls themselves are unusual. Instead of buttons, areas of the frame flex when pressed. There isn't quite enough flex to give satisfying tactile feedback, but it's still interesting.
The IXUS 90 also uses a scroll wheel that also functions as a clickpad. The action, initially at least, is stiff. The similar-sized wheel on some Nikon Coolpix models has ridges that are easier for the thumb to push against, while the IXUS 90's tiny raised goosepimples afford less traction. We like scroll wheels as a quick and easy method to switch modes, as well as providing access functions like panorama stitch assist and colour filters, but Canon needs to tweak the design slightly.
Again, the IXUS range is more about good design than ground-breaking photographic innovation. True to form, the specs and feature set of the IXUS 90 aren't particularly exciting. The lens has a distinctly average 35-105mm-equivalent focal length, with a 3x optical zoom. The usual compact whistles and bells are included, such as face detection, a self-timer and video recording.
We don't mind Canon leaving out an internal memory: they're usually so meagre as to be pointless. But bundling a 32MB SD card with the camera is so poor it's almost insulting.
One big plus is the inclusion of optical image stabilisation to combat image blur caused by shaky hands. It's possible to check focus before and after an image is captured, with the centre of the image enlarged in shooting mode and the option to zoom in on the resulting image in playback mode.
While in playback mode, images can be resized and cropped in 2-megapixel increments down to VGA size. Images can be tagged with the 'My Categories' function. This offers preset tags like people, events and sport, or three generic tags. Sadly, these blank tags cannot be customised by the user.
We found the autofocus on the IXUS 90 to be fast and decisive. The onscreen focus zoom, which magnifies the centre of the screen, really helps in this regard even if it does take some getting used to.
The IXUS 90's speed is adequate. Start up is close to instantaneous once you disable the Canon-branded start-up screen, but shot-to-shot time is an uninspiring 3 seconds. The burst mode ticked along at a steady if underwhelming shade over 1 frames per second, but kept that up for a worthy 15 minutes with no sign of stopping. With more than 1,200 images and counting, the IXUS 90 looked set to fill the 16GB Kingston SDHC card we were using, although the battery indicator was flashing rather urgently by that point.
Images come out generally crisp and colours are accurate. Predictably, image noise is a big problem in high ISO mode, completely negating its usefulness for low-light shooting -- best avoided. Noise at ISO 1,600 isn't much better, but at speeds of 800 and below, you'll find it's well controlled without too much smearing of detail.
The Canon Digital IXUS 90 IS is a worthy addition to the IXUS line-up, in that it's every bit as stylish as the brand requires. Despite a paucity of features, the IXUS 90 feels substantial, thanks to its sturdy build, quirky controls, large screen and respectable picture quality.
Still, it doesn't do much to shake our nagging feeling that the IXUS range demands a price premium for style and branding rather than outstanding qualities. There are other point-and-shoots around with extra attributes that give them the edge, like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W130's longer lens or the Samsung L830's manual controls. Still, there's something about IXUS that's hard to resist.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday