Now playing: Watch this: Canon brings 70D up to serious speed

Editors' note: This is an in-depth preview based on extensive testing with a preproduction unit of the camera. Once I get a production version I will update this with ratings, final image samples, and performance numbers.

The eagerly awaited replacement for the Canon EOS 60D, the 70D, comes with a completely overhauled, Live View/video-optimized autofocus system that doesn't require special lenses; a more streamlined body design with an articulated touch screen; and Wi-Fi support.

For the most part, I like the 70D and enjoy shooting with it. But there are a few rough edges, some of which I suspect will remain, and one that I hope will get smoothed out before it ships.

Image quality
This is the difficult part. On one hand, the still image quality from the preproduction unit doesn't look worse than from the 60D or competitors like the Nikon D7100. But it doesn't look any better, either, which is a little bit of a letdown. Part of that's because I can't help getting my hopes up every time a new sensor rolls out, and part is because I've just finished testing the Fujifilm X-Trans sensor models, which have different flaws but better still-photo quality.

I doubt this will change for the final product: Canon continues to default to oversaturated color settings and a tendency toward crunchy sharpness settings. (Preproduction sample. Sorry about the slightly different framing.) Lori Grunin/CNET
Low-ISO-sensitivity JPEG image quality looks about like I'd expect. No surprises here, either good or bad. (Preproduction sample) Lori Grunin/CNET
Midrange-to-high-ISO-sensitivity JPEGs look about a stop better than the 60D -- ISO 3200 on the 70D looks about the same as ISO 1600 on the 60D -- but the 70D still isn't unambiguously better than the Canon EOS Rebel T5i. (Preproduction sample) Lori Grunin/CNET

Low-light JPEG shots look okay up to about ISO 1600, beyond that it depends upon scene content -- you lose a lot of shadow and highlight detail if you leave the Picture Style on Auto, though. The dynamic range doesn't seem especially wide, without a lot of recoverable highlight data in the raw files and shadows that are difficult to bring up without introducing noise.

And I really, really, really hope there's some way to tweak the video before the 70D goes into broad distribution. Even in the All-I codec, at best it looks the same as the video from the Canon EOS Rebel T5i. It displays tons of edge artifacts -- ringing, aliasing, moire, and crawling edges -- but more disappointingly poor detail resolution and limited tonal range. Low-light video is exceptionally noisy.

I'm pretty comfortable with my test results for the preproduction model, since it performed quite well -- at least with the STM lens -- and for the most part, the autofocus was surprisingly accurate. (I only ran performance tests with the 18-135mm STM lens, though I shot with the Canon 24mm f1.4 and Sigma 35mm f1.4 lenses as well.) It powers on, focuses, and shoots in about 0.6 second, not quite Nikon fast, but generally fast enough. Time to focus, expose, and shoot in good light runs a zippy 0.2 second and in dim light an exceptionally good 0.3 second. Two sequential JPEG or raw shots also run about 0.2 second, rising to only half a second with flash enabled.

Continuous shooting operates really fast for this class, with a sufficiently deep buffer to make the speed useful. JPEG runs past 30 shots at a rate of 7fps; raw shooting slowed down after about six shots during testing, but in practice I sustained reasonably fast seven-shot bursts of raw+JPEG with Servo AI focus. That's pretty good for a prosumer model. (I was using a 95MBps SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card.)

The new Dual Pixel CMOS AF (DPA) autofocus system is a definite update over many previous Canon models, both from a performance and features perspective. Typically, a single photodiode -- the element on a sensor that collects light and converts it to an electrical signal that carries the image information -- only passes on image data. DPA splits each photodiode in two, comparing the signals from each half using a phase-detection algorithm for autofocus, in addition to using the signal from the entire photodiode for image data. In contrast, Canon's Hybrid AF system, used by the T4i, T5i, SL1, and EOS M, simply supplements its phase-detection AF with contrast AF.

Canon USA

There are a few theoretical advantages of the new architecture. First, it has the potential to be faster, mostly because it drives the lens directly to the focus position; it doesn't have to iterate to fine-tune position like contrast AF does, and it can more quickly determine focus because it's measuring off the sensor rather than having to go through a separate phase-detection sensor cycle. Second, it covers about 80 percent of the frame (like the SL1's implementation), which improves off-center focus performance. And third, the lens shouldn't need to hunt, which makes operations like rack focus smoother when shooting video.

In practice, the system seems to deliver. For stills, it usually locks focus quickly and accurately, regardless of which AF-area mode it's in, and Live View is fast as well -- about 0.6 second to focus and shoot in good light. The 70D picks up Zone focus from the 7D, but I really wish it had focus point expansion.

Just remember to set the AF to Focus Priority rather than Release Priority before burst shooting, otherwise it will occasionally not even try. Still, a nice example of the 18-135mm lens bokeh. (Preproduction sample) Lori Grunin/CNET

The only AF accuracy problem I ran into, and it's a common problem, is that Live View tracking AF is frequently misled into locking on things that aren't faces -- you can't disable face detection for this mode -- and tends to be too easily distracted from its target. In video, the touch focus works well for racking, snapping decisively, but not unattractively quickly, from subject to subject.

Design and features
I really like the design of the camera, though there are a few things I wish were a bit different. Overall, it's a slightly more streamlined layout than the 60D, so overall it's comfortable to grip and shoot, even single-handed.

On the top left sits Canon's now-typical mode dial with center lock button. It's got the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, plus a single custom setting slot. On the right top above the status LCD is an array of direct-access buttons for metering, ISO sensitivity, drive mode, and autofocus mode (single, AI Servo, and AI Focus), plus a top dial and a second AF area select button. You cycle through your AF area options -- single-point, Zone (center 9 points or 4-point clumps on the top, bottom, left, or right), or auto 19-point -- by repeatedly pressing the button, then choosing the point or points using the back Quick control dial.

The back offers Canon's typical thumb-operated Live View/Movie switch with record button; AF-On, exposure lock, and second AF-area selection buttons arrayed above the thumb rest; Quick Control panel and review buttons next to the LCD; and the multicontroller navigation control inset in the quick-control dial around the Set button. It has a dedicated lock switch; you can choose to apply it to the main dial, quick control dial, multicontroller, or any combination. On the front near the bottom of the lens mount is a small, reprogrammable depth-of-field button. The viewfinder is sufficiently big and bright that the preview is usable.

Canon's articulated touch screen remains a favorite of mine for shooting video, and the 70D keeps the same interface as the T5i. It's responsive and has an intelligent user interface, including the usual capabilities, like touch focus, that streamline Live View shooting. You can view the screen pretty well in direct sunlight. You don't have to use it if you don't want to, though operations like selecting ISO sensitivity go much faster when you can directly select rather than having to cycle through them. Overall, I find Canon's interface straightforward and easy to use.

The 70D's multicontroller is slightly smaller than the 60D's. Sarah Tew/CNET

I've never been a fan of the multicontroller design, though. It looks sensible and straightforward, but it's too flush with the control dial and now that it's smaller it's even harder to precisely manipulate without stopping and concentrating.

In other interface quibbles, I don't really like the viewfinder level display either. It's a tiny camera icon with em dashes that project from it indicating the degree of off-level rotation. Unfortunately, it's really hard to use -- nay, impossible -- in dim or dark conditions. In contrast, other viewfinder implementations use illuminated bars along the bottom and sides and provide information for two axes, not just one.

Also, the camera still has only a single card slot. Boo. And though it has built-in Wi-Fi, you have to disable movie mode in order to turn it on. I don't mind that they can't work simultaneously, but jeez, if I try to turn on Movie mode why not disable Wi-Fi for me? Don't just say, "Movie recording is disabled when [Wi-Fi] is set to [Enable]." It's really annoying to be unexpectedly forced to delve into the menu system in the middle of shooting.

  Canon EOS 60D Canon EOS 70D Canon EOS 7D Nikon D7100 Pentax K-5 II/IIs
Sensor effective resolution 18MP CMOS
14 bits
18MP hybrid CMOS
14 bits
14 bits
14 bits
22.3x14.9mm 22.5x15mm 22.3x14.9mm 23.5x15.6mm 23.7x15.7mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.6x 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400/12800 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12800/25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 80 (exp)/
100 - ISO 12800/
51200 (exp)
Burst shooting 5.3fps
16 raw/58 JPEG
16 raw/65 JPEG
25 raw/130 JPEG
(7fps in 1.3x crop mode)
8 raw/30 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) 96% coverage
98% coverage
100% coverage
100% coverage
0.92x/ 0.61x
Autofocus 9-pt AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 Dual Pixel CMOS
19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8
19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 51-pt phase- detection AF
15 cross- type; center to f8 or faster
(Multi-CAM 3500DX)
11-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
AF sensitivity 0 to 20 EV -0.5 to 18 EV -0.5 to 18 EV -2 to 19 EV -3 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 100,000 cycles n/a 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles
Metering 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 77-segment
Metering sensitivity 0 to 20 EV 1 to 18 EV 1 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 22 EV
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p 1080/60i/ 50i/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV
(60i/50i only in 1.3x crop mode)
1080/25p; 720/30p/ 25p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Mono; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Shutter only n/a
Maximum best- quality recording time 4GB
(approx. 12 minutes)
n/a 4GB/29:59 min 4GB/29:59 min 4GB/25 min
IS Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
LCD size 3-inch articulated
1.04 megapixels
3-inch articulated touch screen
3-inch fixed
920,000 dots
3.2-inch fixed
1,228,800 dots
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x CF (UDMA 7) 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC/ SDHC
(SDXC requires firmware upgrade)
Wireless connection None Wi-Fi None None None
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 1,100 shots
(320 Live View)
920 shots
(210 Live View)
800 shots
(220 Live View)
950 shots
740 shots
Size (WHD, inches) 5.7x4.1x3.1 5.5x4.1x3.1 5.8x4.4x2.9 5.3x4.2x3 5.2x3.8x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 27 27.2 35 27.3 26.1 (est)
Mfr. price $899.99 (body only) $1,119 (body only) $1,599 (body only) $1,199.95 (body only) $1,095.95/
$1,199.95 (body only)
$999.99 (est, with 18-135mm lens) $1,349 (with 18-55mm STM lens) n/a $1,599.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,249.95 (with 18-55mm WR lens)/n/a
n/a $1,549 (with 18-135mm STM lens) n/a n/a $1,449.95/ n/a (with 18-135mm WR lens)
Release date August 2010 August 2013 December 2009 March 2013 October 2012

The Wi-Fi implementation is identical to the Canon EOS 6D's and not bad for remote shooting using the EOS Remote app, which currently lets you change shutter speed and aperture, ISO sensitivity, and exposure compensation. Configuring the connection is neither notably easy nor difficult; the camera acts as access point that you then set as the device's Wi-Fi connection, then launch the app. You can also wirelessly tether the camera to a computer using Canon EOS Utility, but only through an access point, not peer-to-peer; that renders it useless for a subset of cases. Setting it up is a little more convoluted than I'd like (or than I expect in 2013), and the camera didn't consistently see my work network.

The 70D offers a reasonably broad set of video-specific features, though like most of the company's dSLRs it ostensibly can't output clean HDMI for external recording (I wouldn't be surprised if that capability eventually surfaced in a Magic Lantern hack, though.) Like many of the dSLRs that Canon's been churning out, there's nothing else notable in the 70D's feature set; a reasonable set of still shooting options but no photographer-friendly frills like time lapse/intervalometer, multiple card slots, or multiple custom-setting slots.

For a complete accounting of the 70d's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

If you've been waiting for a fast Canon but hoping that it wouldn't cost as much as the 7D, then the 70D will probably meet your expectations. But I'll withhold judgment about the image and video quality until I can test a final version. My fingers are crossed.