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Slipping neatly into the company's dSLR product line between the XSi and the 40D, the Canon EOS Rebel T1i (aka the 500D elsewhere in the world) pushes the XTi off the edge of the bed into discontinuity. Joined by models like the Nikon D5000 and the Olympus E-620 in that $800-to-$900-with-lens market segment, it's not quite a budget model; more for the entry-level buyer who wants higher resolution and a better AF system, and perhaps video, than you can get for $700.
Since the body is almost identical to the XSi, including the 1.2-pound weight, the shooting experience is unsurprisingly similar. On that camera, I complained that the plastic body felt a bit cheap and I wasn't crazy about the grip, but I suppose I've gotten used to it for this class of camera in the year since that review. Overall, it's comfortable and feels solid enough. It keeps the same large, fixed 3-inch LCD; more models in this class are offering smaller but articulated LCDs, which is starting to make this seem like a competitive disadvantage. Almost all the buttons lie under your right hand, and each feels slightly different so that you can grope them without looking. None requires two-handed operation: when you push the button to change ISO, white balance, metering, and so on, the menu persists while you navigate the options.
While the modes on the dial remain mostly unchanged, there's now a dedicated movie selection. Having it on the dial makes jumping between stills and movies more awkward than necessary; the dedicated Live View button doubles as a record stop/start when in movie mode. Canon also added the Creative Auto mode that debuted in its higher-end models, but which makes a lot more sense in this one. CA is a semimanual mode with capabilities you can view as an advanced Auto mode or dumbed-down Program mode, depending upon your viewpoint. All functions in CA are automated, with a few exceptions. Notably, it replaces shutter and aperture adjustment options with two sliding scales--Exposure (brighter/darker) and Background (blurred/sharp)--that implicitly adjust shutter speed and aperture. It's an interesting approach for beginners who'd like to take some chances.
It also retains My Menu, which lets you build a go-to list of the most frequently accessed menu settings--in my case, for instance, format and metering settings. Canon has finally also adopted the capability to directly change most shooting settings via the information display on the LCD.
My biggest peeves still remain: Canon's Picture Styles, custom contrast, sharpness saturation, and color tone, unfortunately take precedence over the capability to save groups of custom exposure, white balance, metering, drive mode settings, and so on. And I'm beginning to hate the viewfinder. It offers the same 95 percent coverage as its competitors, but at a lower magnification than some, and it uses the same horribly annoying tiny focus points that don't actually tell you if it's in focus; locked or not, it simply blinks. I had to turn on the indicator beep. (Yes, there's a focus lock indicator in the viewfinder, but it's down on the bottom right where it's a bit of a strain on your peripheral vision.)
On some counts, the T1i offers some pretty nice specifications, highlighted by the 15-megapixel APS-C size CMOS sensor (for Canon's traditional 1.6x focal-length multiplier) and same nine-point user-selectable autofocus system as the XSi. Aside from new capabilities like movie capture and CA, the camera offers effectively the same feature set as the XSi, with its same strengths and holes. It lacks common perks Sony, Pentax, and Olympus include in their cameras, like in-body mechanical stabilization and a wireless flash controller in the body, a feature I occasionally find quite useful. The inclusion of an image-stabilizing kit lens doesn't quite compensate, since additional optically stabilized lenses tend to cost more in the long run. (For a complete accounting of the T1i's features, download the PDF manual.)
The T1i performs very well for this class of dSLR. It wakes and shoots in a quick 0.2 second. In bright conditions it can focus and shoot in a fast 0.3 second, and even in dim conditions maintains a 0.6 second shot lag--that makes it faster than the more expensive Nikon D90. Typical shot-to-shot time runs about 0.4 second, for both raw and JPEG, and throwing the pop-up flash into the mix bumps that to 0.7 second. Continuous shooting speed for this year's models in this price range are running between 3 and 4 frames per second, with the T1i coming in at a respectable, though not class-leading, 3.3fps. In practice, both the frame rate and nine-point AF system are certainly fast enough to keep up with children and pets.
It's always tricky to bump the resolution and not degrade photo quality--the pixels in the T1i's 15-megapixel sensor are, as you'd expect, smaller than those of the XSi's 12-megapixel version: 4.7 microns versus 5.2 microns--but the Digic 4 processor seems to compensate well for noise. Photos remain sharp with few artifacts as high as ISO 1,600--by the numbers as high as ISO 3,200--though sharp-eyed photographers will probably want to max out at ISO 400 for the cleanest photos. The extended sensitivity range goes up to ISO 12,800, and while that's not a setting I'd suggest for everyday use, as long as your subject isn't very detailed or dark it can work in a pinch. Canon seems to have tweaked its default exposure settings to be a bit brighter, more in keeping with consumer tastes, and the result is more clipped highlights than I expected but probably more crowd-pleasing midtones and shadows. The T1i also renders punchier color; bright and saturated, thankfully just shy of too much.
Though not quite as robust as on the EOS 5D Mark II, which supports 30fps for its 1080p capture, the T1i's video still surpasses that of the limited to 24fps 720p Nikon D5000. The movie quality is solid, but I'd stick with the 30fps 720p and avoid 1,920x1,080 mode--it's only 20fps, and motion looks a bit jerky. You can manually invoke AF while you're shooting, which is useful, but remember that it's slow and creaky. Initiating focus creates some jerkiness, but at least you don't have to stop, focus, and restart; I definitely prefer having the option. Like many of the low-end implementations, it uses mono audio (there's no mic input) and could benefit from a wind filter.
The T1i's improvement in low-light AF may be a compelling upgrade for current XSi owners; the higher resolution and video capture capability may provide some allure as well. If you're looking to buy an entry-level Canon, the EOS Rebel T1i won't disappoint, and if you need high resolution, good high ISO performance, or 30fps movie capture in this price range, it's the model to beat from any manufacturer.
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|