After last year's disappointing Rebel XTi--a solid camera--but one that didn't improve significantly over its predecessor, the Canon EOS Rebel XSi comes as a welcome change, and a model worthy of upgrading from your old Rebel XT. It may have a typical, uninspired body design and a modest feature set, but where it really counts--performance and image quality--the XSi manages to stand out from the crowd.
Canon offers two body designs for the XSi, an attractive solid black and a less-attractive two-tone silver and black. Each comes in a body-only or single-lens kit with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. This is a bit unusual, since most manufacturers also offer a dual-lens kit for this market. We tested the kit, as well as tried it out with the new EF-S 55mm-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS lens.
Slightly larger than the XTi, the XSi shaves a couple of ounces of the weight to 1 pound, 2.5 ounces. Its smooth plastic body still feels a bit on the cheap side, and I'm not crazy about the grip. I can't quite put my finger on the reason why: it's not especially shallow, and Canon improved it over the XTi's with a more rubbery-feeling cover. Still, I don't find it as comfortable to hold as most other dSLRs. The larger 3-inch LCD necessitated some changes to the control layout from the XTi's, and I prefer the new over the old. Almost all the buttons lie under your right hand, and each feels slightly different so that you can grope them without looking. None require 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. (For more on the camera design, click through to the slide show.)
The biggest operational advantage the XSi offers over competitors is My Menu, which it inherits from older models. With My Menu you can build a go-to list of the most frequently accessed menu settings--in my case, for instance, Format and Live View settings. However, the menus can be, irritatingly, a bit inconsistent and sometimes dumb. For instance, you can change ISO sensitivity with either the dial or the navigation buttons, but can only navigate metering choices via the nav. Also, in some cases when you have two columns to navigate, as with Picture Style settings, it doesn't let you move to the right or left. It requires you to move all the way down the first column to get to the settings in the second column.
On some counts, the XSi offers some pretty nice specs, highlighted by the 12-megapixel APS-C size CMOS sensor (for Canon's traditional 1.6x focal-length multiplier) and 9-point user-selectable autofocus system. The latter wouldn't be much of a standout if Nikon hadn't dropped to three-area AF in the D60. I also mark the switch from CompactFlash to SDHC in the plus column. The camera also includes the same Highlight Tone Priority mode found in the 1D Mark III, which helps preserve detail in the brightest portion of a scene. Also, the XSi includes Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer, which automatically adjusts contrast and brightness in case the image you captured isn't quite perfect. Introduced last year in the 40D, the Auto Lighting Optimizer is now available in all exposure modes and employs face detection to prevent the underexposure of backlit faces I complained about in the XTi (it works). Remaining specifications are in line with the previous Rebel. For example, shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second with a flash sync speed of 1/200 second and the camera employs a 35-zone TTL metering system. Canon also offers the BG-E5 battery grip.
On the other hand, 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. The XSi's sensitivity range also tops out at ISO 1600, when others routinely reach as high as ISO 3200, and a spot meter that uses a whopping 4 percent of the viewfinder--that's even larger than the 3.8 percent I complained about for the EOS 40D. Though it offers a Live View shooting mode with contrast-detection AF, Live View's usefulness is limited without support from an articulating LCD. Furthermore, all the manufacturers seem to incorrectly think the equivalent of Canon's Picture Styles, custom contrast, sharpness saturation, and color tone, are more important in this market segment than the ability to save groups of custom exposure, white balance, metering, drive mode settings, and so on.