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With a compact body, hefty resolution and touchscreen controls round the back, there's much to like about the IXUS 1100HS. Slim, attractive and capable of producing some of the cleanest, most colourful pictures we have seen in a camera of this size, we had high hopes for what looked like an innovative addition to the long-running IXUS line-up.
Sadly, though, this £350 camera doesn't quite meet the high standard set by its cheaper, smaller sibling, the IXUS 230HS.
We'll start with the touchscreen, which is the most obvious set-apart feature on this particular IXUS. We're seeing an increasing number of compacts adopt the touchscreen as their primary means of control, but not one of them has yet trumped the iPhone for ease of use and smooth control -- and the IXUS 1100HS is no different.
Here, to move between pictures in review mode you can either drag them across the 3.2-inch (8cm) screen or press 'hot zones' on either end of the display. To do the same with the menus, you drag them up and down. The theory is sound, but the implementation could do with some work. Dragging is tricky and sometimes unresponsive, and we found it took much more time to work our way through the menus using the touchscreen. It wasn't long before we were hankering for a traditional four-way rocker.
You can also use the screen to select the autofocus point and fire the shutter, as you can with the Nikon Coolpix S4150 and S100. The former of those two options is genuinely useful -- particularly for anyone who's used to shooting on a smart phone -- but we're not so hot on the latter, as it induced several unintentional shots when our fingers strayed onto the screen.
We weren't fans of the virtual video button either. We appreciate that it helps in cutting down the number of physical buttons and switches -- preserving the 1100HS's clean lines -- but as with the missing four-way rocker, we found ourselves longing for a proper video shutter control.
The body itself is metal and feels like it was built to take more than the odd bump and scrape. There's no grip per se, which might have made it hard to hold were it not for the rubber strip that Canon has laid down the side of the screen, just where your thumb rests. It looks good, feels good, and improves handling greatly, so it's easy to hold and shoot with one hand.
Around the front, we're glad to say things are a whole lot more conventional. There's a generous 12x zoom, behind which lies a 12.1-megapixel sensor. The zoom's focal length is equivalent to 28-336mm on a 35mm camera, which is impressive for so compact a device. Fortunately it also has physical lens-shift stabilisation, as without it hand-held shooting at its fullest length would be close to impossible.
It maintains a respectable f/5.9 maximum aperture at full telephoto, and f/3.9 at wide angle. Neither of these figures is out of the norm for this class of camera, producing bright images at either end of the scale.
This is further helped by the technology behind the 'HS' at the end of the product name. Denoting 'High Sensitivity', it points to a sensor and processor combo attuned to achieving the best possible performance in low light, without the use of a flash or extremely long exposures. This should both reduce unnatural light levels and obviate the need for a tripod in many cases.
Canon makes some bold claims here, including that HS reduces noise (the variation in brightness caused by the camera's sensor or circuits) at all ISO levels by up to 60%, and indeed there was a marked improvement throughout our tests compared to direct competitors. This allowed the 1100HS to render fine detail to a great depth, so that when zoomed in we could make out pixel-perfect subjects without interference, all of which brings us directly to our tests.
At 12 megapixels, the 1100HS's native resolution is 4,000x3,000 pixels. Sadly, this is an uncomfortable fit for its widescreen display, as it leaves black bars down the left and right-hand edges.
Fortunately (and unfortunately) Canon also gives you the option of shooting widescreen images. This is good as it neatly fills the display, and bad as it achieves that by slicing 752 pixels -- split evenly -- off the top and bottom of the pictures. This reduces the resolution of the finished product by over three megapixels while paying back nothing in terms of width.
Nonetheless, we split our tests between these two modes, and shot largely using the fully automatic settings to emulate most users' real-world experiences.
We were consistently impressed by the tone and vibrancy of the colours achieved in this mode. Skies, and their reflections, were a vivid blue, and trees in full leaf a very healthy green. In those parts of our images where there was significant detail across an area of similar tone, such as the grey tarpaulin covering the back of the boat in the image below, or the concrete wall of the flour mill in the background, it made best use of a very limited palette to produce impressively detailed results.
Less appealing were the occasional instances where the 1100HS failed to perfectly align each wavelength within the spectrum. What we are looking for is consistently sharp edges across each frame -- as much in the tricky corners and edges as the dead centre. Even a small deviation from absolute precision will split off parts of the visible spectrum in a similar way to a prism splitting incoming light into a rainbow. This is known as chromatic aberration and it's most often seen in areas of sharp contrast.
Although not common in our tests of this camera, there were some specific instances where it was very clearly visible, such as along the right-hand edge of the white mast in the image above, the relevant portion of which we have enlarged below.
It was also evident on both edges of the gate in the countryside shot below, where the red light has been split off to the left and green to the right. Fortunately when viewed full screen rather than zoomed to 100 per cent, neither was particularly evident.
In macro mode, the lens will get you to within 1cm of your subject, and throw the surroundings out of focus to draw your eye to the focused area, as we would expect.
This allowed it to capture a stunning level of detail, with one of the best renderings of a teasel -- one of our standard test shots -- we have seen. Not only were the individual spikes sharply captured, but the hairs that line their leading edges were also clear to see.
At the same time, the IXUS has balanced the exposure well, capturing both deep shadow at the bottom of the frame and bright highlights in the upper right quadrant, without clipping either.
Clipping occurs where either the level of light is so high that detail is lost in highlight areas, or so low that parts falling in shadow are subsumed by black. The 1100HS did an excellent job of avoiding either trap, even when we set out to find deliberately tricky subjects.
In the shot below we could reasonably expect the white characters to be burned out as the camera compensated for the darker wall, but they aren't. Neither is detail lost in the shadow area, as increasing the exposure in post-production reveals a clear gridded walkway, allowing us to recover what might have been lost by a lesser camera. (Although sadly, there is again evidence of the visible light spectrum being split here, with a pink fringe to the right and top edges of each character.)
Turning to our portrait shot, the IXUS performed very well under studio lighting, as we expected, and also put in an excellent performance when using both ambient light and the onboard flash.
These latter two results were actually almost identical, with the flash balancing out some of the harsh highlights that we had seen in the ambient light test. In both cases the results were a little warmer than they had been under studio lighting, but to our eye they enhanced the finished result, and certainly brought out a greater level of detail.
We performed our still life test under the same conditions, shooting a range of textures and colours using all three light sources. Here we were particularly impressed by the way in which the 1100HS had made best use of the available ambient light.
Although it increases the sensitivity from ISO 100 to ISO 800 and there was a very slight increase in noise, it didn't come anywhere close to the undesirable results we would expect to see from rival snappers at such high levels. Detail, such as the writing on our book page, was preserved, and colours were richer and more satisfying than they were in the studio-lit shot for a first-class performance all round.
The IXUS 1100HS gives you the option of two high-definition formats: both 1,920x1,080 pixels, 24 frames per second and 1,280x720, 30fps. It also has a 640x480 mode for Web use and a super-slow 240fps option, which shoots at a resolution of just 320x230. We chose 1,920x1,080 at 24fps for our tests.
The image results were truly impressive. Detail remained sharp and clear through significant camera movement, such as filming while walking, and colours were as good in moving pictures as they were in stills.
When shooting videos, the camera has the added complication of smoothly adjusting on the fly for changing light levels. When you're shooting stills it doesn't matter if this is done in steps, but it simply wouldn't get away with that on film. Fortunately the 1100HS doesn't fall into this potential trap. Corrections are smooth and unstepped, with the IXUS also making great use of available light in darker scenes.
As we noted in our review of the IXUS 230HS, however, the wind noise reduction feature was underwhelming, doing little to cut the noise of a passing breeze on the in-built microphone.
The HS system built into both this and the IXUS 230HS really pays dividends. Colours are great and the pictures themselves are remarkably clean and free of undesirable noise.
Yet when stood beside its more compact sibling, it looks like the poorer relation. We were disappointed by the colour fringing we experienced in some areas of high contrast and we found the touchscreen difficult to use. It left us feeling that this had perhaps been included to set this camera apart from its competitors with the result that it has pushed up the price further than we could easily justify. That unfortunately leaves it with a fairly middling score.