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Canon shrank the dimensions of the 5.5-ounce PowerShot SD300 down to an ultraslim 3.4-by-2.1-by-0.83-inch package that can slip into any pocket. This Digital Elph is made even more easily pocketable by its reduced number of protrusions, starting with the hand-strap lug, which is now recessed into the body. The camera's exterior is all metal, except for plastic doors covering the battery/SD memory card slots and A/V and USB ports.
While you can operate the PowerShot SD300 with one hand, a two-handed grip makes it easier to work the zoom lever, which is concentric with the top-mounted shutter-release button. A recessed on/off button and a green power LED are the only other adornments on the top surface. The major controls are concentrated on the right side of the back panel, which is dominated by a brightness-adjustable 2-inch LCD viewfinder. A three-way sliding switch lets you select recording, movie mode, or playback, and three other buttons provide access to the three-page menu system (with shooting, setup, and customization options), display options (status info, no info, and monitor off), and print/share features.
As with other point-and-shoot Canons, most shooting settings are taken care of by the four-way cursor pad with embedded OK/Function button. For example, pressing the Up button switches between spot, center-weighted, and evaluative metering; Down selects single-shot mode, burst mode, or the self-timer. The left key cycles through Normal, Landscape, and macro focus modes, while the right button selects a flash mode.
The pad's center button invokes menus for choosing a scene mode; adjusting exposure compensation to plus or minus 2EV in one-third-stop increments; selecting white balance, ISO, resolution, and JPEG compression ratio; and applying a unexceptional number of special effects that include vivid color, low sharpening, sepia, and black-and-white.
The PowerShot SD300's modest feature set includes most of the basics, starting with a 35mm-to-115mm 3X zoom lens (35mm-film-camera equivalent) with a nine-point autofocus system that's accurate down to 1.2 inches in macro mode. Only six scene modes are available, which is a modest selection in the current market. However, they're generally useful and include a Digital Macro option that fills the frame with the center of the image to provide the equivalent of digital zoom in close-up mode. Other scene modes include Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, and Underwater, which you can use with an optional marine housing. Unfortunately, there's no sports scene mode nor any way to manually control shutter speeds, which seriously limits this camera's excellent 3fps burst mode.
A weakling built-in flash unit, a nonlive histogram that can be viewed only in playback mode, and a jerky zoom lens that was difficult to set precisely are among the PowerShot SD300's other annoyances.
On the plus side, this Elph's movie capabilities are outstanding and include in-camera editing features. You can shoot 640x480 clips with monaural sound at 30fps for as long as your memory card holds out with an optional high-speed SD card, as well as 60fps clips for up to 60 seconds at 320x240 resolution.
Performance was another big plus, thanks to the new Digic II DSP. The PowerShot SD300 woke up and reported for duty in about 2 seconds and thereafter was willing to snap off a shot every 1.2 seconds (4.6 seconds with flash). In burst mode, we captured six images in a hair more than 2 seconds at full resolution and lowest compression, but if you're willing to sacrifice a minimal amount of image quality and switch from Super Fine to Fine compression, this Canon will happily snap away at a 2.4fps rate up to the capacity of your memory card.
Shutter-lag times were good, amounting to only 0.7 second under high-contrast lighting, and just 0.9 second in low-contrast lighting conditions, thanks to the built-in focus-assist lamp. Battery life was impressive at 692 shots during our tests, which included 50 percent taken with flash, lots of zooming and card reformatting, and other calisthenics. However, the PowerShot SD300 provided scant warning of impending battery death: the first and only indicator appeared about 40 shots before the cell pooped out.
The LCD viewfinder works well in all but the brightest light outdoors if you can tolerate a little ghosting during subject or camera movement. It's preferable for careful composition to the smallish optical viewfinder, which shows only 82 percent of the image.
Image quality was good for a 4-megapixel snapshot camera, with an adequately wide range of detail in highlights and shadows, nice color saturation, and only a slight tendency to produce yellow flesh tones. However, images were not exceptionally sharp, and JPEG artifacts were noticeable when we enlarged the images. Chromatic aberration in the form of purple fringing showed up prominently around backlit subjects. Noise wasn't visible in our images at the lower ISO settings, but it appeared in modest amounts at ISO 400. The automatic noise reduction applied to exposures of 1.3 seconds or longer helped a bit.