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Canon PowerShot SD790 IS review: Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

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6 min read

7.8

Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

The Good

Great photo quality; interesting design.

The Bad

Mixed performance; no optical zoom in movie mode.

The Bottom Line

For most people, the excellent photo quality of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS will more than make up for any slight performance deficiencies or minor shortcomings.

The Canon PowerShot SD750 is one of the most popular cameras on CNET, so how do you top it? Well, with a couple of the standard enhancements, for one. For the PowerShot SD790 IS, Canon adds image stabilization and ups the resolution to 10 megapixels from 7, though it keeps the same f/2.8-4.9 35-105mm-equivalent lens. Oh, and it gets a complete redesign.

Of late, Canon seems to be experimenting a lot with the design of its point-and-shoot cameras. That seems to have worked out a little better in the case of the SD790 IS than with its higher-end sibling, the SD890 IS. Though I can't say I'm gaga over the new angular look and incised buttons, at least the camera remains stylish and functional. Not quite small enough to feel like an ultracompact, at 6.3 ounces and 2.2-by-3.6-by-0.8 inches, the SD790 will still fit in a jeans pocket, and it feels surprisingly well made and sturdy.

The camera has a typical control layout. On/off and zoom switches sit on top, while the display, menu, PictBridge, review buttons, along with a four-way-nav-plus-OK combo dial and movie/camera/program mode switch on the back. The new buttons sit flush with the body and don't move much, similar to the style that has become popular on cell phones. In the SD790's case, there are rubber guides to provide delineation between the buttons, plus the buttons are fairly large, both of which make a huge difference in usability.

You navigate via a combo control wheel/four-way switch that is differently designed but functionally equivalent to the one on the SD890 IS. The wheel scrolls through some of the modes that you used to pull up via the function (Func) button, such as Stitch Assist, Color Swap, Color Accent, and Digital Macro, as well as the scene modes. The Func button sits in the middle and calls up exposure compensation/long shutter, white balance, My Colors, metering (evaluative, spot and center), compression quality, and image size. Within this menu--and within the menu system in general--you can use either the nav switch or scroll wheel. A mode switch toggles among automatic/manual still photo, program exposure (scene), and movie-capture modes.

The scroll wheel doesn't behave quite as free-wheeling as the one on the SD890 IS, which makes a big difference. There are a couple of other minor quirks with the design, however. The thumb rest, designated by two rows of raised bumps on the back of the camera, isn't where your thumb falls naturally; that occurs on the PictBridge and Review buttons. Unless you've got a crushing grip it's not critical, since your thumb actually rests on the rubber divider between the buttons.

In addition, the placement of the pinhole-size microphone seems to exacerbate wind noise while recording movies; nor does the zoom operate during movie capture. During testing, however, I faced worse issues with movies than that. While captures looked good, in Windows Media Player and Ulead VideoStudio 11 they had a watermark from Pegasus Imaging, indicating Canon was using the company's PicVideo M-JPEG3 encoder; the watermark did not appear in files opened by Pinnacle Studio 12. As of June 7, 2008, Canon has not commented on this other than to admit there's an issue. I sense a firmware update in the SD790 IS' future.

Canon also provides an exposure lock, which is a nice idea, but you're supposed to press the ISO button--the up direction of the nav switch--while holding the shutter button down halfway; you press ISO to disengage the lock. It's a very tricky maneuver to perform single-handedly, though holding the shutter with your left forefinger and pressing the button with your right seems to work OK. It's probably not something you'll find comfortable using in the heat of the moment.

Other interesting features include Focus Check, which brings up a magnified thumbnail, indicating your focus point and the surrounding area, that you can quickly zoom in on. It operates either as one of your Review options after every shot or as a Display option during playback; the former is annoying, the latter, quite nice. The optical image stabilizer provides a Panning mode option, for combating vertical shake but not horizontal motion, rare but not unique in its market, which is useful if you like to shoot sports like cycling, track, or car racing.

As with most point-and-shoot cameras, I find the face-detection marginally useful at best, despite Canon's claimed improvements; it's simply too inconsistent and you end up wasting time forcing it to detect the right face (or any face at all). In fact, I'm coming to think it's designed to make up for deficiencies in most of these cameras' AF auto-selection point technologies, like Canon's AiAF. As with most of the systems, AiAF routinely chooses odd subjects to lock on. Face detection forces the AF system to concentrate on more obvious choices, like people. So even if the camera doesn't actually detect a face, it usually ends up focusing on one without realizing it. You just lose some of the ancillary benefits the camera's programmed to provide, like optimizing exposure and white balance for skin tones. But at the moment both remain poor substitutes for using centerpoint focus and recomposing. Canon also makes a big deal about its Motion Detection, which supposedly works with Auto ISO to kick up the shutter speed when the subject matter warrants it. But I couldn't force it to engage.

Some aspects of the SD790 IS' performance are excellent, while others are below par. It wakes up and shoots in a fairly average 1.2 seconds, and delivers great focus-and-shoot times of 0.4 second and 0.5 second, in optimal and suboptimal lighting, respectively. But two consecutive shots take about 2 seconds and adding flash bumps that up to 3.5 seconds, both of which fall behind much of the competition, as well as its predecessor the SD750. The same goes for its modest 1.3 frames per second typical burst-shooting rate. Canon rates the battery at 330 shots (using CIPA-standard methodology), which is relatively good for a point-and-shoot. And the 3-inch LCD remains usable in bright sunlight, though you'll have to pump the brightness up, which may cut into that battery life. It has a nice wide viewing angle for impromptu slide shows, but looks fairly coarse, like many of its 230,000-pixel competitors.

Photo samples from the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

One aspect Canon hasn't messed with is photo quality: the SD790 IS' is probably the best I've seen from a snapshot camera to date. By most measures--color, exposure, sharpness, and noise--the SD790 leads or is one of the leaders of the pack, both by the CNET Labs' numerical test results and by visual inspection of test photos. (Click through the slide show for more on photo quality.)

The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS' great photos more than make up for its mixed performance. If you don't need a tinier profile, zoom during movie capture, an optical viewfinder, or semimanual exposure controls, and the odd design doesn't put you off, you should definitely check it out.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Flash shot-to-shot time
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim light)
Shutter lag (typical)
Canon PowerShot SD790 IS
1.2
3.5
2
0.5
0.4
Kodak EasyShare V1253
2
1.6
1.2
0.8
0.4
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70
1.5
3
1.3
1.2
0.4
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W130
1.8
2.8
1.4
1
0.4
Canon PowerShot SD750
1
2.3
1.6
0.9
0.5
Olympus Stylus 1030SW
1
4.1
2
0.6
0.5

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

7.8

Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 9
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