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Whether human or camera, it's always hard following in the footsteps of a popular sibling, and the near-universally well-liked Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is a harder act to follow than most. Rather than simply bump up the resolution and zoom range for the SD890 IS--it's now 10 megapixels, up from 8, and 5x zoom, up from 4x--Canon chose to redesign the camera as well. The result is an almost completely different--and ultimately not as satisfying--compact point-and-shoot.
With its thick 2.3-by-3.8-by-1.1-inch body, the 6.5-ounce camera can slide somewhat comfortably into a loose pants pocket. The SD890 IS sports a much curvier design than its predecessor, including a gently sloping front where you grip the camera.
In addition to altering the overall design, Canon opted to replace its more-traditional four-way navigation switch with a four-way nav plus wheel. 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, white balance, My Colors, metering, 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, which doubles as a thumb rest, toggles among automatic, manual, program exposure (scene), and movie-capture modes.
Normally, I'm a big fan of scroll wheels. But I find the free-flying wheel of the SD890 IS too difficult to control. There's no physical feedback so you can't feel you've scrolled to the next option, and I frequently found myself either zipping past my choice or frustrated because it didn't seem to be changing. If you pause to figure out which option it's going to stop at--Canon should have called it the roulette wheel--the options time out and disappear. Furthermore, when operating the menu, display, and review buttons, my thumb tends to drag the wheel with it. Finally, though the mode switch works fine for its function, it's neither big enough nor shaped comfortably enough to rest your thumb. I was tempted to give the camera a lower rating for design, but I suspect other users won't find it quite as annoying to use as I do.
The f/3.2-f/5.7, 37mm-185mm-equivalent lens represents the most notable change from the SD850 IS. Though a broader zoom range, it's considerably slower (the maximum aperture rises to f/3.2 from the SD850 IS' f/2.8) and slightly narrower (37mm-equivalent compared to the SD850 IS' 35mm). That's not necessarily a trade-off you want to make. The wider angle lenses on models such as the SD870 IS and the Panasonic Lumix TZ models make them more flexible for typical snapshots of groups or landscapes, and it's not as if the SD890 IS' zoom reaches far enough to buy you other shots you might not normally get. Features carried over from the SD850 IS include face detection and optical image stabilization; features missing from both cameras include no semi-manual exposure modes, such as shutter- and aperture-priority.
While the SD850 IS wasn't one of the fastest point-and-shoots we'd ever tested, it did clock in mostly above-average results. The SD890 IS' performance is more mixed. It wakes up and shoots in a solid 1.3 seconds, and delivers very good focus-and-shoot speed: 0.4 second under optimal lighting and 0.8 second in harder-to-focus conditions. However, its shot-to-shot performance, typically 2.5 seconds and 3.7 seconds with flash, makes it the slowest PowerShot SD model we've tested over the last 12 months in those respects. Burst shooting clocks at a mere 0.9 frame per second. I suspect it's simply too slow writing data to the SD card. (I tested with a fast Class 6 card.)
The 2.5-inch LCD is on the small side, but that's a given if you want to retain an optical viewfinder. The screen gets hard to view in direct sunlight, though bumping up the brightness helps a bit. Its colors look very saturated, though, and it offers a relatively wide viewing angle that should deliver a good group-viewing experience.
Overall, the SD890 IS' photo quality just tips over the fence from above-average to excellent, mostly because of the great color and usable high ISO shots under many conditions. It's not the best lens--the photos generally look a bit soft and there's some fringing on edges--but the camera renders good exposures with accurate, saturated colors. (Click through the slide show for more details on photo quality.) It captures very nice 30fps VGA movies--at a file size of almost 2MB per second, it had better--but you can't zoom the lens while recording, which seriously decreases the usefulness.
I miss Canon's traditional if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach. There was very little wrong with the SD850 IS; while the PowerShot SD890 IS delivers a decent shooting experience, it can't escape the shadow of its more talented older brother.