Canon PowerShot N review: Nice smartphone camera companion

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The Good The Canon PowerShot N is a fresh take on a simple point-and-shoot, cramming a lot of camera into the smallest space possible without being completely unusable. It has a handy tilting touch screen, built-in Wi-Fi for on-the-go sharing, and a couple of innovative snapshot modes.

The Bad The camera's controls and size might make it difficult to use for some. It doesn't do much beyond automatic snapshots. Battery life is relatively short, and the flash is weak.

The Bottom Line If you can get past the supercompact design and reimagined controls, the Canon PowerShot N is a fine point-and-shoot companion for your smartphone.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

The Canon PowerShot N is a peculiar little camera.

Basically, Canon took one of its PowerShot Elph cameras and lopped off the sides, leaving nothing but a lens and screen. In the 1.2-inch body between the 8x f3.0-5.9 28-224mm lens and 2.8-inch tilting touch screen are a 12-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor and space for a removable battery and microSD card. Oh, and a Wi-Fi radio for, among other things, connecting to iOS and Android devices.

Making the body so small forced some design changes that don't necessarily work, or at least take some getting used to if you're coming from another point-and-shoot. The camera overall works as a nice supercompact complement to a smartphone camera, but it's definitely one you'll want to play with before you buy, or at least make sure you buy it from someplace with a good return policy.

Picture quality
One of the big benefits to using a larger camera over your smartphone's camera should be better picture quality, and you can certainly get that with the PowerShot N -- especially in low light. Color performance is very good and, unlike with some other point-and-shoots, colors don't get muddy or washed-out-looking as soon as the ISO climbs above 400. You can get up to ISO 1600 and get usable results that are nice and bright without noise reduction destroying all detail. I wouldn't use anything above ISO 1600 except in a pinch because the photos are really too soft and have noticeable yellow blotching.

Still, the 12-megapixel resolution isn't much help when it comes to enlarging and heavy cropping or poster-sized prints. With the exception of close-ups taken at ISO 80, there's a bit too much in the way of noise and artifacts visible when photos are viewed at 100 percent. This is the case with most small-sensor point-and-shoots, though, so if full-size quality is important to you, you'll want to move up to a large-sensor compact.

Movie quality is very good and the camera is reasonably quick to refocus should your subject move or if you use the zoom lens. However, you will hear the lens motor in your videos and perhaps a clicking sound from the continuous autofocus, particularly in quiet scenes. This is fairly unavoidable given how close the lens is to the mono mic on top.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shooting performance
Maybe it's because it's so small or because it's targeted at smartphone users, but it seems like the N should be a fast performer, allowing you to easily capture photos of active kids and pets. You can certainly take pictures of those things with this camera, it's just that chances are you won't get the shot you were after. At least not without practice and good timing.

From pressing the power button to capturing the first shot takes 1.9 seconds. Shot-to-shot lag times average about the same at 1.8 seconds without flash. Using the flash -- if you can call it that -- pushes the wait out to 2.2 seconds. The time from pressing the shutter release to capturing a photo without prefocusing is 0.3 second in bright lighting and 0.7 second in low-light conditions; the former time is good and on par with others in the PowerShot N's class, the latter is a little long. On a positive note, it didn't slow down much more when the lens was zoomed in, which is unusual.

The camera has a continuous-shooting option available in Program Auto mode capable of capturing at 2.3 frames per second, with focus and exposure set with the first shot. It can shoot until your memory card fills up, though, which is nice, as competing cameras have a burst limit and make you wait while images are stored before you can shoot again.

Again, it isn't so bad that you'll miss all the action or leave your subjects frustrated from waiting, but the camera's shooting performance -- combined with some design clunkiness -- might cost you the shot you wanted.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
Beyond its size, the most notable things about the N's design are the shutter release and zoom control. Looking at the camera, you might not think it has them and everything is done with the touch screen (and you can, in fact, tap to focus and shoot). But they are there, as two rings around the lens; the inner ring is the zoom control and a slightly thicker one on the outside is the shutter release.

They're not the easiest to use, simply because the two rings are so close together and one is barely bigger than the other. Combine that with the small body and it might be just too uncomfortable for some to get a steady shot. Then again, the combo of the 90-degree tilting screen and ring controls can make shooting at different angles easier than a typical fixed-screen point-and-shoot.

The screen can also be used as a support for the camera, making it easier to position it on a table and angle the lens up for self-portraits (though it would've been nice if the screen went up 180 degrees so you could see the picture from in front of the camera). Also, a gyroscopic sensor in the camera will right the picture if you turn the camera upside down, making it easier to shoot overhead.