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Canon PowerShot N review: Nice smartphone camera companion

Here's a pocket camera that doesn't necessarily beat smartphones, but joins them.

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Joshua Goldman
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Joshua Goldman

Managing Editor / Advice

Josh Goldman helps people find the best laptop at the best price -- from simple Chromebooks to high-end gaming laptops. He's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software for more than two decades.

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8 min read

The Canon PowerShot N is a peculiar little camera.

Canon_PowerShot_N_35566607_04.jpg
7.5

Canon PowerShot N

The Good

The <b>Canon PowerShot N</b> 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.

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.

Canon PowerShot N sample pictures

See all photos

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most functions are controlled with the touch screen, but there are a few very small buttons on the sides of the camera. The power button is on the right side at the top, and during testing, I frequently accidentally pressed it when picking up the camera. On the left are a switch for moving between the camera's main shooting modes and the new Creative Shot mode (more on that later), a new Mobile Device Connect button (more on that below, too), and a Play button for reviewing your shots. And if you're wondering what the two silver bolts are jutting out from the sides, they are nonremovable mounts for a wrist/neck strap.

Key specs Canon PowerShot N
Price (MSRP) $299.99
Dimensions (WHD) 3.1x2.4x1.2 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 6.9 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 12 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 2.8-inch tilt touch-screen LCD, 461K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 8x, f3.0-5.9, 28-224mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/H.264 AAC (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 4,000x3,000 pixels/1,920x1,080 at 24fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Li-ion rechargeable, 200 shots (280 shots in Eco mode)
Battery charged in camera Yes
Storage media microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC

With space so limited, Canon went with a tiny lithium ion rechargeable battery for power and a microSD card slot for storage (you supply your own). I've come across this battery (NB-9L) before in Elph models, and it's never provided great battery life. Granted it is rougly the size of a AA battery, so that's probably to be expected. The bigger issue is that the Wi-Fi will help drain it even faster, so I strongly recommend picking up additional ones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The camera is charged by USB (a rarity for Canon) via a Mini-USB port. Not only does this save you from having to constantly take the battery out for charging, but you can also use the USB to transfer photos and videos off the camera so you don't have to pull the microSD card in and out all the time. Or, you can use the Wi-Fi for transfers.

Using Canon's CameraWindow software and Canon Image Gateway site, you can set the camera to wirelessly upload photos to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and e-mail. Basically, Canon forces you to set up an account on CIG with all of your account IDs and passwords so you can upload to these services from the camera instead of just allowing you to put your information directly into the camera.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If this is a problem for you (it is for me), you can instead use the CameraWindow app for iOS or Android to send photos and movies directly to mobile devices for viewing, editing, and uploading. For the PowerShot N, Canon added a Mobile Device Connect button that lets you quickly connect to a device.

After an initial simple pairing process with your device, the camera stores a profile of it. Press the button and launch the app on your device, and they're connected. The app lets you view your camera's shots as well as transfer them off to your device. You can also use it to add location data to photos on the camera, but that's it.

Lastly, there is one more thing about the design you may have noticed: there is no flash. Instead of having a full flash unit like most point-and-shoots, the N's autofocus assist lamp does double duty as a flash. It's not terribly powerful, though; it can only light something within a couple feet of the camera. On the upside, it does work as a video light should you be shooting video in very low light.

General shooting options Canon PowerShot Elph 310 HS
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200
White balance Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H
Recording modes Auto, Hybrid Auto, Program, Creative Shot, Fisheye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Soft Focus, Monochrome, Super Slow Motion Movie
Focus modes Multi AF
Macro 0.4 inch (Wide); 3.3 feet (Tele)
Metering modes Evaluative, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects None
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

Canon really streamlined the shooting options on the N, likely because it expects most potential buyers won't leave its reliable Auto mode. There is a Program Auto if you want to, say, change white balance or ISO settings, or use continuous shooting, but that's about where the manual controls end.

The PowerShot N introduces a new Creative Shot mode as well, which goes beyond the typical effects and filters. Snap a picture of something and the camera will automatically create five different versions using different color and tone settings, crops, and styles in addition to saving the original photo. (Check out this slideshow to see samples.) It's a pretty clever option that works well, especially if you just want to shoot and share without wading through endless filters on your phone.

The other big shooting option on the N is Hybrid Auto. For a couple of years now, Canon has had a Movie Digest mode on its PowerShots. It's a mode that captures a few seconds of video before each picture you take. At the end of a day of shooting, the camera automatically gathers up all the little clips and puts them into one movie. The result is basically a candid highlight movie. Movie Digest, however, uses a standard Auto mode whereas Hybrid Auto uses Canon's scene-recognition Smart Auto, so you now can have potentially better photos while still using Movie Digest. I would recommend shutting off the AF assist lamp, though, or else you end up with your subject getting oddly illuminated in each clip.

Conclusion:
The Canon PowerShot N acts as a nice complement to a smartphone camera. You get some optical zoom with excellent optical image stabilization, very good photo and video quality (certainly better than typical phone camera quality), and built-in Wi-Fi so you can still share your shots almost as easily as you can when you shoot with your phone. And it's all in a tiny attention-grabbing package.

Canon_PowerShot_N_35566607_04.jpg
7.5

Canon PowerShot N

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8
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