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Canon PowerShot S500 review: Canon PowerShot S500

Canon PowerShot S500

Eamon Hickey
Review summary
With the PowerShot S500, Canon brings its time-tested Digital Elph to the ranks of 5-megapixel, 3X-zoom digital cameras. This latest model has its older siblings' sleek, pocket-size chassis and snapshooter ease of use, both of which we still like very much, but the previous Digital Elphs offered slightly better photo quality, and the competition has pulled ahead in terms of features and performance. As a result, the PowerShot S500 ends up being a decent but not outstanding snapshot camera. We consider the Canon PowerShot S500 functionally rather than fashionably attractive, though its matte-silver finish is handsome. The camera feels well built and solid, and its plastic-and-metal body just squeezes into the ultracompact class with shirt-pocket dimensions and an 8-ounce weight (with the battery and the media).
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The S500's dearth of scene modes may disappoint snapshooters, and no one is ever likely to use the tiny optical viewfinder.
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New to Canon's 2004 cameras is a dedicated direct-printing button, which works with PictBridge-compatible printers.

Getting a comfortable grip on the S500 is relatively easy. Your right thumb has plenty of space, and the depth enables your left hand to steadily clamp the camera's top and bottom. Many competitors have moved on to larger screens, but Canon stuck with its tiny 1.5-inch LCD to fit in full-size buttons.
The S500's controls are reasonably well distributed around its small body. Their arrangement is logical and provides quick access to the most frequently used features, such as metering, drive-mode selection, and the flash. As with many PowerShot models, pressing the opaquely named Func button calls up a menu dedicated to the more advanced options: exposure compensation, white balance, ISO sensitivity, effects, and image quality. Canon outfitted the PowerShot S500 with basic snapshot features. Its 3X zoom lens has a reasonably fast maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.9 but provides a fairly narrow angle of view over a 36mm-to-108mm range (the 35mm-camera equivalent). Programmed automatic is the sole exposure mode, but applying exposure compensation to plus or minus 2EV is easy. Light sensitivity is either automatic or manual; the selectable ISO settings are 50, 100, 200, and 400. You can pick evaluative, center-weighted, or spot light metering. For white balance, you get an automatic option, five presets, and manual control. The S500 gives you everything you need, but if you want state-of-the-art snapshot features, such as contextual help menus, composition guidelines, and scene program modes, you'll have to look elsewhere.
The PowerShot S500 can capture JPEG photos at four resolutions and three compression levels, as well as 30-second clips of 640x480-pixel, 10-frame-per-second MJPEG video with sound. This movie mode doesn't compare well with that of some newer cameras, which can record VGA footage for a longer time and at 15fps or even 30fps. Middle-of-last-year's-pack performance detracts slightly from the Canon PowerShot S500's appeal. Start-up takes about 3.5 seconds, and the camera is a tad slow to switch modes and play back images. Shutter lag lasts 0.9 second in good light; a focus-assist lamp helps out in dim conditions to keep the delay at around 1.2 seconds. Shot-to-shot time runs just more than 2 seconds outdoors and stretches a bit past 3 seconds with the flash. In continuous-shooting mode, the S500 fires at about 1.5 frames per second.
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Using the flash about half of the time, we ran the PowerShot S500 on its 840mAh lithium-ion rechargeable cell. On a single charge, we shot a fairly reasonable 430 photos.

The lens's zoom travel is quick but a bit jerky and a little noisy. Autofocus locks fairly decisively in good light, and the assist lamp is effective out to at least 10 feet in dim environments. Canon rates the flash's maximum range at 11 feet when the camera chooses the ISO automatically.
Few people will use the optical viewfinder much. Though reasonably clear, it's tiny and not very bright, and it shows only 80 percent of the actual image. At 1.5 inches, the LCD is comparatively small, but it shows 100 percent of the scene and is sharp and easy to use outdoors. For the most part, you'll find the Canon PowerShot S500's photos quite pleasing. Most pictures are accurately exposed and exhibit attractive sharpness and detail. The preset and manual white-balance options yield slightly oversaturated colors, but they look neutral and realistic, with natural skin tones. As usual, Canon's automatic white balance produces miserably warm images under indoor lighting.
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The PowerShot S500 delivers well-exposed photos, and colors come out saturated and neutral as long as you don't use the automatic white balance.

At ISO 50 and ISO 100, we saw fairly little noise. It remained pretty moderate at ISO 200 but became prominent by ISO 400, though the level wasn't unusual for this class of camera. As with many 5-megapixel models, noise-reduction processing sometimes smoothed out fine details and textures.
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At the center, an S500 photo looks relatively sharp (top). But poor focus on the lens's left side is partly responsible for that area's very soft edges and their diffuse, fringelike artifacts (bottom).

Canon PowerShot S500

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 5Image quality 6