Canon PowerShot SX160 IS review: Good choice for beginners on a budget

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The Good The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS has a large selection of shooting options from full manual to full auto; big, easy-to-press controls; and the convenience of AA batteries.

The Bad The SX160 IS will eat through alkaline batteries; shooting performance is good, but not fast; and picture quality drops off above ISO 400, so it's not a great choice for handheld low-light shots.

The Bottom Line The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS is a good, inexpensive travel-zoom option for those wanting more control over results or who are just getting into photography and don't want to empty their wallets.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Image quality 7

The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS is not for everyone. It's big and bulky. It doesn't have the best shooting performance or image quality. And it certainly doesn't have all the latest and greatest features found in many of Canon's higher-end PowerShots.

But, here's why I like it. For about $150 ($80 less than its original price), you get a competent point-and-shoot camera that does more than just automatic snapshots. That makes it a nice fit for those who want to learn more about controlling shutter speed and aperture without a big investment. Its 16x zoom lens with image stabilization gives you some good framing flexibility. And although some might prefer a high-power rechargeable battery, the SX160 IS' two AA batteries make it very convenient when traveling or for infrequent photographers.

The more expensive Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is a better choice if you can afford it, getting you improved photo and video quality and faster performance. Otherwise, this is a good option for beginners or casual photographers or just anyone looking to take nicer photos than a smartphone can deliver.

Picture quality:
Though you probably won't want to use its photos at full size, the SX160 IS overall produces very nice photos, especially for its price and features. Pixel peepers will see noise even at ISO 100, but it's not noticeable at reduced sizes. Up at ISO 400 is where it starts to be more visible.

Going above that you'll start to see more color noise, artifacts, and loss of detail. The camera stops at ISO 1600, which is really fine since I can't imagine a higher sensitivity getting usable results. The camera definitely favors dropping shutter speed over raising ISO when left in auto. That's good in general, but if you're not paying attention it could result in blurry photos.

Video quality is very good, too, but as with its photos, you'll see more noise the less light you have. The lens does zoom while recording and when it's zooming in you will hear some motor sound picked up by the stereo mics in front in quieter scenes. Overall, though, if you just need to capture the occasional clip for Web sharing, it does a fine job.

Shooting performance:
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance information, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

One of the big drawbacks of the SX160's predecessors was shooting performance; all of them have been pretty slow on all accounts. This model gets a much-needed new autofocus (AF) system. Canon says algorithm improvements, lighter lens elements, a stronger lens motor, and reductions in processing and AF scan times all result in faster focusing and less shutter lag. Being faster doesn't necessarily mean it's fast, but it is improved from the SX150 IS in some ways.

Sarah Tew/CNET

From off to first shot still takes about 2 seconds, which given the bigger lens is good. The shot-to-shot times averaged 1.4 seconds without the flash, though using the flash drove that wait time up to 7 seconds. Shutter lag -- the time from when the shutter release is pressed to when the image is captured without prefocusing -- was a minimum of 0.3 second in good lighting, and jumped to 0.7 second in low light.

There are two main continuous shooting options: one with autofocus on every shot and one that sets focus and exposure with the first shot. The latter is faster, capturing at about 0.8 frame per second. The continuous option with AF slows down to about 0.6fps. Add in the shutter lag for the first shot and you'll have to be pretty good at anticipating action to get the shot you want. Basically, don't buy this if you're regularly going to be shooting fast-moving subjects unless you're a good judge of timing.

Design and features:
The downsides to having a long zoom lens and AA batteries for power are size and weight. A camera needs room to hold a bigger lens and batteries (bigger than a lithium ion pack at least), and they make it heavier. That said, its bigger size does make it easier to handle despite the slight grip on the front, and the weight helps keep the camera a little steadier when shooting.