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Canon PowerShot SX170 IS review: No AA batteries, but still good photos, features for the money

Its AA batteries might be gone in favor of a rechargeable battery, but this budget-friendly compact megazoom still has other things to make it worthwhile.

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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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6 min read

Editors' note: The design, features, and shooting options are identical between the Canon PowerShot SX170 IS and the SX160 IS we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.

Canon_PowerShot_SX170_IS_35831301_08.jpg
6.5

Canon PowerShot SX170 IS

The Good

The <b>Canon PowerShot SX170 IS</b> is a good choice for budget-conscious buyers who want to do more than point-and-shoot, thanks to its semimanual and manual shooting modes and large, comfortable controls.

The Bad

Despite the switch to a rechargeable battery, the SX170 is still pretty bulky and its shooting performance is too slow for fast-moving subjects like kids and pets -- especially indoors.

The Bottom Line

If you hate AA batteries, but like inexpensive compacts with manual controls, the 16x zoom Canon PowerShot SX170 IS takes a good photo. Otherwise, seek out its predecessor, the SX160 IS.

The Canon PowerShot SX160 IS was one of my favorite cameras to recommend to those looking for a good-quality point-and-shoot with semimanual and manual controls that takes AA-size batteries (and still is). For the follow-up SX170 IS, the good news is the camera retains almost all of the features of its predecessor.

The bad news is, AA batteries didn't make the cut, and Canon has switched them out for a rechargeable lithium-ion pack. This does mean the body is smaller and lighter and has better battery life compared to alkaline batteries, but you lose the convenience of being able to buy batteries almost anywhere.

Still, if you're on a budget and want a camera with semimanual and manual controls, but don't need to capture fast-moving subjects, the SX170 IS is available.

Photo quality
Canon's lower-end PowerShots generally produce some of the best photos you'll get from inexpensive point-and-shoots, and the SX170 IS is no different. Though you probably won't want to use its photos at full size, the SX170 IS overall produces very nice photos, especially for its price and features.

Canon PowerShot SX170 IS sample pictures

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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 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.

The 720p video quality is good, and better than I've seen from some entry-level full HD camcorders I've tested. But, as with its photos, you'll see more noise the less light you have. Also, you may notice some vertical smear when shooting bright light sources. This is common with consumer CCD sensors.

The lens does zoom while recording and when it's zooming in you will hear slight motor sounds picked up by the stereo mics in front on very quiet scenes. Overall, though, for capturing the occasional clip for Web sharing, it does a fine job.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shooting performance
Though the SX170 IS shoots faster than models prior to the SX160 IS, it still has the bottlenecks created by a two-generations-old image processor and a slow CCD sensor. Canon did update the autofocus system with the SX160, however, so shutter lag is more reasonable at 0.3 second in bright lighting and 0.5 second in low-light conditions.

The camera starts up and fires off its first shot in about 2 seconds. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.5 seconds, while turning on the flash slowed that down to 4.7 seconds. Continuous shooting speeds are nothing special, at 0.8 frame per second with focus and exposure set with the first shot. The camera does have continuous with AF (a rarity) that captures at a slow 0.6 fps.

Unless you're shooting outdoors in bright daylight conditions, I would not recommend this camera for trying to capture fast-moving subjects such as sports, or kids and pets. Even then, I wouldn't use the zoom lens to do it. This camera's performance is fine for still or slow-moving subjects, though.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
The downsides of having a long zoom lens and AA batteries for power, are size and weight. With Canon eliminating the AA batteries, the body does get smaller and lighter. However, it's not really enough to make it more pocketable, and is only about an ounce and a half lighter than the SX160.

That said, its bigger size does make it easier to handle, and it does have a larger grip on the front. Plus, the weight helps keep the camera a little steadier when shooting.

Canon PowerShot SX170 IS Nikon Coolpix L620
Price (MSRP) $179.99 $179.95
Dimensions (WHD) 4.3x2.8x1.7 inches 4.3x2.7x1.4 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 8.9 ounces 8.4 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 16 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch CCD 18 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch LCD, 230K dots/None 3-inch LCD, 460K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 16x, f3.5-5.9, 28-448mm (35mm equivalent) 14x, f3.3-5.9, 25-350mm
File format (still / video) JPEG/H.264 AAC (.MOV) JPEG/H.264 AAC (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still / video) 4,608x3,456 pixels/ 1,280x720 pixels at 25fps 4,896x3,672/ 1,920x1,080 at 30fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital Optical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Li ion rechargeable, 300 shots AA (2, alkaline included), 150 shots
Battery charged in camera No No
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC SD/SDHC/SDXC
Built-in Wi-Fi/GPS No/no No/no

The batteries and memory card slot are in a compartment accessed through the bottom of the camera. Unlike previous versions of this camera, the door doesn't lock, and although it closes firmly, after a lot of use (the battery is not charged in the camera) accidental opening could become an issue. On the right side of the body, under a small door, is a Mini-USB/AV port for connecting to a computer or external display (with an additional cable that's not included). The Mini-HDMI port on the SX160 didn't make it to the SX170.

Canon PowerShot SX170 IS design (pictures)

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Alkaline batteries don't provide the best battery life and add weight. Changing to a small rechargeable lithium ion battery on the SX170 does get you about twice the shot count as the SX160, but you always had the option to use rechargeables with that camera. Here, you're stuck buying a specific battery pack that needs to be charged in a separate charger. So, while battery life is improved, you lose the flexibility of using widely available batteries. If you're going out shooting for the day, you'll still want to bring spares, because using the zoom, cranking up the screen brightness, and shooting movies will all drop your shot count.

General shooting options Canon PowerShot SX160 IS
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
White balance Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, Custom
Recording modes Auto, Program, Shutter-speed priority, Aperture priority, Manual, Scene, Live View Control, Creative Filters, Discreet, Movie
Focus modes Face AF, Center AF, Macro, Normal, Infinity, Manual
Macro 0.3 inch to 1.6 feet (Wide)
Metering modes Multi, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Custom (adjustment of contrast, sharpness, saturation, red, green, blue and skin tone are available)
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

Most point-and-shoots at this camera's price don't come with a large variety of shooting options or controls; they're mainly made for fully automatic shooting. Among the many modes on the SX170, however, are shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and manual. Available apertures at the wide end are f3.5, f4.0, f4.5, f5.0, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, and f8.0; at telephoto you get f5.9, f7.1, and f8.0. Shutter speeds go from 15 seconds, down to 1/3,200 second. If that's too much control for you, you can switch to Program, and control everything but shutter speed and aperture.

Not interested in that much control? You'll also find Canon's reliable Smart Auto, which analyzes your subject and automatically selects an appropriate scene setting from 32 defined settings; standard scene modes such as Portrait, Landscape, and Fireworks; Discreet mode, which shuts off all noise and lights while shooting; and a Movie mode for capturing clips at resolutions up to 720p HD at 25fps in MOV format.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For those who are addicted to the photo filters of smartphone apps, Canon includes several of its high-quality Creative Filters: Fisheye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, and Poster Effect. Another mode, Live View Control, lets you easily experiment with exposure and color while seeing your results onscreen before you shoot (the same goes for the filters). While some may consider these gimmicks which can be accomplished with software, they can be fun to play with if you're looking to do something different, and can actually help you set up your shot appropriately for the effect you're after.

Conclusion
Like the SX160 IS, the Canon PowerShot SX170 IS is almost a niche camera: a budget-friendly compact megazoom, with a large body, big buttons, and semimanual and manual shooting modes. If you want automatic modes, it has that, too. In addition, it's photo quality is some of the best you'll get in this class of camera, though, sadly, that's not saying much.

Canon_PowerShot_SX170_IS_35831301_08.jpg
6.5

Canon PowerShot SX170 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 6Image quality 7
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