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Canon PowerShot SX20 IS review: Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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6 min read

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OVR
7.4

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

The Good

Solid battery life; articulating LCD; comfortable shooting design; can zoom during movie capture; hot shoe; exceptionally close macro focus.

The Bad

Slower than its predecessor overall; no raw support; images soft and noisy as low as ISO 80.

The Bottom Line

The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is a solid, but not standout, megazoom option for the money.

The Canon PowerShot SX10 IS wasn't a great megazoom, but it was one of the better ones. So it's kind of sad to see its replacement, the SX20 IS, take a couple of steps backward, delivering overall poorer performance and photo quality as trade-off for slapping an extra couple of megapixels on the box. On the bright side, it does add 720p video while retaining the capability to zoom during capture, plus a mini HDMI connector for playing your movies on an HDTV.

Keeping an almost identical body to the SX10, the SX20 remains very comfortable to hold and shoot, retaining perks like the articulated LCD and four-AA-powered operation. It's heavy, 1.5 pounds, which makes it feel like a dSLR, but the big grip gives you plenty of holding room. There's a deep indented thumb rest on the back, joined by playback, exposure compensation, and focus area selection buttons. Because of the darker accent plastic, the labels are easier to read than on the previous model.

 Key comparative specs Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Canon PowerShot SX10 IS Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Sensor 10-megapixel, 1/2.5-inch CCD 10-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch CCD 12.1-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD 12-megapixel 1/2.33-inch CMOS
Lens (35mm equivalent) 10x f2.8-4.3 36-360mm 20x f2.8-5.7 28-560mm 20x f2.8-5.7 28-560mm 18x f2.8-4.4 27-486mm
Closest focus (inches) 0.4 0.0 0.0 0.4
Sensitivity range ISO 80 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 6,400
LCD 3.0-inch fixed; 230,000 dots 2.5-inch articulated; 230,000 dots 2.5-inch articulated; 230,000 dots 2.7-inch fixed; 230,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 640x480 640x480 1280x720 H.264 MOV 1280x720 (AVCHD Lite or MJPEG MOV)
Optical zoom during movie capture No No Yes Yes
Exposure modes Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene
Batteries (CIPA rating) 2 AA-size; 130 shots (alkalines), 370 shots (NiMH) 4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines), 600 shots (NiMH) 4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines), 600 shots (NiMH) Lithium Ion; 470 shots
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.4 x 2.8 x 1.8 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5
Operating weight (ounces) 10.4 23.0 22.9 23.7
Mfr. Price $249.99 $399.99 $399.99 $399.00

On the right side of the back is a dial concentric to a four-way navigation switch with the function button in the middle. As with the SX10, I generally like the controls, but the dial feels too mushy. It doesn't respond appropriately, and it feels as if it needs to spin too far or not as far for any given operation, resulting in frequent overshooting of settings. It needs better tactile feedback. The zoom switch still doesn't feel terribly exact either, a common problem with stepped zooms (these lenses don't really cover a continuous zoom range, instead stopping at a series of preset distances).

Of course, the flip-and-twistable LCD remains a user favorite, but in trade-off it's quite small--only 2.5 inches compared with the more typical 3-inchers. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) seems a bit improved over the so-so version in its predecessor. It looks fairly coarse, but I didn't experience the slow refresh issues I had with that one. But--still annoying--the camera lacks a dedicated toggle between the LCD and EVF. Instead, you have to cycle through the four different display settings: low-info LCD, detailed LCD, low-info EVF, detailed EVF. That makes it nearly impossible to quickly jump back and forth.

 Key comparative specs Olympus SP-590 UZ Nikon Coolpix P90 Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35
Sensor 12-megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD 12-megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD 12.1-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD 12-megapixel 1/2.33-inch CCD
Lens (35mm equivalent) 26x f2.8-5 26-676mm 24x f2.8-5 26-624mm 20x f2.8-5.7 28-560mm 18x f2.8-4.4 27-486mm
Closest focus (inches) 0.4 0.4 0.0 0.4
Sensitivity range ISO 64 - ISO 6,400 ISO 64 - ISO 6,400 ISO 80 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 6,400
LCD 2.7-inch fixed; 230,000 dots 3-inch tiltable; 230,000 dots 2.5-inch articulated; 230,000 dots 2.7-inch fixed; 230,000 dots
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 640x480 640x480 1280x720 H.264 MOV 1280x720 (AVCHD Lite or MJPEG MOV)
Optical zoom during movie capture Yes (no audio) No Yes Yes
Exposure modes Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene Auto, PASM, Scene
Batteries (CIPA rating) 4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines) Lithium Ion; 230 shots 4 AA-size; 340 shots (alkalines), 600 shots (NiMH) Lithium Ion; 470 shots
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.3 x 3.5 x 3.6 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.9 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5
Operating weight (ounces) 18.7 17.2 22.9 14.5
Mfr. Price $449.99 $399.95 $399.99 $399.00

It still has a dedicated movie record button with a fairly well-implemented capture interface. Canon integrated the movie resolution settings into the function menu along with the standard white balance, color adjustment, exposure bracketing, flash compensation, metering, and still size and quality controls. Held over from the SX10, some of the more interesting features include a Face Self-timer, which shoots a specified number of seconds after a face is detected and a custom timer that lets you also specify the number of shots to take (sort of a limited intervalometer since you can only take up to 10 shots). The rest of the capabilities, for the most part, are the same as the competition. These include PASM, full auto, and a handful of scene modes; my favorites are a custom setting slot on the mode dial and 3.9-inch macro and zero(!)-inch Super Macro modes. For more details on the SX20 IS' features and operation, you can download the PDF manual.

It's a bit aggravating: By going to 12 megapixels, the new, "improved" version of the SX10 manages to become significantly slower than its predecessor in some respects. That's in a class of cameras always struggling with poor performance. The camera powers on and shoots in about 2 seconds, which is acceptable, if a tad slower than everyone else. In good light it matches the SX10's 0.6-second time to focus in shoot, and in dim manages to shave 0.1 second off for 0.7 second--relatively good for this group. However, the larger files come into play for the time it takes for two consecutive shots, which increases by a full second; when you add flash, the differential rises by more than 1.5 seconds to 4.1 seconds. The burst performance also drops in half, from 1.4fps to 0.7fps, but that just takes it from unusable to even more unusable. (Since EVFs black out when a shot is taken you can't verify that the subject is in the frame, making them inadequate for continuous shooting.)

The battery life is still good, though. Canon CIPA rates it at about 340 shots on alkalines and 600 on NiMH, and the optical image stabilizer works as well as ever. The lens, however, narrows to f5.7 at maximum telephoto, which is quite slow; even the Olympus SP-590 UZ only narrows to f5.0 at a longer 676mm equivalent.

The SX20 IS' photos aren't bad, but they no longer stand out from the rest of the pack. Even photos shot at ISO 80 look soft and noisy, except when viewed scaled down; it looks like the poor detail resolution typical of point-and-shoot cameras, since super macro closeups tend to look the best of the lot. While the exposure and color look very good, the slow lens can get frustrating when shooting at the telephoto end because there never seems to be enough light. The HD movies look relatively good, though they're soft like the stills, and the ability to zoom through the whole range for video is really nice. The lens zooms quietly, too.

While it's a solid megazoom, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS doesn't deliver for the extra dough the way the SX10 did or the expensive PowerShot SX1 IS still does. You probably should check out some of the cheaper options before committing.

Shooting speed
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35
1.6 
1.7 
0.9 
0.4 
Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
2 
3.1 
0.7 
0.6 
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
1.5 
2.1 
0.8 
0.6 
Olympus SP-590 UZ
1.6 
2 
1.4 
0.6 
Nikon Coolpix P90
2 
2 
0.8 
0.7 

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

OVR
7.4

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 7