Canon PowerShot SX500 IS review: Small, light budget camera with big zoom

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The Good The Canon PowerShot SX500 IS holds an ultrawide-angle 30x zoom lens in a very small, very light body. It offers more shooting options -- including semimanual and manual controls -- than most in its class, and has very good optical image stabilization.

The Bad Despite autofocus improvements, the SX500 IS' shooting performance might still be too slow for action shots, especially indoors. It's not a great choice for handheld low-light shots.

The Bottom Line It has its limitations, but the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS is a good choice for zoom addicts on a budget.

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

The most amazing thing about the PowerShot SX500 IS is that Canon managed to make a 30x 24-720mm lens, attach it to a body, and have it only be 4 inches deep and weigh 12 ounces -- with its battery.

For people who like a lot of zoom in a very compact, lightweight camera, that's the SX500 IS. It also has semimanual and manual controls, which are a bit of a rarity in lower-end megazooms, but Canon includes them in all of its PowerShot SX-series models.

Unfortunately, in the SX500 IS Canon used a 16-megapixel CCD sensor and an old Digic 4 image processor instead of one of its better HS CMOS sensors and a newer, more powerful Digic 5 processor. Yes, that keeps the price down, but it results in a camera with a good zoom lens but slower performance, fewer shooting options, and the need to shoot with a lot of light or long exposures to get the best results.

So, yeah, it's not perfect, but for its street price of around $250, it's still not a bad way to lay hands on a lot of zoom power.

Picture quality
As is the case with many point-and-shoots, how satisfied you are with the SX500 IS' photo quality is going to depend on your needs and expectations. If you're expecting stellar digital SLR-quality images, you'll be disappointed. The same goes for great low-light photos. What the SX500 is good for is outdoor shots in good lighting for small prints (8x10 or smaller) or viewing onscreen at 50 percent or smaller.

Noise and artifacts are visible even at ISO 100 when pixel peeping, so if the quality at full size is something that matters to you, this camera will probably disappoint. On the other hand, up to ISO 200 you get good enough detail that you can still do some enlarging and cropping.

Up at ISO 400 is where the noise starts to be more visible and can result in some noticeable yellow blotching. Going above that you'll start to see more color noise, artifacts, and loss of detail, which just results in subjects that appear soft and desaturated. 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.

Color performance is generally very good up to ISO 400. If the bulk of your shots will be taken outdoors in good lighting, you should be pretty pleased with the results. Exposure is generally very good, too, as is white balance. As with a lot of compact cameras, clipped highlights are common.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

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, such as the purple streak on the left side of the screen grab above. This is common with consumer CCD sensors.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The SX500 IS is one of the first cameras to feature a much-needed new autofocus (AF) system for PowerShot models. 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, though.

In our lab tests, from off to first capture took on average 2.3 seconds, while shot-to-shot times averaged 2.5 seconds. Turning on the flash slowed that down to 4.4 seconds. Shutter lag -- the time from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- took 0.3 second in bright lighting; in low light it was longer at 0.7 second. Zooming in extends that wait to about 1 second.

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