Every now and again, a company will make a product just to turn some heads; sometimes this is called a statement piece. Usually these products sport unusual designs and fantastical feature sets. With its PowerShot TX1, which includes a 10x optical zoom lens, 7.1 megapixel CCD sensor, optical image stabilization, face detection, and the capability to record high-definition 1,280x720-pixel video at 30 frames per second, Canon was definitely trying to make a statement. However, the camera's vertical design makes it so difficult to use, we wish they wouldn't have blurted it out so quickly.
In many ways similar to the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2, the Canon TX1 uses a vertical design with the lens at the top of the body and is intended to be held as you would a pistol. Unlike a pistol, the trigger, or in this case the shutter release, sits on top of the camera body. This unfortunate placement and the body's blocky overall design lead to many of the camera's ergonomic problems. With my middle finger tucked awkwardly beneath the lens and my index finger on the shutter release, my pinky ended up dangling beneath the camera, and I didn't know where to put my thumb. A trio of raised dots to the left of the zoom rocker beckoned to my thumb, but with it placed there, I inevitably nudged the zoom and ruined my composition. Plus, that positioning also placed my thumb squarely across the video recording button, forcing me to continually worry about inadvertently pressing it. Also, since Canon placed the zoom rocker on a rounded protrusion on the camera back, you have to pull your thumb back into an uncomfortable position to manipulate the control. Worse yet, trying to shoot a vertical still picture is an exercise in contortion. Ultimately, we didn't look forward to shooting with the TX1's strange controls. Sanyo's design, which places both video and still shutter buttons on the camera back and includes an angled grip, felt much more comfortable, though its video couldn't compare to the footage we captured with the TX1.
Shooting video with the TX1 felt much more comfortable, though still not as cozy as the Sanyo. The TX1's small 1.8-inch screen, compared to the HD2's larger 2.2-inch screen may have something to do with this fact. Also, the camera's dual functionality occasionally has its drawbacks. For example, with the still image mode set to super macro, the zoom is understandably disabled, but it remains disabled if you start shooting video while still image mode is engaged. On the upside, Canon's menu controls carry over the intuitive design and quick access to important functions, that we've come to love in their other cameras and camcorders. A quick press of the tiny joystick lets you access features such as shooting mode, ISO, image size, exposure compensation, and white balance. You won't find aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual exposure modes, but Canon does include seven preset scene modes, such as portrait, beach, snow, and night snapshot, which automatically set the camera to deal with those shooting situations.
In addition to those shooting modes, the TX1 includes some nifty functions to help make shooting a bit easier. Optical image stabilization helps keep your shots steady and becomes especially useful when using the long end of the 10x optical, 39mm-to-390mm-equivalent, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens. In our still image field tests we were able to shoot more than two full shutter speeds slower than we normally do with adequately sharp results. For example, when zoomed to an equivalent of 118mm, we shot a sharp photo at a shutter speed of 1/20 second while hand-holding the camera, whereas we'd normally need to use a tripod to shoot at that shutter speed. For video, the image stabilization helped, but as with most camcorders, it wasn't effective enough over the full range of the zoom. When shooting at full 10x zoom, you'll want to use a tripod or a monopod to get steady footage.
If you feel you need to quickly boost your sensitivity to raise the shutter speed, Canon's Auto ISO Shift will boost the ISO with a single button press but caps the sensitivity at ISO 800 in an attempt to keep ISO noise at bay. To help with portraits, Canon includes a rather effective face-detection mode. Unlike some companies, which give face detection a dedicated button, Canon places it at the top of its menu.
In our lab's performance tests, the TX1 turned in mediocre results. The camera's built-in lens cover and extending lens barrel must slow down the start-up a bit, because the TX1 took 1.82 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took 1.99 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned off, and 3.3 seconds between JPEGs with the flash turned on. We were impressed with the shutter lag though, which measured 0.55 second in our high contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.2 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. Regardless of image size, the TX1 captured 1.04 frames per second in our continuous shooting tests.
Image quality wasn't what we've come to expect from Canon. Overall, video turned out better than stills though. The footage we shot wasn't perfect, but was sharper than footage from the Sanyo HD2, and while the TX1's footage did have its fair share of compression artifacts, it certainly had fewer than the HD2, especially on edges of objects, and showed a significantly wider dynamic range than the Sanyo. The reason for Canon's edge in video quality most likely has to do with the fact that the TX1 uses Motion JPEG compression instead of MPEG-4. Of course, Motion JPEG also consumes more memory than MPEG-4. A 1-minute 720p clip we made took up about 267MB on our SD memory card. Both the Canon and Sanyo lagged a bit on focus compared with a dedicated camcorder, though again, the Canon edged out the Sanyo. Overall, if you're looking to capture really good HD footage, you'll need to step up to a dedicated HD camcorder, such as the Canon HV20 or the Sony Handycam HDR-HC7.
Still images showed more ISO noise and image artifacts than we're used to with Canon's digital still cameras. We also saw other image artifacts, which turned some curved lines and angled lines jaggy. Colors looked accurate overall, and we saw a decent amount of finer detail, but the images weren't as tack sharp as many of the company's cameras from recent years. Noise doesn't become very significant until ISO 400, but we saw some on our monitors with the sensitivity as low as ISO 100, though you most likely won't notice it in prints. At ISO 400, noise becomes obvious on monitors, starts to show up in prints, and begins to chew up some of the finer detail, though dynamic range remains largely intact. At ISO 800, noise becomes a heavy blanket of fine snowy specks, obscuring lots of finer detail and eating up more dynamic range. At ISO 1,600, most fine detail is destroyed by the vast snowy blizzard of tiny speckles, and dynamic range is crunched to the point of obscuring most shadow detail. We suggest staying below ISO 800 when possible.
If you absolutely have to have a combo still camera/720p HD camcorder, the Canon PowerShot TX1 is probably the best bang for the buck. Its two serious competitors, the Sanyo Xacti HD2 and Panasonic SDR-S150 both cost significantly more, and in the case of the Sanyo, you get lower quality video and stills but a more comfortable-to-use design. Ultimately, you're still better off buying separate video and still cameras, though maybe someday combo devices like this will reach a point when they'll make sense for the casual vacation shooter. Despite all that, we do have to commend Canon for having the guts to push ahead with an experimental product like the TX1.