Canon's PowerShot SX200 IS has a 12x optical zoom lens, which reaches from 28mm on the wide-angle end to 336mm on the telephoto end. That alone is a major selling point for this camera, and it just gets better when you factor in its image quality and fun features.

A little over a year ago, to get that kind of power in a fixed-lens model, you needed to buy a megazoom camera that was nearly the size of a digital SLR. These days, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS represents a growing trend among point-and-shoot digital cameras: high-zoom models (10x optical and above) that are merely a bit bigger than average compact cameras but still stowable in a bag, purse, or large pocket. Let's call them 'pocket megazooms'.

Though certainly bulkier than a typical point-and-shoot, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS feels more like a camera than the newfangled, dainty playthings people call cameras nowadays. It looks like it just ate three ultra-slim cameras for lunch, and the body is big enough to accommodate a roomy, 3in LCD screen on the back. The display is sufficiently bright for composing shots in sunlight, but in direct sun the onscreen colours were a bit hard to distinguish.

When you zoom in to the full extent of the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's 12x optical zoom lens (the circumference of the lens is about that of a can of Red Bull), the result can look downright comical: the lens is about twice as long as the camera is deep.

The 'IS' in the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's name stands for image stabilisation, a must-have feature in a camera whose main skill is zooming. Canon point-and-shoots normally have excellent optical image stabilization, and this model is no exception. It did a good job of keeping shots steady, except in extreme situations when we zoomed in to the full extent and shook the camera dramatically. The SX200 IS handily corrected jitter produced by normal, shaky hands; shots were clear and sharp, even at maximum zoom.

The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS also has a pop-up flash, which helped it score very well on flash exposure in our image-quality evaluations. While the flash performs nicely and looks retro-trendy, a couple of things bothered us. First, when you turn the camera on, your left index finger can get in the way of its popping up. Second, opening and closing the flash is a fully electronic process; you can't just click the flash closed with your finger.

In our tests, the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS pretty much ran the table. Of the point-and-shoot cameras we've tested so far in 2009, it was among the best performers in overall image quality, earning particularly high marks for lack of distortion, for exposure quality, and for colour accuracy. In flash-exposure quality, it outscored every point-and-shoot we've seen this year except for the Pentax X70, a 24x optical megazoom camera with a digital SLR-like size and a huge onboard flash.

Battery life is also very good. The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS took 324 shots on a single charge of its rechargeable lithium-ion battery. For a camera of this size, the ability to use AA batteries would have been a nice option (the SX200 IS seemed to have enough room to house a pair of AAs).

In our informal hands-on testing, we quickly became hooked on two of the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's fun in-camera features: Color Accent mode and Color Swap mode. In Color Accent mode, you can designate a colour in your scene as the only colour to show up in an otherwise black-and-white photo, meaning you can take no-brainer artistic shots. In the similar Color Swap mode, you can replace all instances of one colour in your scene with another colour - say, brown with blue.

And it gets better. You can shoot HD video in both those modes, making for instant art-school films with no post-production work necessary. The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS shoots 1280x720 HD video at 30fps (it also shoots 640x480 and 320x240 standard-definition clips at that framerate), and it offers an HDMI-out port so that you can show your clips on an HDTV set directly from the camera. Unfortunately, you can't use that whopping zoom while you're shooting video.

You get all the old standby scene modes, too: fireworks, snow, foliage, sunset, night-scene, beach, and aquarium modes are all in the mix. Also handy is the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's Stitch-Assist mode, which guides you along the way to making a panorama shot by showing the right half of the last photo you've taken. You just overlap your next shot with that image and then download your images to a computer, and the included PhotoStitch software takes things from there.

Included as well is an ISO 3,200 scene mode for low-light, no-flash shots - however, noise was very visible in our low-light shots taken in that setting. Manual ISO controls, ranging from 80 to 1,600, are also available, and the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's results were much better in that range; a bit of noise crept into shots at ISO 800 and 1,600, but low-light images were surprisingly sharp.

One helpful design touch: most of the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's main features are accessible via a mode dial on the top of the camera. You still have to do a bit of onscreen navigation to access the contextual settings for each mode, but having auto mode, easy mode, manual mode, aperture priority mode, and shutter priority mode accessible with a turn of the dial was a time-saver.

Some frequently used scene modes - portrait, landscape, night-portrait, party, and pet mode - are accessible through the mode dial, as well. You access all the other scene modes by choosing 'SCN' on the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's mode dial and then using the onscreen menu to select them.

The controls layout is familiar and easy to master: the power button, mode dial, and zoom ring/shutter button are all on the top of the camera. On the back, surrounding the circular navigation button and scrollwheel, are four buttons: a print button for PictBridge-compliant printers, a playback button, a display button for showing various settings (and hiding them) on the screen and a menu button. You can press or spin the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS's four-way navigation scroll wheel to select menu items, depending on the context; when pressed, the four navigational directions also double as one-touch access buttons for exposure compensation, the flash (on and off), macro mode and the self timer.

The HDMI and A/V ports on the side of the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS are covered by a gleaming, chromed-out plastic door. The door sure looks shiny and fancy, but it also feels a little flimsy when it's opened, and its durability could be cause for concern over the long haul.

Canon PowerShot SX200 IS: Specs

  • 12.1Mp compact camera
  • 3in TFT display
  • 1/2.3in CCD
  • 12 x optical zoom (4x digital)
  • 28-336mm 35mm equivalent
  • 4,000x3,000 max image resolution
  • 1,280x720 video @30fps
  • f3.4-f5.3
  • image stabilisation
  • face detection
  • 1-point autofocus
  • ISO 80-3,200
  • continuous shooting @0.8fps
  • HDMI connector
  • USB 2.0
  • AV-out
  • supports SD/SDHC/MMC/MMCplus/HC MMCplus
  • rechargable lithium-ion battery
  • 103x61x38mm
  • 220g
  • 12.1Mp compact camera
  • 3in TFT display
  • 1/2.3in CCD
  • 12 x optical zoom (4x digital)
  • 28-336mm 35mm equivalent
  • 4,000x3,000 max image resolution
  • 1,280x720 video @30fps
  • f3.4-f5.3
  • image stabilisation
  • face detection
  • 1-point autofocus
  • ISO 80-3,200
  • continuous shooting @0.8fps
  • HDMI connector
  • USB 2.0
  • AV-out
  • supports SD/SDHC/MMC/MMCplus/HC MMCplus
  • rechargable lithium-ion battery
  • 103x61x38mm
  • 220g

OUR VERDICT

The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS is one of those rare point-and-shoots that are as easy to use as they are versatile, thanks to its intuitive controls, its big-time zoom lens, its addictive in-camera features and its stellar image quality. We can't find much to dislike about this camera. If you're not put off by its bulkier-than-usual size, it's a great buy.

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