Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
At a Glance
As a fan of Canon's Digital Elph cameras, I was a bit disappointed by the current flagship model of the series, the 14.7-megapixel PowerShot SD990 IS. That may be surprising, given that this camera dominates most other point-and-shoot cameras in terms of image quality.
But I expect a camera priced at around $400 to feel solid. The SD990, which has a plastic body rather than the titanium casing of its predecessor (the PowerShot SD950 IS), feels a bit cheap. This, coupled with a handful of other shortcomings, chips into the camera's excellent performance.
The image quality is indeed outstanding: The PowerShot SD990 IS netted a score of Superior in the PC World Test Center jury evaluations, producing some of the best results for color accuracy, lack of distortion, and exposure quality we've ever seen in a point-and-shoot. However, the plasticky build and some design choices hinder its overall score.
Canon released the SD990 alongside the 10-megapixel PowerShot SD880 IS, its less-expensive (and excellent) Digital Elph sibling. The SD880, though, feels as solid as a rock, despite the fact that it, too, has a plastic chassis.
Both of these PowerShots have a control dial on the back of the camera, complementing the four-way navigation pad. The dial makes scrolling through menu options extremely fast, but, on the SD990, it jiggles enough to make it feel flimsy.
What's more, that dial is suprisingly difficult to use, with its secondary function--switching between program mode and manual mode--unhandy at best. When I was dialing between modes, I often couldn't make it land on the one I wanted. On the SD880, I never had such problems with the control dial.
Another gripe I have with the SD990 is the focal range: At 36mm to 133mm, the 3.7X optical zoom lens is not a true wide angle. When I compared it to the SD880's 28mm-to-112mm, 4X optical zoom, I started wondering why Canon skimped on the wide-angle with this "higher-end" model.
So what features make the SD990 pricier than the SD880, other than the inflated megapixel count? For starters, it has an optical viewfinder. It also has a wider set of manual controls, including aperture and shutter-speed settings, flash exposure compensation, and manual focus. In Quick Shot mode, the SD990 continuously adjusts for exposure and focus (even when you remove your finger from the shutter button entirely), thus eliminating shutter lag almost completely. The SD990's optical image stabilization is also slightly more powerful than the SD880's. And it's available in black!
Like the SD880, the SD990 boasts Canon's Digic 4 image processor, which, along with increased speed, hosts a number of upgrades. These include Servo AF (continual focus adjustment for moving objects), "Intelligent Contrast" (which increases dynamic range), and a fun face-detection timer. About the timer: You set up the camera, hit the shutter button, and, as soon as the camera detects an additional face in the frame (that is, once you jump into the scene), it starts a two-second countdown before snapping three photos. And enough time elapses between shots to change positions, making this feature possibly even more fun than a photo booth. Compared to the "smile detection" functions used by its competitors, the face-detect timer wins hands down.
Despite the improvements on its predecessor, I can't help but feel that Canon dropped the ball a bit with the SD990, especially when price is factored in. Unless you simply can't live without an optical viewfinder or extensive manual controls, I see little reason to spend the extra bucks on the SD990. I'd go for the $270 PowerShot SD880--and put the savings into your vacation fund.