Our other sites: | Pen Computing | Digital Camera Roundup | Rugged PC Review | Handheld Computing | Scuba Diver Info | BBW | More Features



CANON Digital Elph SD20

I've been a huge fan of Canon's Digital ELPHs ever since I held the first one in my hands. I marveled at how so much fine technology could be built into a package that small. In general, whenever we push the envelope and make something outlandishly small or large or strong or fast, it comes at a price -- there is a compromise of some sort. With Canon�s ELPHs there seemed to be very little compromise. There is, however, progress, and that stands still for no one. Canon's pioneering little marvels were quickly copied and in some areas surpassed. Sony's incredible Cybershot T1 showed that you can get 5 megapixels and a 3X optical zoom and an almost impossibly large (and outdoor-readable!) LCD in a package of ELPHian size. And others were crowding in as well. Casio, Epson, Fuji. What would Canon do?

Elsewhere in this issue you'll find Ernest Lilley's review of one of his long-term loaners, the Digital ELPH S500. I have that camera sitting right here in front of me and, to be honest, time has not been kind to it. The S500 looks big and heavy now. It has a tiny LCD and a ho-hum 3X optical. The smaller Pentax OptioSV has a 5X zoom and a bigger LCD. Epson�s new L-500V trounces the ELPH with its superb and galaxy-sized LCD, and let's not even talk of Casio's new marvels. Let�s face it: the S500 has become the Buddy of ELPHs. It's still good, but it's now oversized and somewhat hapless and a new SuperELPH can't be here soon enough. Canon knows that, too, as evidenced by last year�s introduction of the ultra-slim SD10, a downsized ELPH that shed almost half the big S500's heft. The SD10 was about the size and weight of a Sony Ericsson T610/616 cellphone, i.e. very small. The kind of thing you could easily carry in a jeans pocket without even noticing it. It came with a nice 4 megapixel lens but lacked optical zoom. So when rumors of the SD20 hit the street I wondered if they�d pull out all stops and gave the little thing one of those vertical internal optical zooms. I also hoped for a bigger display than the SD10's dinky 1.5 incher. Did it happen or was I expecting too much even from a company like Canon?

I did. The SD20 is essentially a SD10 with 5 instead of 4 megapixel and a few other extra goodies. The 5 megapixel moves the smallest ELPH into the �gotta-have� megapixel range, and it is undoubtedly a very attractive little thing. Measuring about 3.5 x 1.8 by 0.7 inches it makes a Palm or iPAQ PDA look huge. It weighs just 3.6 inches without battery and 4.3 with it. I've seen earrings larger than this. The little metallic ELPH comes in four stylish colors: silver, red, blue and gray. It's an elegant camera, its design playful rather than the techno-serious look of today's crop of brushed or matte silver ultra-compacts. The SD20's look says "fashion accessory" rather than camera, and, of course, few serious photographers will use something this small and limited as their primary camera. This is what you stick in your pocket just in case you�ll want to take a few shots. It's not what you take for a planned photo safari.

So what do you get with the Canon PowerShot SD20 Digital ELPH (big name for such a little device)? Apart from the tiny size, you do get a serious, Canon-made camera with a good all-glass 4-element 6.4mm (39mm equivalent) Canon lens. No optical zoom, sorry. You do get the 5 megapixel, which makes for a maximum image size of 2592x1944 pixels, more than enough for almost any size print. You also get a new 640x480 movie mode, and a bunch of good Canon technology. Even in a camera this small Canon didn't leave out a focus-assist beam that drastically improves the chance for good indoor shots (and ingeniously doubles as a red-eye reduction lamp). You also get a new Print/Share button for direct connection to Direct Print or PictBridge enabled devices. You get Canon's traditionally rich software bundle that here includes both Mac and PC versions of ArcSoft�s PhotoImpressions, and also rev 21 (!) of the Canon Digital Camera Solution that includes ZoomBrowser for Windows and ImageBrowser for the Mac. Finally, controls and onscreen menus are as clear and simple as we've come accustomed to from Canon. And you get a lot of the little touches, brilliant design solutions, and attention to detail Canon is famous for. The SD20's Lithium-Ion NB-3L battery pack is secured with a clip and won't just fall out when you open the side of the camera to insert or remove the Secure Digital card that sits under the same little door. And the battery charger itself is a model of compactness. It doesn't even need a cord as flip-out prongs are built right into the charger. Finally, you can record up to 30 seconds of audio.

However, there are compromises, and some of them are considerable. No optical zoom. You simply need an optical zoom with a digital camera. And even without an optical zoom the little lens actually motors out a quarter of an inch. Annoying, a seemingly needless expense, and something else that can break or go wrong. No optical viewfinder. It�s either the LCD or nothing at all. Wimpy flash with an effective range of less than seven feet. Fairly slow picture-to-picture time. It usually takes two to three seconds for the camera to be ready again. The 640x480 move mode is nice but it records at just 10 frames per second and has a 30 second limit in VGA mode. In the lower res 320x240 and 160x120 mode the max is three minutes at up to 15 frames per second.

Amazingly these limitations mean much less than I expected. They are made up for with all that inherent Canon goodness. First, the camera is just so small and handy that it's never in the way, yet you can use it to take more than just a few snapshots. Picture quality is very good. The control layout isn�t very elegant, but it's so simple and easy to understand and use that you never run into trouble. Small cameras often have near useless autofocus systems (something that drives me crazy), but the SD20 is an exception. Once you depress the shutter halfway, its 9-point autofocus system pops up one or more of nine tiny rectangles so you know exactly what the camera is focusing on. If it�s not the right object, simply release the shutter and slightly move the camera to get it to focus on the right object. The 9-point AF is a bit slower than single point focus, but I found it to be extremely useful. Amazingly, the 6.5X digital zoom also comes in handy. I rarely ever use digital zoom because it's really just a gimmick. You zoom into part of the picture and then enlarge those pixels, resulting in a grainy, ugly shot. There have been some recent advances that make digital zoom more useful. Whatever Canon did with the digital zoom in this camera works. Zooming in looks just like a good optical zoom on the LCD, and the results are decent. Having a full 5 megapixel, of course helps. The LCD display is tiny, but it's actually readable outdoors (it better be, with no optical viewfinder).

The little battery does a fairly decent job. It� rated at 120 images, but might last longer. The generic problem with small, proprietary batteries applies: you really need a spare so as not to get stranded with a dead battery, but a spare costs a whopping $45, and it's so small that it's easily lost.

Model-Canon Digital ELPH SD20
Street price-US$349
Sensor res-5.0 megapixels
Image dimensions-2592x1944 down to 640x480
ISO-Auto, 50/100/200/400
Lens-F:2.8 (1x/6.5x)
Lens focal length-6.4mm (39mm equiv.)
Shutter-1/1500 to 15 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/- 2.0 EV in 1/3 EV steps
Storage-SD Card (32MB included)
Focus-AF, 9-point or center
LCD screen-1.5 inch TFT (78k)
Flash modes-Auto, on, off, red-eye, slow-sync
Battery-NB-3L Li-Ion
Weight-3.6 ounces w/o battery
Dimensions-3.4 x 1.8 x 0.7 inches
Included-ArcSoft, cables, strap, card, case

Overall picture quality is good to excellent, and certainly much, much better than what you�d usually expect from such a tiny camera. There is a bit of barrel distortion, but it's usually not noticeable. Between the good lens and the superb optics, almost every picture comes out well. Extreme macro? No problem. Reflections? No problem. Even the dreaded purple fringing is virtually absent. I encountered just one instance where the processing was just overwhelmed by extreme contrast. There aren�t many shooting modes and such, but that�s not what this camera is for. Here "manual" simply means you have access to a couple more menu settings. I did notice an �underwater� mode. You can use that if you buy the optional AW-DC10 All Weather enclosure. The sound recording function is simple and quite useful. Sound quality isn't great, but playback is decent, even through the tiny onboard speaker. Playback on the little screen allows zooming in in no less than ten steps, but there is no panning -- a serious oversight.

The SD10 comes full equipped. Good software, great charger, strap, good manual, internal lens cover, and a cool little case so you can mount the camera on your belt, like a phone.

During my review of this camera I came full circle. Initially I was taken by its tiny size, especially compared to the bigger, older ELPHs. Then I saw what all Canon had to leave out to realize this small size, and I thought the camera might be just a novelty item. Then I lived with it for a few days and saw just how good it is, and I learned to love and value it. I still think the next little ELPH needs an optical zoom and a bit more in terms of manual controls, but overall the SD20 is a terrific little camera, much better than I expected.

�Conrad H. Blickenstorfer



© All Rights Reserved.