Canon PowerShot S80 impressions

Here I am still using my 2-year-old, already-ancient, Canon PowerShot S50 compact digital camera with 5 megs. It served well, but I have grown increasingly envious of successor models such as the S60 and S70, especially since they sport a 28mm wide-angle lens. Something I really miss on the S50 with only 35mm wide angle.

So now I’m looking to replace my S50, and I was almost going to buy the S70, but then the S80 (pictured above) was announced. Geez, only 1 year after the S70 and there’s already a new model.

But this new S80 is different in major ways besides the 8 meg sensor. It’s actually a totally new generation of PowerShot digicam. Today I went to the chic Canon showroom in Ginza, Tokyo to see and touch this camera for the first time. I was duly impressed, much more than I was when the S70 came out.

The width of the camera is noticeably shorter than the S70/60/50. But the thickness is slightly larger than the S70. The external, black-and-silver color tone and design definitely looks slicker and classier than the S70 and previous models. The left side of the camera has the lens sticking out almost at the camera edge, so there’s hardly any room for your left hand to hold the camera. I think my fingers are apt to cover the built-in flash. I guess we have to hold it by the top and bottom edges of the camera.

The monitor screen is much bigger. This conforms to an industry-wide trend where the LCD monitor on the back of the camera for image and menu viewing is expanding to around 2.5 inches which is very comfortable for the eyes.

At first, I thought I could live with the smaller and normal-size 1.8-inch monitor on older cameras. But after looking at the larger screen on the S80 and then comparing it with the S70’s screen, I immediately felt like the smaller monitor was forcing me to squint. Yep, a bigger monitor screen is definitely better. No wonder Canon is incorporating a bigger screen on most of its new digital cameras both in the compact and EOS lines. (Too bad the EOS Rebel 350D/Kiss Digital N missed the boat and still has the smaller monitor.) I just hope the camera battery is powerful enough to light up the larger screen without running out of power too soon.

Another impressive development is the camera’s movie mode. It can now record movies up to 1 GB or a whopping 60 minutes maximum. And in the Large mode, no less, for much better picture quality. In fact, the picture quality is so good that Canon says that you can take a still from the movie and print it out. The movie mode in previous models was limited to only 3 minutes of continuous recording time and the resolution was low.

Another thing I noticed was continuous autoexposure in the movie mode. In previous models, the exposure was set automatically only for the initial scene of the movie and then locked for the rest of the movie. So if you started recording a movie on a sunny beach and then panned to a dark shady place, the shady place would look too dark because the camera aperture is locked for the initial bright beach.

But the S80 movie mode will autoexpose the movie scene continuously in real time throughout the movie just like normal video cameras do. This is a real boon. Now you can record movies and not worry about different light levels as you pan or change scenes. (I’m puzzled that Canon’s product literature does not mention this major improvement.)

However, you still cannot zoom in or zoom out during a movie recording. The zoom setting is fixed throughout the movie recording. Hopefully, the next model will enable zooming during movie recording. That would be perfect.

I really love the movie mode even on my old S50. It records sound as well, something which you just cannot capture with just a photograph. When you like to shoot festivals like me, you also want to record the music and motions. And when I give a slide show, mixing my still photos with movie clips really spices up the presentation.

I do have a digital video camera and I’ve been using it a lot more ever since I learned how to transfer the movie to my computer, edit it, and save it to a DVD or for the Web. But still, the S80’s movie mode will be a great.

The S80 also has the new DIGIC II image processor. This is a lot faster than the first-generation DIGIC processor in the S70 and previous models. It makes the camera startup faster, continuous shooting faster, and everything feels faster.

Another thing is the new on-screen user interface. Like wow, very slick. For example, when you turn the Mode Dial to change the mode from P (Program) to Movie mode, the LCD monitor displays a large, rotating, dial-like display on the upper right corner to indicate the changing modes. This is great in dark places too when you want to change modes but cannot see the Mode Dial’s markings. After you select the mode, the dial display shrinks and disappears. Maybe somebody from Apple Computer came and designed the screen interface and even the external design. There are some very nice touches to the screen interface.

The most common complaint about the S80 has been that it does not have the RAW mode. Having RAW mode would be great, but for casual snapshooting, JPEG is fine with me.

Another thing is that the camera now uses SD cards instead of CompactFlash. I thought CF cards were small and easy to lose, but SD cards are even smaller and more easy to lose. I’ll need to buy SD cards. Since memory card prices have come down significantly, I don’t mind so much buying SD cards.

I cannot complain about the quick turnover of digital cameras. It’s still an exciting time to see so many major developments in digital camera technology. The S80 will go on sale in Japan tomorrow, Oct. 20, 2005. I’ll let you know after I buy one.

Camera specs at Canon USA:
http://consumer.usa.canon.com/ir/controller?act=ModelDetailAct&fcategoryid=144&modelid=12074