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Similar in size and shape to the popular Canon Rebel XSi, the T1i boosts image resolution, screen resolution and maximum ISO compared to its predecessor, and also steps up to the Digic 4 processor. The big news, though, is 1080p video in a sub-$1000 camera.

Canon gave us hands-on access to a pre-release version of the T1i. In a rare move, they even gave us permission to share some sample photos and videos with you (with the understanding that the quality may be different when the final camera ships). Overall, we found this well-designed newcomer easy to like. Here's why.
Overview

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The Canon EOS Rebel T1i is a lightweight, compact SLR, along the same lines as the Rebel XSi and Rebel XS. It is scheduled to ship in May priced at $799.99 for the body alone, or $899.99 with an 18-55mm image-stabilized lens.

The looks are familiar, but there are new tricks under the hood.

Front

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The microphone is located above and to the right of the lens.

The only substantial change here from the existing Canon XSi is the small microphone located behind the four-dot cluster to the right of the lens. There's an infrared receiver on the grip, below the shutter, and an autofocus illuminator lamp between the grip and the lens mount. To the right of the lens mount is the lens release button. As for the black tape strips on the right side, we had to cover over the camera logo before taking it outdoors, since it hadn't been announced at the time of our test drive.

Back

Again, we haven't wandered far from the XSi design, except for the small speaker located just below the playback zoom buttons on the top right. The 3-inch LCD represents a nice upgrade; same 3-inch size as before, but with a new 920,000-dot resolution. Video recording is triggered by the button marked with a red dot to the right of the LCD (during playback, the same button controls direct printing via PictBridge). Above this button is the AV/exposure compensation control, below it the playback mode button. The four-way controller includes direct access to (from the top, clockwise) white balance, atuofocus, Picture Styles and drive mode settings, with the famililar Set button set in the center. There's a well-positioned, nicely textured thumb rest at the upper right.

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The LCD is a significant upgrade from the Rebel XSi.

Sides

On the right side, the button festooned with a lightning-bolt icon unleashes the pop-up flash. From this angle, we can also see the depth of field preveiw button located below the lens release button. The rubber door toward the back closes securely, protecting the familiar AV/USB jack and the spiffy new HDMI port, the better to output both your video and photos on a high-def TV.

The left side is home to the slide-back, pop-out SD card slot.

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Tucked away behind the left-side door is a mini HDMI port.

Top

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Movie shooting is accessible via the mode dial.

Our aerial view reveals the location of the pop-up flash and hot shoe. In addition to turning from XSi black to T1i silver, the mode dial has acquired some new functions. Holdovers include full auto (the green rectangle), shutter-priority (Tv), aperture-priority (Av), manual exposure and auto depth of field (A-DEP), which lets you specify the closest and most distant point you need to have in focus. Added to this array is Creative Auto, a feature Canon introduced with the 50D, that lets users control the shutter speed/aperture balance by deciding whether their photo should be sharper or blurrier, brighter or darker. There is a smattering of scene modes (portrait, landscape, macro, sports night portrait and no-flash), and a new movie-camera icon for video mode.

The shutter is nicely placed on a beveled platform in the front, with the single control dial behind it. The direct access button for ISO settings is on the top as well, along with the ON/OFF switch which slides forward and back next to the mode dial. The additional icons on top (the asterisk and the focus grid design) are poorly positioned labels for the shooting-mode functions of the playback zoom control buttons located on the back of the camera.

Bottom

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The latched battery compartment is positioned on the left, the sturdy metal tripod socket is centered under the lens.

The metal tripod socket is properly centered.

Viewfinder


The viewfinder, with 95% coverage, is adequate but not terrific, especially if you wear glasses; we had trouble seeing the entire scene before us at a glance. There's a diopter adjustment dial to the left of the viewfinder and a sensor below, which turns the LCD off when you hold the camera to your eye.

LCD


The Canon T1i LCD is a welcome improvement from the XSi on the LCD front, with a step up to the 3-inch, 920,000-dot display that's become the hallmark of an upscale SLR today. We found the screen bright and sharp, even when shooting outdoors (brightness can be adjusted in seven steps via the camera menu). Viewing angles were very good, an important feature in a camera that offers Live View shooting.

As with most inexpensive SLRs, there's no secondary monochrome LCD display to let you read and adjust camera settings from above.

As for Live View, the display kept up nicely as we moved the camera quickly to compose a shot, unlike some screens that stutter and struggle when dealing with fast action. The Live View display toggles between a clean screen, a display showing basic shooting information in white on a black strip at the bottom of the screen, a status display showing focus mode, Picture Style, white balance, drive mode and image size controls, and the same control screen with an overlaid histogram. Two optional grid overlays, one with nine squares, the other with 24, are also available.

 

Flash


The built-in flash sits at a nice high position, far from the center of the lens, so red-eye shouldn't be an issue when shooting faces in darkened rooms. Canon gives the flash range a guide number of 13 at ISO 100. The flash sync speed is 1/200 second.

Lens Mount


Not surprisingly, the T1i sticks with the standard EF lens mount, maintaining compatibility with the diverse and high-quality family of Canon lenses. The kit lens is not new: it's the familiar 18-55mm lens (29-88mm equivalent) image-stabilized lens offered with the Rebel XSi and XS, with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the widest setting and f/5.6 at full zoom. This is not our favorite Canon lens ever. In addition to being fairly slow (requiring slower shutter speeds), we've found in our previous testing that it's subject to significant distortion. It's acceptable for basic shooting, though. And if you're more persnickety about your image quality, you can always buy the camera body without the kit lens and pair it up with a more impressive piece of glass.

As always, if you want image stabilization with a Canon camera, you're going to have to buy image stabilized lenses, unlike Sony and Olympus,which build this feature right into the camera body.

Jacks, Ports & Plugs


The Canon T1i provides a mini HDMI port for connecting directly to a high-def television, a welcome addition not only for video output, but to show off your photos in their full high-res glory. There's a standard mini USB port, that now does double duty for both data connection to your computer and standard-definition video output (the XSi has a dedicated video out jack, absent here). Finally, the circular connector at the top is used for connecting a wired remote control.

Battery


The 7.4V, 1080mAh lithium ion rechargeable battery should get 500 shots per charge, or 400 when using the flash 50% of the time.

Memory


The Canon T1i supports high-capacity, readily available SD and SDHC memory cards. If you're planning to shoot a lot of video, it's worth investing in some high-capacity, high-speed SDHC cards. According to Canon, you should get 12 minutes of video per 4-gigabyte card when shooting in 1080p mode, and 18 minutes at 720p.

 

Sample Photos


The following sample photos were shot with a pre-production sample of the T1i, and there could be signfiicant image quality differences in the final shipping camera. Still, these shots do provide an indication of what we can expect. Clicking on any of the large photos below will call up the full-size original,. Beneath each image is a set of actual pixel-size crops.

 

 

 

 

 

Design & Appearance


No surprises to report here. It's a Canon Rebel SLR, and it looks like a Canon Rebel SLR, with the only noteworthy appearance tweak we noticed a change from a black to a silver mode dial. There is one bit of good news, though: the Rebel T1i will be sold in black only, without the ugly silver body option available for the XS and XSi.

Size & Handling


This is a very lightweight, compact SLR, measuring 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 inches (128.8mm x 97.5mm x 61.9mm), precisely the same as the Canon Rebel XSi, and weighing just over a pound (16.9 oz., or 480g) without lens. Your reviewer has large hands (no, that's not them in the photo below), which caused some concern when starting to shoot with the T1i. Fortunately, the grip is deep enough, and the distance between the grip and the lens wide enough, to allow a reasonably comfortable handhold, and the positioning of the shutter button on an angled platform up front worked perfectly. For those with smaller hands, the T1i should fit particularly well, and the light weight gives it a portability edge compared to most digital SLRs.

The size and weight proved particularly helpful when shooting video. The other video-enabled Canon, the 5D Mark II, is a far more ruggedly built machine than the T1i, but there's a price to be paid when trying to hold a 3-pound-plus (with lens) device steady for video capture, or to pan it smoothly. The featherweight T1i is highly maneuverable, light enough to hold away from your body easily when shooting using Live View, and easy to snap from horizontal to vertical and back again when shooting stills.

Menu


There are two menu systems available here. The Quick Menu turns the full-screen LCD information display into a fast-access tool for changing the settings shown. Pressing the Set button toggles between the Quick Menu and the static information display. With ready access to ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, Picture Style, image size, drive mode, self-timer and metering mode, plus the dedicated function buttons located on the back of the camera, using the traditional multi-tabbed on-screen menu system was a rarity during shooting.

When you do press the MENU button, you're greeted with the traditional, highly functional Canon menu display. There are two tabs for recording settings, two for playback, three for system settings, and My Menu (the star icon) which lets you create your own customized menu page containing your most frequently used items.

 

Ease of Use


The T1i offers a nice balance of flexibility for sophisticated shooters and point-and-shoot auto mode for compact camera converts. The full menu system can get complex as you wander off to the custom settings area, but it's perfectly feasible to ignore that rocky terrain and learn to adjust basic camera settings using the simpler record mode menus, or the full-screen LCD settings access. As for the control buttons, the layout is easy to master and labels are legible and well placed, with two exceptions (the focus lock and focus area labels sitting on top of the camera while the buttons are on the back below).

Auto Mode


There is a complete hand-the-camera-to-your-Mom auto mode. All the key exposure options and other settings are managed by the camera, leaving only image size and self-timer settings to the user.

There is also Creative Auto mode, indicated by CA on the mode dial. Creative Auto unlocks additional choices for flash, drive mode and Creative Style, and takes an oddball approach to altering shutter speed and aperture. The user is given two sliding controls, one for setting the background on a scale from blurred to sharp, the other for setting exposure from darker to brighter. Frankly, we don't find this system much easier than just grasping the rudimentary relationship between aperture and shutter speed, but we're sure Canon ran many focus groups that applauded loudly at this innovation, and it's simple enough to ignore if you agree with us.

Movie Mode


The big new feature for the Canon Rebel T1i is clearly movie mode. It's only the third SLR to offer this function (the Panasonic Lumix GH1, a Micro Four Thirds camera with video capability, was announced at PMA this year, but it's not a true SLR, since it doesn't use a single-lens reflex mechanism). First came the Nikon D90, priced at $999.95, which provides 720p high-definition video shooting at 24 frames per second. Next it was Canon's turn to up the ante, with the $2700 Canon 5D Mark II, which can shoot full 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second, delivering silky smooth results that rival the output of a dedicated HD camcorder (albeit with more limited controls). Now we have a third alternative, the Rebel T1i, the least expensive option to date at $799.99 for the body alone, which shoots 1080p video at 20 frames per second, or 720p at 30 frames per second.

Of course, standard-definition video shooting is also supported, at 640x480 resolution at 30 frames per second. You can also grab a still, in JPEG or RAW format, while shooting video, though it will momentarily interrupt the recording.. Unlike the Canon 50D Mark II, the T1i doesn't offer a plug for connecting an external mic, though it does record sound with a built-in microphone on the front of the camera.

Video is recorded in H.264 format, and stored in .MOV files.

We find the 20 frame per second rate for full 1080p video problematic. You can get by with it if there's not much action in your video, but if your subjects have the unmitigated gall to start running, or you decide that a nice panning movement would fulfill your artistic aspirations, that slow frame rate is likely to create visible flaws. This can be seen in the sample video below, shot at 1080p resolution while hand-holding the camera. Sample images have been taken with a Beta (Pre-production) unit of the EOS Rebel T1i Digital SLR camera. Video quality may well improve between our test drive and the shipment of actual production units in May. Also note that the resolution of the YouTube stream doesn't match the original 1080p video, though the following will give you a rough idea of our experience with the camera.

Click here for large HD version

We also shot two flags waving in the breeze, at 1080p, without moving the camera. Results here appear smooth, with little problem capturing the action.

Click here for large HD version

For comparison purposes, we shot the same flags in the 720p mode, at 30 frames per second. We're not seeing a huge amount of visual quality difference between the two, though the straight edges are a bit less crisp in the lower-res version.

Click here for large HD version

Finally, we trundled over to a nearby construction site and caught the action (one guy working, several guys watching) at 720p. The video capture is very smooth in the sample below, and while the exposure is not ideal, we were in a hurry and didn't get around to fiddling with manual adjustments. One of the advantages of shooting video with an SLR is the ability to use the camera's image control settings to fine-tune the results.

Click here for large HD version

Like the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D Mark II, autofocus is an issue when shooting video. You shoot video in Live View mode, using the contrast-detection autofocus system. This means you have to autofocus by pressing the AF button before you start shooting, and can't adjust focus as your subject moves through the frame. Well, you could theoretically use manual focus to make adjustments on the fly, but that would require far more manual dexterity than we expect to find in mere mortals. So far the only company that claims to have licked this problem is Panasonic, with the Lumix GH1 video-enabled Micro Four Thirds camera they announced at PMA. They say it will be able to autofocus while shooting, without making noise that would be captured on your video soundtrack. We hope it's true but, for now, we have only a promise, without a ship date or even a price for the camera.

We ran into one pre-production glitch while testing the T1i video mode: while Canon says you'll be able to keep shooting continuously until the memory card fills, we kept filling the camera buffer and having video shooting stop until the file was stored to SD card. The card itself was a fast Class 6 spec SDHC from a respected manufacturer, so that doesn't explain the hitch. We reiterate, though, that this was a pre-production version of the camera, and expect this problem to be ironed out before actual units leave the factory.

Drive/Burst Mode


Canon claims the T1i will shoot at a rate of 3.4 frames per second in burst mode, up to 170 continuous JPEG images or 9 RAW files.

Playback Mode


The screen display can be enlarged up to 10x during playback. Zooming in the other direction brings up four-thumbnail and nine-thumbnail screens.

Pressing the DISP button toggles between three display modes in playback mode. The first is a clean screen with only the image number and size overlaid, the second shows a thumbnail image of the photo in the top right, extensive shooting information at the bottom of the screen, and a luminance histogram in  the upper right. A third press of DISP provides a less on-screen text info, but adds an RGB histogram along with the luminance graph.

 

When viewing videos, you can choose standard or slow motion playback, jump tot he first or last frame, advance or go backward frame by frame, and adjust sound volume.

Custom Image Presets


There are six custom presets, all available directly from the mode dial, and all pretty basic stuff. These include portrait, landscape, macro, sports, night portrait and a flash-prohibited mode, which is really more of a setting than a custom mode.

Manual Controls


You start out with your basic set of manual exposure options: Program mode with program shift available, shutter-priority (here dubbed Tv, for Time

Value), aperture-priority (Av) and full manual. The single control wheel makes shooting in full manual mode more cumbersome than on higher-end SLRs, which offer two wheels. Here, when shooting using manual settings, the dial changes shutter speed by default, and the shooter has to hold down the exposure compensation button while turning the dial to change the aperture setting. A ltitle too much manual dexterity required for our taste.

Canon also provides an Aperture Depth of Field mode (A-DEP), which lets the shooter set the closest and furthest points that need to be in focus, and adjust settings accordingly. It's an interesting idea, but not recommended if you're in a hurry.

Focus


The T1i maintains the 9-point autofocus system used in the other Rebel models, along with the built-in autofocus illuminator. The autofocus system can be set to One Shot AF, Predictive AIO Servo AF (the camera attempts to follow focus a moving subject automatically) amd AI Focus AF, where the camera automatically changes between the two previous modes based on the behavior of your subject.

When shooting in Live View mode, there are three autofocus system choices. So-called Quick Focus flips the mirror down briefly (momentarily blanking out the LCD view) to use the SLR autofocus sensor, then returns to Live View mode. Alternatively, you can choose Live mode, which uses contrast detection autofocus based on the image sensor data -- a bit slower, but less disruptive. Finally there's face detection mode, which works much as it does on a point-and-shoot camera, finding faces in the frame and identifying them as the autofocus subject. Using the pre-production model of the T1i, we found Live View autofocus about as draggy as usual: we have yet to shoot with an SLR camera that can keep up with fast-moving subjects in Live View mode. Of course, we might be pleasantly surprised when we get a final production version of the T1i in our eager hands.

As expected, manual focus is also an option, and here Live View offers a useful add-on. While in manual focus mode you can magnify the on-screen display by 5x or 10x, providing a great close-up view for precise adjustments.

ISO


ISO settings span 100-3200 in the official range, and add ISO 6400 and 12800 as extended settings.This is a step up from the Canon XSi and XSm, which top out at ISO 1600.

White Balance


In addition to the auto white balance setting there are six white balance presets -- daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent and flash -- plus the option to take a custom reading.

Metering


The Canon T1i has four metering modes: Evaluative, Partial, Spot and Center-Weighted Average. The combination of Partial and Center-Weighted Average is unusual. Basically, Partial covers about a third of the frame, while Center-Weighted Average has a smaller target area, and Spot is a smaller target still.

Shutter Speed


Shutter speeds range from 1/4000 second to 30 seconds plus Bulb for extended exposures.

Aperture


The aperture range will, of course, depend on the lens attached. The kit lens is an 18-55mm zoom with a maximum aperture range of f/3.5-5.6. Depth of field preview is provided.

Image Stabilization


Unlike Olympus and Sony, Canon continues to leave image stabilization to the lens, rather than build it into the camera body. The kit lens does include image stabilization.

Picture Quality & Size Options


The Canon T1i boosts resolution to 15.1 megapixels, compared to the 12.2-megapixel resolution of the Canon XSi. JPEGs can be shot at three sizes, each with two compression settings; the maximum image size is 4752 x 3168. The camera can also store RAW files, either alone or with an attached JPEG.

Picture Effects


The T1i uses the Canon Picture Styles system to tailor color reproduction, sharpness, contrast and saturation to the subject at hand. There are six preset Picture Styles: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome, along with three slots for users to store their own Picture Style settings.

 

Meet the tester

Robin Liss

Robin Liss

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Robin Liss founded what is now Reviewed.com in 1996. In January 2011 she led the acquisition of the company by USA Today / Gannett.

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