Kicking off with the SX200 at the beginning of 2009, Canon's SX line of pocketable cameras have pushed the boundaries of compact lens design. While the SX200 debuted with a 12x optical zoom, the new Canon PowerShot SX700HS (MSRP $349.99) has an incredible 30x optical zoom in a body that can easily fit into a jacket pocket. Add to that a 16.1-megapixel image sensor, optical image stabilization, and built-in WiFi—and you've got a compelling little camera for the price.
Though smartphones have been devouring point-and-shoot sales for a couple of years now, travel-zoom cameras are digging in their heels. Optical zoom is the one area where smartphones simply can't keep up. But is 30x optical zoom and WiFi enough to get buyers to opt for a $350 dedicated camera over what they already own?
In our lab tests we found that Canon's SX700 HS performed well in some areas but struggled in others. In keeping with what we've seen from other Canon cameras recently, the 700HS does well in color accuracy and in keeping noise to a minimum, but it struggles to retain fine details or preserve sharp edges. The SX700HS does do a good job of preserving sharpness when at full telephoto thanks to its 30x zoom and excellent optical stabilization, something most cameras aren't capable of.
In our color accuracy tests the SX700 HS wasn't clinically perfect, but it was good enough that you'd rarely notice a problem. The camera comes with several "My Colors" modes that use different color profiles for your photos. Of these we found that the most accurate was either "Light Skin" or "Dark Skin" depending on your exposure level, though turning them off entirely also yielded accurate results.
The most accurate result we were able to achieve was the "Dark Skin" mode, which had a ∆C00 (saturation corrected) of 2.5 flat, with a saturation of 100.3%. That's a practically perfect saturation level, though a color error of 2.2 or lower is considered just about perfect. The other modes were similarly accurate, though many upped the saturation, including the various vivid modes. There's also a custom color mode if you'd prefer to take more control over contrast, saturation, and sharpness.
In our white balance test the SX700 HS also did very well. We test both custom and automatic white balance, and the camera did very well in both setups. In this test we shoot a standard color chart under three lighting conditions: compact white fluorescent, daylight, and incandescent.
When taking a custom white balance the SX700 HS was just about perfect, with errors of less than 100 kelvins in all lighting conditions. Results were also great with automatic white balance in fluorescent and daylight settings. The only hangup was automatic white balance with incandescent lighting, where errors topped 2,000 kelvins. That's bad, but it's typical of almost every camera on the market—indoor lighting is simply too warm for most cameras to compensate for automatically.
Remember when 12x zoom point-and-shoots were impressive?
Sitting on a shelf, there's not much that distinguishes the SX700 HS from other point-and-shoots. Its plastic body is shaped like a thick bar of soap, with rounded edges and a small, rubberized protrusion for grip. When you flip the camera on, however, the rear LCD comes to life and the impressive 30x optical zoom telescopes out from the body. A zoom toggle on the top of the camera controls the lens, alongside a power switch, shutter release, and opposite the pop-up flash.
Around back, the camera has a standard set of controls: a mode dial, and a control dial that doubles as a four-way navigation pad. There's also the 3-inch, 922k-dot LCD display—which is the only method of framing your photos. In various corners of the body, you'll also find an extra button for activating a digital zoom, USB and HDMI ports, and a memory card and battery slot.
Shooting with the SX700 HS is as easy as with just about any other Canon point-and-shoot. The menu system is simple, the controls are responsive and easy to understand, and options are clearly labeled. Anyone who owns a PowerShot from the last five years will understand how to use the SX700 HS right away.
That said, the SX700 HS does introduce a couple of more advanced features that set it apart from the company's entry-level A-series point-and-shoots. The mode dial has a number of priority and manual modes, for example, letting you take direct control over shutter speed, aperture, and the like. The level of control is nowhere near advanced interchangeable lens cameras, but it's a good step forward.
Best of all, this entire package is small enough to comfortably slip into a jacket pocket or purse. You can even fit it into a pocket if you're wearing loose-fitting jeans or shorts. It's not any smaller than previous SX-series cameras, but given the 30x optical zoom ratio, it's an impressive design.
The SX700 HS gives you option of shooting with an ISO range of 100-3200, though there is no way to control the amount of noise reduction being applied. Since the camera only shoots in JPEG, there's also no option for shooting in RAW and developing later. As a result, you're stuck with whatever Canon gives you.
The SX700 HS keeps noise relatively low at ISO 100 and 200, with Imatest picking up noise levels of 0.77% and 0.88%, respectively. From there noise rises to 1.07% at ISO 400, 1.3% at ISO 800, and 1.54% at ISO 1600. Noise tops out at 2.06% at ISO 3200. Now, this seems great—2% noise is our threshold for printable image quality—but unfortunately it's ill-gotten goods.
Noise is kept down through most of the ISO range, but it's done using aggressive software noise reduction that is destructive to fine detail. As you can see in the crops above, fine detail really takes a hit after ISO 400, and anything from ISO 800 and above can only be used if you're okay with not having crisp lines in your final shot. If you're printing to small sizes or only viewing photos on your phone then you won't have trouble, though, because the shots will be downsampled significantly.
All the trappings of a modern mid-range point-and-shoot
Speaking of that 30x optical zoom lens, it's clearly the headline feature here. If you're sick and tired of not being able to get close enough to the action with your smartphone camera, this will make all your zooming dreams come true. We were routinely able to zoom in on subjects hundreds of feet away without trouble. The new lens also comes with optical image stabilization, which is surprisingly good at producing usable shots at full telephoto, especially in bright light.
The lens sits in front of a 16.1-megapixel 1/2.3-inch image sensor. It's a standard point-and-shoot image sensor, capable of recording 1920x1080p HD video at 60fps, with options for 1080/30p and 120fps if you're willing to settle for a lower resolution product. It's also capable of up to 8.3 frames per second of continuous still shooting at the full 16-megapixel resolution.
This is all thanks to the Digic 6 processor—though this is the same processor found in last year's SX280 HS. In less exciting hardware news, the SX700 HS also has a built-in flash. Like on the SX280 HS, it pops up from the top left side of the body. It's not particularly powerful, however, so don't expect it to add much if you're zooming in on subjects more than a few feet away.
The SX700 HS also packs in a ton of software features. There's about a dozen different scene modes and creative picture effects, underpinned by several of Canon's "My Color" modes that let you alter the color profile of your photos. If you don't want to take direct control over your shot, you can also use the "Creative Shot" mode which requires no creativity on your part; the camera just takes one photo and produces several interesting crops and filtered versions automatically. If you can't decide between video and stills, you can also use the SX700's Hybrid Auto mode—a feature that takes short video clips leading into each still image.
Of course, like other mid-range point-and-shoots these days, the SX700 HS includes built-in WiFi and NFC. The NFC connectivity makes pairing it with your phone a simpler process, but it's not as intuitive as the rest of the camera's operations are. It's a shame: one of the main reasons people simply stick with their phone cameras over opting for something better is the ability to upload shots to social media. WiFi makes the process doable, but it's still more of a hassle than it is on a truly connected device like your smartphone.
The SX700 HS has the benefit of an expansive 30x optical zoom lens in a compact form factor that easily fits in your pocket. That's a great advantage, but it's worthless if the shots are terrible as soon as you zoom in. Luckily, the shots even when at full telephoto are not bad at all. There's not much fine detail. but there's enough to make a serviceable 4x6-inch print.
Still, your best bet is to keep your subject in the center of the frame. If you do that then you can expect, on average, for sharpness to peak at around 1,900 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) at MTF50 when you're zoomed out. In our test we saw that drop off a little to around 1,800 lw/ph at about halfway through the zoom range. If you go to full telephoto things get a little dicier, though, with center sharpness of around 1500 lw/ph, which is just on the edge of what we'd consider "sharp."
In the corners, things are not so good, however. Though corner sharpness starts at around 1,500 lw/ph when zoomed all the way out, it drops to just around 1,000 lw/ph at halfway zoomed in. Zoom in all the way and sharpness drops below 750 lw/ph, which is very soft. Again, your best bet is just keep whatever you're shooting in the center or zoom out wherever possible.
A tale of two cameras.
Evaluating the SX700's performance is harder than it is with most point-and-shoots, because it's rare to see a camera produce such wildly different image quality depending on the settings. Outside on a sunny day the SX700 HS is an exemplary performer with a very usable, optically stabilized 30x optical zoom that's capable of producing amazing images. Once the light level drops, however, the SX700 HS quickly loses the plot thanks to one of the most over-aggressive noise reduction algorithms we've ever seen.
Both our sample photos from the field and our testing in the lab bear this out. In our bright light testing, the SX700 HS does quite well for a point-and-shoot. The lens is sharp, the colors are fairly accurate, and noise is kept to a minimum. Our bright light sample photos—basically any shot where the camera can use ISO 100 or 200–look great. They have nice dynamic range, details are print-quality even at full telephoto, and the shots stand up to plenty of editing.
In low light, though...yeesh. As you can see in the example above, ISO 100 shots look great, but fine detail is wrecked by ISO 400. Noise is kept to a minimum, but instead of a detailed photo you're left with something closer to an impressionist painting done with watercolors and a blunt brush. We get it; noise is bad, and noise reduction takes away the graininess that people complain about. The problem is that the shots are still pretty noisy at high ISO speeds, and fine detail is still destroyed. It's not an elegant way to try and keep noise down, and this trade-off has an irreversible effect on performance.
Otherwise, the SX700 HS holds its own. It's about on par with previous SX-series Canon cameras, including last year's SX280 HS. That's no small feat considering the jump from a 20x optical zoom on the SX280 HS and the 30x optical zoom on the SX700 HS. The extra zoom is handled well by optical image stabilization, and images look great—when taken in sufficient light. The HD video is also improved, with very nice motion rendition thanks to the 1080/60p framerate. Though other point-and-shoots can shoot faster, the SX700 HS isn't terrible at capturing action, with its dedicated high speed mode capable of capturing 8+ frames per second at full resolution. A capacity of just four shots at that speed, however, means this camera is hardly the right choice for capturing action.
The 30x optical zoom is great, but low light is still a struggle.
Canon isn't the only manufacturer putting 30x optical zoom cameras in your pocket, but it's certainly the most successful we've seen so far. If the goal of the SX700's design was to craft a point-and-shoot camera that lets you zoom in to the full telephoto and still get sharp photos, then it can be considered a success.
The problem is that in addressing the desire for more optical zoom, Canon has neglected to improve another key area: low light performance. The SX700 HS is no better than point-and-shoots from two or three years ago when it comes to shooting in low light, and it falls well behind what the current crop of high-end point-and-shoots are capable of. In fact, in low light the SX700 HS even falls behind what we've seen from some recent smartphones—arguably Canon's chief competition at this price point.
Learning to love the SX700 HS is learning to understand its limitations and embrace the areas where it truly excels. Do you need a camera that lets you zoom way in on (primarily stationary) objects? Do you need a camera that fits into your pocket? Do you only need something that performs well in bright light? If the answer to these questions is 'yes' then you should feel comfortable in picking up the SX700 HS. If you need a camera capturing for action, or taking great photos in low light, or for objects that aren't that far away, then there are plenty of better options out there.
If low light is more important to you, then we recommend something like Canon's aging-but-still-got-it PowerShot S110, which can be found for right around $250. It has a much bigger image sensor and a better lens for low light shooting, though it lacks the extensive optical zoom that the SX700 HS has. If you're after a compact camera with tons of zoom though, there are few better options than the SX700 HS right now.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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