This is because while the amount of optical zoom in cameras has steadily grown every year—from 12x to 20x to 30x with last year's Canon PowerShot SX710 HS–the newest model's 40x zoom lens is simply too much. While it can produce images that look just fine on Facebook or your phone, on close inspection the shots just don't look great.
For most point-and-shoots, this isn't a huge deal. But for a near-$400 camera in 2016? It just doesn't do enough to justify the expense, especially when last year's perfectly good model is still available at a steep discount.
Canon's PowerShot team needs some new ideas
Like every other member of Canon's compact travel zoom lineup, Canon's SX720 HS is a brick-like affair with rounded edges. A smallish lens protrusion hides an absolutely Freudian 40x zoom lens with an aperture range of f/3.3-6.9.
Behind that monster of a lens is a standard 20.3-megapixel 1/2.3" CMOS sensor. It's nothing thrilling, but it holds its own in bright light or when you're shooting wide angle. The SX720 HS also features in-body image stabilization, and it works well enough that you shouldn't have many issues with getting steadyish shots in bright light.
On the back of the camera you'll find all the familiar controls: a directional pad is encircled by a low-profile control wheel, and the zoom works exactly as it does on just about every other point and shoot out there—via a slider. You can call up shooting options by hitting the FUNC/SET button in the middle of the control cluster, or you can delve into more advanced system-level options by hitting the menu button.
Like most point and shoots, the SX720 HS has a fixed 3-inch, 922k-dot LCD on the back. It does its job, but unless you have the brightness turned all the way up, it can be tough to see in bright daylight. You can get away with tilting the camera downward a little bit, but since the screen doesn't tilt on its own you'll be altering the shot you want to take.
For social shutterbugs, the SX720 HS comes with WiFi and NFC baked-in, enabling the use of the Canon Camera Connect app to move photos from your camera to your phone fairly quickly. It's a little buggy and oddly designed in some places, but most won't have any issue using it.
Color performance on the SX720 HS isn't all that bad. Though the ∆C 00 (saturation corrected) error of 2.42 is fairly low for a point and shoot, the camera wildly oversaturates shots—to the tune of a 123.2% overall saturation. You'll notice this most in blues, and reds.
White balance performance is shockingly all over the place. While the camera handles fluorescent light and daylight nearly perfectly, it simply cannot handle incandescent lighting, with errors to the tune of 2000 kelvin. That's appallingly bad, and I had to retest several times before I gave up trying to give this camera a shot.
The worst part is, sometimes it actually did handle it well, but then after three seconds of decently balanced colors: the camera decided the orange pall was better.
It's convenient and portable
To the SX720's credit, it kept many of the things we liked about the older SX710 HS and tweaked the formula in some nice ways. For example, there's a little rubber bit on the back of the camera next to the mode dial that makes the SX720 HS easier to hold with one hand, and the front grip is a little easier to latch onto with your middle finger.
It's not bad when you don't zoom very far
For casual shooting, the SX720 HS is a competent companion assuming you don't go crazy with the zoom. Shots are sharp when taken in close range, and the photo effects are fun to play with. Though the menus are a blast from 2010, this camera is nice and simple, so you should be able to find what you want with relative ease.
It's pretty snappy
If you're hoping to catch action shots, the SX720 HS can crank out about 6.3 shots per second, which isn't half bad. It also snaps to focus pretty quickly for a point-and-shoot in this price range.
One hiccup: it takes quite a long time for the buffer to clear, so if you take a burst of photos you'll have to wait for a bit until you are back shooting at full quality. But that's pretty standard for point-and-shoots like this, so it's not entirely unexpected.
As is the case with most extended zoom cameras, the SX720 HS has a lens that will let you down. By constricting the aperture beyond its diffraction limit very early on, you can bank on your photos losing sharpness starting from zooming in 25% of the way. Not even kidding.
Because of the way that the zoom works, you really can't get good results from far away. In fact, the camera started losing sharpness considerably when I took the middle reading: from about 6 feet away from the chart. That's nothing.
I didn't actually zoom out all the way in the lab, A) because I couldn't fit the chart in the frame, but B) because sharpness fell to about 1000 line widths per picture height, and that's wretched.
Taken at full wide, video is decent, but zooming in murders sharpness. In ideal conditions, the camera can resolve about 575 line pairs per picture height. In low light (60 lux), that number drops to 400.
In order to reproduce a usable image (50 IRE), you need to have at least 9 lux of ambient lighting, as well as use the camera at full wide, with the maximum aperture setting, and auto ISO. That's a fairly common result, so not much to gripe about there.
Video motion is fairly well rendered, with minimal artifacting, and well-managed frequency interference. The camera's other problems show their heads here too, but the processor and sensor aren't to fault for them.
Though the menus are as simple as you could possibly hope for, I was put off by items appearing and disappearing depending on the mode you're shooting in. For example if you put the camera in auto mode, the option to tweak ISO or white balance simply isn't there, and you may not realize it's a possibility at all. It's not an uncommon problem among low-end cameras, but it's still frustrating.
Poor image quality when zooming in
There's simply a limit to what you can do with physics, and Canon is bumping up against it here with this lens. While it's fine at wide-angle, by the time you've zoomed in halfway your images will have minimal detail if you look closely. Given that this was already an issue with last year's SX710 HS and its 30x zoom, we can't get past the idea that Canon opted for a 40x because it would look better on the box.
If you want to see a superzoom done well, take a look at the Panasonic FZ1000. Yes it's expensive, yes it doesn't zoom as far as the SX720 HS, and yes: it's huge. But this is the camera you get when you don't cut corners. It takes a lot to do a superzoom well, but the proof is in the pudding when you see the difference in image quality between each camera.
You can do better for the money
Long story short, if you need a ton of zoom in a small package the older Canon PowerShot SX710 HS, Nikon Coolpix S9900, and Panasonic Lumix ZS60 are all better values than the SX720 HS. You may drop from a 40x zoom down to 30x, but you'll hardly ever notice, you'll spend drastically less money, and you'll get better images. This is not a quality camera, and that's a bitter pill to swallow if you just spent $379.99 on it.
It all comes down to what you need out of your camera. While the 40x optical zoom on the SX720 HS sounds great, it's unlikely you'll need that much zoom. For most people 20x is more than enough, and even 30x is overkill. Optical zoom provides some needed flexibility you can't get from a smartphone, but when you're buying a camera primarily for one feature—that one feature has to deliver.
Of course, many people simply assume that the better camera will always have more optical zoom, but that couldn't be further from the truth. If you just need a little bit of zoom, the similarly-priced Canon PowerShot G9 X will produce vastly better images with its larger 1-inch sensor. It's also much better in low light, and is just as easy to use as any other Canon point-and-shoot.
And we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that for around $400 you can even get an entry-level interchangeable lens camera. While that may sound intimidating, something like the Nikon 1 J5, Olympus E-PM2, or Panasonic Lumix GM5 is super simple to use and will still come with a kit lens with a little bit of zoom. You'll have to learn how to swap lenses, but it's actually quite easy and it'll open up a world of possibilities later.
Either way, there are extremely limited scenarios where the SX720 HS is a smart buy. If you just want quality, you have better options. If you just like the value, there are better values to be had. And if you just want zoom, Canon's 30x SX710 HS is cheaper, better, and delivers that in spades. Unless the SX720 HS sees a drastic price cut, it's one you can safely skip.
Meet the tester
Staff Writer, Imaging@cthomas8888
A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.
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