Canon PowerShot N Digital Camera Review
At this point, Canon will try N-ything.
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By the Numbers
Against all expectation, the PowerShot N actually earned some strong test scores. In particular, noise reduction is just as smooth as we've come to expect from Canon, while sharpness is above average and color accuracy is adequate.
Buckle up. This is going to be a weird one.
The adorable Canon PowerShot N is an experimental, allegedly chic camera, distinguished by an off-the-wall form factor that summarily ignores all the wisdom of camera design and handling that's accumulated over the last, oh... 100 years. Instead, the glossy N is nearly square in shape, and far smaller than a typical point-and-shoot.
Canon is positioning the N as a "smartphone companion camera" (what does that even mean?). As such, its designers have equipped the N with advanced WiFi features, allowing it to either connect to or behave as a wireless access point. Of course, if you're already carrying around a smartphone, whether you'll want to bother whipping out another low-end camera is a separate question entirely. The answer will depend on the camera's image quality (which is actually excellent) and its usability (which is just... just awful).
Design & Handling
At our wits' N-d
The PowerShot N's tiny frame leaves little room for anything except a lens on the front and a 2.8-inch tilting touchscreen on the rear. The capacitive touch panel is certainly the best we've ever used on a Canon, but not even that can save the N from being one of the most frustrating cameras in recent memory. With the body short on real estate to begin with, the thumb has no place to go except directly on top of the touchscreen. What an excellent way to accidentally trigger touch-to-focus (which can't be turned off), or perhaps accidentally change your shooting mode, or even accidentally start a video!
You'll also notice a traditional shutter and zoom toggle are completely absent from the PowerShot N. Canon's solution is a pair of thin lens rings surrounding the barrel. Press up or down on one of the rings to shoot, or rotate the other ring to zoom in and out. This system is problematic in the best of scenarios. The shutter ring lacks sufficient stroke to communicate a clear half-press for autofocus (plus you'll nudge the lens and cause motion blur), and the zoom ring has neither the tactility nor the precision for anything but vague framing at best.
Touch-to-shoot might seem like a more comfortable option, but it actually worsens the N's design flaws. All those accidental focuses become accidental photos. With absurd design comes absurd usage, and we've identified a few PowerShot N shooting techniques that we hope catch on....
The tiny power key is inconveniently placed on the left side, and equally small buttons for playback and smartphone connectivity are too close to the strap lug on the right. Both the media compartment door and the USB terminal door open backwards, toward the tilting LCD, so you'll need to move the screen out of the way to open those. Speaking of the of LCD, it's accurate, but rather ugly and low res, and certainly not bright enough for broad daylight.
The menu system, though simplified, gives us little to complain about. There's no direct path to the main menu—you'll have to first pass through the quick menu—but each part of the interface is responsive, sensibly arranged, and works well with touch control. Unfortunately, the options that are available just aren't very deep. For example, there's no way to simply set your focus point to "center." Ugh.
At wide and medium focal lengths, the N's sharpness is slightly better than par for a camera of this class, coming in at an average of around 2000 lw/ph at MTF50, with some zones near the center of the frame spiking up as high as 2600 lw/ph. Sadly, zooming in to the full 8x causes these figures to plummet. At maximum focal length, average resolution is less than 1000 lw/ph.
Furthermore, many of the most impressive test results seen here are actually due to oversharpening, a JPEG processing effect. Too much oversharpening causes distracting black lines and white halos around edges, and the N is one of the worst offenders we've seen. At times, oversharpening can account for as much as 25% of total edge sharpness, which is unacceptable.
The N's lens rarely produces chromatic aberration, except at maximum focal length.
Color & White Balance
The N scored just a hair better than what we consider "acceptable" color accuracy, earning a ∆C saturation-adjusted average error value of 2.96 against the known values of an X-Rite ColorChecker chart. Errors are spread pretty evenly across the gamut, but reds seem to be the worst offenders. Since these shades contribute to flesh tones, expect human subjects to be rendered slightly unnaturally.
Given this camera's apparent target audience, advanced photography features like custom white balance have been stripped out. Luckily, the automatic algorithm is fairly competent, especially under daylight and fluorescent illumination. Under daylight, color temperature errors average less than 80 K, and under fluorescents the average error is less than 170 K. Incandescent light is much more challenging, so here we see color temperature errors shoot up to an average of 2200 K, which is very noticeable as a warm, yellowish cast.
Better than most N-try level compacts
For such a goofy device, the PowerShot N actually boasts solid image quality. Who would've guessed? Although the camera lacks color modes entirely, the default one has acceptable accuracy and saturation levels. We've grown accustomed to even better accuracy from Canon over the years, but the N does a decent job.
Sharpness is also fairly impressive, especially at wide and medium focal lengths. We wish the story ended there, but unfortunately this assessment comes with two important caveats. Number one: Resolution is nearly cut in half at the telephoto end, which should be avoided entirely. And number two: Severe oversharpening creates faint halos encircling your subjects. It's a distracting, ugly technique, used to enhance the appearance of sharpness, without actually improving genuine clarity.
On the other hand, the noise reduction algorithm is tasteful throughout the ISO spectrum. In fact you won't see image noise levels cross 1.00% until ISO 1600, which isn't bad for a point-and-shoot. We don't test cameras like this for dynamic range, but even a cursory glance at the N's sample photos show this is a weak point. Our skies were blown out all the time, and this made nailing down the proper exposure a real pain.
To our surprise, the N is actually a great choice for macro photography. The lens—which has an 8x zoom range and is impressive for its small form factor—can also lock focus on subjects as close as a centimeter from the glass. Provided your subject and its background are sufficiently far apart, the f/3 lens is just wide enough to create a flattering background. Sadly, the touch-to-focus feature doesn't always obey your commands, so it can be very frustrating to get the N to focus on what you need it to.
Videos are sharp, in both bright light and dim, but there's only so much that can be done for smoothness at 30 frames per second. These days, we're spoiled by 60p in many still cameras, and the N's 30p footage seems choppy by comparison. Not to mention the camera's unstable handling characteristics while recording.
For an in-depth analysis of all our lab test results, please visit the Science Page.
The N's noise reduction algorithm is excellent, ramping up intensity tastefully over the course of the ISO spectrum. Overall image noise starts off very low, only 0.49% at ISO 80, and doesn't cross 1.00% until ISO 1600, at which point a bit of grain starts to become noticeable. Noise is still a respectable 1.35% at ISO 3200, before spiking up to 2.02% at ISO 6400. Most noise is luminance, not chroma, so you'll see more grain than color splotching, and this is the more desirable of the two.
The N lacks many basic functionalities we expect from still cameras. We've already mentioned color modes, but scene modes are gone too, and even the ability to set a custom white balance. We do get some picture effects—like fish-eye and miniature—lumped in with the main mode menu. But Canon has gone way out of its way to emphasize one mode: "Creative Shot," which even gets a dedicated hardware slider on the right panel.
Ever feel like taking a creative photo, only to be stifled by your complete lack of originality and vision? Creative Shot solves this vexing personal shortcoming—talk about deus ex machina! Using a combination of scene recognition, cropping, and picture effects, Creative Shot takes your bland, thoughtless photo and transforms it into a short series of Instagram-caliber crops, highlighting the subject that the N deems most interesting.
While it's hard to imagine a more insulting feature to photographers than automated creativity, the technology sometimes gets lucky and comes up with a decent composition. Next time, a little more customizability for this feature might be nice.
The N can not only connect to a wireless network, it can generate one too, which makes for easy ad-hoc connections between the camera and a smartphone. At least, that's the idea. In practice, streaming and saving your photos onto a smartphone is not only slow, but pointless too. Canon's CameraWindow app is little more than a glorified playback mode. There's no remote shutter or anything like that, so we see little reason to stream your photos over in the first place. If you want to review your images, why not just use the N's LCD?
You probably shouldn't N-vest in one of these.
If there's one topic on which I'm just totally ignorant, it's got to be fashion. Supposedly the PowerShot N is a fashion-forward, chic design intended to turn heads. But if that's why you're interested in buying one, we must warn you that the N was typically met with quizzical looks, not ooh's and ah's, at least in our office.
Let's call this camera what it is: different for the sake of being different. That's the whole point. Canon can dress it up in words like "style" and "flair," and add some sort of smartphone pairing concept—that neither works perfectly nor makes any sense to begin with—but really this camera's sole reason for existence is to be different. In a way it's refreshing to see something totally new from Canon, which can sometimes be the industry's lumbering giant, but we would've preferred to see something a little... better.
As far as actual photography, this review probably would've been a lot easier and less confusing if the N took lousy pictures too. But it doesn't. Nothing spectacular, but color accuracy is acceptable for portraits, and sharpness is above average for a camera of this caliber. Canon's noise reduction algorithm keeps images clean at high sensitivities, and even the white balance system–though limited to automatic—does a fine job in daylight.
Indeed all of the N's photographic failures aren't due to the internal hardware at all, but instead to bad design and usability. The square body and unconventional shutter release are just awkward, and the all-touchscreen rear panel is prone to accidental presses. The novelty gets old fast.
Still, we think most buyers of the N will jump on board not for photographic reasons, but because they're interested in standing out from the crowd. That's fine, owning something as unique as the N will surely help you do so, and you can't put a price on looking cool.
...what's that? How much is it? Three hundred dollars?!
Nevermind. Don't buy this thing.
Video clips shot with the N aren't particularly smooth, but are plenty sharp. In both bright light and our 60-lux test, the camera was able to resolve 600 lp/ph both horizontally and vertically. Sensitivity during video is also above average for a camera of this class; the N needs only 15 lux of ambient illumination to produce a sufficiently bright video image.