Canon PowerShot SX170 IS review

The Canon PowerShot SX170 IS delivers a 16x zoom range at a low price, but images are noisy and the camera is a slow performer.
Photo of Canon PowerShot SX170 IS

The Canon PowerShot SX170 IS ($179.99 direct) is a bit of an odd duck in terms of design. It’s not quite slim enough to fit comfortably into most pockets, its 16x zoom lens is longer than some, but can’t compare with cameras of similar size, and its 16-megapixel CCD image sensor delivers images that are on the noisy side across the board, and really suffer at high sensitivities. It’s not a speedy performer, and it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, which has quickly become an expected feature. There are better cameras to be had at the same price if you’re willing to sacrifice some zoom range, including our Editors’ Choice compact Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS. If long zoom is a must, another top pick from Canon, the $280 20x SX280 HS is a more expensive, but more versatile, camera.

Design and Features
The SX170 measures 2.8 by 4.25 by 1.7 inches and weighs 8.9 ounces. It’s just a bit too bulky to slide into smaller pockets comfortably, but is still a good fit if you’re a fan of cargo pants or are looking for a jacket-pocket camera. The 6.9-ounce Samsung WB250F  is slimmer at 2.4 by 4.2 by 0.9 inches, and its 24-432mm (18x zoom) lens covers a wider angle. The SX170 isn’t quite as wide with its 28-448mm, but the difference in field of view when zoomed all the way in is negligible between it and the Samsung.

The camera’s bulk does leave some room for manual controls. There’s a mode dial on the top plate, along with the shutter release, zoom rocker, and a power button. Rear controls include a flat dial with four directional button presses—these adjust ISO, flash settings, the self-timer, and focus mode. It’s surrounded by four large buttons; one adjusts exposure compensation, and the others perform image playback and menu functions. There’s also a dedicated record button located at the top right corner of the rear face.

Additional shooting settings can be controlled via an overlay menu, familiar to anyone who has picked up a recent PowerShot camera. Pressing the FuncSet at the center of the rear dial opens this menu. Located on the far left of the LCD, it provides quick access to metering settings, color balance, white balance, exposure compensation, drive mode, image aspect and quality settings, and video resolution control.

The rear display is big at 3 inches, but isn’t that sharp. It’s got a 230k-dot resolution, noticeably lagging behind the 461k-dot screen found on the next model up in Canon’s long-zoom lineup, the Canon PowerShot SX510 HS. The low resolution, compared with the generally noisy images that the SX170 captures, don’t do the camera any favors. The Live View feed that’s presented on the LCD is quite grainy, and lacks detail.

A year ago, a lack of Wi-Fi wouldn’t be a black mark against any camera—it was a nice-to-have feature. But now it’s almost expected. Canon makes a couple other long zoom cameras with built-in Wi-Fi, including the SX280 HS and the SX510 HS, and all of Samsung’s lineup includes the ability to copy images from the camera to your phone via Wi-Fi. If you want Wi-Fi in a camera, it’s best to look elsewhere, as the cost of adding an Eye-Fi Mobi memory card to the SX170 IS pushes you to a price point where you could get a better camera with the feature already built in.

Performance and Conclusions
The SX170 IS is a relatively sluggish performer. It requires 2 seconds to start and take a photo, can only fire a photo once every 2.1 seconds in continuous drive mode, records a 0.2-second shutter lag at its widest setting, and requires about 2 seconds to do the same when zoomed all the way in. The Canon SX510 is a little faster; it starts and shoot sin 1.6 seconds, shoots at a little better than 1 frame per second, and can focus in 0.1-second at its wide end and in 1.7 seconds at its telephoto extreme.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the SX170′s lens. It’s one area in which the camera doesn’t disappoint. The lens manages to capture 2,349 lines per picture height in our sharpness test, better than the 1,800 lines that we use as a cutoff for an acceptably sharp image. The lens is not without its issues; there’s noticeable color fringing at the edges of the frame when zoomed all the way in. Not every long zoom camera is able to excel in sharpness; the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS30 only manages 1,661 lines, and its 20x zoom lens is only slightly more ambitious in terms of design.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which is where the SX170′s CCD image sensor lags behind other cameras that use CMOS imagers. Even at its lowest sensitivity (ISO 100) it records 1.6 percent noise, which is just slightly higher than what we like to see. Noise increases steadily as the ISO is raised, hitting 2.2 percent at ISO 400 and 2.9 percent at the top ISO 1600 setting. I took a close look at the our test shots using a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. The images hold up well in terms of detail through ISO 400, but details are smudged at ISO 800 and almost nonexistent at ISO 1600. If you’re willing to sacrifice some zoom range, the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS is a much better performer in low light. Its image control noise and hold up to scrutiny through ISO 1600.

The camera records 720p30 video in QuickTime format. The footage is quite sharp, but very grainy even under bright studio lighting. The lens can zoom in and out when recording, but it’s loud to the point where it overwhelms the soundtrack. There’s an extended digital zoom beyond the optical limit, but image quality quickly degrades. You’ll have to offload videos to another device if you want to view them on your HDTV, there’s no HDMI port on the SX170 IS. There is a standard mini USB port, and the camera does ship with an external wall charger for its removable battery. Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, including SDHC and SDXC, are supported.

The Canon PowerShot SX170 IS faces some stiff competition from both other Canon cameras and competing brands. It suffers from slower performance, excessive image noise, and limited video capture capability. The camera does produce sharp images and its 16x zoom range is more than adequate for most shooters, but some may feel limited by its 28mm wide-angle setting. If you’re willing to sacrifice some telephoto reach, you can get the excellent PowerShot Elph 330 HS instead; it does a better job in low light, captures a wider field of view, integrates Wi-Fi, and sells for the same retail price as the SX170. If you’re feel like you need a longer zoom range than the 330 HS can provide, consider Canon’s SX510 HS, the Samsung WB250F, or our Editors’ Choice compact superzoom, the Canon SX280 HS. They’re all priced above $200, but are more versatile, full-featured shooters.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.8 x 4.25 x 1.7 inches
Interface Ports mini USB
Sensor Type CCD
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 2.1 seconds
LCD dots 230000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 1600
Type Superzoom
GPS No
Optical Zoom 16 x
Boot time 2 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 8.9 oz
Lines Per Picture Height 2349
Video Resolution 720p
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 448 mm
Shutter Lag 0.23 seconds
Sensor Size 1/2.3" (6.2 x 4.6mm) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Canon PowerShot SX170 IS delivers a 16x zoom range at a low price, but images are noisy and the camera is a slow performer.
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