After two less-than-inspiring upgrades, Canon has finally come up with a significant follow-up to its groundbreaking original Rebel Digital SLR with the new 12.2-megapixel EOS Rebel XSi. Though it's still Canon's entry-level DSLR, the Rebel XSi borrows some of the look and feel and several of the features of its more professional cameras, including its speedy Digic III image processor; extremely responsive nine-point autofocus system; and improved image quality, particularly in low light.
Who Is It For?
While the previous models--the undersized Rebel XT and XTi--were aimed at first-time DSLR buyers, the taller, more rugged XSi is geared toward users who might already know a bit about photography. If you're looking to expand your creativity as a photographer but don't necessarily want to jump up to the much pricier and more complicated Canon EOS 40D orNikon D300, the Canon EOS Rebel XSi will give you the right amount of manual control for the money.
TheCanon Rebel XTand Rebel XTi always felt too small and dainty to us. While the new Rebel XSi is taller and wider than those previous models, at 16.8 ounces (body only) it's actually more than an ounce lighter that the XTi, and a fraction of an ounce lighter than the XT. The design of the Rebel XSi is also more ergonomic than the boxier Rebel XTi, with sloping shoulders, curved edges, and a more comfortable, contoured feel. We especially like the longer, rubberized handgrip on the XSi, which gave us enough room to fit our pinky. There's also a nice rubberized thumbrest on the back and easy-to-access function buttons of different sizes and textures, so you can identify each one by touch. The ISO button has also been conveniently placed on top of the camera instead of on the back as before.
The biggest change in the design of the XSi is its huge 3-inch LCD screen, which is a significant improvement. With 230,000 pixels of resolution and a 170-degree viewing angle, image preview was crisp and clear while our shots looked sharp in playback. Menus on the larger screen also look great and are easy to read and navigate, thanks to a larger font size. Framing shots using the camera's Live View function (discussed below) was also much easier with the larger LCD.
The Rebel XSi's optical viewfinder has been improved with 0.87X magnification--compared with 0.8X on the XTi--with accurate coverage of up to 95 percent of the image area. Though the Rebel XSi is offered in silver or black, stick with the black version; it looks classier and more professional.
Sizing up the Lens
Though the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Image Stabilizer lens that comes with the Rebel XSi as part of a standard kit is decent, we really would like to see this camera also offered as a more expensive kit with a higher-quality Canon lens with a faster aperture for low light. Since the XSi's autofocus actually gets better when paired with lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or faster--something we experienced when we popped a premium 24-70mm f/2.8 Canon lens onto the camera--why not?
Though the 18-55mm lens was okay, it struggled when we tried photographing a book reading at a sparsely lit bar. And while we liked the wide range of the lens, we noticed significant softness in the corners in landscape shots we took of the Hudson River from atop Breakneck Ridge in Hudson Highlands State Park.
Better Live View
Live View on the Rebel XSi is much improved but still annoyingly difficult to access. It now comes in two versions: A Quick mode, which flips the camera's mirror out of the way, autofocuses using Phase Detection, and then lets you capture the shot you see on the LCD; and a new Live mode, which uses the imaging sensor to focus using Contrast Detection. We like that the new Live mode accesses these two options since it's more intuitive, but it's slower to autofocus; you have to dig through the camera's Custom functions to find it. We wish you could do this directly through the Live View Set button on the back.
We'd also really like to see Canon offer a titling or articulating LCD on future Rebels, so users can really take advantage of using Live View to easily frame and capture shots while holding the camera overhead or down low.
The Rebel XSi's dust-cleaning system hasn't changed much from the XTi and is still effective for shaking off dust and dirt from a filter in front of the image sensor. You can also use the supplied Digital Photo Professional software to map and remove any spots on your images during post-processing.
Fastest in Class
Thanks to its Digic III processor, the Rebel XSi is the fastest entry-level digital SLR we've tested. Startup time to first shot was nearly instantaneous, and shot-to-shot time was less than a quarter of a second. The Rebel XSi also has the fastest burst speed of any entry-level DSLR we've tested with the ability to fire up to 3.5 frames per second for bursts of up to 53 large/fine JPEGs or 6 RAW images. Though not on a par with professional sports cameras, the Rebel XSi was brisk in photographing a basketball game and bikers in a local park. We also liked the nine-point autofocus system, which quickly and accurately locked in on moving subjects.
Overall XSi Image Quality
It's curious that Canon has chosen to offer a maximum ISO of only 1600 on the Rebel XSi where some competing models go up to ISO 3200, especially considering that the XSi did very well when shooting at high ISOs. Shooting without a flash at ISO 1600 during the book reading at the bar produced good results, with only moderate noise. This is likely due to the larger micro-lenses on the camera's 12.2MP CMOS sensor, which let in more light. Our only complaint was some excessive red in skin tones.
In our outdoor shots, color was punchy but faithful to the original image--not overly vivid, as on some competing entry-level DSLRs, which tend to pump up colors. One key to the XSi's good color could be its 14-bit A/D processor, which records up to 16,384 colors per channel. Skin tones in our outdoor portraits were better than in our indoor high ISO shots but still looked overly ruddy. When shooting portraits with the XSi, we recommend choosing the Portrait setting in Picture Styles (selectable on the back of the camera), which tones down the red a notch.
Canon EOS Rebel XSi Verdict
Though Canon has already produced a pair of decent if unspectacular successors to the original digital Rebel, the new XSi is the first model that offers a definitive leap forward. With a more comfortable design, faster overall speed, and improvements in image quality, the XSi is an entry-level digital SLR that looks and acts like a more advanced model. Whether you're looking to buy your first DSLR or just want to expand your picture-taking experience with an upgrade to a new camera, the Rebel XSi is one of the best options available.