Wrapping your hands around the Canon PowerShot A580 for the first time is like coming home to an old friend: It looks and feels like a real camera, not like an iPod with a lens. The A580 isn't so small that it's awkward to hold nor too large and heavy that you'll quickly tire of shooting. Your fingers automatically position themselves around the thumb stop and on the shutter button, where the zoom lever is conveniently located. It also comes with a 4X, rather than a 3X optical zoom lens--a bonus for this price.
Versatile Design and Interface
The 3.7 x 2.6 x 1.6-inch A580 offers both an LCD and an optical viewfinder, letting you frame your shots at arm's length or put the camera right up to your eye. However, the optical viewfinder has no focusable diopter, plus the 2.5-inch LCD is on the small side and displays at a relatively low resolution. All icons and text are bright, visible, and highly legible, however.
Instead of navigating through menus, a convenient rotary dial quickly puts you into the most frequently used shooting modes. (You'll have to set it on SCN and flip through the menu for additional scenes, however.) The buttons on the back of the camera are well placed and clearly marked, but the memory card door is on the bottom, in the battery compartment, instead of in a more convenient side door. Also, this camera takes 2 AA batteries--good in a pinch, but some may prefer a Lithium-ion battery.
Modes and Settings
Despite its dial selection and SCN position, the A580 offers only 15 shooting modes. While it has Kids & Pets, it lacks a high-speed Sports mode. It's also missing Night Portrait, Candlelight, and other popular modes. In Auto mode, the only user-selectable options are Resolution and Image Quality. The dial does have a Manual position, which is something of a misnomer since you can't select specific f-stops or shutter speeds (though you can choose ISO, white balance, meter type, color type, exposure compensation, image quality, and resolution).
Fast Shooting, Excellent Face Recognition
The A580 is pretty speedy, thanks to its Digic III Image Processor. It boots up in a swift 1.4 seconds and can fire off one full-resolution frame every 1.4 seconds in Continuous mode as well, not quite as fast as the Nikon Coolpix L18's Continuous mode rate of one frame every second but still pretty fast. Canon's face recognition technology worked rapidly and flawlessly, choosing the correct settings every time for accurate exposure and focus.
We also enjoyed using Canon's Artificial Intelligent Auto-Focus (AiAF) setting. When paired with the optical image stabilization feature, the A580 helped reduce blur in our action scenes. We did notice some degradation in image quality, however. Also, because it uses an f2.6 lens opening, the 4X zoom lens admits more light than most comparable zoom lenses, allowing it to capture available light better by slightly increasing the shutter speed.
Overall Image Quality
On our still life tests, the A580 exhibited very good color and sharp focus, but it overexposed everything by two-thirds of a stop. Our real-life interior and macro shots were highly accurate, though. On the other hand, while our outdoor action shots were sharp, the highlights were blown out.
Although its fastest frame rate is only 20 fps at VGA (640 x 480) resolution, the A580's videos looked smooth and the sound was clear and loud. We also like that you can slow the video down during playback on the LCD, sans sound.
Canon has assembled a good mix of ergonomics, features, and image quality, at an affordable price with the A580. And it looks, feels, and shoots like a camera that costs more than $149.