Of the dozens of cameras we've seen launch this spring, the $279 Canon PowerShot SD780 IS, a pint-size point-and-shoot, stands out with one of the sleekest designs. You also get accurate colors, HD video recording, an Intelligent Auto mode, fast face detection, and a neat LCD with a built-in accelerometer. More advanced photographers will get fed up with its weak low-light and Macro performance, but casual shooters will appreciate its quality and love its portability.
The 4.1-ounce SD780 IS is one of the few pocket cameras that can actually fit in a pocket. At 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.7 inches, we were even able to slip it comfortably inside the pocket of our skinny jeans. It has a slim, boxy shape, which looks more modern than the pillowy shapes you'll find elsewhere, including other models in Canon's lineup. The 3X lens doesn't protrude from the front face, although the ring surrounding it is large. When held, the thin, flat, rectangular shape makes the SD780 IS feel a bit like a cell phone.
The aluminum shell, available in red, black, silver, and gold, adds to the camera's edgy design, although it picks up scratches easily. (Casio's Exilim EX-FC100, for example, is made from alloy, which felt more durable in our testing).
The downside to having such a svelte shape is that the SD780 IS has a small 2.5-inch (230,000 pixels) LCD, with tiny buttons to match. The power button and shutter on top are small, as is the toggle attached to the shutter, which controls the zoom. On the back are playback, display, and menu buttons; a three-way switch with notches for Auto, Program, and Movie modes; and a four-way navigational pad whose edges double as focus, delete, self-timer, flash, and exposure controls. Although minimal buttons is a nice feature, having so many options on such a tiny pad made for an occasionally cumbersome shooting experience.
The LCD, though a bit small, ultimately won us over, thanks to its built-in accelerometer. When reviewing photos, the camera changes the orientation when it detects movement from vertical to horizontal, and vice versa (handy for reviewing vertical shots). We used the SD780 IS in a wide range of shooting conditions, including a dimly lit bowling alley and outside on a sunny day, and the screen was always comfortably viewable.
The SD780 IS is not for advanced shooters: still shooting has Auto and Program modes, but no manual mode. In Auto mode, you can't adjust any of the settings; rather, Smart Auto mode adjusts them for you. It was neat to see the on-screen icon change from Portrait to Macro when we pointed the camera away from people and toward an object in close range.
In Program mode, you can adjust all the usual suspects--exposure, flash, white balance, ISO. In Program mode, if you turn the camera off and then back on, the settings remain the same as when you last used it. In Program mode, users can also choose from 20 scene modes.
The on-screen menus are easy to master; the tabbed interface, as on most cameras, distinguishes between shooting and camera settings. Canon's menus are colorful and slick, but chances are you'll rarely use them. If you shoot in Auto mode, Smart Auto will do all the work for you. But even in Program mode, most of the controls are located on the navigational pad. The upshot to having them crammed onto a tiny pad is that in a pinch you can find almost everything you need in one place.
For the kind of customers the SD780 IS is targeting--people who want a camera tiny enough to fit in their pocket for a night on the town or a daytime outing--the image quality is adequate. Inside and out, the colors were accurate. The camera particularly shines when natural light is present--either outdoors, or in a room with well-placed windows.
Other situations were less impressive. The flash overwhelmed many of our Macro shots, although the camera did a good job of blurring the background while keeping the foreground sharp. In low-light situations, the camera effectively brightened our subjects, and the face detection picked up on multiple faces almost instantly. But even in an incandescently lit room, graininess appeared on smooth surfaces, such as wood furniture. The slow four-second shot-to-shot speed also meant that we missed some shots we wanted, such as a friend bowling (or celebrating her strike).
Another downside to having a camera this small is that it only has 3X optical zoom, whereas most other mid-range cameras have more versatile 4X and 5X lenses. In close-range situations--sitting with friends in a living room, for instance--it was fine. But once we entered more open spaces, such as a bowling alley and a backyard, we craved a little more zoom.
The SD780 IS records 720p video at 30 frames per second. The SD780 IS is the least expensive camera in the company's lineup that shoots HD video. You can also use the zoom during filming, with pretty smooth results. Although the camera stays focused while you zoom, in movie mode it's easy to push into digital zoom territory accidentally, where the camera starts to lose focus. But with still shots, like on most cameras, it pauses when on the line between optical and digital zoom.
As we've noted with other HD point-and-shoots, such as the FC100, the video is only as good as the still photos. Although the motion was smooth, the sound pleasant, and the colors accurate, the same low threshold for low-light conditions applies. So, if your photos look bad in a given situation, your video will, too.
Battery Life, Speed, and Warranty
The SD780 IS' rechargeable battery has a rated life of 210 shots. Indeed, we were able to take close to 200 shots, plus a handful of videos, before getting the low-battery warning.
Although the camera takes just a second to turn on and off, it took four seconds to ready itself between consecutive shots, which isn't unreasonable for a point-and-shoot. However, there are faster cameras; the FC100, for instance, takes just 2 seconds between shots. The SD780 IS is backed by a one-year warranty.
In most regards, the $279 Canon PowerShot SD780 IS is a solid mid-range point-and-shoot: it has decent image quality, records HD video, and is one of the most attractive pocket cameras we've seen in a while. Some flaws, however, such as overexposed shots when using Macro and low-light performance, hold it back from a higher rating. But casual photographers might rather have a camera this tiny than one that excels at close-ups or low-light shooting.