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Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS - Digital Camera Review
aka - Canon Powershot SD800 IS Digital Elph / Canon IXY Digital 900 IS

Review Date: 18/11/2006
Rating: Recommended

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Introduction: Announced on the 14th of September 2006, the Canon Powershot SD800 / Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS is one of the newest Canon Digital IXUS cameras, and features a wide-angle lens, a first for a Canon Digital IXUS. The IXUS 850 IS is a 7.1 megapixel digital camera with a high resolution 2.5" screen, and a wide-angle 3.8x optical zoom lens with image stabilisation (this means you can take blure free photos in low light or when using the telephoto zoom). The 3.8x optical zoom lens is equivalent to 28 - 105mm on a 35mm camera. The Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS is available from around £259 this makes it average value for money for an ultra compact 7 megapixel digital camera. The camera is enclosed in a sturdy metal body and is available in dark silver. The camera has a 640x480 30fps video mode with sound and optical image stabilisation. The camera is very compact, and measures: 89.5 x 58.0 x 25.1 mm (without protruding parts), and weighs approx. 150g excluding batteries and media.

Canon have this to say about the camera:

"Side-arm to the serious photographer, the 7.1 Megapixel Digital IXUS 850 IS is a milestone of performance and style. A 3.8x wide-angle lens takes in more - ideal for large group shots and landscapes. A 28mm (equivalent) wide-angle lens with 3.8x zoom takes in more of every scene. Canon's optical Image Stabilizer (IS) technology counteracts camera shake for steady shots at slower shutter speeds and full zoom."

You can find more information on their website.

The Camera: a visual tour: (Photos of the camera taken with the Panasonic Lumix FZ3)

Front - Camera off.

Front view - optical viewfinder, focus assist lamp, flash, lens. On the left side is the AV out and USB connection cover, and lens strap loop.

Back - 2.5" screen, optical viewfinder, status LEDs, mode dial, Print button, 4-way controller, Function/Set button, Disp, Menu.

Top: Speaker, On/off, Microphone, Zoom control, Shutter release.

Bottom - metal tripod mount, battery and memory compartment. 3.7v 1120mAh Lithium Ion battery.

Size Comparison: Compared to a Pentax 35mm film camera - a medium/compact sized 35mm film camera.

Size comparison.

Size comparison.

Size comparison, compared to the Canon Powershot A700.

Size comparison, compared to the Samsung NV3 (a 7mp digital camera featuring MP3 and Video playback).

Specifications / Features:

  • 7.1 Megapixels CCD Sensor
  • 3.8x wide-angle lens with optical Image Stabilizer (28mm - 105mm equivalent)
  • Compact, stylish design
  • DIGIC III Image Processor
  • Face Detection AF/AE
  • 2.5" LCD, 207,000 pixels
  • 17 shooting modes including movies
  • My Colors
  • ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and High ISO Auto for flash-free indoor shooting
  • Safety Zoom
  • Video at VGA, 30fps with sound - digital zoom available
  • ~5cm macro mode
  • Supports SDHC memory cards

Box Contents:

  • Digital Camera
  • Strap
  • Battery Charger
  • Battery Pack
  • AV Cable
  • USB Cable
  • Software CD Rom
  • Full Manual on CD Rom
  • 32-page Basic User Guide
  • 16mb SD Memory Card

Average box contents - There is a very small 16mb memory card provided with the camera - this is worse than a lot of other cameras, and you should invest in a much larger memory card. Some kind of case would be very useful.

Battery usage: Battery life is good for a compact digital camera, rated at 270 shots according to CIPA standards and Canon tested. This is very good for an ultra-compact but not as good as the excellent 580 shot battery life of the the Fujifilm FinePix F30.

Camera Operation and OptionsThe mode dial on the back of the camera lets you switch between the main modes: Play, Auto Photo, Manual Photo, Scene, and Video. You can access the further modes in the Function menu.

Photo mode/menu:

Photo mode, ISO selection (rollover) Photo Function Menu

Screen / LCD display in photo mode: (shown above, left) The screen resolution with 207,000 pixels is good for a 2.5" screen and pictures look clear on it. The screen is clear and the text and menus are easy to read. The screen can seem a bit cluttered in use, but the additional icons can be switched off - there is no histogram in photo mode, but there is one viewable in playback mode. Accessing some of the most popular options (such as ISO, Flash, Macro, Self-Timer etc) is easily done using the 4-way controller.

Funtion menu options: (available in M mode) On the left is: Mode (details below ), Exposure compensation, White balance (including custom), My Colours (Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black and White, Positive Film, Lighter skin tone, Darker skin tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Custom Colour - this allows you to change Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation, Red, Green, Blue, and Skin Tone), Exposure mode (evaluative, center weighted average, spot), Image quality (super fine, fine, normal), Image size.

Modes: In manual mode, you can press the function button and select: Manual, Digital Macro, Colour Accent, Colour Swap, Stitch Assist (Panoramic Left to Right and vice versa). Examples of colour accent, and colour swap can be seen below.

Colour Accent (Red) Colour swap (blue and pink)

Scene modes: in scene mode pressing the Function button lets you choose from: Portrait, Night snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater.

Photo Menu Setup Menu

Photo menu options: AiAF (Face detect, On, Off), Slow-synchro, Red-eye, Selt-timer, AF-assist beam, Digital zoom, Review, Auto category, Disp Overlay (Grid lines, 3:2 Guide), IS Mode (Off, Continuous, Shoot only, Panning), Date stamp, Long shutter.

Setup menu options: Mute, Volume, LCD brightness, Power saving, Time zone, Date time, Clock display, Format, File numbering, Create folder, Auto rotate, Lens retract, Language, Video system, Print method, Reset all.

Optical / Electronic Viewfinder:  The optical viewfinder on this compact digital camera is quite small, but not rediculously small like some, and it is usable even when wearing glasses.

Playback (Review) mode/menu:

Playback view Playback menu, Print menu (rollover)

Playback mode: Scrolling through the photos is very quick. Zooming in is very quick and magnifies the image up to 10x. Zooming out shows 9 images at a time as thumbnails. Further photo information (shown above, left) is available by pressing the display button, although unfortunately it only shows the ISO setting when you have manually selected it when taking the photo. 

Playback menu: Sildeshow, My Category, Erase, Protect, My Colours (Allows you to change the colours in the same way as when you are taking the photo), Sound memo, Rotate, Transfer order, Transition (for the slideshow). Print menu options are: Print selected images, selected by date, category, folder, all images, clear all selections, and print settings.

Picture Size / Quality: The camera takes the following size pictures, and the following number will fit in the 16mb SD Memory card provided:

Size Number of Photos Stored / Quality
  SuperFine Fine Normal
7mp (3072x2304) 4 7 15
Widescreen (3072x1728) 5 9 20
M1 5mp (2592x1944) 5 9 19
M2 3mp (2048x1536 8 15 30
M3 2mp (1600x1200) 13 24 (Postcard) 47
S VGA (640x480) 52 81 128

As shown in the table above, higher quality images take a large amount of memory, so a high capacity memory card is definitely recommended. You can fit a very limited number of 7mp Fine images on the built in memory, and you will definitely need to buy a larger memory card.

A large memory card is relatively cheap, and highly recommended, I would recommend at a bare minimum a 256mb memory card, and preferably a 512mb memory card, especially considering the relatively low prices - the larger the memory card, the more photos you will be able to take. If you intend to use the PMP or MP3 features of this digital camera then you would be best with a 1GB or 2GB memory card. If you are likely to be away from a computer for a long time (such as when going on holiday) then the largest memory card you can afford would definitely be worth investing in. This camera takes only secure digital memory. Listed below are links to memory cards that will work with the Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS:

Find the latest prices for SD memory cards at Amazon.co.uk: 256mb: £6, 512mb: £8, 1gb (1000mb): £11, 2gb (2000mb): £25
Need more help deciding what memory card to buy? Have a look at our guide to digital camera memory cards or our article what size memory card should I buy?

Speed: The camera's switch on time is very quick and takes around 1.4 seconds to switch on and take a photo. Focusing is quick at around 0.4 seconds - shutter response is quick at around 0.1 seconds. Shot to shot time is around 1.5 seconds (with review off), with flash on this slows down to around 3 seconds between shots. Playback mode is very quick, and its easy to zoom in on your last shot and check for blur with the zoom control. Moving from picture to picture is very quick but you can also get an overview of 9 shots at a time if you zoom out one more notch. Moving around the different menu options is rapid. Continuous shooting is very quick at around 2fps - flash is available whilst in continuous shooting mode - with the frame rate slowing only slightly and shots are taken at around 1fps.

Ease of use: Using the camera is fairly straightforward, simply switch it on and start taking photos, however, when you want to use some of the more advanced features of the camera it can becomes more complicated, due to some of the hidden functions (such as the sharpness, contrast, and saturation controls). Switching between the modes is easy thanks to the mode dial on the back of the camera and once you find all the options the camera becomes fairly easy to use, and it is fairly easy to use the more basic functions of the camera - for example it's easy to switch between the photo, video and playback modes. The Canon way of using the Function menu as the main controls and the Menu button to access setup options can take some time to get used to, especially if you are used to cameras from other brands.

Ergonomics and Buttons: (Feel, placement, labels, etc.) The camera feels solid, with a robust metal body. The stylish design and colour scheme looks very good. However there isn't much that your thumb can grip onto, and the front of the camera is almost completely flat. The zoom control is very easy to use, surrounding the shutter release button. The shutter release button feels good. The compact camera fits very easily into small pockets. The camera labels are clear. The buttons and controls are all positioned so that the camera can be operated with one hand. I found the mode dial easy to use with my thumb but it's small size was difficult to use for some people. The ability to stand the camera vertically for portrait photos, as well as horizontally, is a potentially useful feature that isn't regularly found on digital cameras.

Image Quality: Here are some real world sample photos taken in various settings, such as Inside, Outside, Macro, to demonstrate the quality of pictures taken and also show different features of the camera. Larger versions of these photos, plus more photos are available in the Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS / SD800 Sample Photo Gallery!


Heather and Flower Group photo

Inside: The camera has very good colour - It took a good "Heather and Flower" photo - there is very little red-eye in the photo, and there is very little redeye in the group photos. The colour is quite richly saturated and detail is good - saturation can be increased by setting the camera to the Vivid mode and by adjusting exposure compensation by -1/3. It has a fairly decent flash, although it occassionally will struggle if the subject is too far away. The camera copes fairly well with group photos, and on AUTO ISO, the ISO setting was kept fairly low in these photos. The camera did a good job at focusing most of the time even in low-light thanks to the focus assist lamp.

ISO Noise Test: Noise is generally a bad thing - it removes detail, and gives a grainy effect over the image. With digital cameras noise can be a real problem as digital camera noise is often made out of blue, red or green dots. As the ISO setting increases, pictures tend to have more noise. Noise is most noticeable in dark areas of photos. The camera has an Automatic mode for ISO levels, and manual ISO settings (ISO: 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600).

Below you'll find the noise test image, plus actual pixel crops from the image taken at different ISO settings, compared with the 6 megapixel, Fujifilm FinePix F30, (which is currently the benchmark compact camera for noise tests due to it's excellent high ISO performance), and 7 megapixel Samsung NV3.

ISO Noise Test Photos - Flash is off. Fujifilm FinePix F30 on the left, Samsung NV3 in the middle, Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS on the right. The colour difference is due to automatic white balance.

Fujifilm FinePix F30 (6mp) Samsung NV3 (7mp) Canon Digital IXUS 850 (7mp)
N/A ISO80 - Actual Pixels ISO80 - Actual Pixels
ISO100 - Actual Pixels ISO100 - Actual Pixels ISO100 - Actual Pixels
ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels
ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels
ISO800 - Actual Pixels ISO800 - Actual Pixels ISO800 - Actual Pixels
ISO1600 - Actual Pixels ISO1000 - Actual Pixels ISO1600 - Actual Pixels

With the IXUS 850 IS noise is noticable in ISO80 shots with noise becoming more and more noticable as the ISO setting is increased. Colour remains good till ISO800 or higher is used. Detail remains quite good until ISO400 and above. The results aren't as noise free as the Fujifilm FinePix F30, but ISO settings 80 - 200 should produce acceptable results, ISO400 - 800 are usable when needed, and ISO1600 should probably be avoided. The NV3 appears to have more aggressive noise reduction, resulting is less detail. Compared to the IXUS 850,the NV3 appears to have much lower noise at ISO80 and ISO100 although this does mean there is also less detail. The NV3 appears to use much stronger noise reduction when compared to the 7 megapixel Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS.

Image Stabilisation: This is the first Canon Digital IXUS to feature image stabilisation, a feature that helps reduce image blur due to low light or long zoom photography. Here are some test photos taken with Image Stabilisation on and off - these photos were taken without flash in low light. The Canon Digital IXUS 850 image stabilisation system moves a lens element to counter any camera shake. These photos were taken on macro mode.

Image Stabilisation On Image Stabilisation Off
Image Stabilisation On (Actual Pixels) Image Stabilisation Off (Actual Pixels)

As you can see - image stabilisation is effective for low-light / high zoom, slow shutter speed photography helping acheive blur free photos in situations where you normally wouldn't be able to get a sharp image without the aid of a tripod.


Liverpool shops (Exposure bias : -2/3) People in front of the Liver Building

Outside: The camera has great colour - accurate and richly saturated with good contrast and good detail. Saturation can be increased by switching to vivid mode, and by setting exposure compensation down by -1/3 or -2/3 as I have done in the Liverpool shops photo. Noise was low in ISO80 photos. The quality was set to maximum to minimise any jpeg artefacts.

Zoom: This camera has a wide-angle 3.8x optical zoom lens and a built in 5x? digital zoom - in the case of this camera the digital zoom basically takes a smaller area of the photo and enlarges it using software blurring the image so that it is not pixellated. Generally it's best to avoid using digital zoom as it degrades the quality of the image and, often, better results can be obtained by using a photo package such as Adobe Photoshop. I've included examples below to show what the 3.8x optical zoom and 5x digital zoom is capable of.

Wide-angle 3.8x Optical zoom Optical and Digital Zoom

Exposure The photos of the clock tower seem well exposed, with good detail in the dark areas, some blown out highlights in the wide-angle shot. This can be altered using exposure compensation.

Lens noise and zoom: The lens makes some noise in operation. There are seven steps between wide and telephoto zoom, this gives you fairly good control over how you frame your subject.

Other Image Quality issues: Purple fringing was low and difficult to detect in any normal photos, while there was some in the wide-angle clock tower, this shouldn't cause any problems in the majority of photos. Corner softness was noticed in some photos, especially where there was a lot of detail in the corners, for example in photos of trees.


Timex Watch Macro Actual Pixels

The macro mode allows you to be roughly 5 cm away from the subject - this is gets good close up shots, and detail appears good, however some noise is visible. Custom white balance helps get better colours, and automatic white balance was generally good.

Video mode: The camera features a good video mode - it records VGA videos at 30fps with sound as AVI files. Compared to other digital cameras the Canon can't fit very long videos on the memory card, as it doesn't use very high compression, such as MPEG4. The video mode also features image stabilisation but doesn't let you use the optical zoom whilst recording. Uniquely the camera can also record 320x240 videos at 60fps.


Image Quality: I was impressed by the camera's image quality - the camera has good detail and excellent colour (accurate, and well saturated with lots of options to fine tune to your liking). Images have good saturation and contrast, with fairly low noise at the lower ISO settings. The higher ISO settings of ISO800 and ISO1600 are probably best avoided. Indoors photos were good, with noise kept fairly low, and red-eye was quite low. Purple fringing was noticed in one of the shots, but wasn't a problem in the majority of shots. The camera was good at focusing indoors thanks to the focus assist lamp. I did not notice any vignetting, barrel or pincushion distortion, however there was some corner softness in images. There is a very good range of image sizes, aspect ratio, and compression options. Auto white balance, metering, and exposure seemed to be very good. The camera gives you good control over image quality with custom white balance, sharpness, contrast, saturation options and other colour options (such as Vivid etc). The optical image stabilisation is an added bonus helping with low-light photos and telephoto shots. The video mode is good with high resolution, and high frame rate. The macro mode good, with good detail. (8/10)

Everything else (the camera as a whole): The camera is very stylish with a smooth silver body. The camera has a very good high resolution 2.5" screen. The camera feels sturdy and is comfortable to hold. The camera is fairly easy to use, thanks to the mode dial. There is a good layout of buttons and controls, although some of the options may take a little time to get familiar with. The camera speed is good, with a good switch on time, rapid focusing time, quick shutter response, rapid flash recharge time, quick playback mode, quick menus, and excellent continuous shooting (with or without flash!). The camera has a large range of features, such as optical image stabilisation, and a wide-angle lens, plus a lot of imaging options, such as Vivid colour mode, Sharpness, Saturation, Contrast, Custom White Balance etc. Battery life is good for an ultra compact. The camera is a very complete imaging package, there really is very little missing from this digital camera. (9/10)

Value for Money: The Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS is available from around £259, this makes it average value for money for an ultra compact 7 megapixel digital camera with optical image stabilisation. There is a very small number of ultra compact digital cameras with a wide angle lens and optical image stabilisation, so the IXUS 850 IS is a good choice. Similar cameras from Panasonic are the 850's main competition, the Panasonic Lumix FX01 (£173) and FX50 (£235) are currently much better value for money. (7/10) See more digital camera reviews sorted by megapixels here.

SummaryThe Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS is an excellent ultra compact digital camera - image quality isn't perfect - but it is very good with great colour and detail. Throw in a wide angle lens to help you get more of your friends in the photo, and then add optical image stabilisation to help make sure your photos are sharp even in low light, and you end up with a cracking camera that you can take anywhere and use in almost every situation. The only aspect of the camera that might put you off is the price when compared to the competition. If you want a highly capable and pocketable digital camera with a wide-angle lens and optical image stabilisation then the Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS is recommended! However, have a look at the Panasonic Lumix FX01, it offers almost identical specifications, but is nearly £90 cheaper.

Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS Rating: Recommended (8/10)
£259 at Amazon - Check for more price below!

What I like:

  • Good image quality - excellent colour
  • Very good macro - good detail
  • Excellent 2.5" screen - very clear, high resolution 207,000 pixels
  • Good video mode - VGA, 30fps, Sound
  • Feels good (solid) and looks good with an ultra-compact stylish body
  • Wide angle 3.8x optical zoom lens
  • Quick in operation - continuous shooting is quick and allows the use of flash!
  • Optical image stabilisation
  • Wide-angle lens
  • Lots of control over image quality (colour, sharpness, saturation etc)

What I don't like:

  • Canon naming conventions! This camera is known as the IXUS 850 in the UK, the SD800 in the US, and the IXY 900 in Asia! This conflicts with other UK cameras, namely the IXUS 800, and the IXUS 900!
  • Some corner softness.
  • Expensive compared to the competition.

Additional Test Images are viewable in the Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS Sample Photo Gallery.

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