May 17, 2014

Devil is in the details or how Canon cameras fail to deliver

I've bought Canon camera from its IXUS series some time ago. It indeed makes sharp high-res photos, i.e. it does its main job excellently. This article is about how much do small details kill the experience. Interestingly, this stuff won't show up in reviews. If you are up to buying a new camera, perhaps you would like to know what gotchas to look out for.

Probably in line with planned obsolescence movement, Canon cameras have an arbitrary limit on the number of pictures you can have on the SD card. Once you are over 3K pictures, the camera will fail to sync with the computer, showing cryptic communication error. With 2.5MB pictures, that means you will utilize at most 7.5GB of space on the SD card, which is rather ridiculous given today's 32GB+ SD cards.

Then there's the issue of speed. Reviewers for some reason keep testing cameras in mostly static situations where several seconds of delay do not matter. Once you start making family photos that include children (the main application for consumer cameras), you will quickly discover that interesting moments can be gone in a fraction of a second. Canon's camera will take like ages to take the picture, become ready for the next picture, start a video, and focus on the target, especially in video mode.

The other really problematic issue I see on cameras, and it's not just Canon, is that they cannot really do long exposition due to focus and motion blur issues. This comes down to the primitive architecture of their sensors. Short exposition limits camera's light input and effectively prevents the camera from providing full 12Mpx resolution even in bright light. Artificial light photos are notoriously poor. Vibration compensation is crippled in low light and in zoom, i.e. in exactly those situations that could benefit from it.

All these issues come down to intelligence. Camera can do much better job if it makes several shots in quick succession, then picks the best one. Stitching together several consecutive images to get a better one is another trick that could improve image quality with purely software implementation. There's some "intelligent" focus function in the camera, but it reliably misses the object I am trying to shoot unless it is in the center of the screen already. No sane way to shoot two people standing next to each other.

Speaking of software, the PC software is rather pathetic. Apparently, like many other companies, Canon favored nice screenshots over performance and features. It starts with the slow data cable, which doesn't seem to reach even USB 2.0 speeds. Video transfer takes longer than video shooting. There's no WiFi link. Software itself takes one minute to launch. The software cannot handle multiple PCs downloading from the same camera. It mixes video and photos in the same folder and stuffs useless ZbThumbnail.info in every folder. As a software developer, I can say this could be done way better in a fairly short amount of time.

It's no better with the on-board software. You have to use separate program on PC to correct rotation, because the camera doesn't do it automatically before saving to SD card. There are unnecessary limits on video length. It's because the camera doesn't support files over 4GB even on exFAT. And then there's the 30-minute video limit intended to avoid 5% import tariffs on video recorders.

The camera does its basic job: taking pictures that are way better than those from smartphones. But there are so many little flaws and omissions that could be improved easily, it really spoils the experience. And of course the picture quality comes at the cost of availability. Digital compacts cannot be used when it's raining or snowing, they are bulky and fragile, and they are forgotten at home all the time. Let's hope they will get better in the coming years.

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