Canon IXUS 500 HS £305
10th Apr 2012 | 10:05
The slimmest compact camera to squeeze in a 12x optical zoom
With an almost glacial, cough sweet-inspired sheen to the maroon camera we tested - blue, black or silver being the alternatives - the 10.1 megapixel Canon IXUS 500 HS is deeply fashionable.
Since the IXUS was first introduced as an APS film camera in the late 1990s, the range has consistently majored on stylishness as much as specification. Indeed, the boxy design harks back to the very first digital IXUS.
Here the pack of playing cards-sized chassis squeezes a 12x optical zoom into its 19.2mm depth. That's a significant step on from the standard 3x zoom of 10 years ago.
The IXUS 500 HS' 35mm equivalent focal range of 28-336mm arguably nudges it into travel zoom territory. Not that it's quite up there with the 20x reach of, say, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30, which adds integral GPS.
The other chief talking point for the Canon IXUS 500 HS is the better than average low light capability suggested by a back illuminated 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor not over-burdened with pixels - a sensible choice, since 10.1MP is perfectly adequate on a snapshot camera.
Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels video capture at 24fps also features, and is, like stills shooting, composed via the 460k-dot resolution 3-inch LCD.
While this is perfectly fine as a framing device outdoors, the screen image does get noticeably grainy in lower light.
Usefully, HDMI output is provided for hooking the camera up to a flatscreen TV, while Canon once again includes its Movie digest function, whereby a four second clip is captured each time a still's taken. Fun if you've got the feature activated while spending a day sightseeing and snapping - think of it as a sped up video diary of your day's shooting.
What may give you pause is the price - £305 in the UK, or $300 in the US, where it's called the Canon PowerShot ELPH 520 HS. So, as usual with Canon IXUS cameras, it seems we're paying a premium. Particularly when set against similarly-spec'd compacts such as the Nikon Coolpix S6200, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX9V and Samsung EX1.
So does the Canon justify the cost?
Build quality and handling
The 12x optical reach of the Canon IXUS 500 HS is supported by a seven-mode optical image stabiliser. it's just as well, since narrow dimensions and a lack of anything resembling a handgrip rarely make for a firm hold.
Plus, zoom aside, Canon has otherwise decided to go small everywhere else. Every button apart from the shutter release and zoom lever is barely larger than the head of a tack, and so requires fingernail operation.
Feeling solid sitting in the palm, despite diminutive dimensions and mainly thanks to the metal build, for a camera that looks cleanly minimalist from the front, the Canon IXUS 500 HS in fact has no fewer than 12 buttons, switches and levers.
On the top plate we have a raised shutter release button, customarily encircled by a zoom lever, alongside an on/off button. Plus there's a switch for flicking between Smart Auto and Program Auto settings, in lieu of a more familiar and more expansive shooting mode dial. Lastly there's a dedicated playback button, which is always useful.
Operation, apart from toggling the lens back and forth, is very much just point and shoot. Smart Auto here compares the scene before the lens with a sizeable 59 parameters to select the closest match that will theoretically deliver optimal results. So you can leave your brain behind.
The backplate features a video record button on the top-right, where it falls under the thumb, beneath which is a dedicated exposure compensation control, offering +/- 2EV.
The other buttons at the back are similarly straightforward: dedicated macro close up and flash settings - including red eye reduction - plus display and function set buttons.
The latter summons up a toolbar of key shooting options that is displayed at the left-hand side of the screen, and is unsurprisingly rather broader in Program mode than Smart Auto. For example, it enables the selection of ISO sensitivity (ISO100-3200), and Canon's My Colours picture modes, which include the useful saturation-boosting 'Vivid' option.
Slotting into the base, the Canon IXUS 500 HS' snug rechargeable battery sports a width similar to your little finger and lasts a miserly 190 captures, although we take more issue with the fact that the equally small and fiddly microSD card has been selected as removable media of choice.
Unusually, battery and card are given separate compartments at opposite ends of the base, not that this helps access either, if you've screwed the camera to a tripod.
While the Canon IXUS range has been more or less consistently lovely to look at, the plaudits for image quality have generally gone to the heavier-set PowerShot range, traditionally favouring brawn over beauty. Will the IXUS 500 HS be the Canon that suggests you really can have the best of both worlds?
With a latest generation Digic 5 engine on board, performance is pretty much as expected from the get go. The camera powers up ready for the first shot in the couple of seconds it takes for the back screen to blink into life and the zoom to emerge from its position flush to the body.
Half squeeze the shutter release, and after a brief second while the focus visibly adjusts, you're ready to take the shot. Squeeze down fully and a Super Fine quality JPEG is committed to microSD, in lieu of any internal memory, in 3-4 seconds, the screen momentarily freezing.
Canon makes a play of the camera's High Sensitivity credentials. Here the ISO range stretches from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 at full resolution, which, despite our choice of words, isn't exactly a 'stretch'.
An alleged high sensitivity sensor also suggests that low light work should reward with decent results. But a broad focal range and a narrow camera body can nevertheless give rise to camera shake, especially towards the telephoto end of the zoom.
Overall the output of the Canon IXUS 500 HS does have the softened look to it that one might expect from a pocket snapper, even if the slightly inflated price tag might lead one to hope for better.
A little more punch can be provided on dull days by selecting the camera's 'Vivid' My Colour option from the side-of-screen toolbar, although this introduces more pronounced purple fringing between areas of high contrast on close inspection, such as between the dark branches of a tree and a featureless sky.
Focus holds well across the frame, however, with detail maintained right into the corners.
And, if shots are a little soft occasionally at maximum zoom, this is fairly predictable too. Shooting several frames of the same subject works best as a cover.
In terms of low light performance, even though noise is inevitably visible at ISO 1600 and beyond, for our money it's fine and unobtrusive. A mixed bag overall, though.
As part of our image quality testing for the Canon IXUS 500 HS we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the IXUS 500 is capable of resolving up to around 18 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
See a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 14 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 12 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
Our analysis shows that the Canon IXUS 500 HS handles noise well and compares closely with the Samsung WB750 from ISO 200. The dynamic range results are also consistent across the sensitivity range, and whilst the scores are good it is beaten by both the Samsung WB750 and Panasonic FX90 at all sensitivities.
However with a minimum score of 8.35 for dynamic range at ISO 3200 it still puts in a good performance, showing that it will capture a good amount of detail even at its highest sensitivity value in low light conditions.
JPEG Signal to Noise Ratio
JPEG images from the Canon IXUS 500 compare closely with the Samsung WB750 from a sensitivity of ISO 400. At the higher end of the sensitivity range results stay just above 30, showing that although noise will appear in images it is acceptable and handled well for a compact.
JPEG dynamic range
VIVID: Maximum wide-angle mid morning shot, using 'Vivid' option to lend added saturation to otherwise flat results achieved on a dull day. There's some purple fringing visible on the tree branches without particularly close scrutiny.
COLOUR CAST: Another image making use of the Vivid setting to really cause the colours of these berries to 'pop', although, to be picky, the preponderance of red in the frame has led to an ever so slight colour cast.
SOFT: And here's the broad focal range put to use for this shot taken at near maximum telephoto setting. Like most of the Canon IXUS 500 HS's JPEGs, it's a little soft straight out of the camera and benefits from contrast adjustment in Photoshop.
FOCUS: Another maximum wide angle shot taken with the default colour setting. Detail is fairly consistent throughout the frame and sharpness is held into the corners. However, the bright overcast sky has triggered the camera to under-expose the scene.
12X ZOOM: And a maximum telephoto shot taken from the exact same vantage point to show what can be achieved shooting handheld with the 12x zoom without moving a foot forward.
DEPTH OF FIELD: Low angle shot once again making the most of the Canon's 1cm closest focus facility and a shallow depth of field to draw the eye.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
If an optimum marriage of value for money and picture quality is your chief consideration when buying a camera - and it certainly should be right up there - then look elsewhere, since there are far better deals to be had.
Best Canon IXUS cameras by price and spec
While it may bring little that's new to the party in terms of looks or technology and performance, and finds the range slightly treading water, the Canon IXUS 500 HS is far from a bad camera. It's just not an especially exciting one.
The solidly built Canon IXUS 500 HS slips easily into any pocket ready for when the next point and shoot opportunity presents itself, while the requisite cuteness factor pays homage to the range's stylish lineage.
The minimalist design means that backplate buttons are small and fiddly, with obvious omissions being a dedicated shooting mode dial, rear plate control pad and dedicated delete button.
Perhaps most damningly, save for better than average low light shots, picture quality is little better than a camera costing £100/$150.
If you can manage to steady the camera enough to achieve consistently sharp results at full zoom then this proves rather more of a selling point, as does the fact that the optical zoom range can be accessed in video mode or for setting up stills.
And, for a relatively teeny point and shoot camera, footage looks great, while there's the added advantage of stereo sound plus HDMI output hiding under a side flap.
Potential purchasers need to weigh up whether these features are important to you and worth paying that little extra for.
We're paying a premium here for a great looking pocket camera that offers the flexibility of a 12x optical zoom. If a glossy exterior and credit card proportions aren't the deciding factor, the equally new, but albeit not as lovely, Olympus SP-620UZ offers a 21x zoom plus better picture quality for just £179/$200.