Canon PowerShot A3100 IS £150
9th Mar 2010 | 16:54
The A3100 enters the fray with a formidable specification
Canon PowerShot A3100: Overview
With the PowerShot A3100, it's fair to say Canon has the entire spectrum of compact cameras covered.
The top and bottom ends of the price spectrum are easy, though. If you want DSLR-style performance and quality, prepare your bank manager and buy either the G11 or the excellent Nikon P6000. There are only a few truly decent cameras under £100, so that choice is easy as well.
Things get sticky in the middle, though. If you've got around £200 to spend the competition is fierce and the choice bewildering. Manufacturers know that's the sweet spot for consumers and so for a camera to succeed it has to be excellent.
The Canon A3100 wades into the fray with a formidable specification list. Its 12.1MP sensor is a good start, and its 4x optical zoom, stabilised lens and big TFT on the back all make it a serious contender. But cameras like the Ixus 105 are just as serious.
Canon PowerShot A3100: Build quality and features
The A3100 doesn't actually make the best first impression.
Call us spoiled, but we're used to cameras at this price being a little sleeker - the A3100 has slightly tubby dimensions and we can't say we're fans of how it feels in the hand.
The screen on the back protrudes inelegantly from the back of the camera, and while we agree that looks aren't everything, the A3100 isn't overly charming for a camera that costs the better part of £200.
It atones elsewhere though. The 2.7-inch TFT has a resolution of 230,000 pixels, and is excellent. It's crisp and bright, and we had no trouble using it outside. And, while the menu system will be familiar to anyone who's used Canon's compacts before, it's easy to pick up and use from scratch.
You choose the camera's mode via a dial on the top. All the usual suspects are here, including a fully automatic mode, and a scene mode offering nine settings for tricky situations such as bright snowy landscapes or night shots.
There isn't exactly a surplus of manual modes, although you can at least set white balance manually, or set your own exposure compensation from plus or minus two stops.
But for more complex effects, such as blurring light trails on a night shoot, you have to select the closest scene mode to the one you want and trust the camera to get it right.
One unexpectedly effective addition is the A3100's face detection mode. This offers a fairly negligible advantage over the standard mode for portraits you take yourself - it makes sense to simply frame and focus a shot yourself - but the addition of the self-timer is a stroke of genius.
Set the A3100 up and set it to face self-timer mode and the camera will take a picture when it thinks a new face has entered the frame. If you've ever wreaked merry havoc attempting to navigate a tripod trying to include yourself in a timer shot, the A3100 has the answer. The system worked effectively in our tests.
Canon PowerShot A3100: Image quality/movie mode
Luckily, trusting the A3100 is something we were happy to do during our time with it.
Images taken at ISO 100 were the match of any compact camera, with excellent colour and detail reproduction.
Moving the ISO up through the range inevitably reduces image quality, and the A3100 treads a careful path between giving image noise free rein and detail-destroying noise reduction.
At its top setting of ISO 1600 our images are clearly suffering from a marked softness, but with a little care it should be possible to get printable images as long as you don't crop too heavily.
At lower ISOs there's plenty of potential for zooming in after the fact - the A3100's 12.1MP sensor produces 3,000 x 4,000 pixel images.
Impressively, the lens showed very little chromatic aberration, even in typically difficult high-contrast situations.
It's not a spectacular piece of glass, offering a focal range of 35-140mm (35mm equivalent). That's fine for most standard situations, but will offer frustration if you want to get up close to a building, or take decent pictures at a wildlife park.
On the plus side, the lens's conservative specifications mean there's no distortion to speak of.
The movie mode is nothing special, unfortunately. 30fps and 640 x 480 is the top setting, which means budding Spielbergs will need to rein in their aspirations somewhat.
It's something of a shame, particularly when cameras such as Canon's own Ixus 120 IS cost around £30 more but throw in 720p, 30fps video recording.
Canon PowerShot A3100: Verdict
Some of Canon's compact cameras, such as the top-end G-series, are the stuff of legend.
The A3100 doesn't make quite the same impact, but that doesn't mean you should discount it.
At just £150 (at launch), there's plenty to like. It doesn't lack resolution, or image quality, and while the features list might not be a mile long, nothing important is missing - although it would be nice to see HD video filtering down the line to lower-end compacts.
The A3100 offers enough resolution to allow cropping and re-framing of images, while the screen on the back is an excellent example of the type. It's also extremely easy to use.
Did we mention the lack of a decent video mode? We're also not wild about the A3100's design, which while inoffensive is hardly going to turn many heads. It's also not spectacularly comfortable to hold, although for £150 we're willing to overlook these quibbles.
If you're unbothered by the lack of HD video, the A3100 is a superb camera for the money.
Spend around £30 more and you'll get a more impressive lens and HD video, but for most casual snappers the A3100 is all the camera you'll need.