DPInterface Canon PowerShot SD400
Digital ELPH Review (Digital Ixus 50/Ixy Digital 55)
Brad Soo - July 10th, 2005 (Updated January 31st, 2006)

The stylish little Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital ELPH slots itself between the same sized SD300 Digital ELPH and the top of the line SD500 Digital ELPH. The SD400 features an ultra-compact body, a 2.0 inch LCD, 3x UA optical zoom lens and excellent VGA 30 FPS movie mode like its "small brother", the SD300. It also shares 4 features of those found on the high-tech 7 megapixel SD500, and those features being: An LCD night display function, the unique Canon My Colors feature, utilization of zoom when recording movies and USB 2.0 High-speed compatibility.

Before you get confused and have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a helpful list to get you through the name-game of the ELPHs:

  • Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH (USA)
  • Canon Ixy Digital (Japan/Taiwan)
  • Canon Digital Ixus (Rest of the world; UK, Europe, Asia, etc)

So that means: SD300 (Ixus 40), SD400 (Ixus 50) and SD500 (Ixus 700). To put a halt to all this confusion, I'll use the USA name as a "standard" in my reviews, this one included.

Size and Weight

Let's compare the SD400's size and weight to other cameras of its class:

86.0 x 53.0 x 20.7 mm (130 g) - Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital ELPH (Ixus 50)
85.6 x 57.0 x 26.5 mm (170 g) - Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital ELPH (Ixus 700)
87.0 x 57.0 x 27.8 mm (185 g) - Canon PowerShot S500 Digital ELPH (Ixus 500)
109.0 x 52.0 x 36.0 mm (149 g) - HP Photosmart M517
89.9 x 57.5 x 19.7 mm (118 g) - Nikon Coolpix S1
95.0 x 55.5 x 27.5 mm (115 g) - Olympus Stylus Verve S
94.1 x 50.5 x 24.2 mm (127 g) - Panasonic Lumix FX8
91.6 x 60.0 x 14.8 mm (115 g) - Sony Cyber-shot T7

The SD400 is the same size as the SD300, smaller than the S500 (which it replaces) and is not the thinnest (The Sony T7 grabs that title!) but is still smaller than most of those cameras. The SD400 is fairly light but heavy enough to not get blown away by the wind!

Open up the Box

Like its ultra-compact self, the SD400's box is also ultra-compact. In that box, you'll find:

  • 16 MB Secure Digital card
  • Rechargeable NB-4L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable and A/V cable
  • CD-ROM
  • A very complete user's manual.

Storage and Power

The included 16 MB Secure Digital card can hold only 6 photos at the highest quality (Superfine) so might I suggest getting a 512 MB SD card for capturing those great stills that the SD400 takes. You may want to get a high-speed card (I would personally recommend SanDisk's trusty line of Ultra II cards which can read/write at 10 MB/s; See DPI's SanDisk Ultra II SD review), which the SD400 really loves, especially when continuous shooting is activated or recording VGA 30 FPS movies. Get another 512 MB high-speed SD card or a single 1 GB high-speed card if you enjoy recording VGA 30 FPS or QVGA 60 FPS movies.

Canon quotes a battery life of 150 shots (CIPA standard) for the SD400. You can effectively almost triple the battery life to 400 shots when you turn off the LCD. It takes about an hour and a half to fully charge the NB-4L battery. If possible, get a spare battery - You'll never know when you'll need it. I found that the SD400's battery can last through my usual "whole-day shooting".

Extras

The SD400's accessories include an all-weather case and external slave flash. You are unable to attach conversion lenses or "real" external flashes onto the SD400.

Camera Tour

Let's start the camera tour beginning from the front. As with the other ELPHs (Ixus), the SD400 continues the "box and circle" tradition. The SD400 has 5 effective megapixels on a 1/2.5 inch CCD which is smaller than the one found on the S500. The 3x optical zoom UA (ultra-high refractive index) lens allows more zoom power to be packed into a smaller body without compromising much image quality. The SD400's F2.8 - F4.9 lens has a focal length of 35 - 105 mm (35 mm equivalent).

The built-in flash has a range of 0.5 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.0 m at telephoto which is quite good for a camera in this class. The optical viewfnder and AF-assist beam are placed next to each other, the smaller circle being the AF-assist beam. The AF-assist beam aids focusing in low-light and is also a self-timer light. On the out-most rim around the 2 lens barrels, there is a small black microphone hole. The "Canon" words are slightly raised, providing somewhat of a grip.

Before going on, let me tell you the SD400 runs on the extremely fast DIGIC II processor, first seen on the 16.6 megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II professional digital SLR and then on the SD200 and SD300 in the Powershot Digital ELPH/Digital Ixus line. So don't be surprised if I keep saying how fast this camera is!

The large 2.0 inch LCD has 118,000 pixels and is very sharp and fluid. The LCD brightens in low-light according to conditions at the cost of a slightly lower refresh rate. For example, at dusk, the LCD brightens a little and at night, it really goes up. You can temporarily boost the LCD's brightness till the maximum by holding down the DISPlay button for about 2 seconds for outdoor/low-light viewing. The SD400 has really one of the best LCDs in its class.

There is an optical viewfinder at your disposal as well! (Hard to find on such compact digital cameras) The top LED shows flash status (on/off) while the bottom on shows focusing status (Blinking yellow - Unable to focus, Solid yellow - Focus locked).

The mode switch at the top right moves the SD400 around from playback, movie recording and still photo shooting. Next is the 5 way controller. A speaker is located above this controller. The 4 directional buttons can easily customize the main aspects of the camera:

  • Up - Metering method (Evaluative, center, spot)/Jump (Move through more than 1 photo at a time)
  • Down - Shooting method (Single, continuous, self-timer)/Delete
  • Left - Off, macro, landscape
  • Right - Flash setting

The FUNCtion button brings up/down a list of customizable options which allows you to set:

  • Sub-shooting mode (Automatic, manual, scene modes, My Colors)
  • Exposure compensation (-2 till +2 in 1/3 increments) OR Long shutter (1 - 15 seconds)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, custom)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effects (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black-and-white) OR My Colors
  • Quality (Superfine, fine, normal)
  • Resolution (5 MP, 3 MP, 2 MP, VGA)

The FUNCtion button also doubles as a SET button (An "okay" button, sort of). Do note that the long shutter and ISO speed are grayed-out in movie mode. In movie mode, FPS replaces quality in the FUNCtion menu and the sub-shooting modes are: Fast frame rate (320 x 240 at 60 FPS), normal (640 x 320 or 320 x 240 at 30 FPS or 15 FPS) and "for e-mail" (160 x 120 at 15 FPS).

The Canon SD400 has a unique My Colors mode which allows skin tone selection, vivid colors in photos, color accent (The desired color is preserved while everything else turns black and white), color swap (Swap one color for another. For example, make your silver camera turn green) and color balance adjustment. The unique and great My Colors mode found on the Canon SD400 is a new Canon digital camera feature.

And before I forget, here are the Scene Modes found on the SD400:

  • Digital macro - Use digital zoom to get closer when the lens is at wide-angle
  • Portrait - Emphasize on your subject and blur out the background
  • Night scene - Use longer exposures for sharper photos at night
  • Kids and pets - Use faster shutter speeds & lower aperture numbers to capture action
  • Indoor - Reduce blur caused by low-light indoors
  • Underwater - Capture photos underwater (All-weather case required)

The power button is located at the top along with a zoom lever wrapped around the shutter button. A small green LED lights up when the SD400 is on. By holding down the shutter button after taking a photo (Except in continuous or self-timer mode), you can review the photo you've taken.

One side of the camera has nothing while the other has a wrist strap mount and USB + A/V out ports. The SD400 uses USB 2.0 High-Speed which is backwards compatible. Do note that the SD300 has only normal USB.

At the bottom of the SD400 is a tripod mount and battery/SD slot. The battery/SD slot is protected by a very flimsy feeling cover.

Recording

The SD400 can take VGA movies up to 1 GB at 30 FPS. The Fast Frame Rate feature takes QVGA movies at 60 FPS up to 1 minute. Since the SD400 records movies in AVI format, taking movies at the highest seconds can gobble up a 1 GB card in 8 minutes! Digital zoom while recording without any major loss of quality though I would prefer no loss of quality (When will the Canon PowerShot's, except the S2 IS, have a silent moving lens which can be used during video recording!?).

Speaking of quality, the SD400's video quality can be as good as stills (if digital zoom is not used) and audio quality was good.

Performance

The SD400 turns on extremely quickly for a camera with an extending lens - 1 second. Focusing is always less than a second, even in low-light. Using the "Kids & pets" scene mode, I found focusing speed to be even more impressive - Taking less than 0.5 second to focus! The SD400's lens moves noisily to telephoto from wide-angle in 1.5 seconds!

Using a high-speed SD, the SD400 can fill up a card of any size with full-resolution photos taken at 2 FPS (Based on my tests) in continuous mode.

Image Quality

The SD400 produces very sharp photos with little signs of chromatic aberration (Color fringing) and very little noise. At ISO 200 and ISO 400, noise levels go up high. Here's a 100% crop of an ISO 400 photo:

There's lots of red-eye but barrel distortion and a few blown out highlights are nothing to be concerned about.

Playback

In playback, the Canon SD400 can playback stills and movies (With sound) as well as perform these functions: Protect image, print marking, direct printing (The SD400 is PictBridge enabled), slideshow, sound memo, rotate and simple movie editing. You can also zoom up to 10x into still photos taken and take a look around using the 4 arrow buttons. Choose to see no info, basic info or lots of info (Though no shutter speed or aperture value is shown) about your photos. When it comes to histograms, the SD400 does not show any histogram while shooting but it does in playback/quick review.

Conclusion

The Canon SD400 is a great ultra-compact camera though it lacks "real" manual controls and control over fast shutter speed. Custom white balance and long shutter are a plus on the SD400 as few ultra-compact cameras have such features. The essential scene modes (Such as kids and pets) on the SD400 somewhat make up for the lack of manual controls. Canon's new My Colors is a fun-filled feature which will probably keep most people glued to the camera.

While the LCD was sharp, fluid and accurate with its 100% coverage, the optical viewfinder showed a low percentage of the frame and was overall, not that sharp. The strategic placements of the buttons on the back make one hand shooting easy. Despite having some (Some - Not a lot) image quality issues, the SD400 is pocketable and you can snap at almost anytime, anywhere - Without that heavy dSLR!

What's hot:

  • Ultra-compact and stylish design (Though not as head-turning as the Ixus 700)
  • Extremely fast and almost zero shutter lag
  • Excellent set of features for such a compact camera
  • Large and sharp 2.0 inch LCD
  • My Colors mode and useful scene modes
  • Excellent movie mode (Especially VGA 30 FPS and Fast Frame Rate)
  • Overall sharp photos
  • USB 2.0 High-speed

What's not:

  • Limited manual controls
  • So-so battery life
  • Flimsy battery/SD slot door
  • Red-eye
  • Some soft photos and blown out highlights

Recommended accessories:

~Extra NB-4L battery
~512 MB high-speed SD card
~Camera case
~LCD protector

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