- Review Date: 6/19/2013
- Bottom line: The Canon PowerShot N packs a neat Creative Shot mode, but it doesn't let you select your favorite filters and its design makes it a frustrating camera with which to shoot.
- Pros: Sharp lens. Excellent high ISO performance. Wi-Fi. Instagram-like image filters. Touch screen display.
- Cons: Difficult to hold and operate. Few physical controls. In-camera charging only. Limited manual filter capability. Weak flash.
The Canon PowerShot N ($299.99 direct) is an odd camera. Its square shape is different from traditional point-and-shoots. It packs a unique control scheme that, while different, makes it awkward to hold and difficult to operate, and it can be set to apply a series of filters and crops to each photo you take—think of it like Instagram in your camera. There's built-in Wi-Fi, so you can share your photos online with ease. If you aren't a filter fanatic, a more traditional Canon camera, our Editors' Choice Elph 330 HS, is a better buy if you're in want of a point-and-shoot with Wi-Fi. It's less money, and it's more comfortable to hold and use.
Design and Features
The N doesn't have a traditional shutter button or zoom rocker; instead you control both functions using a pair of rings around the lens. The camera itself measures 2.4 by 3.1 by 1.2 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.9 ounces. It's not quite square, but it is narrower than most cameras. The svelte Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX80 feels smaller in your hand, but is actually wider—it measures 2.1 by 3.8 by 0.9 inches, and is lighter at 4.4 ounces. It's available in white or black. There is a flash, which doubles as the focus assist beam. It's an LED design, and as such its effective range is only about three feet.
The N's shape does not make the camera difficult to hold on its own. It's compounded by a touch-screen display that occupies the entirety of the rear of the camera. Typically I'd put my right thumb on the back of a camera to get a firm grip. Doing so virtually ensures that I'll accidentally trigger a function on the touch-sensitive display. The screen does tilt, so it's possible to angle it up and put my thumb behind it, but that introduces its own problems. The zoom function can only be controlled by a narrow ring around the 8x (28-224mm equivalent) lens. It's difficult to adjust this when holding the camera with your right hand, so I resorted to using my left hand to zoom.
But then when it comes time to take a photo, the shutter control gets in the way. It's another ring, directly in front of the zoom ring, and you have to push it down or up from the top or bottom in order to snap a photo. It's simply too narrow to comfortably actuate with my fingers. This led me to use the touch screen to snap photos—the camera can be set to fire the shutter when the screen is tapped. But it's so sensitive that I found myself rattling off accidental shots when picking up the camera or simply trying to adjust its position in my hands.
The display itself is 2.8 inches in size and features a 460k-dot resolution. It's not the sharpest we've seen in a compact; premium cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P310 often features 921k-dot displays. The touch input is quite responsive; menus come up instantly, and it's easy to scroll through photos in order to review them or get them ready for online sharing.
There are three buttons and a toggle switch on the camera, all located on the sides. The On/Off switch is by itself on the left. On the right you'll find a toggle switch to change between standard and Creative Shot shooting, as well as a button to activate Wi-Fi sharing and one to switch from shooting to image review.
While Canon doesn't advertise it as such, Creative Shot mode is the company's answer to Instagram filters. When it's enabled, the N rattles off three shots in rapid succession, and outputs the one that it considers the best in six distinct versions. One of those is untouched, but the others have each had a distinct crop and filter applied. The effects vary from shot to shot—the camera picks them based on the content of the photo—and can be either very effective or head-scratchingly odd. But you get multiple ones to choose from, so if you are into the filtered image look, there's a good chance that you'll like one. If you don't, you can add your own filter—but you can't do it from within the camera. You'll first need to download the photos to your computer, or, the more likely scenario for this type of camera, transfer them to your smartphone over Wi-Fi.
And that's a big problem for a camera that bills itself as delivering images with different filters. You have options for a handful of filters when you're not shooting in Creative Shot mode. You can choose from Toy Camera, Monochrome, Miniature Effect, Soft Focus, and Fish-Eye; but you'll have to do it before you take a photo.
The N should be designed so that you can apply any of the effects that it is capable of from within the camera itself. If there's a specific filter or look that you love, you're at the mercy of Creative Shot mode; it may apply it, it may not. This is where the Samsung Galaxy Camera has a huge leg up. It runs the Android operating system, so you can use Instagram, Paper Camera, or the filter app of your choice to take photos and apply filters as you see fit; and if you buy a version of the Galaxy Camera that has 4G connectivity you'll be able to post them online immediately, regardless of whether or not you're near a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The PowerShot N does have Wi-Fi, so you can post photos and videos directly to sharing sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube when connected to a hotspot. You'll need to set up a Canon Image Gateway account and plug the N into your computer via USB to set this up, but that's a one-time step. You can also transfer images directly to another Canon camera, print to a wireless printer, or transfer photos to your computer over Wi-Fi.
If you aren't near Wi-Fi but would still like to get a photo online, you can transfer photos directly to your iOS or Android device. Just download the free Canon Camera Window app from the iTunes store or Google Play store. The camera can set up a peer to peer connection to your phone, and once images are transferred over you'll be able to post them just as you would a photo you took with your phone's camera. This isn't as smooth as the always-on 4G connectivity that the Galaxy Camera offers, but it also doesn't add anything to your monthly phone bill.
Performance and Conclusions
The N is actually a pretty good performer. It's a bit slow to start and take a photo—it requires about 2 seconds to do so—but it can shoot continuously at 2 frames per second and its shutter lag is only 0.1-second. It's much faster than another camera that sets itself apart from the crowd with a unique design—the tiny Nikon Coolpix S01. That microscopic shooter requires 3.4 seconds to start and shoot, makes you wait 1.6 seconds between photos, and records a 0.6-second shutter lag.
I used Imatest to check the image quality that the 12-megapixel CMOS sensor is able to capture. We require an image to score 1,800 lines per picture height using a center-weighted score in order to pass muster. The PowerShot N betters that, capturing photos that resolve 1,970 lines. This is one area where the Galaxy Camera falls short; it has a much more ambitious 21x zoom lens, but is only able to resolve 1,770 lines at its widest angle.
Imatest also checks images for noise, which can erase detail and introduce excessive grain at higher ISO settings, which are engaged in lower light. The N does a good job with noise control for a camera of its class; it keeps it under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600. Close examination of images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display shows that detail at that setting, while a bit disappointing when compared with low ISO images, is still pretty good. Noise is a bit higher, about 1.8 percent, at ISO 3200, and more fine detail is smudged away, but that's less of an issue when sharing online compared with making a large print. It matches the Canon Elph 330 HS, which uses what is likely an identical 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, in noise performance. The Elph 330 HS is one of the best cameras with a 1/2.3-inch image sensor that we've tested in terms of noise control and high ISO image quality.
The N doubles as a compact video camera, though it's not the most advanced. It can record in 1080p24 or 720p30 quality in QuickTime format. The footage is bright and crisp, but a higher frame rate would be better for fast action and the sound of the lens is audible when zooming in and out. There's also a slow-motion movie mode; it outputs a 240p video that slows down footage to a crawl. The only connection port on the N is a standard mini USB connector. It doubles as the charging point for the included AC adapter—you'll need to charge the removable battery in-camera, unless you opt to buy an accessory charger. The camera records photos onto microSD memory, a departure from the standard SD cards most cameras accept.
There's a lot to like about the PowerShot N, but there's also a lot to keep you from liking it. The image quality is undeniably good for a camera in this class; it's just about as good as our Editors' Choice compact, the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS in terms of sharpness and noise control. The Creative Shot mode can be a lot of fun if you are a fan of the filtered image look, and Wi-Fi makes it easy to share your images with friends and family. But I found the ergonomics to be frustrating—it's just not a comfortable camera with which to shoot, and with the touch-sensitive shutter enabled it's easy to fire off an accidental shot. It was also frustrating to take a photo in Creative Shot mode and not have the filter that I had in mind for a shot applied. It'd be great if there was a way to set your favorite filters, or to apply them to an image in playback mode.
If you're a fan of filters and Instagram-type image sharing, you may find that the Samsung Galaxy Camera is a better choice for your needs, but it's a more expensive solution. It runs Android, so you can use the photo app of your choice, and always-on 4G connectivity lets you post to Facebook wherever you have cellular data service. If you only occasionally add filters, you can save some money and enjoy more traditional ergonomics by opting for the Elph 330 HS; it has Wi-Fi, so you can transfer photos to your phone or tablet and apply filters when you see fit, and it sells for about $70 less.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.