Though I've never used one myself, I keep hearing great things about
. It was released more than a year ago, but it
still sells like ice water in the desert. It's arguably the best cheap
camera out there: It retails for less than $150, and shoots crisp,
clear shots with absolutely no fuss. It's an ideal camera for novices.
A1100 is still widely available, but in the name of capitalism, Canon
has given us the "refreshed" Powershot A3100. On paper, the specs are
pretty similar to the A1100, so I thought I'd spend some time with the
A3100 to see if it's really an upgrade, or just a rehash with a new
model name, or even worthy of your ducats at all.
as I said, I've never actually shot with last year's A1100. Our
reviewer Brenda Paro
it "feels durable, and is lightweight
enough to be your go-to travel camera," so that's what I was expecting
from the A3100. Judging by Brenda's assessment of its predecessor, I
think the A3100's design might be a step backward.
body felt cheap in my hands. It's too big to be an ultra-compact, but
it weighed less than some of those credit-card-sized cameras that I've
tested. It felt hollow. That's disconcerting for a gadget. There's a
word used in laptop reviews to describe cheap-feeling keyboards:
"clacky." Clacking is the sound of plastic on plastic, reverberating in
lots of empty space. The buttons on the A3100 are clacky, for sure.
said, they are laid out and labeled well. The icons made sense. The
power button, shutter button, and the mode dial are all unremarkable,
which is OK by me.
Per usual these days, there's no optical
viewfinder. The 2.7-inch LCD has 230,000 dots, twice as many as the
A1100's screen does, so images looks much sharper on the display. (I
believe it's the same screen as some of Canon's more expensive models,
like the SD1300.) It's bright and visible in everything but direct
sunlight; that's about as much as anyone can expect from an LCD, so
this screen gets high marks.
The A3100, along with the A3000, is
one of the first A-series Powershots to run on a lithium-ion battery.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal
taste. Some folks like Li-ion because it comes with the camera, it's
rechargeable, and allows for smaller camera than a AA compartment
would. Others prefer AA batteries because they don't need to be
charged. The camera can keep running as long as the supply of fresh
batteries holds up. I can say that the battery here lasts about as long
as any average Li-ion, roughly 200 shots.
Let me put it this
way: almost everything about the design screams "budget camera." At a
street value of $150, that's no problem. Canon obviously had to cut a
few corners to get the price down, and as long as the image quality
holds up, no big deal.
Image Quality and Performance
lo, the image quality is quite good. I spent most of the time shooting in Smart Auto mode,
which automatically chooses one of the 18 scene presets and allows some
level of control over the settings. It's pretty much on par with
Panasonic's Intelligent Auto (iAuto) mode, which I've praised before.
if that wasn't easy enough, Canon also includes Easy mode, which
completely automates all the settings. All I could do was toggle the
flash from auto to off. I suppose that some complete novices would
benefit from Easy mode, maybe, but Smart Auto is already dead simple. I
get the feeling that Easy mode is just for the marketers, so they can
play some game of one-upsmanship over other brands with "smart" or
"intelligent" auto modes.
Anyhow, in Smart Auto, outdoor shots
were bright and beautiful. It almost always selected the right mode. I
had to switch it into Macro manually a few times, but it was pretty
spot-on aside from those few instances. Macro mode was a highlight. It
captured a lot of detail in the floral shots I took, not quite at the level of the SD1300 I tested last month, but comparable. In general, I noticed that the
blues come out looking a bit flat to me, but the greens really pop.
Overall, I was very pleased.
Indoor shots are pretty good for
this class of camera. It has limitations, so work within them and the
shots will be decent. Flash is a reality to accept on cheaper models
like this, and the A3100's happens to be a sensitive one. It blacked
out the background every now and then, but I'd toggle over to Slow
Synchro mode (and hold the camera still) and get a better
interpretation. Without the flash, blurry photos are inevitable, though
the optical image stabilization does help. ISO up to 400 is pretty
crisp, while 800 and 1600 are still usable. I have to note that it's a little bizarre than Canon backtracked to the Digic III image processor, even when they used the mightier Digic IV on the A1100. Still, I think that the images end up about the same quality, so I guess Canon knows what they're doing.
is a program mode on the A3100, and if I'm reading the old reviews
correctly, it offers more control than the A1100 did for standard stuff
like white balance and exposure compensation. The menu system is
intuitive, as I've come to expect from Canon. The most popular scene
presets like Portait, Landscape, Slow Synchro, and Kids and Pets have
set places on the mode dial, and there's a menu for the extended list
of scene presets too. The Face Detection feature even has a dedicated
button on the back, though I'll admit that I didn't spend much time
futzing around with it.
It's pretty fast, starting up in
about two seconds or so. Continuous mode only goes as fast as 0.8 shots
per second according to the spec sheet, but in single-shot mode,
there's a pretty quick turnaround between shots. Shutter lag is
acceptable as well (learn to pre-focus!). The 4x zoom extends quickly
Videos are standard definition. Cheaper cameras do
high-def movies, so I wouldn't call video a selling point of the A3100.
But for what it's worth, the video and audio quality are OK, nothing to
brag about. The optical zoom does work during recording, a nice feature
that I've noticed more often this year. Short, casual videos will be
fine, but for high-quality movies, look elsewhere.
Yep, It's a Good One
is a simple one: The A3100 is a no-brainer if you're considering a $150 camera. Yes,
there are a few design flaws and the build feels a little flimsy, and I'm still a bit puzzled as to why Canon backtracked on the image processor, but the image quality is very good for the price point. If I was forced to choose between the A1100 and the A3100, I'd probably choose the former, but it's
really just a matter of personal taste. The A3100 is an excellent camera
for novices and casual shooters, and even hobbyists looking for a cheap
backup would probably find plenty to like here.