Canon PowerShot SD980 IS unboxing and impressions

Canon held off about as long as it could, but it finally caved to the pressures of adding a pressure-sensitive screen to one of its Digital ELPHs. The SD980 IS goes down as the first-ever touchscreen PowerShot, offering a better-than-average set of specifications, a few color options, an attractive size and a 720p movie mode that helps to set it apart from some of its VGA-quality contemporaries. We took the cam for a quick spin just to see how Canon's adaptation of the touchscreen felt in real-world use, and we've posted up our impressions -- along with a few sample galleries and a raw 720p video clip -- just beyond the break.

The SD980 IS is a cute, stylish choice for a pocket camera. The 5x optical zoom is superior to most on cameras this size, and the 720p movie mode is also a fantastic addition. There's also a 12.1 megapixel sensor, an ultra-wide 24mm lens, four color options (silver, purple, gold and blue), optical image stabilization, an HDMI output, SDHC card slot and a 3-inch touchscreen on the rear. At 3.93- x 2.1- x .9-inches in size, this one's definitely not the slimmest of the bunch, and at 4.59 ounces, it's definitely not the lightest. Sure, it's satisfactorily small for those with decently sized pockets, but it could stand to trim down in our eyes.

One of the more curious inclusions here is the assortment of buttons to the right of the expansive touchscreen. It feels as if Canon wanted to have a touchscreen ELPH, but it was deathly scared of shocking its core user group that had grown accustomed to the orthodox rear control scheme. To that end, what you're left with is a hybrid controlling system that enables you to access a subset of tweaks via touch and the full gamut via traditional buttons. Not that we didn't appreciate it -- to be honest, we still preferred the buttons to the screen when it came time to change the options, but we would've much preferred a pure-touch camera that was half as thick to what we actually have in the SD980 IS.

For example, users can line up a shot and use their finger to touch the focus point, but you'll still have to move your hand up to the shutter button if you want to capture the moment. A simple double-tap feature to focus and take the picture would've been a fabulous inclusion, but alas, we're left with a half-hearted attempt to make the touch panel useful when composing a shot as such a feature is only available when the camera is held vertically. Indeed, most everything about this device is remarkably familiar for owners of previous Digital ELPHs; startup is quick, focusing is decently fast, flipping from still to movie mode requires just the flip of a top toggle and the entire menu system / user interface is simply a polished version of the same software that has been on these guys since the days of the SD200.

To be fair, the resistive touchscreen is surprisingly responsive. The panel itself is firm, and we were able to activate even the smallest icons while rocking a set of gloves. As we alluded to earlier, the issue here isn't the quality of the panel (which is excellent) -- it's the limited amount of tweaking you can do via touch, and moreover, the inability to actually control the camera's shutter with a tap of the finger. The phrase "defeating the purpose" just keeps coming to mind.

Aesthetics aside, the actual image quality of the SD980 IS is decent, but it's not a giant leap forward from the prior generation of DIGIC III cameras. Colors were somewhat muted in low light, the diminutive flash introduced red eye in after-dark mugshots and sharpness seemed to suffer a bit in low light / indoor situations. We'll confess that we're being more picky than usual here, but for $329, we simply expected something that was at least noticeably superior to our tried-and-true SD850 IS. The included 720p movie mode holds it own, however, pumping out delightful footage given the size of the camera. As you can see in the sample clip below (the full, unedited clip is available to download here if you've got an extra 250MB to burn on your monthly Comcast limit), the quality is plenty satisfactory for those spontaneous moments where capturing the event is more important than its production readiness. Will it replace your 5D Mark II for serious shoots? Nah, but it's tough to complain with 720p in your pocket -- and this thing sure handles low-light shooting better than those pocket camcorders do.

All in all, we'd say the SD980 IS is a cautious (if not overly so) attempt at entering the over-hyped world of touchscreen cameras. Canon severely limited what you could do via touchscreen, and simply providing a selectable option to snap pictures and start / stop movies via the rear panel would've made the whole thing a lot more interesting. As it stands, you're stuck paying for a touchscreen that you'll probably never use, and you're getting no size improvements to speak of because of it. Honestly, we'd probably recommend one of Canon's other Digital ELPH offerings over this one; we appreciate the image quality and definitely dig the 720p movie mode, but the touch panel just isn't useful enough to warrant the selection of this model over another. Don't be afraid to try something really wild with the next iteration, okay Canon?