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About me: (4th Mar '13) - And here I go again!

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Quote-start

Power drained

Quote-end
17.10.2011

Advantages:
Canon quality lens, well built, decent range of features

Disadvantages:
Very limiting zoom, sluggish performance, poor movie mode

Detailed rating:

Picture Quality

Range & Quality of Features

Ease of Use

Durability

Overall Look & Design

ReliabilityGood

SizeAverage

WeightAverage

Value for MoneyPoor

Instruction ManualGood

33 Ciao members have rated this review on average: very helpful See ratings
exceptional by (27%):
  1. Nar2
  2. rojm
  3. TheNuttyTart
and 6 other members
very helpful by (73%):
  1. sweetybi
  2. KathEv
  3. anonymili
and 21 other members

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Introduction

Sometimes it seems as though I'm fated to end up with a complete collection of Canon's long-running PowerShot A4xx series. They're popular beasts, and quite cheap second-hand, so they tend to appear both in job lots and in the occasional part-exchange deal. Curiously enough I hadn't owned the A400, the camera that started it all, until relatively recently. This is a 3.2-megapixel compact digital camera from 2004, so by digicam standards it's getting on a bit. On the other hand, Canons tend to last, so I was hopeful that the A400 would still be worth a try.

Looks and handling

Canon's website insists that this model was available in four metallic colours: silver, blue, orange and green. However, I've hardly ever seen any but the silver models, and that (unsurprisingly) is the colour I've ended up with. Some people find silver cameras a little cold and boring, but I'm not personally fussed about that. Nor do I mind too much about the looks, which is just as well since this camera began several years of boxy, chunky A4xx digicams to which the adjective "brick-like" could be quite reasonably applied!

Although this isn't a fully metal-bodied camera in the way that the more expensive Ixus models are, build quality is more than adequate. It doesn't creak too much when you try to flex it, and the front panel is metal – brushed aluminium to be precise – which gives it quite a classy look. (It does pick up hairline scratches annoyingly easily, however.) Despite the bar-of-soap shape, the A400 is a fairly light camera, and you can comfortably hold it in one hand while shooting, though the rather weird small, bulbous grip on the right-hand side (as you hold the camera) may not be to everybody's taste.

As was startlingly often the case even later than this camera's 2004 vintage, the button layout is a bit of an ergonomic car crash. Controls are scattered hither and thither across the back plate, and it's all too easy to press Menu when you mean Disp until you get used to it. Unlike in later A4xx models, the A400 has a relatively conventional separate zoom control, a small rocker switch at the top right. It's acceptably designed, if nothing to make you exclaim in wonder, and though the zoom motor itself is a bit reluctant to get going on occasion, once it's up and running it moves fairly smoothly, if not terribly silently.

Optics and screen

The A400 offers a rather unimpressive optical zoom: it's slow at f/3.8, and has a magnification of just 2.2x, with an equivalent range of 45 to 100 mm. Yes, that's 45, not 35, making this one of the worst cameras around for wide-angle architecture or landscape shots. It also suffers at the telephoto end thanks to that small zoom; the impression is that Canon was aiming the camera at people wanting to take snapshots of their friends and family. For this sort of work the range is usually fine, and as you would expect from Canon the optics themselves are of good quality. Most of the lens is inside the case, so the barrel doesn't protrude very much even when zooming.

The LCD screen is a mere 1.5 inches across, titchy by today's standards and not enormous even by those of 2004. It's also a little laggy, though it does have a fairly good resolution (115,000 pixels) and so once you have a subject still in the frame things look pretty clear. I've always found Canon's menus and icons to be among the more readable on a small screen, and despite a little bit of a learning curve until you work out where everything is, I still feel that the placement and orientation of such things is superior to those on many contemporary cameras: some Olympuses in particular drive me up the wall with their poor menu design! There's a basic optical viewfinder too.

Features and settings

Although this camera does not offer full manual controls, it does offer a cut-down "manual" mode in which you can select a reasonable number of settings. Crucially, ISO control is available, from 50 to 400, and exposure compensation lets you adjust for very bright or dark surroundings. White balance is catered for too, and I was pleased to find that even this basic model has the "custom" white balance setting I've found so useful over the years: this allows you to point the camera at a piece of white (or neutral grey) card and set that as a base, so as to give better results in awkward lighting conditions. It's not foolproof, but it's often useful.

For those more interested in consistently nice-looking snapshots than in messing around with menus, the auto mode is fairly reliable in choosing the correct options. There are eight scene modes, covering the usual settings – Foliage, Snow, Portrait and so on – and an autofocus assist lamp making sharp pictures in dim lighting more easily obtained. That said, the autofocus mechanism itself does seem to be very slow in low light, hunting around in a way I wouldn't expect from a Canon. This doesn't always happen, but when it does it can be extremely annoying.

The A400's movie mode is not very thrilling. Yes, you can record in VGA (640 x 480) resolution, but as you can only do so at a near-useless 10 fps you may well not want to. Even at 320 x 240 the frame rate only increases to 15 fps, and in fact this is as smooth as it gets. The camera's other features don't stand out in any way, but they're those you would expect to find: a self-timer, a reasonable 1.3 fps burst mode (though you'll need a fast SD card to make this useful) and a menu option for "low sharpening", which gives a soft-focus look to your pictures.

Performance

This is not an area where the A400 shines, and I really could not recommend this camera to anyone who gets frustrated with anything less than super-snappy responses. At the heart of the camera is Canon's first-generation DIGIC chip, and unfortunately its age does show. It takes about five seconds to power on and take a photo, which doesn't sound much but is quite enough for you to miss that unexpected shot, and about three seconds even between shots. With the flash on, it's even worse: A-series cameras are notorious for their slow flash recycle, and the A400 lives down to that reputation, taking not far short of ten seconds to recharge.

Consumables

There are no dragons lurking here to trap the unwary purchaser, as the A400 is resolutely standard in this respect: it takes two AA batteries and one SD (but not SDHC) memory card of up to 2 GB in size. The usual combined card/battery compartment is on the right-hand edge of the camera, rather than underneath as on many models, and this does at least make the batteries slightly less likely to fall out when you're changing a card! Changing consumables is just a tiny bit fiddly owing to the compactness of the unit, but as long as your fingers aren't very large you should be okay.

I wasn't terribly impressed with battery life, although when using a camera of this age you can never be quite sure what state its circuits are in. Canon claimed that you could get 100 shots out of a pair of alkalines with 50% flash use, but frankly I think that might be a little bit optimistic. I don't use flash very much, and even so 120 or so is about the limit. With a pair of high-capacity NiMH rechargeables, though, battery life is utterly transformed, and 250-300 shots are more than possible between changes. You can save your batteries further by transferring photos with a card reader rather than a USB lead.

Photo quality

I have high expectations of just about any Canon in this most important of aspects, and thankfully the A400 turned in a respectable performance. Although pictures came out slightly on the soft side, as seems to be the case with the vast majority of Canon compacts, there was a good deal of detail there (for a camera of this resolution) and a little sharpening on the computer resulted in really quite attractive photos. Colour reproduction is mostly pretty decent, and it has the usual Canon punch, though just occasionally – for example in pictures taken in wooded areas – there can be a slight brownish colour cast.

Image noise is controlled pretty well at low ISOs, but much less so at the top of the scale. Frankly, you really don't want to use ISO 400 unless you have absolutely no choice, and probably not even then. Macro shots seem to come out consistently well, even at the limits of the 5 cm minimum focus distance. A few reviews have noted this digicam to have some trouble with the tungsten white balance setting, but actually this wasn't something I thought particularly acute. Of course, with tungsten lighting itself now on the way out, this may become less and less of a problem anyway!

Problems?

For me, the most significant drawback of the A400 is its unimpressive optical zoom: 2.2x really is limiting, even if all you've known before are standard 3x models, and that 45 mm wide-angle can be extraordinarily annoying in confined spaces. You can also really notice the slow performance, especially in low light or any sort of pressure situation.

Buying and verdict

This is among the cheapest optical-zoom Canons you can buy: with a modicum of patience a tatty but working camera with no leads or accessories can be had for a mere tenner, and £15 sometimes stretches to a boxed example. On the face of it that's very tempting – but when there are substantially better models just a little way up the price range (eg the A430), it's hard to give an unequivocal recommendation to the A400. It's not by any means a dreadful camera, but it is at the very bottom of the A4xx range, and in several ways you do notice that. Two and a half stars, rounded down with some regret to two.
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Comments about this review »

Nar2 18.10.2011 21:19

Most thorough!

rojm 18.10.2011 21:00

excellent review

greenierexyboy 18.10.2011 07:26

I wouldn't be that fussed by the zoom but the 45mm lens would drive me right up the wall.

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Product Information »

Manufacturer's product description

The PowerShot A400 has all the quality expected from a Canon, with a price to make you smile. A choice of four fun ...

General

MPN 9688A007AA, 9686A009, 9686A007, 9689A007AA, 9689A007, 9686A003, 9686A008, 9687A008, 9689A008, 9688A008, 9687A009, 9686A033AA, 9689A001, 9687A001, 9686A001, 9686A034, 9688A009
Product Type Digital camera - compact
Enclosure Colour Spring green, Silver, Sunset gold, Sky blue, Lime green

Exposure & white balance

Light Sensitivity ISO 100, ISO 400, ISO 200, ISO 50
Exposure Metering Evaluative, centre-weighted, spot
Exposure Modes Programme, automatic, manual

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Review Ratings »

This review of Canon PowerShot A400 has been rated:

"exceptional" by (27%):

  1. Nar2
  2. rojm
  3. TheNuttyTart

and 6 other members

"very helpful" by (73%):

  1. sweetybi
  2. KathEv
  3. anonymili

and 21 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

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