This past January, at the 2013 CES in Las Vegas, Canon showed off a few new bits of kit at its booth. Of everything there, though, the Canon Powershot N was the most interesting. This tiny camera – almost a square in its proportions – is meant to be the company’s answer to the Instagram and selfie generation: portable, pocketable, and stacked with features like filters and sharing. Is it the kind of camera this generation needs, though?

Design

Like our smartphones, the very devices the this camera aims to steam some limelight from, the Powershot N has a compact, no-frills design. There aren’t any extraneous buttons to the kind of things most camera users never get around to doing. No dial to put it into auto, aperture priority, or program. No buttons for exposure compensation. No tricky switches. Instead, along the left edge there’s a tiny, near-hidden button to turn it on. On the right edge there’s a button to turn on wireless pairing and another for getting into photo playback. There’s also a single switch to toggle between auto shooting and Creative Shot mode – the camera’s main reason for being.

In essence, then, it’s a scaled-down point and shoot. Presumably Canon’s done its research and found that point-and-shoot cameras are losing marketshare to phones, so it’s made this as simple to use as a phone.

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Too bad it’s not as a pretty to behold. Minimalist, yes, but the 30mm-thick profile isn’t flattering when the Powershot N is in your pocket. But it does attempt to hide a nice zoom lens, and also accommodates a handy flip-out display. The latter only extends to around 90 degrees, though. Useful for taking photos at awkward angles, but useless for framing yourself in front of a great backdrop.

Image quality

Where Canon hopes people will find value is in image quality. The 12-megapixel sensor in the Poweshot N is physically larger – that is, the chip is larger – and that allows it to take in more light. This means better images from the get-go, compared to those produced by the tiny sensors in smartphones. Nevermind the number of megapixels, here: most social sharing will result in resized snaps, where a mere 2-megapixels will do.

The Powershot N also has a proper lens, with an 8x zoom. Save for the Galaxy Zoom (and its 10x optical zoom), phones don’t have lenses like this. Score another point for something that will contribute towards great image quality.

Amazingly, though, there’s only an LED flash. With every other Canon compact boasting a xenon flash, this is a huge drawback. Had that been standard, it could’ve been a huge draw.

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When you tire of using the camera in auto mode you can flip the switch and set it to Creative Shot. And cue  the Instagram comparisons. Creative Shot takes a number of photos in rapid succession, with each having a different filter applied. Canon wisely chose not to just apply a series of filters to the same photo; instead, the camera also crops sections of the original photo and applies filters to them.

This means you could end up with a different perspective on the scene you originally composed. It’s fun, and makes you want to take more off-the-cuff photos. Spontaneity goes hand-in-hand with instant gratification, and Creative Shot is the result. Less hassle than Instagram, because you don’t have to muck around with filters afterwards. Just choose one of the six photos produced. Then again, people do also like the fact that Instagram photos are endlessly customisable.

 

 

Controls

powershotn-altWith only a few buttons on the Powershot N you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much to say here. Thankfully, a bit of Canon innovation means that it’s worth mentioning the controls for the shutter release and lens zoom. Traditional point-and-shoot cameras have the shutter/zoom combo along the top edge. Here, they’re both built into the lens surround.

Twist the lens left and right, and it zooms. A second, offset ring can be pressed in halfway for autofocus to activate, and a full click takes a photo. It’s not confusing and within a day it was second nature. You might just have an issue explaining it to a passing stranger when you’re standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

The lack of other buttons also means that Canon’s had to opt for a touch screen interface. This is about par for the course, as far as touch interfaces go. It’s a load better than previous touch-enabled cameras, but there’s no need to spend time fluffing around in the menus, given the nature of the camera. Just switch it on, take snaps in Creative Mode, and download them later.

Sharing and connectivity

Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have the convenience of running on devices that have always-on cellular connectivity. The Powershot N doesn’t, and it’s a huge problem. Those services are about sharing things in the moment, and more often than not the urge to upload something after the fact loses its appeal.

To try combat this the Powershot N has built-in wireless, which lets it pair with a phone running Canon’s capture app. Doing so is – to put it bluntly – a mission. We tried, and the one time a phone did connect it took a long while to transfer photos. Sadly this process mars the user experience; it’ll instantly put off somebody who’s used to sharing photos directly from their phone.

Ultimately, it’ll be easier to download photos from the microSD card and process them as per usual, before uploading or printing them.

Conclusion

It’s a tricky compromise Canon’s had to make with the Powershot N. Lose some of the customisable shooting features of normal compacts, to please those who use smartphones. Sadly, they’ve also compromised on what kind of connectivity it has, and how photos are shared, with a clumsy camera-to-phone link.

Even though it’s a cute compact, and Creative Shot does bring some of the fun back to spontaneous photography, it’s ultimately too quirky to compete with smartphones. Even ignoring that, its price makes the Powershot N a pricey proposition as a standalone compact. For the money, Canon’s more powerful offerings are a far better bet. As cool as Creative Shot is, that feature alone can’t save this from being more than a toy, rather than serious camera.

Design 3/5
Performance 3/5
Battery life 4/5
Value for Money 3/5
Display 4/5
Handling 4/5
Interface 4/5

Overall 3/5

Detail

Price: R3 495 (approximate retail)
Contact: Canon

Image sensor: 12-megapixel
Lens: 8x optical zoom
ISO range: 80 – 6400
Display: 2.8-inch, swivel-mount
Minimum shutter speed: 15 seconds
Maximum shutter speed: 1/2000s
Card format: microSD

 

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.