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Canon EOS 70D First Impressions Review

The 70D's familiar exterior conceals intriguing new technology.

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The Canon EOS 70D (MSRP $1,199–$1,549) is the first enthusiast-level APS-C DSLR the market leader has released since 2010's EOS 60D. Yes, you read that right: 2010. It's been a long three years' wait for the Canon faithful—or at least for those who don't want to go full-frame.

Their bottomless patience has earned them a camera that's essentially an incremental upgrade to the 60D, boasting a higher-resolution sensor, faster processor, touch-sensitive screen, and built-in WiFi module. Those changes (particularly the WiFi) are pretty much de rigueur for a DSLR released in 2013, but the 70D forgoes some of its contemporaries' trendier features. The 20.2-megapixel sensor still has a Bayer low-pass filter, there's no GPS on-board, and the number of traditional phase-detect AF points won't exactly blow anyone away.

As a stills camera, the 70D is certainly competitive, but perhaps a little less than breathtaking. But if you're into video... well, that's a different story. The 70D's killer feature is its new Dual Pixel CMOS AF system, which uses turns each and every pixel on the image sensor into a phase-detect AF pixel.

If you know what that means, you're probably already salivating. If not, read on...

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Dual Pixel CMOS AF

Live view finally levels up

Since the advent of the EOS 5D Mark II, Canon has ruled the DSLR video market. Cameras from other manufacturers might have outstripped Canon's bodies in terms of sheer feature count—most notably, the Panasonic GH2 and GH3—but amateur videographers and pros who need small, mobile rigs have consistently turned to the EOS family.

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You know Canon's serious when it goes to the trouble of creating a new logo.

Autofocus has always been a problem for DSLR video. The early contrast-detect systems were slow, didn't work well in dim or low-contrast situations, and tended to hunt around the ideal point of focus. As contrast AF systems got faster, companies addressed the hunting issue by introducing "hybrid" AF systems that incorporated on-sensor phase-detection AF pixels. These pixels would start the focusing process—basically giving the lens a shove in the right direction—and the contrast system would finish things off. But this compromise wasn't perfect—only less awful than what had come before.

It should surprise no one that Canon wasn't happy to settle for less than perfection. The company's new Dual Pixel AF does away with contrast AF for live view stills and video, giving you pure phase-detection focusing. How did they do it? Each pixel is composed of two photodiodes, each of which can capture light, and these pairs function as phase-detect sensors while the camera is focusing. When you actually press the shutter, the diodes unite to output an image signal as a single pixel.

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A fully articulating 3-inch rear LCD—a touchscreen this time—combines very well with the 70D's advanced live view autofocus.

Though the entire 20.2-megapixel sensor is composed of these photodiode pairs, only the central 80% will be used for autofocus. That's presumably because light falloff toward the edges of the frame means the borders produce less reliable AF performance. Still, 80% AF coverage is a pretty impressive achievement.

Demonstration videos show off touch-based focus adjustments that look just as natural as manual focus pulling—something we've never seen from an autofocus algorithm.

Canon claims the new Dual Pixel CMOS AF system is 30% quicker than its previous hybrid AF implementation, has superior tracking performance (though not as powerful as the 7D-derived 19-point phase-detect system in the 70D's optical finder), and provides smoother focus transitions during video recording. It's that last improvement that's most important—demonstration videos produced by Canon show off touch-based focus adjustments that look just as natural as manual focus pulling. That's something we've never seen from an autofocus algorithm.

Don't believe us? Have a look for yourself:

Dual Pixel CMOS AF will work with 103 current and legacy EF-mount lenses, encompassing most of the company's modern lens family. The few lenses that can't take advantage of on-sensor phase-detect focusing will fall back to a legacy contrast AF system. You can't choose this system through the camera's menu; it will simply turn itself on when the camera detects an incompatible lens.

Design & Usability

Canon sneaks in just enough changes to make a difference.

In terms of look and feel, the EOS 70D is virtually identical to the three-year-old 60D. Still, there are a few minor upgrades.

To begin with, the physical control scheme has been subtly redesigned. The Info and Menu buttons are now positioned to the left of the viewfinder, where the Trash key used to be, and the Trash is now below the rear thumb wheel and four-way pad. Quick Menu and Playback buttons now sit above the thumb wheel. Lastly, the live view/movie recording button now has a 7D-style toggle switch, befitting the camera's strong focus on video. Controls on the top plate are essentially unchanged from the earlier model, with the exception of a new button between the front control dial and shutter release that lets you toggle between AF area selection modes.

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A bunch of little changes to the 70D's physical control layout don't do as much as the addition of a good touchscreen interface.

We're not convinced that these changes will really add to the shooting experience. By moving the Menu and Info buttons to the left side of the camera, Canon was able to make the textured rear thumb grip a little larger, but now you'll need a second hand to bring up the main menu or adjust your informational overlay. Most likely, Canon is banking on the idea that you'll be using the Quick Menu a lot more often due to the new touchscreen interface.

We were particularly impressed with the 70D when shooting video with Movie Servo AF. Tapping one subject after another resulted in dependably smooth focus transitions, without even the tiniest hint of focus hunting.

The screen used in the 70D feels very similar to the one from the Rebel T4i and T5i. It's a capacitive (smartphone-style) panel, and the interface itself is quite intuitive to use. You can tap through menus and setting adjustments, swipe back and forth between images in playback, tap to focus, and tap to shoot. All of these worked well in our brief time with the camera. We were particularly impressed with the camera's responsiveness when shooting video with Movie Servo AF. Tapping one subject after another resulted in dependably smooth focus transitions, without even the tiniest hint of focus hunting.

The front grip is quite comfortable, with a sizable notch for your index finger and a nicely textured covering. Long-time Canon users will be pleased to note that the mode dial rotates a full 360 degrees, unlike the 60D's, which had hard stops at each end of its range. It's the small things that count, right?

Features

There's plenty here for stills shooters, but the focus is clearly on video.

We've spent a lot of time talking about the EOS 70D's new Dual Pixel CMOS AF system, but this camera has a lot more to offer both stills and video shooters.

Its new 20.2-megapixel image sensor (Canon's first entirely new APS-C design in more than three years) boasts a sensitivity range of ISO 100-12800, which can be expanded to ISO 25600 in cases of particularly dire need. Canon reps told us that, despite the increased pixel count, RAW noise levels should be consistent with the old 18-megapixel workhorse that appeared (in various guises) in the Rebel T2i, T3i, T4i, T5i, 60D, and 7D. JPEGs, on the other hand, are expected to look a bit cleaner thanks to the more powerful DIGIC 5+ processor, inherited from Canon's full-frame DSLRs.

While its traditional phase-detect AF system might not have as many focus points as the Nikon D7100, all of the 70D's points are cross-type, and the center point is of the highly sensitive dual cross-type variety.

Though it's most explicitly aimed at videographers, we expect the 70D to be a great all-around camera as well. Sports aficionados will appreciate the 7 fps burst mode and 19-point traditional phase-detect AF system. While it might not have the sheer number of points the Nikon D7100 can claim, all of the 70D's points are cross-type, and the center point is of the highly sensitive dual cross-type variety. We found the 70D to be fast and responsive in the short time we got to play with it.

WiFi is another new feature. The 70D has a built-in wireless module that can connect to smartphones and tablets; the implementation is pretty much identical to what we've already seen on the EOS 6D. Users can then use their device to transfer and view images, control vital settings, and capture photos. The 70D can also connect to Canon's iMAGE GATEWAY service, or send photos directly to compatible computers and PictBridge printers. GPS functionality isn't built in, but the 70D is compatible with the existing GP-E2 module.

For newbies and those who don't like to spend too much time post-processing, the 70D is loaded with all kinds of Creative Filters. While other EOS models have had similar effects, this is the first Canon DSLR that lets you preview them in live view (granted, this is something mirrorless and compact cameras have been doing for years). You'll also get a couple kinds of HDR capture, multiple exposure, and, well... you get the idea.

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Like the earlier full-frame EOS 6D, the 70D has a microphone input, but no headphone output.

But let's face it: The real star of this particular show is video. The 70D has what Canon describes as a 6D-type video feature set. That means ALL-I and IPB codecs, time code embedding, a mic jack, full audio level control, and so on. It can't quite match the 5D Mark III or 1D X for features—there's no clean HDMI output, headphone jack, or 60p recording—but for the price it's quite a potent package.

Conclusion

Yet another nail in the coffin for camcorders

We're convinced that the EOS 70D is a powerful step forward for DSLR video, but enthusiasts who care most about still photos should probably wait and see what the inevitable 7D Mark II will bring. Canon has made it very clear that the 70D is not a replacement for the ancient 7D, so we have a feeling there might be news on that front soon. Don't get us wrong: The 70D is by all accounts a very capable stills camera, but it doesn't jump out and grab your attention like the recent Nikon D7100.

Amateur filmmakers and pros who want to pack light should be very interested in Canon's newest DSLR.

Amateur filmmakers and pros who want to pack light should be very interested in Canon's newest DSLR, though. In combining some of the best aspects of the T5i (touchscreen), 60D (body style), 7D (controls), and full-frame 6D (video features), and pairing them with a groundbreaking new autofocus system, it embodies the purest expression thus far of what DSLRs can do for serious film work.

That said, the 70D lacks some features that true pros will probably consider necessary, so more demanding videographers might wait for Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology to trickle down to the 7D, 5D Mark III, and 1D X successors. (And we'd be willing to wager that it will.)

We can't wait to get this curious new beast into the lab, and more to the point, to shoot some video features with it. Keep an eye out for our full-length review, which we hope to have for you before the 70D's September release.

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