Canon PowerShot G16 Digital Camera Review
Canon's newest G-series compact asks, "Why mess with success?"
In its 13 years of existence, the Canon G series has seen 12 different generations. Excluding the oddball PowerShot G1 X, very little has changed. In part, that's because Canon believes in the concept; these powerful compacts bring a smart mix of performance and ease of use to the high-end point-and-shoot market, and have proven popular year after year. But it's also because the industry has an over-aggressive product cycle that tends to push out minor design revisions as entirely new models.
Case in point: The Canon PowerShot G16 (MSRP $549.99) is a modest update to 2012's PowerShot G15, improving only the camera's processor and adding WiFi connectivity. Sure, a few of the controls have been moved around to make the most of the largely processor-related upgrades, but for all intents and purposes, this is basically the same camera we saw last year. You still get a 12.1-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor, a 28-140mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8 zoom lens, a fixed 3-inch rear screen, and an optical viewfinder.
While that's still an impressive combo—one that we loved last year—it grows less impressive by the month, as manufacturers scramble to hold onto a piece of the dwindling compact camera market. Sony's original RX100 remains a formidable foe in the small-sensor space, while the simultaneously announced, identically-priced Nikon Coolpix P7800 offers several key features Canon neglected to include.
The G16 has an eye-catching brand name and a strong legacy, but we're not convinced that the overall package Canon has put together can face up to the competition.
Design & Handling
Nothing (new) to see here
At first blush, the G16 looks and feels exactly like the G15—in fact, it's only in a few fine details that the exterior has changed at all. It's still a surprisingly weighty (three quarters of a pound), solid-feeling camera, with reassuring button and dial response. The materials are all top-notch, from the faux-leather grip covering to the high-quality polycarbonate of the body itself. Prominent features include an optical viewfinder, hot shoe, EV compensation dial, front control dial, and pop-up flash.
We had a few concerns about the G15's physical design, and all of them remain valid with the G16. The front control dial is still awkwardly placed, the OVF is still mostly useless, and the rear LCD (while beautiful) doesn't tilt or swivel.
Let's talk about that optical viewfinder for a moment. It may sound like a great thing to have, but in practice it's a a disappointment. It's tiny, heavily distorted around the edges, and subject to huge parallax errors that make it completely inaccurate at close focusing distances. The OVF is a design choice that's particularly galling given the competing Nikon P7800's inclusion of a high-quality electronic viewfinder. The only time it really comes in handy is when you're shooting distant subjects in extremely sunny circumstances—though we'll readily admit it really can be a lifesaver in that situation.
The fixed rear screen also remains a puzzling design choice. With the release of the G15, Canon trumpeted the removal of the G12's fully articulating LCD as a space savings. But the G15 and G16 aren't pants-pocketable anyway, so why sacrifice the more flexible point of view for a slightly thinner profile?
These are serious concerns, but they're mostly questions of what could have been; they don't change the fact that the G16 is an eminently user-friendly camera, with more photographer-friendly controls than many rivals can claim. Not only that, but the G16 also feels great: the grip offers just enough purchase to inspire confidence, the buttons and dials are all of high quality, and the screen is beautiful, fixed or not. It seems Canon knows it hit something of a sweet spot with the popular G15, and decided it wasn't going to mess with success for the followup.
So how has the design changed for the new model? Well, a few buttons have been moved around, and that's about it. The customizable shortcut button is now on the reshaped rear thumb grip, just below the (also customizable) video recording button. Manual Focus mode gets a dedicated spot on the d-pad in recognition of the G16's focus peaking capabilities (a first for the G Series), which bumps the ISO key to its own separate button. ISO takes the place of the former metering mode hotkey, relegating that setting to the FUNC. menu. Strangely, you can't assign metering to either of the customizable buttons.
Something for everyone
The G16's combination of a "big enough" sensor and bright zoom lens is certainly its biggest selling point. None of its chief competitors can match the f/1.8-2.8 maximum aperture range, though each can claim other advantages. The Sony RX100 has a larger (1-inch) sensor, which more or less compensates in terms of light-gathering ability for its smaller f/4.9 aperture at full telephoto. On the other hand, its zoom range (3.6x) is a good deal shorter than the G16's (5x). The Nikon P7800 boasts a 7.1x zoom with a f/2-4 max aperture, essentially sacrificing a little brightness for extended range.
Long story short, Canon has chosen the middle road, going big with the glass if not the sensor. The result is a camera that's very good—at least in the context of its class—when shooting in low light. Videos in particular hold up remarkably well in dimmer conditions. The lens's zoom reach may be limited compared to many contemporary compacts, but the G16 covers a useful range that should satisfy most everyday shooting scenarios. (There are also several conversion lenses that can increase its reach.) Coupled with the lens's wide aperture, excellent close-focus capability means you can get plenty of background blur.
Thanks to the upgraded DIGIC 6 processor, the G16 can claim faster AF acquisition times, better subject tracking, faster continuous shooting, and higher video framerates. The G15 was already one of the speedier cameras in its class—straight up shaming the otherwise excellent Nikon Coolpix P7700, which had abominably slow write speeds—so the G16 is a real speed demon.
Canon claims the G16 has 41% faster autofocus than its predecessor, and based on our subjective experience we believe it. On the continuous shooting front, we were able to record short bursts in excess of 13 frames per second, and longer sequences still managed a healthy 9-plus fps. With a high-speed memory card, the G16's buffer is seemingly endless, meaning you can effectively spray and pray you get the right shot—assuming you don't mind sifting through the detritus later.
Full-HD videos can now be recorded at 60 fps, resulting in extremely smooth playback, and there's a Super Slow Motion Movie mode that records 240 or 120 fps clips at drastically reduced resolution. It's a neat party trick, but not meant for serious videography.
The movie mode itself is still quite limited in terms of manual control; you only get access to exposure compensation and a wind cut option. Stills shooters will find plenty of customizability, though. Full PASM shooting modes, RAW capture, exposure and focus bracketing, custom user modes, advanced flash options, a neutral density filter, and focus peaking are just a few of the more hands-on options available.
For more casual users, there's a healthy assortment of creative filters (toy camera, miniature, posterization, soft focus, HDR, etc.) and scene modes that can spice up otherwise routine shots. The full auto mode dynamically adjusts to changing scenes and chooses the best scene settings to get optimum results; we found it to be extremely reliable in most situations. There's also a Hybrid Auto mode that records a four-second HD video clip alongside each still and then creates a highlight reel for each day's shooting. We've seen this feature on many camcorders, and it's just as much fun here.
A token effort that still lags behind the competition
Sometimes it seems like Canon is perpetually behind the curve when it comes to features. Not by a huge distance, mind you—it just slightly trails the industry innovators.
As the de facto market leader, the company can afford to wait and see what works before jumping in feet-first on new technologies and imaging concepts. Its delay in releasing a competitive mirrorless camera is probably the most prominent example, but the trend extends to all kinds of smaller features. (Though that's not to say Canon can't pull a rabbit out of its hat from time to time—witness the recent 70D's revolutionary Dual Pixel AF.)
The G16 is the first G-series camera to include WiFi, trailing many of its rivals by one or two generations. But while it's finally taking connectivity seriously, Canon hasn't fully embraced the concept. While cameras from Panasonic and Olympus let you use your phone or tablet as a remote viewfinder, the Canon CameraWindow app is limited to image viewing and file transfer capabilities.
Setting up the G16's wireless connection is a slightly mystifying process. First, you need to give your camera a name in the WiFi settings menu, and also name your smart device in the CameraWindow app. Canon doesn't make it very clear in the camera, the app, or the (download-only) instruction manual, but the next step is to put the G16 into playback mode. From there, you can press the AF point selection hotkey to bring up the connection screen.
Once you've managed to connect the two devices (either by connecting both to the same access point or by connecting your smartphone to the camera's own WiFi network), you can scroll through a grid of thumbnails and view full shots. Oddly, you can't zoom in on shots within the app—to do that, you'll need to download the photos and then view them in your gallery or camera roll.
On Android, photos can be shared directly from CameraWindow to any other sharing-enabled app; on iOS, you'll need to download and then share from the camera roll or specific social app. You can also use your smartphone's GPS data to geotag shots, though it's a particularly kludgy implementation.
You can also connect the G16 to a computer, another WiFi-enabled Canon camera, or a PictBridge-compatible printer. When connected to a computer, you can back up your shots to the cloud using the Canon Image Gateway (each user gets 10GB of free space) or share photos and videos to social networks. We can't imagine a lot of casual users will make serious use of these capabilities, but they're nice bonuses to have.
Subtly tweaked JPEGs and superior video
Given the fact that it inherits the Powershot G15's lens and sensor, you'd expect the G16 to perform virtually identically. For the most part that's true, though it appears that Canon has made a few changes to its JPEG processing in the interim.
Images straight out of the PowerShot G16 are still crisp, colorful, and well-exposed, but the camera has a lighter touch with noise reduction than its predecessor— particularly on the Low and Standard NR settings when shooting between ISO 80 and 1600. That difference left it with worse noise scores in our tests, but the impact on real-world photos was marginal at best. You'll see just a little sharper detail from the G16 in those circumstances, with ever so slightly higher levels of grain.
(Check out our gallery of full-res sample photos here.)
In our G15 review, we complained about "chronic oversharpening that can leave nasty-looking halos around high-contrast objects." That effect is somewhat diminished in the G16—at least in the default "Off" color mode—though some shots still show telltale dark outlines at 100% zoom. Regardless of any software-based irregularities, the G16 produces crisp results at virtually any focal length or aperture. Shots at the closest focusing distance and widest apertures suffer from low contrast and high chromatic aberration, but stopping down even slightly fixes most issues.
As we've mentioned, the G16's continuous shooting speeds are pretty spectacular for a compact camera. We were able to maintain around 13.3 fps for 6 to 7 shots, after which the frame rate dropped to around 9.7 fps. With a fast SDHC card, you can keep shooting at that rate until your card fills up. Bear in mind that in order to achieve that speed, you'll have to give up continuous autofocus. If you turn it on, speed drops to a still-respectable 5.7 fps. If you want to shoot RAW, you can hit about 2 fps with fixed focus or 1 fps with continuous AF.
Videos out of the G16 looked beautiful, with vibrant colors, sharp details, and smooth motion in the top 1080/60p shooting mode. There's a bit of aliasing on diagonal lines, but it's really only noticeable when the video is paused. With its bright lens and excellent ISO range, the G16 also displayed spectacular video sensitivity, requiring only 2 lux of ambient illumination to render a broadcast-acceptable image. In layman's terms, that means this camera can capture usable video even in deep dusk.
For the low-down on the G16's lab performance, head over to the Science Page.
An excellent performer, but not the class leader of years past
The Canon PowerShot G16 is a very good camera. It ticks most of the boxes we associate with a top-shelf point-and-shoot in 2013: fantastic build quality, intuitive controls, speedy operation, a bright lens, reliably excellent still image quality, and great HD video. It has features to cater to enthusiasts (including an EV compensation dial, a hot shoe, and custom shooting modes), but it also has plenty of automation and Instagram-style filters to appeal to less hands-on shooters. And, while it's certainly not the greatest implementation we've encountered, the inclusion of WiFi connectivity finally brings the illustrious G Series into the social age.
But it's still hard to get too excited about the G16. This is a camera that's been so thoroughly refined that there's really very little to criticize, but it also finds Canon playing things extremely safe. Sony's Cyber-shot RX100 has been on the market for more than a year, and its 1-inch sensor remains unchallenged atop of the traditional compact camera heap. Canon already tried and seemingly abandoned a large-sensor concept with its G1 X, but we'd hoped it might have a go with the G16. Sadly, it seems inertia has too strong a hold.
Even among advanced compacts with 1/1.7-inch sensors, the G16 isn't the most interesting camera on the block. Nikon's recently announced P7800 takes last year's Best Point-and-Shoot award-winner and gives it a 921k-dot electronic viewfinder in addition to its fully articulating rear LCD. There was a time when we would have preferred the worst OVF to the best EVF, but those days are long past. Today's EVFs far outstrip the kind of OVFs found in compact cameras, both in clarity and usefulness, and it's a disappointment to see Canon sticking with dumb glass in the G16.
And there are other challengers waiting in the wings. The Olympus Stylus XZ-2 iHS and Pentax MX-1, two peas in a pod, each offer a faster lens (f/1.8-2.5) and a comparably sized sensor, along with tilting screens. There's also strong internal competition from the PowerShot S120, which shares many of the G16's most impressive features—including the sensor, processor, and f/1.8 wide-angle aperture—while only giving up the OVF and bright telephoto aperture. If you want something that's actually pocketable, the S120 should be high on your list. Did we mention it's also $100 cheaper?
Pricing will definitely be an issue for the G16. In the last couple years, the camera market has been contracting. Advanced compacts have been getting better and better while also getting cheaper, but so have DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. So it's surprising that Canon is acting like it's 2009, bumping the G15's price by $50 for the G16.
For example, Sony just released the Alpha A3000, a mirrorless DSLR-shaped camera with a 20-megapixel sensor that lists for $400 with a kit lens. That's a full $150 less than Canon is asking for the PowerShot G16. There's no question that the G16 is a better built camera, and that it offers more photographer-friendly controls, but it simply can't compete with the A3000 on image quality, nor does it have the advantage of interchangeable lenses.
But for some buyers, none of this will matter. The G16 is a solid performer from a trusted brand, and it continues to hit a sweet spot of features and image quality that appeals to beginners and enthusiasts alike. Your money can go much further in today's camera market, but you could also do far worse.
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