The camera itself is pleasantly surprising. The N has a stylish but understated design with a slim, square build that measures just 6 x 8 x 3 cm. It slips easily into a trouser pocket or a small bag. Plus, the N is a real head-turner. It stands out so much that everyone seems to want to look at it, touch it, grab it, play with it. Whether in the street, out on the town or snapping at family events, this PowerShot is sure to get plenty of attention.
The build and finish are very good quality. But in spite of its reduced size, this compact actually feels quite weighty at 200 g. It's obviously quite an unusual camera to handle, and the N's interface can be a little disconcerting the first few times you use it. Switching the camera on is straight-forward enough thanks to a little button on the side of the body. However, you may find yourself stumped when trying to zoom or actually take a photo! Canon is breaking with all kinds of long-established traditions in the world of camera controls here, but it's perhaps about time that someone dared to be different. To take a photo with the PowerShot N, you push the chunkier control ring around the lens downwards. The zoom is controlled with a second, slimmer ring around the lens. This feels quite surprising at first, but you soon get used to it.
That said, there are a few things that we'd like to see Canon work on in its next version of this camera. First, the shutter-release lens ring only shoots when pulled downwards, whereas it'd be more practical for it to shoot when moved in any direction. Second, the zoom ring has a couple of grooves on the top and bottom to help you grip it. Again, we think it'd be more practical if these notches ran all the way around the ring, so you can grip it wherever you like. Plus, it can be hard to adjust the zoom accurately in photo mode because it moves too quickly and sharply. However, it works much more smoothly in video mode.
The 2.8" 461,000-dot LCD on the back of the N is perfectly suitable for this kind of camera. The display stays very smooth, even in low light (although the picture does get quite noisy). The touchscreen controls work well, and can be used to choose the focusing zone and take pictures by tapping the screen. In playback mode, you can pinch to zoom with two fingers, like with a smartphone, and the screen responds with the kind of speed and smoothness you'd expect. It's just a shame that Canon hasn't taken the touch-controls a step further, as it'd be nice to be able to adjust certain settings directly via the display (flash, ISO, etc.). The screen can be tilted horizontally, but only to 45°. You therefore can't really use it for self-portraits or use the camera as effectively in portrait mode.
The PowerShot N uses the same 870 mAh, 3.5 V (approx. 3 Wh) battery as the Canon Ixus 1100 HS and Ixus 500 HS. This lasts for around 120 photos. Note that Canon doesn't supply a stand-alone battery charger with this model, so you'll need to hook the camera up directly to the mains with the USB cable included. And it's a shame to see that Canon's engineers haven't used the same universal Micro USB format typically used for smartphone chargers—especially since this USB port is the camera's only connection! There's no HDMI port, for example, for a quick way to show off your photos on a TV. Still, the N does have onboard Wi-Fi, so you can send snaps to a smartphone for e-mailing or sharing online. You can even use a Wi-Fi hotspot to post pictures directly on Facebook or Twitter ... so long as you remember to set up your various accounts in the camera first. This involves connecting the N to a computer, and is a rather laborious process. It would have been nice to be able to control the N remotely with a smartphone too, but that feature isn't available here.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that the PowerShot N uses Micro SD memory cards due to its compact design. Similarly, it's supplied with a standard wrist-strap rather than any of the fancier neck-strap accessories available separately.
This Canon compact is a bit of a mixed bag in this field, with an autofocus that's fast in good light but takes its time when the light starts to fade. The start-up time and photo-to-photo turnaround are just about OK, but we'd definitely appreciate a little more speed.
The 12-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensor used in the N is a well-know regular in our test labs. Pictures remain perfectly usable up to 800 ISO and you can even dabble with the 1600 ISO setting without your snaps looking too shameful. The 28-224 mm, 8x zoom lens is pretty unremarkable with its aperture range of f/3-5.9. However, some technical skill has clearly been involved in packing an 8x optical zoom into such a compact casing. At wide-angle, quality is relatively good in the middle of the frame but, as is often the way, the edges are softer and there's a slight hint of distortion. It doesn't get much better at telephoto either, although sharpness levels do become more consistent over the frame.
All in all, picture quality will be fine for viewing snaps on a computer screen (1920 x 1200 pixels) or making standard-sized prints to around 5" x 7" (13 x 18 cm).
The N films 1080p HD video but only at 24 frames per second, which is a little frustrating for a 2013 compact. Still, you can up the framerate by switching to 720p mode, and quality is still more or less fine. Higher framerate options are available for slow-motion video, but only with lower resolutions (640 x 480 pixels at 120 fps and 320 x 240 at 240 fps). Sound is recorded in mono which is then duplicated to create a stereo effect. Note too that you can't take a still photo while filming video.
One rather original feature of the PowerShot N is Canon's Hybrid Auto mode that records a few seconds of video before shooting a still shot, giving you a kind of "making of" clip showing the moments just before each snap.