From one year to the next, comparing past and present versions of Canon's SX superzoom is like playing spot the difference, as each new model only is only ever tweaked slightly. So this year, as ever, the general design and layout has been updated with a few subtle changes here and there. The GPS, for example, is now housed in a visible "bump" on the top of the camera, the video and playback buttons are the other way around, and the grip strip on the front of the camera is longer and more pronounced to help you keep firm hold of the camera body. All in all, the SX280 HS is a thoughtfully designed and pleasant-to-use pocket snapper that stays close to its predecessor. It continues the PowerShot tradition for user-friendly cameras.
As nice as it may be, the SX280 HS isn't perfect. For example, the mode-selection dial on the rear face—a trademark feature of the SX range—may be firm and nicely notched but it clicks quite loudly as you move it, which could prove annoying after a while. The motorised pop-up flash is back again and it's just as effective. However, its mechanism is controlled entirely electronically, so you can't simply pop out the flash mechanically by pressing on it as and when required. That won't be a big deal for most users, but don't say that you haven't been warned—if you start trying to force the flash out with your fingers then you could end up breaking it.
The main new feature in this 2013 edition is Wi-Fi (see inset, below). The SX280 HS is one of a growing number of compacts to come with built-in wireless connectivity with no need for Eye-Fi cards. However, unlike some of early 2013's other contenders, the Wi-Fi connection in this particular model can't be used to pilot the camera remotely via a smartphone. You therefore can't take photos or adjust the camera's settings from your mobile, like you can with a certain Panasonic Lumix TZ40.
Note too that there's still no sign of a touchscreen in Canon's superzoom. In fact, the display seems to have been lifted straight out of last year's model, with a definition of 461,000 dots and an inkling towards moiré effects. Plus, the onscreen image can get noisy and shimmery as you zoom, even when the lighting conditions aren't particularly bad. Otherwise, viewing angles are good, so you'll be able to line up shots from all kinds of angles—which is always handy for a family and/or travellers' compact camera. And that certainly helps outweigh the fact that onscreen colour fidelity could be better (Delta E = 8.6) and that brightness can often be excessive.
To help keep image quality consistent throughout its entire camera range, Canon develops one single DIGIC (Digital Imaging Core) processor that then gets used in all models, from compacts to high-end SLRs. The SX280 HS has been chosen to début the new-gen processor, and this isn't the first time that we've seen the latest DIGIC make its first appearance in a compact. In any case, Canon has worked long and hard on the DIGIC 6, promising boosted responsiveness, improved performance at high ISO settings and better video quality.
The SX280 HS starts up and shoots in around 1.5 seconds—that's 25% faster than the previous model. Photo-to-photo turnaround has been trimmed by 0.7 seconds to just under 1.5 seconds (that's a 30% improvement). The autofocus has also been cut to a respectable 0.3 seconds in good light, both at wide-angle and at telephoto, which makes for an improvement of practically 45%! However, AF performance drops in low light, working in around 1.18 seconds, which isn't quite on par with the rest of the camera's results. All in all, the DIGIC 6 has brought clear and noticeable improvements in responsiveness, even if this Canon compact isn't the speediest superzoom around.
The burst mode lives up to the spec sheet, shooting continuously at three frames per second until the memory card gets full or the battery runs out. Still, you're likely to give up way before either of those things happen. The SX280 HS earns its four stars comfortably in this part of the review, making good and welcome progress compared with its predecessor.
The SX280 HS has a very similar spec sheet to the SX260 HS, using the same well-known 12-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensor and 25-500 mm (f/3.5-6.8) lens. This makes comparison with the previous model pretty straight-forward, and should clearly show whether the DIGIC 6 and its fancy new processing algorithms bring any real improvement in quality.
Canon promises improved digital noise management with its new image processor, and so takes the opportunity to extend the ISO range upwards to 6400 ISO and downwards to 80 ISO. On the whole, the SX280 takes photos that look denser and darker than in previous models despite being shot with the same exposure. There's a slight gain in finer detail from 80 ISO to 400 ISO, and picture quality stays very good up to 800 ISO. Quality here is perfectly fine for prints up to 8" x 12" in size (20 x 30 cm). A first visible limit is reached at 1600 ISO, where contrast drops and smoothing gets heavier. But rather than suddenly dropping off a brutal cliff edge, quality stays relatively stable at higher sensitivity settings. Noise levels obviously get stronger at 6400 ISO, but the effect isn't as dramatic or as catastrophic as in some competitor models.
The lens doesn't keep sharpness levels entirely consistent over the frame, but it still does a decent job—no doubt thanks to the camera's restrained resolution (these days, it's more unusual to see a camera stay at 12 Megapixels than to push up to 18 Megapixels for the sake of it).
Compared with the current top dog of the superzoom world, Sony's HX20V, the ISO test results from this Canon snapper are more uniform, with quality dropping away more gradually as the ISO setting rises. In fact, Canon seems to favour consistency over pure power. Canon and Sony therefore take two different approaches to handling image quality and ISO settings, both of which have advantages and disadvantages. Over to you to decide which you prefer.
Although it's clearly easier to quantify what the DIGIC 6 does for responsiveness than for picture quality, the new image processing engine is evidently still beneficial, giving pictures that don't look exaggerated or harsh, and which don't show any sign of technical defects (e.g. the purple fringes seen in the previous model have gone, corrected by the revamped image processing system. This was also the case with the Fuji X100s and its updated processor.)
The SX260 HS was lagging behind many of its rivals on this front. The SX280 brings Canon's superzoom back up to speed with Full HD video at up to 60 frames per second. The framerate can even be boosted up to 240 frames per second in a slow-motion video mode (currently a very popular option, it seems), although resolution is limited to 320 x 240 pixels, as is the case elsewhere. The new video mode brings a noticeable improvement in overall smoothness, and picture quality is as good as ever with nice levels of detail. Contrast is handled well here, proving more effective than in the SX260. Audio quality is decent too. However, the "stereo" effect still leaves a lot to be desired, even if the camera does have two built-in mics.
The SX280 HS has made real progress compared with last year's model, but there's still some room for improvement. For example, you can't take photos while filming (even though there are separate video-record and shutter-release buttons). Plus, the video-record button is tucked away underneath the mode-selection dial on the back of the camera, which can make it quite tricky to reach.