Canon's PowerShot SX HS compacts have one thing in common with the Sith Lords from Star Wars—in the words of Yoda "always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice." We've already had the 2014 "apprentice"—the SX600 HS—in our test lab, which proved a stylish pocket camera even if it did leave us wanting more. And so onto the "master", the PowerShot SX700 HS. From the minute you take it out of the box, the SX700 HS is a striking compact camera—not for its size, as it's actually quite compact (it's slimmer than Sony's HX60 but not quite as skinny as Panasonic's TZ60), but for the visibly high-quality build and finish. This is a good-looking compact that feels sturdy, reassuring and impeccably well designed, right down to the last neat curve. It's sleek, it's attractive, and it has no nasty surprises in store ... well, almost—the plasticky plug-style connections covers are a bit of a let-down. Proper compartment doors would have been much more apt.
Handling is pretty much ideal. Canon has clearly worked hard designing the little handle on the front of the camera, which ensures excellent grip no matter how big or small your hands. The various controls fall naturally under your fingers and they're all well-made and assembled. The mode-selection dial is notched nice and firmly—maybe even a bit too firmly, but that's always better than it being too loose. Plus, the pop-up flash mechanism is 100% mechanical rather than electronic (a feature we weren't so keen on in the SX280 HS), which just goes to show that Canon does listen to feedback.
There's no unnecessary adornment here, and no gadgety bells and whistles getting in the way—just everything you need to get on with taking photos. The same goes for the menus too. Whereas Panasonic and Sony have been busy padding out their GUIs with sub-menus packed with all kinds of functions, Canon has kept things simple. And for this kind of all-rounder compact aimed at family snapping or holiday photos, a straight-forward, fuss-free approach is likely to prove a hit with many users.
But if there's one thing that makes the SX700 HS really stands out from its main rivals, it's the practical nature of its 30x zoom lens. When developing this model, Canon seems to be the only superzoom-maker to have considered that although a good stabilisation system is definitely useful, an extra helping hand will make it even better. Canon's optical stabilisation system is excellent—you just have to remember to switch it on—but it's above all the "Zoom Framing Assist" function that makes all the difference in this PowerShot. This function is accessible via a special button on the edge of the camera to the left of the screen (see above). Note too that it's not actually new, it's just especially handy in this 30x zoom compact. Basically, "Zoom Framing Assist" zooms in and out automatically to help keep your shot focused and framed as it should be. With a short press, the SX700 HS detects a face in the frame, then if you move or your subject moves, it'll zoom out so you can find your subject again. With a second short press, it'll zoom back in on the subject automatically. With a long press, the camera keeps zooming in or out automatically to keep your subject in the frame at all times, while also trying its best to make sure that the subject fills (or doesn't fill) the frame in the same way each time. It can take a little practice to master this function fully, but once you've got the hang of things, it soon becomes incredibly useful. This makes a great addition to Canon's superzoom compact and it's definitely more than a random spec-sheet filler.
In the end, the SX700 HS isn't the most advanced or tech-packed superzoom out there. It may not have the viewfinder or programmable control ring seen in the Panasonic TZ60, let alone the accessories hotshoe seen in the Sony HX60, but it's the most intuitive, user-friendly and pleasant-to-use model of the bunch. All that's missing here is a touchscreen ... oh, and a panoramic photo mode. It's also a shame that Canon has ditched the onboard GPS, although you can still geotag shots by connecting to a smartphone over Wi-Fi. That's something we're seeing more and more in the camera market these days.
It's not often that the Excel spreadsheet we use to calculate responsiveness scores sees such good results that it wants to give a camera six out of five stars, but that's what happened with the SX700 HS. This super-fast superzoom is a 10th of a second faster to start up than the SX280 HS, which is particularly impressive since the lens has been upped from 20x to 30x! The photo-to-photo turnaround time has been halved and the autofocus has been turbo-charged, taking 3/10ths of a second at most to lock on. That's very impressive. In fact, this level of performance is enough to make Canon's superzoom smoother and quicker off the mark than Panasonic's already ultra-speedy Lumix TZ60.
The burst mode shoots at 2.6 frames per second—although that drops to 1 fps with AF tracking. That may seem a bit leisurely next to the lighting-fast results we've seen so far, but at least Canon's model doesn't freeze up for ten or so seconds while saving the burst of shots, unlike the Sony HX60. Continuous shooting at 4 fps is possible in "High-Speed Burst HQ" mode, which can be found among the other scene modes, but it's really not worth bothering with.
Canon's SX700 HS uses a 1/2.3" 16-Megapixel CMOS sensor, a new 30x 25-750 mm f/3.2-6.9 lens and a Digic 6 image processing engine. Like Sony's HX60, it has no trouble out-performing the Panasonic TZ60 on picture quality, but it does so in a different way. Whereas Sony has opted for a pixel-packed sensor (20 Megapixels) to boost detail, Canon takes a more subtle approach to things. Still, the results are great and Canon fully masters its onboard technology.
The ISO range isn't huge, maxing out at 3200 ISO. Canon clearly hasn't wanted to try its luck on the slippery slope of high-sensitivity settings, and that's no bad thing, as these are generally so bad that their only real purpose is to look impressive on a spec sheet. The SX280 HS started at 80 ISO and ran to 6400 ISO, so settings are lost at both ends of the scale, but maybe that's a sacrifice worth making for the gain in overall quality. From 100 ISO to 400 ISO, picture quality is good. There's a decent level of sharpness over the whole image with no snags or slip-ups to report. Smoothing gets a bit stronger at 800 ISO and gets ramped up again at 1600 ISO. The digital sharpening effect used to accentuate and enhance shots is less pronounced here than in the SX280 HS and HX60, which helps keeps noise and grain more harmonious and more natural looking. This makes the results look more like kind of snaps we were used to seeing in the days of film photography.
Wide-angle shot taken at 25 mm at 200 ISO.
The same scene shot at 750 mm, the maximum zoom setting.
All in all, the SX700 HS has a fuss-free approach to image quality with no unnecessary tricks or attempts at showing off. It's robust, wholesome, reassuring and versatile. In fact, it's so nice to use that you could almost start wishing there were a few extra millions pixels to play around with ...
First things first—the SX700 HS still doesn't let you take a photo while filming video. That may not be a problem for everyone, but it could prove frustrating for others. As well as letting you snap a photo without having to break off from a movie, this function can stop you cutting off videos at the wrong moment by accidentally pressing the shutter-release. And that actually happens more often than you might think.
Otherwise, the SX700 HS is as effective as its predecessor, with pleasant image quality, a quiet zoom lens, a good continuous autofocus and decent-quality audio. It films Full HD video in 60p or 30p. There's no 24p or 25p mode, however, which is a bit of a shame for users in regions using PAL (like the UK) rather than NTSC.