Review: Canon G1 X

As with many cameras nestled in the niche between sub-$500 point-and-shoots and full-fledged, $1,000-plus DSLRs, the PowerShot G1 X is pure, drooling goodness when you take it out of the box. It’s got a massive 1.5-inch, 14.3-megapixel sensor and the same DIGIC 5 processor found in Canon’s latest digital SLRs. Couple that with 1080p video, a solid body that takes its design cues from the stalwart days of film, and you’re left wondering: What’s the catch?

In a word, the lens. Despite a camera that is in nearly every other way a capable replacement for your SLR, Canon has saddled the G1 X with a f/2.8-5.8 fixed lens that’s slow, only manages a 4X zoom and leaves the G1 X wanting. However, as the argument goes, it’s a point-and-shoot, so it’s intended to complement, rather than replace, your DLSR.

But then why is it $800? Is it that much more capable than similarly priced compact cameras from Sony or Olympus that let you swap lenses? Or even a sophisticated point-and-shoot like Canon’s S100 or the Fujifilm X10, both around $500?

Maybe I’m being too harsh, because there’s definitely some good stuff here, and it’s obvious this is an outstanding camera. First, the G1 X is attractive, and a joy to hold. It looks and feels more like my old Nikon F3 than any of its digital cousins. Though it’s a bit chunky and won’t fit in most pockets, the styling has been kept simple and understated, like an old film camera. Second, the G1 X’s sensor is often capable of producing amazing pictures, which makes the limitations of the subpar lens that much more of a shame.

The G1 X looks very much like previous G-series releases, albeit slightly longer, wider and taller. Think of the G1 X as an overgrown G 12 (By the way, the G 12 is not going away — Canon says the $800 G1 X is being introduced at the top end of the PowerShot line, where it will sit above the $450 G 12, still a very popular camera).

For this new camera, Canon has borrowed the majority of the G 12’s manual controls. With a few exceptions — notably setting the ISO — nearly all of the G1 X’s controls are mechanical dials which all have a nice, solid “click” to them. The nested dials on top of the camera give quick access to shooting modes and exposure compensation. On the front, you’ll find another dial below the shutter release for controlling aperture and shutter speed (depending on which mode you’re in). It’s worth noting that, despite the build quality exhibited on most of the camera, the buttons and LCD hinges are plastic and may not fare well when pitched in a travel bag.

But while the G1 X looks like a point-and-shoot, it quacks much more like an SLR.

The sizable sensor — over six times larger than the sensor found in the G 12, and just 20 percent smaller than Canon’s DSLR chip — produces gorgeous, crisp images. Most people would be hard-pressed to tell the photos shot with this camera from those shot with a full-frame DSLR. The G1 X’s image quality also handily outshines similarly priced Micro Four-Thirds cameras in many situations. There’s no question that the G1 X’s sensor is capable of capturing images at a level of quality closer to that of a DSLR than any other compact camera I’ve ever used.

The DIGIC 5 image processor in the G1 X helps as well, allowing for impressively sharp images clear up to and sometimes beyond 1600 ISO. In fact, the G1 X is usable all the way up to its full ISO 12800, as long as you aren’t expecting to blow up or crop those images. Some noise will start to show in shadows at around ISO 800, but it’s easily removed with some simple post-processing in Adobe Lightroom. That said, G1 X’s f/2.8-5.8, lens is really too slow to be an effective low-light camera. It can handle the odd late-night shot, but if low-light situations are your focus, better alternatives exist.

Another weakness of the G1 X is macro photography. Try focusing on anything under a foot away and the G1 X simply falls on its face. If you’re a macro enthusiast, you should look elsewhere.

Fans of HD video will also be disappointed in the G1 X, which is capable of 1080p output, but only shoots 24fps and offers no manual controls. While you’re not going create the gorgeous movies the EOS 5D Mark II is capable of, the G1 X’s 24fps is much smoother than other 24fps cameras I’ve used. Once again, the G1 X fills the gap, handling video well enough that it can fill in when your SLR isn’t handy, but not so well that it replaces the SLR.

In-camera post-processing is almost always a disaster, but the G1 X has one exception to that rule: the in-camera HDR processing. Sure, you can get much better results with dedicated HDR software like Photomatix, but for a quick and dirty way to open up shadows in a high-contrast shot, the G1 X’s in-camera HDR works just fine.

For a similar price and form factor, a more versatile Micro Four-Thirds kit is still your best bet.

And while the build quality is very excellent overall, there is one component on the G1 X that doesn’t hold up: the viewfinder. It’s a tiny, rangefinder-style viewfinder than offers no additional information — not even focus — and only offers about 80 percent of what the lens sees. It’s tempting to say it’s better than nothing, but given that the G1 X also has a very nice, bright LCD screen, it’s really not. Do yourself a favor and never bring the G1 X up to your eye.

After using the G1 X for the better part of a month, I really want to love it. It’s frustratingly close to the perfect SLR/point-and-shoot hybrid that I’ve been dreaming of for years. If the G1 X accepted interchangeable lenses, it would be a no-brainer. A faster prime lens would solve 90 percent of my frustration with the G1 X, making it the perfect SLR/point-and-shoot hybrid. But that’s probably why it has a fixed lens — Canon still wants to sell SLRs, after all.

Sadly, it’s still far enough from ideal that I can’t in good faith recommend it for the hobbyist or the serious consumer. For a similar price and form factor, a more versatile Micro Four-Thirds kit is still your best bet.

The G1 X is a really nice point-and-shoot camera that will probably find an audience among some SLR owners who’d like a lighter, grab-and-go camera and don’t mind paying the extra $300 to go one step up the ladder from the PowerShot G 12, the PowerShot S100, the Fujifilm X10, or any number of excellent cameras around $500.

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