Though it's shaped the same as its lower-resolution brothers, the PowerShot A60 and A70, the A80 adds to its allure with a couple of design improvements: the flip-out LCD and two options for custom settings accessible via the mode dial. The plastic body, which comes in two-tone champagne, weighs 12.8 ounces with a CompactFlash card and four nickel-metal-hydride AA batteries. Though the camera is no lightweight, it feels solid and well made.
The A80 and its kin bear the same controls on their backs, but for the new model, Canon changed the layout a bit and used some different mechanisms. For instance, the company replaced the old navigation keys with a five-way rocker switch. It's difficult to press in exactly the right place, so we're thankful that you can still push Set to select menu options, though both Set and Menu are a little stiff. A slider lets you choose between capture and playback, and the easy-to-feel Function button pulls up a menu devoted to the important shooting settings, including image quality, white balance, metering, and exposure compensation. The camera's menu system, which is the same as the A60 and A70's, is simple to understand and navigate.
The LCD no longer has the A70's annoying reflective border, but it's still 1.5 inches. That's a bit small, but at least the screen flips out. And other complaints we had about the A70 still hold: the plastic cover of the CompactFlash card slot feels flimsy, the power button sits flush with the top and is sometimes difficult to locate blindly, and you must manually power on the camera to play back images. Nevertheless, we liked the design's overall feel and operation.
The A80 offers an expansive feature set for the money. This 4-megapixel camera covers a reasonable 3X zoom range of 38mm to 114mm (the 35mm-film equivalent), and you can broaden your scope with optional lens adapters. The ISO setting can go as low as 50 (better than usual for a low-priced model) and as high as 400, but the f/2.8 maximum aperture is just average.
All the point-and-shoot essentials are here, including five shooting presets, Stitch Assist, and movie capture, as well as Auto and Program modes. Manual, shutter-priority, and aperture-priority modes are right out in the open--where they should be--and two options for custom settings are available on the main dial. The A80 also gives you two continuous-shooting modes, a usable magnified view for manual focusing, and the ability to focus as close as 1.6 inches.
However, the A80 isn't the camera to get for pack-leading movie capture. The best it can do is three minutes of 320x240-pixel, 15-frame-per-second video with sound. This is one instance in which the VGA-capable A70 outshines the A80 but just a bit.
Across the board, the A80 delivers better than average performance. It's ready to shoot within 4 seconds of powering on, and shot-to-shot time is typically about 2 seconds. That increases to a mere 2.7 seconds with the flash. This speed is partly due to the relatively short--though perceptible--shutter lag, which lies somewhere between 1 and 1.5 seconds, depending upon scene illumination and contrast. The memory buffer isn't large enough for stellar continuous shooting, but aside from the space on the CompactFlash card, nothing limits the number of photos the A80 can snap. We clocked the camera cantering along at rates between 1.3 and 1.9 frames per second.
The A80's nine-point through-the-lens autofocus system is fast and generally accurate. Its automatic selection of focus points, AiAF, is incorrect much of the time, but because the function uses multiple points across the scene, it gives the image a larger depth of field, the area of sharpness around the focus point. As a result, photos usually end up sharp in all the right places.
The zoom was noisier than we would have liked, but it operated smoothly. Similarly, at the A80's default settings, the flash was a tad too weak to properly illuminate our test scene, but in manual mode, you can boost the flash output significantly. And small size aside, the LCD provided good daylight viewing.
Using four AAs adds weight but pays off in battery life. Our 1,850mAh nickel-metal-hydride rechargeables lasted for a whopping 933 photos, with no false alarms from the low-battery warning. That came on after 900 shots, so we had a decent grace period for swapping.
We can't complain about the A80's photos. They were well exposed, had pleasantly saturated colors, and displayed little noise at ISO 50 and 100. Automatic white balance returned bad results under indoor lights, as is typical with Canon's digital cameras, but otherwise, the white balance worked relatively well. The A80's propensity to blow out highlights became a nuisance when we were taking test shots in the midday sun, but the tonal range through the shadows and the midtones was excellent.
When you use the A80's default settings, colors come out slightly oversaturated, a look point-and-shooters tend to prefer.
Edges looked sharp, and no JPEG artifacts marred the scene at the best-quality setting. The amount of purple fringing was less than average, and it didn't detract from the A80's photo quality.
For a 4-megapixel camera, the A80 delivers excellent sharpness and detail.