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Canon unveils entry-level pro digital SLR - Continued

There's a trend developing at Nikon and Canon. Starting with the D2H, we've witnessed core camera technology unveiled first in a digital SLR, rather than being derived from an existing film camera model. Nikon kicked off this trend in earnest with the D2H and its newly-minted autofocus, i-TTL flash system, new-from-the-ground-up body design and more. Canon followed with heavily-revised autofocus and all-new E-TTL II flash exposure system in the EOS-1D Mark II.

canon_580ex_front.jpgThe Canon EOS 20D continues this trend: a new 9-point autofocus system, new shutter, new 9-way multi-controller on the rear of the camera and E-TTL II (not to mention a new Speedlite 580EX flash that incorporates digital-specific features) represent only a partial list of what Canon has cooked up for this camera. The only major component that began life in a Canon film model is the 35-zone meter. If you were looking for evidence that the big two digital SLR manufacturers have shifted their development focus firmly to digital, the 20D is the latest Exhibit A.

This section looks at some of the EOS 20D's features in detail.

Speed of Operation

Startup time It takes a little over 2 seconds for the 10D to become operational when the power is turned on, or the camera is wakened from its automatic power off slumber. By comparison, the EOS 20D shortens this to 0.2 seconds (200ms), which makes it quicker to come to life than even the EOS-1D Mark II, at 500ms. At 0.2 seconds, the power up time is effectively instananeous.

Autofocus Autofocus of both still and moving subjects improved through the progression of Canon's midrange digital SLR models. The D60 was noticeably better than the D30 at locking in on static subjects in dim light, and the 10D was somewhat better again than the D60 in this regard (though in the months after the 10D's release, Internet forums were filled with complaints about the accuracy of its autofocus in certain situations).

Given what we shoot here at Little Guy Media, however, we found all three models to give the greatest difficulty when tracking moving subjects. For the sports we cover most, including football, soccer, hockey and basketball, even the 10D coughed up way too many misfocused frames (the EOS-1Ds is also a poor performer on AI Servo).

When compared to Nikon's D100, for example, there simply is no comparison: Nikon's midrange digital SLR is capable of a much higher percentage of in-focus sports photos than the 10D (or EOS-1Ds, for that matter), given a comparable lens and comparable shooting conditions. In fact, of Canon's current and recent digital SLR models, only the EOS-1D and EOS-1D Mark II offer truly usable sports autofocus (with the latter camera offering mind-blowingly great autofocus when used with a lens like the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS or EF 300mm f/2.8L IS).

The preceding paragraphs are meant to make this point: we've had good to great autofocus success with the EOS-1D and EOS-1D Mark II. All other Canon digital SLR models to date have been sub-par in the autofocus department in one way or another, and particularly in the focusing of things that move. So, we view the arrival of the EOS 20D and its all-new autofocus system with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Will its AF capabilities tilt more towards the capable EOS-1D and red-hot EOS-1D Mark II, or in the direction of the so-so EOS 10D and EOS-1Ds?

The specifications for the new camera's autofocus system certainly talk a good game. All-new in the 20D, it includes a 32-bit RISC AF microprocessor and 9-point CMOS AF sensor (both the AF and image sensors are CMOS in this camera). The AF component is composed of a single cross-type centre sensor and 8 vertically-oriented outer sensors.

The centre sensor's design in particular is intriguing. It features 2 pairs of vertically-oriented pixel arrays (the 10D has a single pair), where each pair is slightly offset from the other. There are also 2 pairs of horizontally-oriented pixel arrays: one pair is more widely spaced than the other (the pair that's used is dictated by the maximum aperture of the lens).

Translated, this technical gobbledygook means that with f/5.6 or faster lenses, the fact that the centre AF sensor has twice as many vertically-oriented pixels for horizontal-line detection as the 10D should result in quicker and more precise autofocus with even consumer-grade, slower-aperture glass. In our brief experience thus far, this seems to be the case. In other words, the normal precision mode of the centre AF sensor is designed to offer better AF performance than the normal precision mode of the same sensor in the 10D.

With f/2.8 or faster lenses, the 20D's centre AF sensor still uses both sets of vertically-oriented pixel arrays, but switches from the inner horizontally-oriented pixel array pair to the more widely-spaced outer pair. This puts the centre AF sensor into high-precision mode, which Canon claims is 3x more precise than the 20D's normal precision mode. We're not sure what 3x more precise should feel like, but can attest to the fact that with both wide angle and telephoto lenses whose maximum aperture is f/2.8, the speed with which the 20D acquires focus using the centre AF sensor, even in dim light, is considerably quicker than the 10D (and gives the EOS-1D Mark II a run for its money also).

The outer 8 sensors are also of a different design than the 10D. Though all are single-axis, vertically-oriented sensors (in other words, not cross-type), they feature a baselength that is 30% longer than the outer sensors in the 10D. This, says Canon, should add up to improved AF performance from the outer sensors, relative to the 10D.

There seems to be a method to Canon's madness here, and we look forward to plumbing the depths of the new AF sensor further in the weeks ahead. Based on only two outings - night soccer games, one of which was on a poorly-lit field - and using the centre AF point only, we're already feeling confident that the 20D won't repeat the AI Servo sins of the 10D and EOS-1Ds. With the 20D, AI Servo feels responsive when acquiring the focus target, and smart about not shifting away to a passing foreground subject too quickly. In the end, we managed a healthy number of in-focus frames at both games, including the all-important first frame in a sequence, with the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS attached.

There are several other autofocus differences worth noting:

  • The AF point markings in the 10D's viewfinder are larger than the actual AF sensor they represent. Canon has corrected this in the 20D, but has perhaps swung too far the other way, as the AF point markings in the 20D's viewfinder are actually smaller than each AF point's coverage area (though, promises Canon, they are positioned in the centre of each sensor's coverage area, not offset). Will this be a real problem in shooting the camera? So far, we don't think so. But it's worth noting so you're not surprised when you first peer through the viewfinder and see 9 tiny AF squares staring back at you. Also, unlike the EOS-1D Mark II (and all other 1-series Canon models, if memory serves), the active AF point doesn't stay lit up in red. With C. Fn 10-0 (superimposed display) set, the active AF point will blink briefly (one blink in AI Servo, two blinks in One Shot) when the 20D's AF system is engaged, but then go dark. We would prefer a faint, constant glow, at least as an option.

  • eos20d_menu_10.jpgThe new 9-way multi-controller can be used to both choose which of the 9 sensors you want to be active, as well as quickly return to the centre AF sensor (by pressing the middle position of the multi-controller). The multi-controller isn't much to look at initially: it's really small. Much smaller than, for example, the similar controller on the back of the Nikon D2H. But the design seems really functional and usable. Especially with C. Fn 13-1 set, which makes it possible to use the multi-controller to choose the AF point without first pressing the AF point selection button.

  • The low-light focusing sensitivity specification has improved 1 stop over the 10D, to -0.5EV. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is also 1/2 stop better than the EOS-1D Mark II, which bottoms out at 0 EV. The focusing sensitivity range for the 20D is -0.5EV to 18EV.

  • And speaking of the EOS-1D Mark II, that camera, as with other 1-series Canon models, offers several AF options not available on the 20D, including the ability to tailor the length of time the camera will wait before switching focus distance when a new subject enters the AF sensor area, the ability to widen the AF area to a subset of all the AF points around the active AF point and more. The 20D looks like it will offer better overall autofocus functionality than the 10D, but maximum AF flexibility in the Canon system still means stepping up to a camera like the EOS-1D Mark II.

Shutter lag In the early days of digital, the shutter lag even for cameras that were aimed at pros was long, sometimes unacceptably so. If the goal is to get the football tickling the fingers of the receiver, or to catch the wedding bouquet landing in the arms of a future bride, a brief shutter lag and a responsive shutter button is important. The 20D's shutter lag spec, at 65ms (we've measured it at a consistent 71ms) puts it among the fastest modern SLR cameras available, film or digital. By comparison, the specification for the EOS-1D and EOS-1D Mark II is 55ms (and we've measured these cameras at 56ms and 59ms, respectively).

Mirror blackout When following a subject, especially one that's moving erratically, a shorter mirror blackout time makes it noticeably easier to keep an ever-changing scene composed properly. It also affords the autofocus system more time to take measurements of the focus distance, which will, theoretically, improve tracking performance. At 115ms, the mirror blackout time of the 20D is longer than the 87ms specification for 1-series cameras (including the EOS-1D Mark II) and 80ms for the D2H, but shorter than the 10D at 150ms. 

Burst rate and burst depth There was a time, not that long ago, that 5 fps was considered the ultimate for sports photography. With several models of film and digital SLR cameras offering 8 fps or faster now, however, 5 fps isn't quite as sexy as it used to be. Still, 5 fps is more than enough to record fast-moving sequences and feel like the best moment won't be between frames too too often. Put another way, 5 fps has long been an important psychological barrier for the shooting of sports, and in our handling of the 20D so far it makes the 3 fps of many other digital SLR models seem pretty darn slow.

At an apparent minimum of 20 Large Fine JPEG frames in our testing, the 20D has a reasonable JPEG burst depth for a 5 fps camera. Coupled with its fast CompactFlash write interface and ability to shoot and write to the card simultaneously, there should be few situations in which a photographer is hung up by the buffer limit when shooting JPEGs. Especially when the ISO is kept low: at ISO 100, for example, we managed to fire off  a healthy 44 Large Fine frames in succession of a detailed scene with a Sandisk Extreme 2GB card inserted.

When the camera is set to record RAW or RAW+JPEG, however, the 20D will record only 6 frames in succession (down from 9 frames at 3 fps in the 10D). Since burst depth is driven largely by the amount of RAM in the camera, we wish the camera had a few MB's more. We would gladly pay more to have RAW or RAW+JPEG be a viable option for sequence shooting in a way that it won't be with a 6 frame limit. A camera that shoots at 5 fps needs much more than a 6 frame buffer for all file formats, including RAW.

CompactFlash write interface Based on our initial benchmarking of EOS 20D with a small sampling of CompactFlash cards, it would appear that the DIGIC II processing engine and other hardware changes make the new model one of the fastest cameras around at moving data to the card slot.

Not only is it fast when compared to the CF slot of the EOS-1D Mark II or newer digital SLR's from Nikon, it's also several times quicker than the EOS 10D. Canon claims a 3.5x speedup relative to the camera it replaces, which isn't too far off what we encountered with faster-performing CompactFlash cards.

The data in the table below was derived by timing how long it took a preproduction 20D running v1.0.2 firmware to write out 21 Large Fine JPEG and 6 RAW .CR2 photos to the card. Timing commenced when the camera's card status light illuminated, and stopped when the light went out. Each test cycle was performed 3 times to ensure accurate results.

Note: The table below includes several of the perennially-quick Sandisk Extreme cards as well as a small mix of other CompactFlash brands. We opted to not include Lexar 80X cards in this mini-test because we didn't have on hand any first-edition Lexar 80X's, and have not yet received final samples of Lexar 80X second edition cards.

Brand and Model
(Card Identifier)1
Controller Source2
Card
Type3
Write Speed -
Large Fine) JPEG4
Write Speed -
RAW .CR24
Delkin Devices PRO 640MB
(Label: CFPRO-640D)
For Delkin6
I
3.092MB/sec
3.542MB/sec
Hitachi Microdrive 4GB, formatted FAT32 with 4K cluster size7 Hitachi II 3.551MB/sec 4.243MB/sec
Kingston Elite Pro 512MB
(Edge stamp: 1GC5121MY0-2EA00)
Samsung I 3.404MB/sec 3.812MB/sec
Microtech (Pexagon) X-treme 1GB
(Edge stamp: THNCF1G02CA)
Toshiba (SLC)5 I 3.228MB/sec 3.768MB/sec
Sandisk Extreme 1GB
(Edge stamp: BB0307VZ CHINA)
Sandisk
I
4.796MB/sec
5.651MB/sec
Sandisk Extreme 2GB Sandisk I 4.687MB/sec 5.471MB/sec
Sandisk Extreme 512MB
(Edge stamp: AX0310WJA CHINA)
Sandisk I 4.911MB/sec 5.636MB/sec
Transcend 1GB 45X
(45X on front label)
Transcend
I
3.037MB/sec
3.562MB/sec
(1) To help determine whether the card you might use or purchase is substantially similar to the one tested, the card's description includes an identifier - series number, internal name or other unique value - where possible and applicable.
(2) Many companies sell CompactFlash media; relatively few actually design and manufacture the key internal components, including the controller and flash memory. This column lists the manufacturer of the controller.
(3) Type I CompactFlash cards are 3.3mm in thickness; Type II, 5.0mm.
(4) K/sec = Kilobytes per second (1 kilobyte = 1024 bytes); MB/sec = Megabytes per second (1 megabyte = 1024 kilobytes).
(5) Companies that source CompactFlash cards from Toshiba may opt for either the faster single level cell (SLC) or slower (but less expensive to manufacture) multi level cell (MLC) architecture. The Kingston cards tested were MLC; the company does, however, offer SLC-based CompactFlash cards on special order. Kingston's SLC-based cards have "-S" appended to the end of their part number, ie CF/512-S. Not all of Kingston's distributors will have the SLC cards listed among the products they can ship to dealers. For more information, contact Kingston.
(6) Delkin has not revealed the design and manufacturing partner for their Pro line of CompactFlash cards.
(7) This camera's built-in formatter will format unformatted cards over 2GB as FAT32 with a 4K cluster size, instead of the more-efficient 32K cluster size. When we test a production-level EOS 20D for the CompactFlash Performance Database, we'll run this card formatted with both 4K and 32K cluster sizes to see if there is a performance difference (the 4K-32K difference is signficant in the 10D).

The speed bump can be attributed in part to the EOS 20D's ability to both shoot and write photos at the same time.

There are a couple of fringe benefits that come from the 20D's quick-writing capability:

  • When the 20D is armed with a fast card, it can extend the JPEG burst depth by a few frames. For example, when shooting a detailed scene at ISO 800, with the camera recording Large Fine JPEG photos to a Sandisk Extreme 1GB, the burst depth was 24 frames. Changing the card to the much-slower Sandisk "standard" 1GB, and the burst depth dropped to 21 frames. Unfortunately, this same camera trait doesn't extend to RAW or RAW+JPEG shooting, which is fixed at 6 frames regardless (though the interval one has to wait before shooting frames 7, 8 and beyond is impacted, in part, by the speed of the CF card).

  • While the 20D allows the photographer to scroll through thumbnails and even zoom as photos are being written to the card, the dreaded "busy" screen can still appear if a longer burst of pictures is squeezed off and the card is a slowpoke. In general, the faster the card, the shorter the delay after shooting a sequence before it's possible to begin scanning photos on the rear LCD. If you value the ability to review photos quickly, as you wait for the play to recommence at a hockey game or when you have an impatient portrait subject 10 feet in front of you, the fast write interface of the 20D - coupled with a speedy CompactFlash card - really bring the image review system of this camera to life. 

USB 2.0 port This is the first Canon digital SLR to include a USB port that operates at USB 2.0 speeds. We haven't been able to give this function of the EOS 20D much of a look: a G5 Mac running OS X 10.3.5 doesn't recognize the camera, with its Communications menu set to either Normal or PTP (Picture Transfer Protocol).

We had better luck with a Dell Inspiron 8500 laptop. Normal mode requires a driver not yet available from Canon. But with the camera set to PTP it was possible to transfer pictures from a CompactFlash card to the computer's internal hard drive, though at a rate that was suspiciously close to typical USB 1.1 throughput.

Getting a handle on the throughput of the USB 2.0 port of the EOS 20D will probably have to wait until we have software from Canon, a production-level camera body, or both.

Next Page: Feature Highlights - Part 2
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