26 April 2005

Review: Canon 350D (Rebel XT)

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Canon 350D Rebel XT

When the Canon EOS 300D (or Digital Rebel in the US) came on the market in late 2003 it revolutionised the camera market. It was the first decent DSLR that was (just) affordable enough for real people; a highly capable camera that didn’t require you to mortgage your house and your family. The 300D has gone on to become one of the biggest selling cameras of all time, and rightly so. It’s a good camera that takes very good pictures.

But a year and a half is a long time in the digicam world. A raft of more advanced competitors has come on the market and the 300D has started to look a little long in the shutter. And let’s face it, it was no up-market technological marvel in the first place. It suffered from a crippled feature set and plasticky build and oozed ‘cost-cutting’ rather than ‘premium quality’.

There can be do doubt that the new 350D (Digital Rebel XT) is an advance on the 300D in many ways. It boasts an excellent 8 megapixel sensor with Canon’s newer DIGIC II brain; it no longer suffers from deliberately crippled functions, and it’s smaller, lighter and much more responsive. Better quality, more features, reduced form factor, same price-point. A winning formula, surely?

Maybe, but I’ve spent a little time with the 350D, and frankly, I can’t help feeling that Canon have really missed an opportunity here. In many areas, the 350 still trails, or at least fails to better, the Nikon D70, its main competitor:
  • It has a small viewfinder, much like the D70. It’s not unusable, but it’s not exciting either.
  • It has a smaller CCD, despite the added resolution. That means a 1.6 multiplier on lend focal length. Good news if you are a telephoto photographer, but not for the average shooter looking for wide angle pics.
  • It has poorer battery life.
  • It has a smaller frame buffer.
  • Menu visibility is poorer and less intuitive.
  • It still has that annoying backplate control LCD. It’s undoubtedly less practical than a top-plate display and much more prone to scratches.
  • The standard zoom lens is really soft and more than negates any possible image quality improvement from the increase to 8 megapixels. It's not a subtle thing which would be obvious only to an expert—this lens is just downright poor.
  • It still feels cheap and plasticky. If this was my prime criticism of the 300D, the 350D is not much different. And however much Canon resellers try to push that as a feature, this is a camera which simply does not exude the near-professional image that the D70 manages to. The Nikon looks at the very least like a professional camera’s sibling. On several occasions it has helped me take photographs in situations where only credentialed journalists would ordinarily be allowed. The 350D improves on the 300D in this regard, but in the ‘prosumer’ world, it’s still less ‘pro’ than ‘sumer’.
All these weaknesses, as I see them, are almost certainly deliberate placement decisions by Canon so as not to dent the market for the EOS 20D. But up against offerings from Pentax, and Nikon, the 350D seems rather a disappointment, from a manufacturer whose offerings I generally have very high regard for. Of course, many people will buy it solely on the basis of the higher pixel count. But the bottom line is, in order to take advantage of that, you’ll have to upgrade from the standard kit lens, which will make the package relatively poor value, and knocking on the door of the far more desirable 20D.

If you are in the market for a DSLR and small size is a particular criterion, then the Pentax *ist DS is still my first recommendation. But the new Nikon D50, due to hit shops any moment now, appears to be simply a smaller D70 with almost all the features. If that’s the case, Nikon deserve to have a winner in this market segment.

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Anonymous said...

Hmmm, you seem to have a distinct minority opinion on this body. Canon has a solution, its called the 20D.

eebahgum! said...

I appreciate your comments, anon. Not sure my opinion is such a minority one, though. Several reviews I have read have commented on the lack of 'solid feel'. Anyway, being in the minority doesn't mean I'm wrong :-)

I stick by my comments. To most people who have used a serious camera, this one will just feel insubstantial. And as for that standard lens, it's pretty poor. Not many of the commercial reviews mention that either, perhaps because they carry so much Canon advertising in their magazines.

Agree with you on the 20D though. That's an excellent piece of kit, as I pointed out in my review.

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