Smartphones have absolutely decimated the once robust low-cost point-and-shoot camera market. Five years ago there were dozens of choices available for under $200, but today the pickings are slim. We’ve looked at a few inexpensive pocket cameras and found the Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS ($159.99) to be the best option. It has a 10x zoom lens, covering a much longer range than any smartphone, and features Wi-Fi so you can beam photos to your phone for instant sharing online. If you want a small, affordable camera, this is the one to get, and our Editors’ Choice, but it does have some disadvantages compared with flagship smartphones.
The Elph 190 IS ($249.00 at Amazon) is very small, just 2.2 by 3.8 by 0.9 inches, and light at 4.9 ounces. It’s the definition of a pocket camera, sliding into your pants or living in your purse. The plastic body features a glossy finish, and is available in black, blue, or red.
The image sensor packs more than enough resolution for a small camera, 20MP—we’ll get into how that influences image quality later. It’s paired with a 10x zoom lens, covering a 24-240mm (full-frame equivalent) field of view, with a variable f/3-6.9 aperture. It offers a lot more range of coverage than you get with any smartphone, but even at its widest angle it captures less than half the light as flagship models from Apple and Samsung—which means that using it in dim light sans flash isn’t an option.
The On/Off button, shutter release, and zoom control are on the top plate. On the rear you’ll find Menu, Play, Record, and Wi-Fi buttons, along with a four-way directional pad with a center Func/Set control—Canon speak for OK. Its directional presses include Auto/Delete, Auto Zoom, flash control, and Info.
Canon expects most people to use the Elph 190 IS in full automatic mode. When it’s in this mode you have no control over exposure, although you can disable the flash if you’re taking pictures and don’t want it to fire. The Auto Zoom function only works in this mode. It uses the Elph’s face detection feature to automatically frame a portrait shot.
You can take a bit more control over your photography if you want, although there’s no true manual exposure mode. You can set the camera to Program shooting, which lets you adjust exposure compensation, ISO the metering pattern, and white balance, all via an on-screen overlay menu. There are also a number of Scene settings, including options to capture fireworks, shoot in dim light, and use a long exposure, as well as artistic filters.
The rear LCD is a little small, 2.7 inches, but that’s to be expected given the camera’s small frame. It doesn’t support touch input, and it isn’t that sharp, just 230k dots, but I was able to use it outdoors on a bright day, and viewing angles are good from the left and right. It does show false color when viewed at an angle from the top and bottom, and it’s not sharp enough to show fine details in images.
The Elph 190 IS boasts built-in Wi-Fi and NFC, so you can connect it to your smartphone using the free Canon Camera Connect app, available for Android and iOS. Once connected, images on the Elph’s memory card show on your phone’s screen and you can tap to download them. You also get a remote control option, which lets you fire the camera’s shutter using your phone and zoom the lens in and out.
The only data port is a standard, albeit dated, mini USB connector, used for data transfer. The battery is removable and rechargeable using the included wall adapter; it features a design with an integrated, fold-in AC plug, so it’s compact, but still about the same size as the camera itself. The battery is rated for 190 shots per charge. Images are stored on standard SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory.
Performance and Image Quality
The Elph 190 starts, focuses, and fires in about 1.4 seconds, a good result for a point-and-shoot, and it locks focus quickly, in about 0.1-second in our standard test. It is quite slow when trying to shoot consecutive images. In continuous shooting mode there is a 1.5-second gap between shots. Compare this with a new iPhone, which shoots at a blistering 10fps just by holding the shutter button down.
You don’t get selectable autofocus points. You only have the option to shoot with a center point or with a wide area, although face detection is available for the latter. There’s a tracking setting as well. It shows a box with cross hairs at the center of the frame and, once you lock focus by pressing the shutter in halfway, it keeps that target in focus for a photograph. It’s not effective for shooting in burst mode, however, as even with the slow continuous rate the focus is locked in after the first shot. The Elph isn’t a good choice for tracking fast-moving targets for multiple shots; you don’t get to see changes to the frame between shots in a burst, so you’ll quickly lose track of a moving subject.
See How We Test Digital Cameras
I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the Elph’s lens and the noise in images. At the 24mm f/3 setting it scores 2,619 lines per picture height on a standard center-weighted sharpness test, an excellent result. Performance is strong through most of the frame, but in typical fashion for a pocket camera, the outer edges of images are a bit soft, scoring just 1,643 lines. This is lower than the 1,800 lines we want to see at a bare minimum.
At the 90mm position the aperture has narrowed to f/4, but the Elph still manages performance as strong 2,497 lines. Edge quality is worse than at the wide angle, 1,331 lines. At the longest point of zoom, the 240mm f/6.9 position, not only is light-gathering ability limited, the entirety of the image is on the soft side, showing 1,688 lines, with edges that drop to 1,321 lines.
The Elph 190 IS uses a CCD image sensor, a design not typically as good at the high ISO setting used in dim light—or when shooting in moderate light with a dim lens—when compared with more modern, premium CMOS image sensors. Imatest shows that the camera delivers a decent amount of noise, 1.4 percent, even its base ISO 100 sensitivity. Noise increases to, but doesn’t exceed, our 1.5 percent threshold at ISO 200.
Agressive in-camera noise reduction kicks in as sensitivity ramps up further. It drops to 1.3 percent at ISO 400 and jumps back to 1.5 percent at ISO 800. It’s not until you set the camera to its highest, ISO 1600, that noise exceeds 1.5 percent, hitting the 1.8 percent mark. A close look at images from our test scene lends some more insight. Image quality is very strong at ISO 100, and while there’s some slight blur at ISO 200, it’s just that, slight. Image quality is decent at ISO 400 as well. Fine lines are smudged together at ISO 800, and at ISO 1600 the entire frame appears blurred.
When you’re not taking images in brightly lit outdoor situations, the Elph is more likely to utilize its higher ISO settings. The reason is the lens. At its widest it’s an f/3, and narrows to f/4 around the midpoint of its zoom, and all the way down to f/6.9 when fully zoomed in. Despite the numbers increasing, this means that the lens captures progressively less light.
If you have a smartphone with an f1/.8 lens, which is pretty typical these days, your phone will capture nearly three times as much light in the same situation, allowing it to use a quicker shutter speed (to reduce blur) or a lower ISO (to get a cleaner, sharper image) than the Elph. At the telephoto end the difference is even more dramatic—the typical smartphone gathers 16 times the amount of light as the Elph. So, yes, the Canon has a big advantage in zooming compared with a smartphone, but it’s only useful in bright situations.
Video is another drawback compared with the latest crop of phones, most of which have 4K recording capability at this point. The Elph doesn’t even do 1080p—its video is 720p at 30fps. Despite not packing a lot of pixels, details are clear, and while the high base noise means the footage is on the grainy side, the camera does a solid job keeping handheld video steady using its optical stabilization system, even at maximum zoom.
The Canon PowerShot Elph 190 IS has a few big advantages over a flagship smartphone—a long zoom lens, a low asking price, and a lack of recurring monthly payments to name a few. It also has some drawbacks—the CCD sensor means that high ISO image quality isn’t there, and those more sensitive settings will be used in middling light due to the modest f-stop.
We’re naming the Elph 190 IS our Editors’ Choice and awarding it a four-star rating, but it’s not the best camera for everyone. If you’re looking for something that’s very inexpensive, want a good zoom range, and understand its limitations when compared with the latest Galaxy or iPhone, it’s a solid pick. If you have a bigger budget, you can get a pocket camera that offers a more clear-cut advantage over top-tier phones.
If you want a long zoom lens with a more modern CMOS sensor, take a look at the Sony HX90V. The Olympus TG-5 is the best choice for underwater use, and has a bright lens, albeit one with a limited zoom. And the Canon G7 X Mark II has a brighter lens and an image sensor that’s many times larger than that of a smartphone, making it a great choice if you want a serious image quality upgrade in a pocketable form factor. But these cameras range in price from $450 to $700, placing them in a distinctly premium class compared with the low-cost Elph 190 IS.