The current crop of models in Canon's Ixus range may look very similar, but they aren't all created equal. Take the 850 IS, for example... it's incredibly stylish with all the good looks of its stable mates. However, with 7 megapixels and a wider-angle zoom this is no ordinary point-and-shoot snapper.
The 850's metallic casing goes far beyond what's required in order for a camera to be called attractive and well finished. Canon's over- the-top attention to detail makes it a joy to hold. The 2.5-inch LCD takes up most of the rear panel and is clear enough to render the optical viewfinder redundant.
The rest of the rear panel is taken up with a healthy smattering of controls. Starting from the bottom, there are two buttons for calling up the main menu and display options. Above that, a cluster of controls provides quick access to ISO, Flash, Timer and Macro/Landscape modes.
The cluster's middle button gives access to more detailed options. Above the cluster there's a Direct Print button and a Mode Select dial. The top of the camera houses the rest of the controls, which includes an easily manoeuvred zoom control that sits around the responsive shutter release. The on/off switch is also up there - a smoky plastic sliver that lights up when the camera is switched on.
It seems as if seven is the new magic number for compact cameras. It's as much as you'd want to squeeze on a 1/1.25-inch CCD as there are drawbacks in packing in too many pixels. The lens offers equally good news, but without the caveats: the wider-than-normal starting point of 28mm offers increased flexibility to the creative photographer, especially for those who enjoy taking wide-angle shots.
In action, the 850 IS proves itself capable of supplying high levels of detail with little in the way of unsightly digital noise. The automatic white balance proves itself usable, both inside and out - although selecting Manual and letting the camera adjust itself against a piece of white paper or a grey card provides slightly more neutral results and should be used if possible. The Custom setting is sticky, so if you turn the 850 off it will remember your Manual mode.
Canon has managed to pack in the usual collection of colour palette tools, but there's no need to tinker with the colour on this Ixus - it's one of its best points. There seems to be an endless variety of hues available, with bags of vibrancy when called upon and a good dose of realism with skin tones.
However, it's not all wine and roses. In bright sunshine the camera tends towards over-exposure, as we found in the bright Athens sunlight. Making manual adjustments can bring this back into line, but even at its worse it wasn't too big a problem.
The 850 is capable of producing clear images in low light levels, thanks to the double whammy of image stabilisation and the ability to set the ISO as high as 1600. In theory, this saves you from using the bright-but-limited flash.
However, we found that anything above ISO 200 tended to produce images that were too noisy for printing, even at standard sizes. The image stabilisation proved better, especially in failing light when the ISO wasn't ramped up. It has a number of different settings but we found the Shoot Only mode rather than Continuous proved to be the best at cutting out unwanted shake and producing sharper images.
Noise reduction can cause some loss of detail, but this isn't going to be too much of a problem for the average user of this camera who'll probably be printing out in standard sizes and won't spend too much time looking at the images at 100 per cent.
Canon has kept up its good work by producing yet another iconic Ixus. It's a good-looking and hard-working camera that's capable of some high-quality images; and as long as you're only planning to print out your images at standard sizes, it's one of the best compact cameras on the market.