The relentless march of digital technology means that new features are arriving almost daily - so how do you decide which are worth pursuing? You could do worse than simply wait and see which ones Canon decides to include in its Ixus range.

The range-topping 950 IS has no shortage of high-tech extras within in its solid metal case. None are exactly gimmicks, but how useful you find them will depend on what kind of photographer you are - or want to be.

The most noticeable is the automatic Face Detection system. Instead of a single AF frame in the middle of the screen, the 950's LCD summons up a host of differently coloured and shaped framing cross-hairs, which wander about as they detect and track people's faces. This is disconcerting at first but stick with it and you'll find that it's usually quite reliable.

The other key auto feature is image stabilisation. This is, perhaps, a luxury on a 4x zoom, doubly so given the Canon's hefty (185g) solidity. But its presence is unobtrusive and it certainly does take the sting out of low-light telephoto shooting. Unlike some rival systems, there's no audible stabilisation noise, above and beyond the lens's usual faint whine.

The 950's interface has been tweaked from previous incarnations. The mode dial is now recessed to avoid being knocked accidentally and the four-way pad has a new, slightly spongy action. This allows it to use a proto-iPod clickwheel rotation effect to spin through photo modes (Manual, Panorama, Macro, etc) without entering the menu.

Be warned: this takes a lot of getting used to and it's infuriatingly imprecise, both in clickwheel and standard use. Otherwise, the menu system is logical and fast, even if the all-plastic controls feel cheap.

The 2.5-inch screen is very bright, colourful and sharp, although its anti-scratch coating is extremely prone to smears and fingerprints. The microscopic optical viewfinder might prove useful if power's running low or in very dark conditions, otherwise don't strain your eyes peering through it. Shooting speed and shot-to-shot time is nippy.

Missing manual?

There's nothing as crudely creative as manual exposure. Manual mode lets you adjust white balance and tweak exposure, digital colours and metering, or flip into Scene mode for the usual (and unusual, such as Creative Light Effects) pre-programmed settings.

The Focus button can select for Macro or Infinity, while (annoyingly) you have to delve deeper into the menu to activate and de-activate red-eye and slow sync flash modes.

In our tests, the Canon was more than fast enough for typical, day-to-day, photography and exceeded its quoted 230-shot battery life, further reinforcing its solid reliability. Image quality is good for a compact, with full resolution 8MP images bursting with life and colour. The Ixus is adept at capturing subtler tones, such as skin tones and pastel shades. Like most compacts, though, it struggles in low light.

Sensitivities over ISO 400 suffer heavy (but well judged) noise reduction, blurring down detail. The 4x lens is weaker than we'd like, adding distortion, edge fringing and softness towards the edges of the frame. Flash photography is powerful and well exposed, and it's worth seeking out the slow sync mode for night portraits.

Overall, Canon's latest Ixus does - just - succeed as a user-friendly all-rounder. The interface has been 'improved' beyond the point where it make things easier, and some key functions are either absent or buried in menus, but its impressive face detection, speedy eagerness and reliable image quality combine to produce a thoroughly modern, and thoroughly competent shooter.

Via PhotoRadar