Style is a fickle mistress. Today's iPod is tomorrow's MiniDisc, and no one wants to be stuck with a gadget that's neither geek nor chic.
Canon's Ixus range of cameras (both 35mm and digital) has a long pedigree in shoehorning new technology into ever more slinky packages, and the Ixus i5 is its sexiest model yet.
Weighing just a little over 120 grams with battery, the i5 is a comfortable handful of metal that comes in a choice of four colours, and has an elegant eyelet to let you dangle it from your neck like a 3G mobile handset. The corners are nicely rounded and the controls (there are just seven) are either metallic or tough plastic.
Much of the i5's miniaturisation must be down to the fact that it uses a fixed focal length, fixed aperture lens instead of the 3x optical zoom that's become standard, even in lifestyle cameras. A tiny scrap of glass takes a couple of seconds to peek out from the metal lens surround.
Around the back, a modest 1.5-inch LCD saves a little more space and means that the controls don't feel too squashed together. As there's no optical viewfinder (an increasingly common trend with smaller ultra-compacts), the screen provides the only method of framing and feedback. The 78,000- pixel display is average, there's blurring if you move the camera quickly, and it has some difficulties resolving dark night-time scenes. But colour rendition is good and the icons and menus are excellent.
The i5 uses Canon's superb nine-point AiAF auto-focus system, which flashes up a green square on the part of the scene it locks onto. You can choose spot focusing instead, or a good macro mode that can shoot down to 3cm, disabling the flash. Focusing is generally reliable but there's a real problem with the Canon's fixed aperture optics. While a wide-open f2.8 lens is helpful in dim conditions, it gives a tiny depth of field. This means that if you shoot complex macro scenes or get too close in a portrait, you'll find that only the exact point you focus on is sharp.
However, the real drawback of this lens is its fixed focal length, equivalent to around 39mm on a film camera. This is fine for party shots and general landscape photography but it quickly feels limited if you're used to even a modest 2x or 3x zoom lens.
Technically, it's quite sharp but it suffers from purple fringing and a loss of detail towards the edges. For such a simple system, the optics aren't even that fast, with a shutter delay of around a second and a continuous mode that maxes out at just under one frame per second.
There's a digital zoom offering up to 6.5x magnification, but it's probably best to leave this switched off, as it merely zooms in at the expense of image quality. Shutter speeds vary from 1/1,500 to 15 seconds, which is useful (though mounting such a tiny camera on a tripod is bound to raise a few smiles). There are five sensible white balance presets, plus competent auto and custom options.
This isn't a camera that's aimed at photo enthusiasts, so most snappers will be perfectly happy with its basic scene modes, exposure compensation and few digital effects. It's a bit of surprise to find evaluative, centre-weighted and spot metering here - frankly, they just aren't needed because Canon's DIGIC processor delivers flawless exposures time after time. Colours are confident, strong and natural. The i5 seems to skirt any noise problems admirably, not least because that wide aperture and wide lens mean you can stay at the bottom end of the ISO 50 to 400 sensitivity scale a lot of the time.
Full resolution 5-megapixel images lack a touch of sharpness but, overall, the image quality is consistently high, especially when using the flash. Flash power and exposure are very well judged, whether as a fill-in for daylight shadows, slow synch to add atmosphere to indoor shots or just in plain old auto mode. The built-in unit is right next to the lens, so consider switching on the red-eye reduction for party portraits.
The i5 is powered by a lithiumion rechargeable battery (buy a back-up as the battery life isn't stunning), and it comes with a 32MB Secure Digital card. Movies are large enough to watch on TV but they're jerky at just ten frames per second. Audio from a tiny frontmounted microphone is good.
There's no getting away from the fact that the i5 is a fashion accessory first and a camera second. As an alternative to a camera phone, it's easy on the eye, handles well and takes great party snaps. Ultimately, however, it lacks the flexibility and power that a serious photographer will demand, even from a back-up camera. Mark Harris