Canon's recently announced EOS 40D SLR, the upgrade of its popular EOS 30D for keen amateurs, was one of the worst kept secrets in the camera industry. Despite that, there's still plenty of reason to get excited about the new model.
The 30D was aimed at the lucrative higher end of the amateur market, targeting those customers who had outgrown entry level SLRs but weren't quite ready for full-frame bruisers such as the more costly 5D.
As such, it was a great aspirational camera, and the new 40D is equally desirable. While the headline megapixel count is not particularly earth-shattering at 10.1, the 40D is undoubtedly much faster and smarter than its predecessor.
Take the top shutter speed of 1/8000sec, which when combined with a burst rate of 6.5 frames per second in RAW mode, delivers an almost pro-level performance. In short, amateur wildlife and sports photographers will love it.
Another salient improvement is the Digic III image processor, which gives wonderfully smooth but rich colours throughout the range. Despite those extra megapixels, noise is well controlled, and only causes a headache when you max out the ISO at the impressive new top level of 3200.
Not that there's any excuse for miring your images in noise any more, as the viewfinder gives a constant display of the chosen ISO setting.
With a bit of practice, you can alter the sensitivity without taking your eye off the subject - very handy in changing light conditions or for when you want to quickly adjust shutter speed. It's fair to say that despite its complexity, the 40D feels a lot easier to use than its predecessor.
As well as a bigger, brighter three-inch LCD, there's a new Live View function which reveals exactly what the camera is seeing - just like a digital compact. Live View is most handy in the studio, enabling you to keep eye contact with models or carefully rearrange still life shots without having to constantly squint through the viewfinder.
You can also set it to simulate the exposure, by superimposing a histogram (exposure chart) on the LCD. You can then check for excessive shadow or blown highlights.
While it's bigger and heavier than the 30D, the 40D sits well in the hand, and comes with legible and logical menus borrowed from the pro EOS 1D range. Combine all this with a new custom mode for remembering your favourite settings, plus a quieter, smoother mirror operation, and you've got a very likeable camera.
There are downsides, but not many. Canon's SLR bundles (body and kit lenses) still seem pricey compared to similarly specced models from Nikon, and some of the menus and function buttons appear to have been changed around for the sake of it.
And despite all the hype about the more responsive autofocus system, we couldn't see any great improvement out in the field. But for committed Canon users who've built up a lens system, the 40D has a lot going for it.
Although the official price is £899 (body only), the price war being waged by online camera stores means that you should get one at this price with a couple of kit lenses by Christmas.
For this money, it's something of a bargain, costing only a few hundred quid more than the entry level 400D.
It's always going to come down to budget and preference, but comparing the two we'd stump up the extra cash and get the 40D. It's much more powerful and flexible, while being almost as easy to use, and is sure to have a big effect on the quality of your photographs. And isn't that what buying a new camera is all about? Words: Geoff Harris