Many an upturned nose has been pointed in at compact cameras by 'serious' photographers but the eminently pocketable A650 is not to be sniffed at.
A 12.1MP sensor takes in the view via the same 6x zoom lens as Canon's more expensive PowerShot G9. Much larger than the glassware featured on most compact cameras, this is a high-quality lens that proved itself with excellent, edge-to-edge sharpness and negligible aberrations in our tests, while offering a fairly fast f/2.8-f/4.8 maximum aperture.
The camera itself is quite a bit chunkier than ultra-slim models but, in our minds, that's a good thing as it enables a more natural, comfortable grip. As well as a flip-out, fold-around LCD, there's also an optical viewfinder, which is handy for locking the camera into your face to avoid camera shake.
Either way, the A650 is remarkably resistant to camera shake thanks to a proper optical Image Stabilisation (IS) system, which, in practice, works noticeably better than the cheaper CCD-shift anti-shake systems featured on many compact cameras and camcorders.
Handling is very good even though, like many Canon cameras, the simplicity of design translates into fewer buttons. Inevitably, this means a fair amount of doubling-up, with buttons offering multiple functions. For example, the exposure bias button is also used for both Exposure Lock and Flash Exposure Lock functions, as well as for erasing photos in Playback mode.
It can all get a bit confusing until you're fully fluent with the camera controls. This in itself is a challenge as, apart from a 'quick start' pamphlet, Canon doesn't supply a printed user guide. This is tucked away on a CD, in electronic PDF format, which is a fat lot of use when you're out and about.
On the plus side, though, the mode dial is clearly marked and makes it easy to switch between Auto, Programme, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes. The main scene modes are also available direct from the dial, including Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot and Kids & Pets, which replaces the more conventional Sports mode but still aims for fast shutter speeds.
The zoom switch is placed in front of the shutter release button instead of on the back plate of the camera, which can get annoying because you have to take your finger off the shutter release for zooming.
Count on quality
The generous 6x zoom range is equivalent to 35-210mm, although Canon offers an optional wide-angle converter for about £70 (plus £15 for an adaptor ring) that can take it out to about 26mm. At the telephoto end, there are 1.5x and 2.0x 'digital tele converter' options built in, which produced excellent results in our tests. If you're determined to pay extra, you can also get a physical 2x tele-converter for around £70.
With a wealth of adjustable metering, exposure and colour modes, the A650 delivers lots of healthy control options. More importantly, it produces wonderful images time after time. Sharpness and tonal range are excellent, although the camera has a knack of blowing highlights in extremely high-contrast scenes.
Autofocus is equally wide-ranging, with all the usual 'intelligent' fully automatic and single spot options on offer, as well as face-detection and a trick Manual Focus mode, which enables you adjust the focus manually and then offers to fine-tune the results.
The A650 IS gives you practically everything you get on the PowerShot G9, but with the notable exceptions that you can't shoot in RAW and that power is supplied from four AA batteries rather than a Li-ion pack.
Even so, we got around 500 shots from a freshly charged set of NiMH cells, and buying spare batteries works out much cheaper. The camera itself is around £75 less expensive than the G9 and, overall, it's a great buy for the money.