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** Introduction **
I'm a long-standing fan of the Canon A-series PowerShots. Not so much the very latest models, which seem to me to have rather dropped the ball when it comes to offering something unique, but certainly those made up until about 2008, which offer a satisfying blend of ease of use and creative controls. However, if you go far enough back you find that the A-series was made up of something else again: basic, simple snapshot cameras that were clearly intended for consumers making the jump from film for the first time. The 1.2-megapixel A100, which dates from 2002, is one such.
** Looks and handling **
There's no easy way to break this to you, I'm afraid: the A100 is absolutely hideous. It's true that Canon never really cared too much about how their A-series cameras looked until a couple of years ago, but even by their usual chunky, clunky standards this one is no looker. It's rather long and thin (a little like the slightly later A4xx series) and has a rather garish and unattractive black circle enclosing a whitish area around the lens. Put this together with the standard silver of the rest of the fascia and you have what can only be described as a mess.
I mentioned the A4xx series a moment ago, and the A100 is somewhat reminiscent of those models to hold, even down to the plastic but fairly solid build quality. However, its ergonomics are considerably more primitive, with buttons scattered hither and thither around the back plate, and little real consistency in their design. Some are round, some are tapered; some are grey, some are blue; some are recessed some are not. Unusually for a PowerShot, there's a rocker "zoom" control rather than a shutter collar. I use the inverted commas because all it controls is a digital zoom, which as usual can safely be ignored.
** Lens and screen **
This camera has a very basic lens by Canon standards: although autofocus, it has no optical zoom whatsoever, and it has a less than flexible focal length (equivalent) of 39 mm: this is slightly larger than average and thus will make taking wider landscape or architectural shots slightly more difficult. It's rated at f/2.8, which is nothing special but bright enough not to cause any particular problems. The lens cover is activated by turning the aforementioned white disc around the lens: it's a rather odd design that doesn't seem to have been picked up by anyone else, but it does the job.
Like the vast majority of its contemporaries, the A100 has a 1.5-inch LCD screen. This does seem small if you're coming from a more modern camera, but as long as it's bright and sharp it doesn't take a great deal of time to get used to it. I found it just a little bit dingy, though that may just be a result of its considerable age, perhaps combined with my less than perfect eyesight! On the plus side, menus and icons show up with reasonable contrast. As there's a just-about-acceptable optical viewfinder, you can save battery life substantially by switching off the screen when you're not using it.
** Features and settings **
Considering that this is clearly intended as a point-and-shoot camera, the little Canon doesn't do too badly when it comes to user control. In particular, in "Manual" mode there are four ISO settings (from 64 to 400) which can be extremely useful when lighting conditions aren't ideal - though you shouldn't expect ISO 400 to give you results you'd want to show off in public! There's also the usual selection of exposure compensation and white balance controls, though expectedly the latter doesn't include the "manual white balance" option found on some more complex PowerShots.
More unusually, the A100 boasts the AiAF autofocus system found in its posher stablemates: when activated, this allows the camera to select which of three areas of the frame will be the autofocus point; when turned off it will use the centre. There's also an AF-assist lamp, which is quite bright and allows the camera to focus fairly well in dim conditions. On top of this, there's another Canon staple, "Stitch Assist". This is a (slightly) automated panorama mode, which allows you to join up to 26 (why 26?) photos together as one. It's fairly easy to use, but hard to get right!
Unlike many non-zoom cameras, the A100 has a vaguely useful macro mode, which is selected via the front ring: its claimed minimum focusing distance of 5 cm (which seems about right) is a good deal better than a lot of 2002-vintage models can manage. What isn't so useful is the movie mode: Canon dragged their feet for years in this department and the A100's capablities, such as they are, run to a whole 14 seconds of video, without any sound, at 320 x 240 pixels, at 15 frames per second. There may be someone somewhere who can find a use for such a feeble video capability, but that someone is not me.
** Photo quality **
It's a commonplace these days to rage against the megapixel race, and rightly so: choosing a digital camera purely on that number is, frankly, silly as a high-quality 8 mp model will stomp all over a poor-quality 14 mp camera in just about every respect. However, things were different nine years ago, and it's unfortunately the case that 1.2 megapixels of resolution just isn't enough. Oh, you can take reasonable snaps for use on blogs and the like, just as you can with mobile phone cameras, but as with (most of) those things fall apart rapidly if you want to do anything more. The tiny 1/3.2" sensor doesn't help.
Within those - admittedly significant - restrictions, though, the A100 does a good job. Colour reproduction is especially nice, and slightly surprisingly for a Canon large blocks of colour are not particularly strongly saturated. Sharpness is, inevitably, not terribly impressive, though when compared against other digicams of the same resolution the A100 holds its head up reasonably well except for some annoying softness in the corners - something which, to be fair, can be found on quite a few much more expensive cameras than this.
** Consumables **
As with most old A-series cameras, the A100 takes CompactFlash memory. This is still easily available in large capacities as many SLRs still use it, but there really is no point in trying to put a 4 GB card into a 1.2 mp camera! As such, you'll need to pick a couple of smaller cards up second-hand: 128 or 256 MB cards should be about right. Power is provided by AA batteries - only two, unlike a lot of old units, which saves on weight but does mean that life isn't fantastic if you do the modern thing and leave the LCD on all the time. This is definitely a camera to use NiMH rechargeables in.
To transfer photos from the camera to your computer, you should most certainly use a card reader: invest in one if you don't already own one that can read CF cards. While the A100 does have a USB connection, it's the older 1.1 standard which though not achingly slow for a camera with fairly small files (just a few hundred KB each even in high quality) is tardy enough to be irritating. I don't have the software CD for this particular camera so can't comment on it, but be warned that I've found some of Canon's older programs to be quite clunky and awkward from the perspective of a user in 2011.
** Buying and verdict **
You don't see too many A100s on the second-hand market these days, but when they do appear they're very unlikely to be expensive. There's just about no interest in them from collectors - I got mine in a job lot, and wouldn't have bought one otherwise - and so £5 to £10 is the going rate, which is very cheap for any sort of Canon. The question you have to ask yourself is whether it's worth even that much. Its slightly bigger brother the A200 has a more useful 2.1-megapixel resolution and is barely any more expensive. That might be worth a look, but 1.2 mp is just too low to garner more than two stars.