Just three years ago Canon started a revolution with the 6.3MP EOS Digital Rebel -- the first digital SLR to sell for less than $1,000 with lens. That revolution has been such a wild success that the third-generation Reb, the XTi, arrives with 10.1MP, loads of high-end features, and an even lower price -- and still finds itself in a battle with four other manufacturers for that same piece of turf.
We've never known Canon to back off from a fight, and this is no exception. The XTi ($800, street, black body only; $900 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II EF-S lens) parts company with competitors in the 10MP class by using Canon's own CMOS sensor, rather than the Sony-manufactured CCD found in all the other 10-shooters.
In the Pop Photo Lab, average resolution tested at a little over 2,100 lines (Excellent), besting the Sony Alpha 100 and coming in only slightly behind the pricier Nikon D80. Color accuracy was also Excellent, and the Reb's noise suppression was exemplary -- Very Low at lower ISOs, up to Moderately Low at ISO 1600, where it still maintained Excellent resolution. (The Nikon D80 remains the benchmark in noise control.)
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Besides its great leap forward in image quality, the Rebel XTi gains enough additional capability (much of it from Canon's EOS 30D) that it strains the term "entry-level." It's now more of a high-end camera in a bargain body. So it makes sense to compare this upstart both to the Nikon D80 and Canon's own 30D, an 8MP camera currently selling for $350 more than the Rebel XTi.
In terms of build quality, the polycarbonate-bodied Rebel XTi shows very good fit of exterior parts and has a solid feel, although nothing like the built-tough magnesium-alloy 30D. The upside to the Rebel is that, weighing nearly a half-pound less than the 30D, it's a lighter load to carry during a day of shooting.
Placement of the shutter button and rear thumb rest are just about perfect. Large-handed users may find the XTi too small, especially the grip, which has no pinky room. Those who want a bigger handhold might consider the $140 (street) Vertical Grip BG-E3, which adds a vertical release and capacity for another Li-ion battery or six AAs.
Canon got rid of the top LCD control panel and put all control readouts on the 2.5-inch LCD on the back. Only a few of our testers missed the top control panel, since the rear panel is far more readable, and, conveniently, shuts off automatically when you raise the camera to your eye.
One thing we all missed was the rear Quick Control Dial (the "nose wheel") found on all other Canon DSLRs. With the Rebel, you need to press and hold a button to make adjustments such as aperture in manual mode and exposure compensation in program mode. It slows things down. You can, via custom functions, program the four-way jog buttons to control such settings as AF point selection, but this double duty invites mixups. Canon, give the next Rebel a nose wheel!
Among other control annoyances, flash exposure compensation is relegated to a menu rather than an external control. Yes, you can program the jog buttons to control flash comp, but we think it should be a more obvious (read, clearly marked) control. And a few too many controls, such as ambient exposure compensation, are press-and-hold affairs.
The new Reb uses the autofocusing system of the 30D, with its 9-point wide diamond pattern. Somebody at Canon has been stirring the mix, though, as the Rebel AF tested out both faster and more sensitive than the 30D. Moreover, the AF proved as fast if not faster than the AF on the Nikon D80 and D200 -- even down to a very dim EV -2 (at ISO 100), previously the sole province of the Nikon rigs.
In low light, we found that the center AF point of the Rebel XTi is your best bet. When shooting fast-moving subjects in moderate to bright light, continuous AF with auto point selection grabbed a high percentage of keepers, as it did with the EOS 30D. This is top-notch AF.