It wouldn't be spring without our heralding the arrival of a breakthrough Canon Rebel. This year, though, we have a slightly different message. Because, even though we do think the new T3i is the best Rebel ever, we know that what rings our chimes doesn’t necessarily ring everybody’s.
Don’t get us wrong. When it comes to image quality, the T3i basically matches the T2i, already the best in the entry-level segment, and its performance in other areas is also just as good—again, at or near the top of the category. So if you want great pictures from a DSLR, at a reasonably low cost, then the T3i delivers. Plus you get wireless TTL control of off-camera flash—a first for the Rebel line. And its 3-inch, 1.04-million-dot, articulated LCD monitor makes getting those images, and shooting HD video footage, easier. If you don’t care about these innovations, though, you’ll get a better deal with the T2i.
In the Lab
With the same 18MP sensor Canon uses in its T2i, 60D, and 7D, the T3i had no trouble earning an Excellent rating for overall image quality. In our resolution test, it turned in 2550 lines per picture height for an Excellent rating; color accuracy, with an average Delta E of 6.7, also rated Excellent.
In our noise test, the T3i showed modest improvements over the T2i at ISO 1600 and above. Below ISO 1600 it basically matched the T2i, except at ISO 800 where the T3i showed more noise—just barely enough to push it to a Moderately Low rating on our scale. Ironically, this means that the range for which the T3i gets an Excellent overall image quality score is ISO 100 through ISO 400, while the T2i goes up to ISO 800. Ultimately though, we’d put the T3i’s image quality slightly ahead of the T2i, since it maintained acceptable noise ratings 1 stop higher—through ISO 3200.
Given that the T3i and T2i share the same core AF system, it’s no surprise that they had comparable results in our AF speed test. Impressively for an entry-level camera, the T3i was able to focus in less than a second even in the moonlit-level darkness of EV –1. Interestingly, Canon rates the AF system to work only down to EV –0.5. In our test, the focusing became less consistent at EV –2, but it did manage to lock focus in an average of 1.2 seconds. That’s good for a system that isn’t even rated to work in light that dim.
In the Field
The most noticeable difference between the T3i and T2i are the cameras’ bodies. The majority of buttons remain in the same places. We again applaud the location of the exposure compensation button next to your thumb’s resting place on the back of the camera. The Q button accesses the quick menu to change most any major setting. And the well-designed menus are intuitive enough to let you find any setting you’ll want to change. If we have one gripe, it’s that you could breeze by the Custom Functions option in the Set Up portion of the menu if you didn’t know to look for it. If so, you’d have a hard time figuring out how to expand the ISO range to reach an equivalent of ISO 12,800. The articulation of the high-resolution 3-inch screen is the most tangible difference between the cameras, and one we love. It’s easy to dismiss, but once you’ve gotten used to shooting with a fold-out, fully swiveling screen, you’ll miss it when it’s not there.
Shooting in Grand Central Terminal, we appreciated being able to frame an overhead shot of the clock atop the info booth. Similarly, while using a monopod with a 24mm f/3.5L II Canon TS-E tilt/shift lens, one shot demanded a camera height of about 4 feet—awkward to frame through the optical finder or with live view on a fixed LCD. With the T3i’s screen tilted upward, framing was precise and quick. The one downside to the articulated screen is that it doesn’t leave space for the sensors that automatically turn off the LCD screen on the T2i. So, you’ll have to turn the display off with the display button if it annoys you while using the optical finder.