More than two years ago, the Canon T2i set the standard for beginner DSLRs. The camera proved, for $1000, that you could get beautiful photos and slick HD video. It was incredibly popular, as was Canon's 2011 follow-up, the T3i.

But things have changed. The Canon EOS Rebel T4i comes to the market at a time when the case for buying a sub-$1000 DSLR has never been weaker. Mini mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX F3 and the Panasonic GX1 produce nearly identical image quality with less bulk.

With an auto-focus video and an incredible touchscreen, the T4i is the most refined version of this camera yet. But is it—is a mini-DSLR, period—still relevant?

Canon T4i Review: The Best Budget DSLR Is Kind of a Bummer

What Is It?

A consumer DSLR with an 18-megapixel, APS-C sensor and 1080p video powers. The body only costs $850. It's $950 with an 18-55mm lens, and $1200 with an 18-135mm STM lens.

Who's It For?

The aspiring amateur looking for near-professional image quality in a body that feels and handles like a serious single-lens-reflex film camera.

Design

The T4i is as black and boring as any affordable DSLR. It's like a T3i with a touchscreen.

Using It

The camera handles like a T3i. That new 3-inch LCD touchscreen lets you abandon most of the buttons. A new continuous autofocus system works while recording video.

The Best Part

The wonderfully responsive capacitive touchscreen. This smartphone feature, on this camera, has impressive results.

Tragic Flaw

The much-touted continuous autofocus for video takes several seconds to find its mark. It's annoying for video. For photography, it's excruciating, with its unpredictable, hugely disappointing performance.

Canon T4i Review: The Best Budget DSLR Is Kind of a Bummer

Test Notes

  • We tested the T4i for about a month, mostly using the tiny, lovely new wide-aperture 40 mm pancake lens.
  • We also used the new 18-135mm STM lens, and a standard Canon 18-135mm lens.
  • The T4i's image quality hasn't improved much from the T3i.
  • The camera's video quality is virtually identical to the performance on the T2i. The noise at high ISOs is still a mess, the image could be sharper, and the aliasing and moire distortions haven't been fixed. Given that video is one of the selling points for this (and all Canon cameras), you expect better.
  • The T4i did get an upgraded Digic 5 processor, which will reduce noise or improve color in certain shots. It also boosts the continuous shooting speed to five frames per second. The change is so slight, though, that the target audience for this camera probably wouldn't notice it.
  • The T4i uses its slow live view auto-focus any time you're in live view mode. AF is annoying when you're shooting video, but using it for photography is excruciating. You can avoid this by using the optical viewfinder—in fact, this is one of the major advantages of using a DSLR over a mirrorless camera.
  • Canon introduced a new line of STM ("stepping motor") lenses with the camera that are designed to focus quietly for video. As promised, they're quiet.

Should You Buy It?

It's easy to say there's no difference between an affordable DSLR and a mirrorless camera. But the subtle differences are actually pretty significant.

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If you're going to use your camera as a way to just take high-quality snapshots, the limitations of mirrorless might not bother you. But if you really want to learn photography, there's no substitute for the controls afforded by a DSLR. These cameras teach you how fundamental concepts like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed affect your photos. The manual focus on mirrorless cameras is a joke when compared to using an optical viewfinder to dial it in.

So if you're really serious about learning photography—like so serious that you're already dreaming of upgrading to a pro DSLR one day—you could consider the T4i. But even then, to get the best value, you might as well go for the T3i.

If what you find enticing is the T4i's touchscreen, then before you make your decision, wait for this fall's reviews of the Canon EOS-M and the Sony NEX-5R. These two tiny touchscreen cameras will have APS-C sensors. We'll need to test them to be sure, but either could have comparable performance to the T4i, in a cheaper, more compact package.

Canon EOS Rebel T4i

• Price: $850 (Body only), $950 w/18-55mm lens, $1200 w/18-135mm STM lens
• Sensor: 18-megapixel, APS-C (23.4 x 15.4 mm)
• Max ISO: 12800 (standard)/25600 (expanded)
• Image: Up to 5,184 x 3,456 pixels
• Video: 1920 x 1080 30/25/24 and 1280 x 720 60/50
• Screen: 1,040,000-dot, 3-inch, capacitive touch LCD
• Weight: 18 ounces (body only)
Gizrank: 3.5

Video by Michael Hession/ Additional photography by Nick Stango