|Canon SL1, T3i and T5i (aka EOS 100D, 600D and 700D)|
When you think mass market DSLR, you are probably imaging the Canon EOS Rebel lineup. Canon is to Toyota, as Nikon is to Honda. Canon is an industrial conglomerate like Toyota and serves a larger market; in other words, leaning towards the fat middle of the mass-market. Nikon, like Honda, is a smaller independent company, and tends to emphasize performance and handling over ubiquity. So inevitably, with this analogy you'll come to the conclusion that the entry level Canon DSLR's are camera versions of the Toyota Corolla.... which doesn't have to be taken as a slight if you are considering who the cameras are made for. The Corolla serves millions of people worldwide, and does so faithfully and reliably. That wouldn't be a slight at all.
Updated January 2014
Canon's entry level DSLR range is arranged differently than Nikon's. Nikon has kept the distinction between their bare-bones entry level D3xxx models and the higher spec'd D5xxx cameras since the D3000 and D5000. For the most part, cameras like the D3200 and the D5200 will get refreshed once every two years by Nikon, but in a staggered fashion. As such, there is always a new DLSR introduced between the two lines within each calendar year. Canon has pretty much only had one range of cameras below what used to be xxD range of semi-pro cameras, but instead of bifurcating it between entry level and mid-entry level, they have refreshed the line on an annual basis and have kept the older cameras around as entry models. In other words, Nikon's consumer DLSR product positioning is similar to how cars are sold. You know that there is a Civic, and there is an Accord, and you know that you will always get more car with the Accord. than with the Civic. In contrast, Canon's marketing works a bit like the Apple iPhone's; rather than introduce one high-end and one low-end model, Canon tends to roll out one model to top the range and uses older models for entry level price points.
|SL1, T3i and T5i|
All of the EOS Rebel cameras are tuned towards consumer friendly output. The colours are more saturated than neutral, and default sharpening is higher than what you would see with Nikon. That said, this is what the majority of the people buying these cameras prefer. If there is one real problem, though, it is that these are not the most comfortable cameras to hold if you have average to large sized hands. The ergonomics have gotten better over the years, but all-day shooting comfort still does not come to mind when you think about these cameras. Build quality is not premium-end, which is not to say that these cameras are cheap and unreliable, but compared to cameras like the NEX-6, Panasonic GX-7 or Fujifilm X-M1, the plastic-ish appearance and feel of the Canon entry level DLSR's is hard to ignore. To be fair, the material that the Canon's are made of is actually a polycarbonate composite, mixed with glass fibers in the T5i, and even incorporating carbon fiber in the SL1. These cameras make the most of their mass-market oriented aesthetic, and even thoguh they feel inexpensive they don't give the impression of being badly built.
It would also be hard to talk about these cameras without speaking about the competition from mirrorless cameras. Both Canon and Nikon are being obstinate about converting their lower end APS-C line-ups to mirrorless because of two marketing related reasons. The first is the history that the two have in DSLR's, and the second is that mirrorless is a big unknown for them. If the entry level DSLR's give way to APS-C mirrorless, then they will be suddenly competing directly with m4/3, NEX and the X-series, while at the same time taking away a feeder market for their more lucrative serious enthusiast and semi-pro DSLRS. Hence, that is likely why original the EOS M and the Nikon Coolpix A have been so tepid in their launch execution; it's as though Nikon and Canon are subconsciously unready to have these products succeed.
That said, if you overlook the size factor, a low end DSLR gives you more performance and usability than a mirrorless camera at the same price, and to that end, the entry-level Canon's have always been terrific value for the money.
|SL1, T3i and T5i|
T2i (EOS 550D)
The T2i was the camera that started the current trend with Canon. Launched in early 2010, it was the first consumer camera to use a variation of the now venerable 18mp sensor first seen on the semi-pro 7D, and it made people question the logic of offering more image quality in the T2i compared to the more expensive 15.1mp 50D. The Canon 18mp sensor is competitive with the Sony-sourced 16mp sensor seen in the Nikon D7000 and D5100. However, any of these cameras - Nikon or Canon - would remain relevant and usable today.
Throughout the years, Canon has kept with a 9-point autofocus system for their entry-level cameras, while Nikon has been pushing the number of points up across the board. For the intended audience, 9-points was an acceptable spec for its time, but only the central point was a cross-type sensor. In other words, this was a camera for people who didn't do much in the way of motion tracking... and dare I say it... this was designed for the "focus and recompose" crowd.
Another area where the T2i lags compared to a modern DSLR is in the video department. Back when the T2i was launched, video was still a new phenomenon with DSLR's, and as such, it suffers from two of the classic early DSLR video problems: "jello-shutter" and slow autofocus. In fact, it's obvious that Canon didn't want you to use the autofocus for the video mode, as it was set to "Off" by default. That out of the way, if you get the focus set up and don't go to fast with panning shots, the actual image quality of the video was very competitive for its time.
T3i (EOS 600D)
Almost exactly one year after the T2i introduction, Canon launched the T3i, which is a T2i with a flip-out screen. Except for a few menu options, the basic camera remained more or less unchanged, meaning that you got the still image quality of the T2i... and the same weak video autofocusing as well. While you would never say that Nikon has ever had great video autofocusing, the AF on the D5100 is probably better than that on the T3i. The T3i comes in a choice of two kit lenses, the EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 IS II, or the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. The 18-55mm was a cosmetic change from the first version is considered to be more or less the same lens, albeit with some of the manufacturing costs paired down.
T4i (EOS 650D)
On paper the T4i looks like it has the same specs as the T3i, but its sensor is the same as used in the EOS M, and was the first Canon DSLR to use a hybrid design incorporating phase detection autofocus elements on the image sensor itself. On paper, that would mean faster and more precise autofocus in live view and video modes. This was also when the Canon made a a switch from the DIGIC 4 processor to the DIGIC 5. The conventional autofocus array remained at 9 points, but now all nine points were of the cross-type variety, meaning that you will have an easier time focusing on off-center subjects. In practice, the hybrid autofocus, though an improvement over the T3i, was a disappointment considering what was available with video autofocusing on mirrorless cameras like m4/3 or the Nikon V1. The EOS M, with the same sensor and guts, suffers from the same shortfall in expectations. By this time, though updated, the Canon 18mp sensor was starting to fall behind in terms of image noise and dynamic range compared to what the competition was offering.
One stand out feature is that the T4i was the first DSLR by any manufacturer to incorporate touch screen technology into its rear LCD display. The T4i also received an additional kit lens option in the form of the Canon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM, featuring the newer generation of stepper motors which are silent in operation, important for the audio portion of video recording. This lens also received Canon's "Dynamic IS", which is an upgrade in the image stabilization algorithms, allowing the lens to anticipate are variety of different movements, such as differentiating between walking and panning on a tripod.
Introduced in March 2013, the T5i is barely an upgrade over the T4. As far as the spec sheets say, the only real changes are that you can you now see the effects of some of the creative filters (think "Instagram") as applied over a picture in real-time with live view mode, a re-designed mode dial, and a different finish to the surface of the body. The STM stepper motors are now incorporated into the 18-55mm lens as well as the 18-135mm lens. Rather than keeping both the T4i and the T5i on the shelves together, Canon kept the T5i and discontinued the T4i. If anything, while the 60D has come down from the more professional grade of the EOS 50D before it, the T5i has risen up the product ladder, both in price and features.
The SL1 (aka EOS 100D) is Canon's "other" answer to the mirrorless revolution. In North America, the SL1 has proven to be a more durable solution for Canon to the problem of "small and light" than the ill-fated EOS M. The camera is basically a T5i stuffed into the smallest body possible. There isn't much grip to grab on to with this camera, but it's still comfortable in short sessions for average-sized hands. Ostensibly, this is a camera aimed at women, though; there's no getting around it. The screen does not flip out as in the T3i and T5i, but it is touch-sensitive.
Though there are some differences in JPEG processing, you would be hard-pressed to see any difference in images between the SL1 and the T5i.
Even though the SL1 uses the same hybrid autofocus system as the T5i and EOS M, its implementation is better on this camera than it is on the other two. That's not to say that it's class- leading, but the overall operation of the autofocus (especially in combination with STM lenses) makes the camera feel modern... that is to say fairly quick and snappy.
Comparing Still Image Quality
If you accept that noise reduction tends to get better with each new model, there really isn't any meaningful difference in image quality between these four cameras. The noise reduction in the T2i appears a bit cruder compared to the new cameras, but that is to be expected. It would be fair to say that ISO 3200 is the highest comfort point in using these cameras. If you want to throw in the 60D into the mix, yes, you really wouldn't be able to tell the difference between any of these cameras, even with careful observation. In terms of outright technical perfection, the Canon sensors lag behind the outright resolution that Nikon is able to offer in the D5200 and D5300, and a case can be made that the Fujifilm X-Trans 16mp sensor is more innovative. For the majority of shooters, though, these differences won't matter as much; all of these cameras produce excellent image quality under typical conditions.
In the past, a general consensus was that Nikon's consumer lenses were better than Canon's, but Canon's professional lenses zooms where better than Nikons. Not so much any more; there's good and great in both companies lineups now. The kit 18-55mm IS lens actually produces good resolution numbers and is only let down by higher than average chromatic aberration figures. The 18-135mm lenses tend to offer more optical compromises because of the greater zoom ratio, but they are also better built than the 18-55mm lenses, which have a way of reminding you that Canon is saving on manufacturing costs with them.
If you look online, you'll find that for the most part, the newer cameras are more expensive, but that's not always the case, especially if you are cross-shopping the T2i against the T3i, or the T3i against the T4i. Your choice of kit lens will push the price up by a couple of hundred dollars or so depending on how the camera is bundled.
There's not a lot of meaningful difference in performance between consecutive model iterations, except for the jump between the T3i and the T4i when on-chip phase detection autofocus was added to the sensor. If you aren't going to be taking lots of video and aren't shooting your kids' fast moving soccer games, then the T3i gives the most value for the money, as the $200 price difference doesn't really justify the upgrade in video performance that the T4i gives. Likewise, the touch screen is a nice feature, but while it adds to the usability of the camera, it doesn't really improve the overall capability.
For all practical points, the T2i is gone from the market. Because there is a practical working floor to which retailers allow DSLR pricing to fall too, you won't find entry level DSLR's priced lower than $450, which is the minimum retail psychological barrier. That said, this price point used to be $500 in years past, but as of early 2014, the T3i occupys the bottom rung of the DSLR price ladder, and is not much more expensive than a high end compact camera like the Canon G16.
The SL1 carries a price premium for its smaller size, but this may be worth it for the photographer that wants a smaller sized camera. The likelihood of adding longer lenses is less, so it could be worth it for this type of photographer to spend a bit more for the extra bit of polish that the SL1 has over the T3i.
The 60D bears mention because of the similar price compared to the T5i. If you are willing to spend a bit more, you might as well go for the bigger camera and have the better ergonomics and handling of the more upscale 60D. (This is the same principle that applies to the Nikon D5200 ...if you are looking for one, it's also worth comparing it to the D7000.)