I thought this was a surprisingly small and light camera for having a 30x zoom. It won't fit in a pocket - unless it's a big, baggy one - but should slip easily into a bag, or not wreck your neck muscles if carried on a strap. It has a nice comfortable grip, a good clear layout on the back with a nice clear screen (although I could only test it in autumn sunlight), a convenient one-touch recording button for movies and, wonder of wonders, a lens cap with a thin strap you can attach to the camera body so you can be sure of not losing it. It also feels reassuringly solid and well made. All in all, it gave a good first impression. The only no-no was the discovery that the Digital Zoom was switched on by default. The camera gives you a 30x Optical zoom anyway. A Digital zoom appears to add to that but doesn't actually give you any extra pixels - the ones you have are magnified and image quality suffers as a result. Most photographers would advise you to turn the digital zoom off and forget about it. And this camera cannot afford to give away image quality as it is its weakest point already. The other annoying negative is a manual that comes on disc rather than as a book.
Startup time is fast, as you'd expect with a modern camera. The menus are nice and clear with a brief description underneath of what each option is for. This is not always too helpful - if you don't know what a "Servo AF" is, or whether you want it on or off, just telling you that the option turns it on or off is not all the useful! So you need the manual - bad luck if you're out in the field and away from your PC for viewing it. However, Canon menus on the whole are usually nice and clear and easy to navigate, and this one is no exception. The settings you can change vary depending if you're in Automatic or one of the more manual modes. There are also some very basic editing options available when reviewing your photos.
Using the camera
The zoom is great fun! It is amazing what you can see, when you zoom right in on a screne. A truly excellent feature of the camera is the zoom assist button on the side, Press and hold this button, use the zoom controls to frame the part of the scene you want to zoom into and then when you release the button, the camera zooms in automatically to your frame. This process allows you to see a nice, clear box superimposed on the whole scene, allowing you avoid accidentally cropping out part of a person, or allowing annoying objects into your picture and I found myself using it all the time when zooming. A very nice touch.
Now for quality and use. If you're a happy point-and-click photographer who wants a decent camera to use on holidays and the like, you can almost stop reading here. Although not a fast ("bright") lens, pictures printed at 6in x 4in, or A4, or viewed on screen are fine with good colour balance. In all but the brightest light, however, you will need some form of tripod or other means of stabilising the lens at extreme zoom in order to get a sharp picture. But for almost everything, Automatic mode will serve you well and produce nice photos. Annoyingly, if you want to use Macro mode (and most people enjoy taking some macro photos) you can't do it in Automatic and will need to switch to a different mode. However, ordinary folk who don't want to be camera geeks will be well pleased with this camera.
If you're an enthusiast
If however you are a bit of a camera geek, the good news ends here, even though the camera provides some settings for the enthusiast (Av, TV, Manual, Program). The SX500 does have a very small sensor, as do most cameras of its class. Even allowing for that though, it has a noise problem. Even at the lowest ISOs, noise is clearly visible and zooming in to 100% will leave you disappointed, as will the relatively 'soft' images. Forget low-light photography - the noise is pretty terrible by ISO 800 and you'll need to use a flash. Flash balance is fairly good but still quite noisy - snaps only, really. There's some vignetting at the wide end of the zoom range but it's not terrible. What is more of a struggle is that the lens is pretty slow even at wide angle (max aperture at wide angle is f/3.4), let alone at extreme zoom. A tripod is a must - but the quality of the pictures will still disappoint. That's not only for noise but for chromatic aberration (ie purple fringing). I haven't seen this much purple fringing on any camera for years and it's really disappointing. Macro results, however, seemed pretty good and produced the sharpest & best images of any I took. The centre of the lens, it seems, is extremely sharp. Astonishingly the zoom goes to 0cm! Good luck getting light on the subject though - I couldn't find a way to test that! Colour reproduction seemed very good and true to life on all photos I took - this has always been a strong point of Canon cameras.
Overall then, if you want a long zoom in a really very compact camera you probably won't find a longer zoom or a smaller body than this. If you're a casual user and don't want to enlarge your images, or crop in on them tightly, you're likely to be very happy with this camera. As a holiday and snaps camera for this kind of user, it's pretty excellent and even though the image quality could be better it's not likely to be much of a problem. For this kind of user, I'd give the camera 4 stars - maybe 4 and a half.
If you're an enthusiast, I think you're going to be disappointed with the image quality and the noise issues. For this group of users, who don't want to carry a heavy DSLR (or want to leave it behind sometimes) I think the compromises go too far, despite the wonderful long lens. The image quality just isn't up to scratch. For this group, then, 2 stars - and maybe, just maybe, 3 if the long zoom is an absolute 'must have' (but you'd be better with a larger-sensor compact and a crop, I think). And not having a manual to hand is infuriating for those who want to fully explore a camera's capabilities.
This makes a single overall rating for this camera a very difficult choice! But in all honesty, I think I can't give it more than 3 stars with the proviso (if you've read this far!) that it might suit YOU personally down to the ground if you're a casual snapper.