Canon PowerShot S110 Review

The S110 continues to be Canon’s most excellent pocket cam, despite the lackluster Wi-Fi feature.
The S110 continues to be Canon’s most excellent pocket cam, despite the lackluster Wi-Fi feature.
The S110 continues to be Canon’s most excellent pocket cam, despite the lackluster Wi-Fi feature.

Highs

  • Great photo quality and performance, even in low light
  • Faster autofocusing than predecessors
  • Easy to use, yet has plenty of user-adjustable options

Lows

  • Wi-Fi not the easiest to use, somewhat half-baked
  • Slow continuous shooting

The Canon PowerShot S-series has some of the most advanced compact cameras around. The latest, the PowerShot S110, not only uses a new, better sensor that pushes the ISO up to 12,800, but it has a faster autofocusing system, too. The big feature here is integrated Wi-Fi for the wireless transfer and upload of photos, but are these features – plus the camera’s ability to take great photos – enough to justify the $450 price tag?

Features and design

Since the PowerShot S90, the S-series from Canon has become one of the better high-performance compact point-and-shoot cameras you can buy. Such is the case with the PowerShot S110: With an exterior design that hasn’t changed drastically since S90, the S110’s form factor is small enough to fit easily inside an empty pants pocket yet feels comfortable in the hands (one-hand operation is totally doable). The S110 has a noticeably more-solid construction than, say, Canon’s A-series, but it does have a bit of a heft – you’ll feel it pulling down your shirt’s front pocket, for example.

Don’t confuse this compact cam with all point-and-shoots. While it is easy to operate, there are more advanced components and features. Internally, the S110 shares many of the same specs as the S100, but there are enhancements. The S110 uses a new 0.59-inch (diagonal) 12.1-megapixel “High-Sensitivity” CMOS sensor – the same sensor found in the larger PowerShot G15 – with a max ISO of 12,800 (versus the S100’s 6,400). The autofocusing has also been improved to be faster with reduced lag times (issues that hindered older S-series cameras) and slightly faster burst mode (10 frames per second in the High-Speed Burst HQ mode). The 3-inch LCD (rated at 461K dots) is now touch capable, letting you select, pinch, and slide like you have been trained to do on your smartphones. Otherwise, the S110 offers the same features as the S100: a 5x optical zoom; 24-120mm focal length (35mm equivalent); f/2.0-5.9 aperture, 15-1/2000 of a second shutter speed; and RAW image capture.

The biggest upgrade, however, is the inclusion of Wi-Fi. With it, you can transmit content directly to another Canon Wi-Fi-enabled camera; to a PC or Mac via a network access point; a compatible Wi-Fi-enabled printer; a smart phone or tablet running Canon’s CameraWindow app on Android or iOS; or Canon’s Image Gateway portal (via a network access point), which you can use to send your images straight to a Web service like Twitter and Facebook. Image Gateway requires a one-time setup through your computer, which means you’ll also have to register the camera and create a Canon account (talk about an unnecessarily long process just to tweet an image!). If you have a smartphone, use that as an intermediary to upload your images instead. Also, you can use your smartphone’s GPS to geotag your images with location info; the S110 lacks built-in GPS, which the S100 had.

The S110 is an amazing little camera that thinks it’s a more powerful shooter, and it backs it up with its picture and video quality.

In terms of usability, the S110 can’t match the ease of an iPhone or one of the many Android devices. It’s terribly hard to set up, and the menu options are a bit convoluted. For example, when we first tried to pair the camera with an iPhone 4S, there was no indication that the setup process had completed, but the status bar continued to indicate that it’s “working.” We decided to cancel out, but after launching the CameraWindow app on the iPhone, the camera showed up; it seems that the pairing was successful. There’s a bit of a long delay before the camera and phone starts talking to each other, but once the camera recognizes the iPhone, we could grab an image or video off the S110 and send it to Facebook, YouTube, or an email address (sorry, folks, no Twitter or any other social networking service via this method). Also, we couldn’t get the geotagging feature to work on our review unit. We had better luck connecting to a network access point via Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) as well as typing in the network’s password (entering passwords is much easier, thanks to the touchscreen).

One useful feature introduced in the S90 is the control ring that surrounds the lens, which the S110 retains. The user can make on-the-fly adjustments to an often-used setting simply by turning it. You can program it to work with only one of several settings, such as exposure compensation (brightness), manual focus, white balance, and zoom. (We think it works best for exposure comp, but that’s just us.)

With the previous S100, Canon added a grip on the front to rest your fingers on. That grip has disappeared with the S110, and the front of the camera once again has a clean look consisting of the lens, control ring, microphone, and autofocusing lamp. The top has a mode dial (for quick access to various shooting modes), zoom lever surrounding the shutter button, an on-off switch, an indicator that lights up blue when Wi-Fi is enabled, and a flash that automatically pops up and down when activated (don’t physically push it down; it’ll retract back into the camera on its own when it’s not needed).

canon powershot S110 thumb grip

On the back of the S110, the 3-inch touchscreen takes up three-fourths of the space. To the right of the screen there’s a thumb grip/rest, speaker, ring function selector button, dedicated movie button, playback button, menu button, and a control dial with a four-way and center button for various functions including macro/manual focus (left), flash (right), display (down), exposure compensation/Wi-Fi (up), and function/set (center). The cover on the right opens to reveal the digital and HDMI ports. The bottom has the tripod socket and battery and SD card (up to SDXC) compartment. Despite what seems like a lot of buttons and dials, overall the camera design is minimalist.

Call us nitpicky but there are some design issues we must point out. For some reason, Canon has changed the on/off button into a small recessed thing that isn’t as easy to press as in previous models. We don’t know how tightly packed the components are inside now that Wi-Fi has been added, but surely there’s plenty of space on top for a larger button that’s more substantial, right? Then, there’s the pop-up flash. When it’s down, it’s fine. When it pops up, it leaves little room for your left index finger to steadily hold onto the camera. We try not to use the internal flash when we take photos, but for the times that call for it, this flash placement can be a nuisance. As we mentioned in our S100 review, it’d be nice to include a hot shoe for a small external flash. But doing so would require the camera to be bigger than it is – which would defeat the point of this small camera – so it’s a compromise.

Finally, there’s the issue with the touchscreen. It’s very responsive, and it’s fine for playback, selecting items onscreen, punching in our access point’s password, and picking a focus point. But because it’s so large on this small camera, there’s little room for your left-hand fingers to hold onto the camera properly and steadily without nudging on the screen; this is an issue if the touch-shutter function is enabled, as we always inadvertently touch the screen with our knuckle and shot something we didn’t want (something we encountered with Canon’s EOS M camera). The “getting started” guide instructs us to hold the camera with thumb against the left side of the camera and index finger cradling the bottom, like some kind of “L” shape. Sorry, but it feels unnatural to hold a camera this way.

Trust us, it hurts us to say these things about a camera series we appreciate, but we wish there had been better solutions to these design compromises. Otherwise, the buttons, dials, and touchscreen are easily accessible via the right hand (except that tiny power button).

What’s in the box

Like the camera’s minimalist design, besides the S110, there’s very little that comes in the box. You’ll find the battery (NB-5L, rated at 200 shots), battery charger, USB interface cable, wrist strap, “getting started” booklet, and a CD containing editing software and a full PDF manual.

Performance and use

Despite whatever flaws, at the end of the day this is a seriously great compact camera for shooting still photos. Think of it as a car with a small turbo-charged engine. The improved autofocusing is faster and there’s shorter lag time (although it’ll need to work much harder in low light). Startup time is good, at approximately a second.

In normal shooting conditions, the camera does well on its own in auto or program mode. Image quality is generally excellent, although there are times when we needed to adjust the exposure compensation, even in normal daylight. That’s the beauty of cameras like the S110: Unlike smartphones or the most basic point-and-shoot, it lets you take control and fine-tune the adjustments. The colors in the images we shot were generally warm and accurate.

The S110 will impress you with its low-light performance. Although the camera can be pushed up to a max ISO of 12,800, you should never go that high unless you like a lot of noise – it’s true for most compact cameras of this size. You’ll get nice, clean photos at around ISO 1,600, but you’ll still get usable images at ISO 3,200. At ISO 6,400, use those at small sizes for sharing on the Web or through e-mail.

If you’re looking to shoot video, the S110 doesn’t disappoint. As with many new video-capable Canon cameras, the Full HD 1080p (24 fps) video quality is clear and smooth with good autofocusing. Audio quality is decent, but not great. The S110 is fine for capturing a few short videos of your family vacation, but it’s not designed for shooting a motion picture, obviously.

Where the camera stumbles is in shooting fast action shots. While Canon touts a burst mode of 10 frames per second, that’s in the High-Speed Burst HQ mode (found in the scene mode). Otherwise, the camera can only handle 2.1 fps. As long as you stick to portraits, still life, or slow motion, you should be OK.

Battery life is good. We were able to get a weekend of casual shooting (roughly 138 photos) and occasional video without having to recharge (we made sure to power down when walking around, and we never used Wi-Fi). The small battery will be limiting if you put the camera through an intense workout.

canon-powershot-s110-sample-image-night-columns

 As you can probably tell from our earlier description of the camera’s Wi-Fi capability, it feels like it’s still in beta and needs polishing. You can transfer files wirelessly to a computer, but it’s way faster to just plug the SD card into a computer. You also need to connect to an access point for many instances, and even then you are limited in where you can upload your images. We wish the CameraWindow app could do more, such as some quick editing and posting to more social networking sites; we would also like Canon to follow Sony’s example and use smart phone as a viewfinder for remote shooting. With the S110, Wi-Fi feels more like a novelty than a real useful feature. It requires you to do so much in order to get it to work, yet you get very little reward out of it.

Conclusion

It’s a given that you’ll get better performance from a camera with a larger sensor, but more convenience out of a smart phone. So, where does the S110 fit in? It fills that niche where you want excellent image quality but you don’t want to lug around an interchangeable lens camera, no matter how compact some mirrorless ones are. The S110 is an amazing little camera that thinks it’s a more powerful shooter, and it backs it up with its picture and video quality. Plus, it’s easy to stow; we stashed it in our back pocket without feeling overburden, yet it was easy to take out when it came time to shoot.

If you want a great camera that takes great photos – even in most low-light situations – put the S110 on your list. With that said, realize there are issues. The Wi-Fi, for us, is half-baked; we almost wish it wasn’t there. While camera companies are compelled to add some form of connectivity to their products, the Wi-Fi features in the S110 seem like more trouble that it’s worth. What it needs is simpler, no-brainer setup and instant sharing capabilities to a variety of sites, plus more features out of the CameraWindow app.

Whether you care about having the Wi-Fi or not, the S110 will not let you down when it comes to image quality. Following the successes of the S95 and S100, the S110 continues to be Canon’s most excellent pocket cam. If you don’t need Wi-Fi, consider the S100, which is still on the market and you may be able to find it for less than the $430 list price. But, buy this camera for its prowess in photo taking, not because it has Wi-Fi.

Highs

  • Great photo quality and performance, even in low light
  • Faster autofocusing than predecessors
  • Easy to use, yet has plenty of user-adjustable options

Lows

  • Wi-Fi not the easiest to use, somewhat half-baked
  • Slow continuous shooting
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