Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Patient shutterbugs will love this camera as we did, but the slow speed will try the patience of many others.
Patient shutterbugs will love this camera as we did, but the slow speed will try the patience of many others.
Patient shutterbugs will love this camera as we did, but the slow speed will try the patience of many others.

Highs

  • Terrific low-light shooter; typical high-quality Canon photos; extensive photo adjustments via control dials; excellent LCD screen

Lows

  • Watch your fingers with pop-up flash; button placement takes getting used to; slow frame rate; no HD video; worse-than-average battery life

canon powershot s90 reviewIntroduction

Canon recently introduced the PowerShot G11 ($499) and the S90 ($429), two high-end compact digicams generating huge amounts of online buzz. Both have similar, relatively-large 10-megapixel CCDs, but are targeted to very different photographers. Rather than focusing on the more expensive G11, a variation of the previously reviewed G10, we opted for the S90, a camera with several unique features you simply won’t find among the 250-plus digicams currently available (although fans of Panasonic’s LX3 might find some strong similarities). Let’s see if that buzz is real, or Internet hype…

Features and Design

The Canon PowerShot S90 is practically tiny compared to the G11; it can easily be popped into a jeans pocket to be taken everywhere. It measures 3.94 inches wide, 2.3 tall and 1.2 deep, tipping the scales at 8 ounces fully loaded. The G11 is bigger overall and weighs 14 ounces. That hardly makes it a DSLR, but it’s not nearly as portable as the S90.

This is a very clean looking, dressed-in-black digicam with a minimal amount of decals, buttons, and bells – but there are some hidden whistles. The front has the 3.8x optically stabilized zoom, with a nice 28-105mm focal range. By comparison, the G11 has a more potent 5x 28-140mm lens. One of the critical differences between these two cameras and the sea of available digicams is the fact the S90 has an f/2.0 wide aperture lens, an absolutely critical spec for taking quality shots in low light. The Panasonic LX3, a universally lauded camera, is also f/2.0, but its 2.5x zoom has a range of only 24-60mm. It’s wider, but you really give up a lot on the telephoto side. That said, the image quality was so good we couldn’t hold that against it!

canon powershot s90 reviewSurrounding the S90’s lens is one of its hidden pleasures, a clicking control ring which feels like something from the hoary film days. This very cool ring adjusts different things depending on the mode you’re in, or the function you designate. In auto, you can click between focal lengths (28, 35, 50, 85 or 105mm). In Program AE, it manually adjusts the focus or the function you’d like. This is linked to the control dial surrounding the standard four-way controller on the back. In other words, between the two, you have loads of tweaks at your fingertips, something rarely found on compact point-and-shoots. If you love finely adjusting f/stops, ISO, shutter speed and the like, you’ll really enjoy playing with this camera.

Other than a single pinhole mic and an autofocus assist lamp, the rest of the front is clean as a whistle.

The top of the camera has a pop-up flash (similar to the SX200 IS), the power switch, a ring function key, the shutter button surrounded by the zoom control, and the mode dial. The dial has the usual PASM and custom options, along with SCN for access to 18 scene modes, as well as a movie option. This camera does not offer HD video recording– just 640×480 pixel SD footage – which is a disappointment. There’s also a low light option for shooting candle-lit scenes. Herel ISO ranges from 320 to 12,800 (!), but resolution drops to 2.5MP. We’ll get into these in the performance section.

The rear is dominated by a quality 3-inch LCD, rated a fine 461K pixels, the best you’ll find in a point-and-shoot (DSLRs hit 921K). To the right of the screen are shortcut, playback, display and menu keys, along with the four-way controller with a center function button, surrounded by a control dial. There’s also a tiny speaker. On the right are compartments for USB and mini HDMI outs (again no HD video), while on the bottom is the tripod mount and slot for the battery and SD card. The battery is rated 220 shots per CIPA, a pretty weak number. By comparison, the G11 is 390.

What’s In The Box

The usual: battery, plug-in charger, USB and A/V cables, 180-page owner’s manual, and a CD with software to handle files and develop RAW files.

Performance and Use

We reviewed the S90 in fall, so we took it outdoors to capture color, then out at night and indoors to test its vaunted low-light capability. Before getting into the results, lets state the S90 has a different button layout than the typical digicam, so when you think you’re pressing the shutter it’s really the mode dial. This didn’t take long to overcome, as well as learning to keep our left forefinger off of the auto pop-up flash. Still we’d prefer the flash to be built into the front. Onscreen menus were easy to follow, but you should definitely read the manual to appreciate the control dial options, since they’re so much fun. Also the S90 is one slow shooter— capturing around 1 frame per second—so if action shooting is your forte, look elsewhere. Now on to the images…

canon powershot s90 reviewNaturally we shot highest resolution 3648×2736-pixel JPEGs and used the RAW option as well. We started off in auto, then spun the mode dial for other options including low light mode, which can bump ISO to 12,800 (the auto range is 80 to 3200, with many more stops than the typical digicam; the same holds true for aperture and shutter speed). Once done, we made a batch of prints and examined the files closely on a monitor.

We were absolutely floored by the lack of noise of our standard test subjects. ISO 1600 looked fairly clear, and even 3200 was very useable, something impossible to state with most point-and-shots, and even some DSLRs! We took a number of shots at dusk of New York City streets, and the bright lens “lit” the sidewalks far better than another camera we had with us. As for the low light mode, Canon suggests using it with a birthday cake and candles. We used a single candle in a dark room and the results were excellent—even for 2.5MP (we easily made 8.5×11 prints). Overall colors were very accurate, the good Canon feel we like so much. The only bummer was the speed, or lack thereof. Slow and steady are the operative words for the S90.

Conclusion

This camera is white hot – forget about getting a good deal for months. Checking legit online retailers, we only found list price and higher! Now is $429 a deal for a point-and-shoot? Yes, if you want the portability of an aim-and-forget camera, excellent low-light shooting, convenient tweaks galore via the control dials, and quality shots. However, if you want DSLR response, you won’t find it here, with its 1 fps speed. So as always, it’s a trade-off. Patient shutterbugs will love this camera as we did, but the slow speed will try the patience of many others. But as a second, handy camera for a DSLR owner, the S90 is really hard to beat.

Highs:

  • Terrific low-light shooter
  • Typical high-quality Canon photos
  • Extensive photo adjustments via control dials
  • Excellent LCD screen

Lows:

  • Watch your fingers with pop-up flash
  • Button placement takes getting used to
  • Slow frame rate; not a camera for action shooters
  • No HD video
  • Worse-than-average battery life
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