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Canon PowerShot S90 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot S90 is an ultra-compact camera with a fast, wide-angle lens, a sharp 3-inch LCD, full manual controls, support for the RAW image format, and more. It also takes very good quality photos, and is a notch better than most compact cameras when shooting in low light or high sensitivities. So why wasn't I taken with the PowerShot S90? Simply put, the ergonomics and usability of the camera are poor, which is quite unusual for a Canon camera. Whether it was the free spinning control dial, the ring dial that isn't really that useful, or the pop-up flash that takes up valuable space on the top of the camera, the S90 to be a frustrating camera to use (at least in my opinion). Throw in below average battery life, unremarkable continuous shooting and movie modes, and a slow-charging flash, and the PowerShot S90 isn't quite what I had hoped for. It's not a bad camera by any means -- its core features work well -- but you absolutely should try one in person before you buy.

The PowerShot S90 is an ultra-compact camera with a stylish matte black body. The body is made of a mixture of metal and plastic, and most things feel pretty solid. From a design and usability standpoint, the S90 is a real mess. On the front of the camera is a unique customizable ring that sits around the lens. The problem is, it doesn't really add much to the shooting experience, unless you frequently adjust the ISO sensitivity or exposure compensation. On the back of the camera is the same four-way controller/command dial combo that you'll find on many other Canon cameras. Unfortunately, this wheel doesn't "click" between each stop, which makes it very easy to unintentionally change the exposure, scene mode, ISO, or whatever function it's handling. Combine that with the fact that your thumb often rests on or near it, and you have a recipe for trouble. I can't tell you how many times I changed the exposure compensation without even knowing it. The top of the camera isn't much better. The S90 has a flash that pops up when needed, which reduces the amount of room for your left hand fingers by half. You can't press it back down like on some cameras -- you have to disable it using the four-way controller. Next to the flash are two buttons which feel identical. One is for power, while the other lets you change the function of the control ring on the front of the camera. You can probably tell where this is leading -- pressing the wrong button is very easy (why they couldn't put the ring function options into the menu is beyond me). Lastly, the zoom controller and shutter release button are on the small size, and the former seems a bit unresponsive at times.

Getting back to more pleasant topics, the PowerShot S90 has a fast (well, at least at wide-angle) F2.0-4.9, 3.8X optical zoom lens. For the uninitiated, an F2.0 lens lets in twice as much light as an F2.8 lens that you'll typically find on a compact camera. The focal range of the lens is a pleasant 28 - 105 mm, though telephoto fans may want something with a little more "oomph". As you'd expect, the S90 has Canon's optical image stabilization system, which does an effective job of reducing blurry photos, and it can smooth out your videos, too. On the back of the camera is a big 3-inch LCD display with an impressive resolution of 461,000 pixels. This screen has good outdoor visibility, and is easily viewable in near darkness. Those who remember the old PowerShot S80 will recall that it had an optical viewfinder, but that's not the case on the significantly smaller S90.

The PowerShot S90 has a nice set of features for both beginners and more advanced users. If you're the point-and-shoot type, you can use the camera's Smart Auto mode, which selects a scene mode automatically (it even knows when the camera is on a tripod). The S90 offers face and blink detection, and the handy face self-timer feature means that you'll never have to make a mad dash from the camera to your photo spot again -- the camera will wait for you. The S90 has plenty of scene modes that you can select from, including one that assists with composing a panoramic photo and another that takes low light photos with ease (though be warned: the resolution is lowered and the ISO can go very high). Manual control lovers should be pretty happy with what the PowerShot S90 has to offer. You've got control over aperture, shutter speed, focus, and white balance (including fine-tuning). It also supports the RAW image format, and Canon includes capable software to work with those files. The S90 is one of the most customizable cameras you'll find. There's the control ring on the front of the camera (which I found to be of limited use), the shortcut button on the back, a custom spot on the mode dial, and a menu that you can populate with your favorite settings. The PowerShot's movie mode is nothing to write home about. While it offers long recording times and a wind filter, the resolution is merely VGA, and you can't operate the zoom while filming.

Camera performance was good in most respects. The S90 is ready to start taking pictures after a short 1 second startup delay. The camera focuses quickly and accurately at both ends of the lens, and low light focus times stayed at a second or less most of the time. Shutter lag was barely noticeable, and only at slow shutter speeds. Shot-to-shot speeds are about average without the flash, but with it you'll wait for about four seconds before you can take another photo, which is pretty sluggish. You'd think a pricey 10 Megapixel camera would have a fast continuous shooting mode, but the PowerShot S90 can't even break the 1 fps mark (though you can keep shooting until your memory card fills up). Another area that needs improvement is battery life: the S90 is well below average in this department.

Photo quality was very good. The PowerShot S90 takes well-exposed photos with pleasing, vivid colors. Like most compact cameras, the S90 does clip highlights at times, though I've seen much worse. Photos have the typical Canon "smooth" look, though some may find things a bit too soft (thankfully, you can increase the in-camera sharpening). While you will spot some noise in shadow areas and some very mild noise reduction artifacting in low contrast areas, overall the PowerShot's photos are very clean at low ISOs. You can safely shoot through ISO 400 in low light or ISO 800 in good light without having to worry too much about noise or detail loss. You can improve image quality considerably if you shoot RAW and do some post-processing, which allows for very usable photos taken at ISO 1600 (try that on most compact cameras). Purple fringing wasn't a constant problem, but it did crop up here and there, as did mild vignetting and corner blurring. Redeye wasn't an issue on this ultra-compact camera (which came as a big surprise), thanks to Canon's automatic removal feature.

I hope you're not tired of reading yet, because I have a few other things to mention. For one, I don't like how the camera does not display the current zoom setting on the LCD. Canon did this for a while with the Digital ELPH line, and I was disappointed to see the same thing on this high-end camera. Since the S90's memory card slot is on the bottom of the camera, you won't be able to get at it when the camera is on a tripod. And finally, I was a bit disappointed that Canon didn't throw a memory card in the box or build some memory into the PowerShot S90.

When Canon announced the PowerShot S90, I was pretty excited. Manual controls and a fast lens in an ultra-compact body? Yes, please! My enthusiasm waned quickly once my review unit arrived. Not because of the picture quality or feature set, but because the usability and ergonomics are so poor. It's like Canon designed the camera without thinking that people's hands would actually be touching (witness the free scrolling dial, pop-up flash, and identical power/ring func buttons). The PowerShot S90 has impressive photo quality, a fast lens and nice LCD, and lots of manual controls, but using it was just too frustrating for this reviewer. Now, you may disagree with my assessment, and the the only way to find out is to try one yourself. If you can live with its design quirks, then the S90 will do whatever you require. If you're like me, then you'll probably want to consider one of the cameras listed below instead.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Roughly a full stop advantage over typical compact cameras in low light
  • Fast F2.0-4.9, 28 - 105 mm zoom lens (telephoto lovers take note)
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Ultra high resolution 3-inch LCD with very good outdoor and low light visibility
  • Full manual controls, with white balance fine-tuning
  • RAW image format support; good RAW editor included
  • Smart Auto mode picks a scene mode for you; plenty of others to choose from yourself
  • Quick startup time, good focusing speeds (even in low light)
  • Lots of customizable stuff: control ring and shortcut button, My Menu, custom spot on mode dial, self-timer
  • Redeye not a problem (much to my surprise)
  • Handy face self-timer feature
  • Optional underwater case
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Ergonomics are a real mess -- free-wheeling control dial makes it way too easy to accidentally adjust important settings; power and ring func buttons are identical and right next to each other (you know where that's going); pop-up flash takes up valuable real estate on top of camera; control ring on front of camera a bit small, of limited use
  • Some shadow noise and NR artifacting in low contrast areas at base ISO; mild vignetting and corner blurring at times
  • Sluggish continuous shooting mode
  • VGA movie mode seems a bit dated; optical zoom cannot be used while recording
  • Flash is slow to charge
  • Zoom controller can be unresponsive; current zoom setting not shown on LCD
  • Below average battery life
  • No optical viewfinder
  • No memory card included; can't access memory card slot while using a tripod

The PowerShot S90's closest competitors are the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1. Some other cameras worth considering include the Casio Exilim EX-Z450, Nikon Coolpix S640, Pentax Optio P80, and the Samsung TL320.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the PowerShot S90 and its competitors before you buy. And I really mean it this time!

Photo Gallery

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.