Canon PowerShot S90 Review

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor

Originally Posted: December 9, 2009

Last Updated: April 23, 2010

The Canon PowerShot S90 ($429) is an ultra-compact camera with a "high sensitivity" 10 Megapixel CCD, a fast 28 - 105 mm lens with image stabilization, a high resolution 3-inch LCD display, full manual controls, RAW support, customizable controls, and more. While the S90 may seem like the replacement for the PowerShot S80 (introduced way back in 2005), the cameras actually have very little in common.

The S90's main competitors include the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 - - all of which are marketed as good low light shooters. Will the PowerShot S90 be the new low light champ? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S90 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 10.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot S90 digital camera
  • NB-6L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solution
  • 179 page camera manual (printed)

The PowerShot S90 does not come with a memory card, nor does it have any built-in memory. That means that you'll need to buy a memory card right away, unless you happen to have one sitting around already. The S90 supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMCplus, and HC MMCplus media, though I'd stick with the first two if I were you. A 2GB card is a good size to start with, and it's definitely worth spending a little extra for a high speed model, though you don't need to go overboard.

The PowerShot S90 uses the same NB-6L lithium-ion battery as some of Canon's Digital ELPH models. This compact battery packs 3.5 Wh of energy, which is on the lower end of average by compact camera standards. Let's see how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Canon PowerShot S90 */** 220 shots
Casio Exilim EX-Z450 550 shots
Fuji FinePix F200EXR * 230 shots
Nikon Coolpix S640 270 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 */** 380 shots
Pentax Optio P80 200 shots
Samsung TL320 * 280 shots
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 ** 350 shots

* Manual controls
** Fast lens

Battery life numbers are provided by the camera manufacturer

All of the cameras in the table above feature wide-angle lenses, 2.7 or 3.0 inch LCDs, and image stabilization. As you can see, the PowerShot S90 has the second lowest battery life in the group. In other words, you may want to consider buying a spare battery.

I do want to mention the usual issues about the proprietary batteries used by the S90 and every other camera on the above list. They're expensive (a spare will set you back at least $39), and you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when your rechargeable runs out of juice. For better or for worse, you're stuck with them on nearly all compact cameras these days.

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. The charger plugs directly into the wall, and takes approximately just under two hours to fully charge the NB-6L.

Canon PowerShot S90 in the hand

As with all ultra-compact cameras, the PowerShot S90 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to deal with.

There are a just a few accessories available for the S90. They include:

Accessory Model # Price * Why you want it
Waterproof case WP-DC35 $175 Take your camera up to 40 meters underwater
External slave flash HF-DC1

From $90

Attaches via the tripod mount and fires when the onboard flash does; gives you better flash range and less chance of redeye
AC adapter ACK-DC40 $50 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
HDMI cable (3m) HTC-100 From $56 For connecting the camera to an HDTV. You can save a fortune by buying a generic one instead.
* Prices were accurate when review was published

As you can see, there aren't any lens accessories available for the PowerShot S90. Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find a camera this small that supports them!

CameraWindow in Mac OS X

Canon includes version 54 of their Digital Camera Solution Disk with the PowerShot S90 (I think they skipped everything in the 40 range). The first part of the software suite that you'll probably encounter is Camera Window (pictured above), which you'll use to transfer images to your computer, organize photos on the camera (meaning delete or protect), and adjust a few camera settings (startup screen, sounds, theme) as well.

ImageBrowser in Mac OS X

After you've transferred photos to your computer, you'll find yourself in either ImageBrowser or ZoomBrowser, which are for Mac and Windows respectively. The Browser software lets you view, organize, e-mail, and print your photos. If you categorized any photos on the camera (more on this later), then this information is transferred into the Browser software.

Editing in ImageBrowser

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, plus the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment option for those who want a quick fix.

While Browser can open RAW files, it cannot edit them or export them to JPEGs. For RAW editing you'll need to use...

Digital Photo Professional in Mac OS X

... Digital Photo Professional, which is normally found on Canon's D-SLRs (and not their compact cameras). The main screen isn't too different from Image/ZoomBrowser, with your choice of three thumbnail sizes, plus a thumbnail w/shooting data screen. The batch processing tool lets you quickly resize and rename a large number of photos.

RAW editing in DPP

The RAW editing tools in DPP are fairly elaborate. You can adjust exposure, white balance, the tone curve, color saturation, sharpness, and noise reduction. The software is very responsive, with nearly instant updates to the image after you change a parameter.

If you're using Photoshop CS4 or a recent version of Photoshop Elements, you'll be able to open the RAW images if you're using version 5.6 or newer of the Camera Raw plug-in.

What is RAW, anyway? RAW images contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. Thus, you can adjust settings like white balance and exposure without damaging the original image, so it's almost like taking the photo again. The downside is the large file size (compared to JPEG), fewer shots in continuous shooting mode, and the need to post-process each image on your computer before you can turn it into a more common format like JPEG.

PhotoStitch in Mac OS X

The last part of the Canon software suite that I want to mention is PhotoStitch. As you can see, this allows you to combine multiple photos into a single panoramic image. It's super easy to use, and the results can be impressive. While using the S90's Stitch Assist feature isn't required to make panoramas, it does help you line things up correctly, so there are no "seams" in the final product.

Canon includes a fairly thick and detailed manual with the PowerShot S90. It's not the most user-friendly manual out there (though I like the "what do you want to do?" section at the beginning), but you should find answers to any questions you may have. Documentation for the included software as well for direct printing (via PictBridge) is included in digital format on a CD-ROM.