The Canon PowerShot S90 was singing to us as soon as it was announced and from our first hands-on with the high-end compact, it was clear that there was something special going on. Having lived with the S90 for a couple of weeks, that special impression is still with us - it's a magnificent compact camera.
It doesn't quite come in as small as some of the other compacts on the market, with dimensions of 100 x 58.4 x 30.9mm, but it is still small enough to slip into the pocket of your jeans. The simple all-black livery brings to mind Leica and Ricoh models and of course the Panasonic Lumix LX3, giving the impression of a compact that is packed full of power.
The most distinctive feature of the S90 is the front-mounted Control Ring, which accounts for some of the depth. The Control Ring gets a corresponding button on the top plate named (rather amusingly) Ring Func, which gives you an extra control option, more on which later. On the side you have AV and (mini) HDMI connections.
Across the top plate you get the power button and the shutter release, ringed by the zoom controls, as normal. There is also the mode dial, letting you switch around from Auto, through Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual and Custom (user defined) modes. The same dial continues to give you access to the Scene presets as well as a separate Low Light shooting mode and finally video.
Splitting out Low Light accepts that hunting through the preset Scenes isn't always the first thing on your mind, so is a real convenience for those less familiar with the advanced features on offer. By contrast, the additional Custom setting (and shortcut button on the back) means you can set it up for certain styles of shot or shooting conditions that you often encounter, something that will appeal to enthusiasts.
The back offers the normal direct controls over the likes of the flash and engaging the macro setting, but also delivers another surprise. The normal four-way controller (with central ok/Set button) is again ringed with a ridged scroll wheel. This offers direct control over exposure compensation in most shooting modes, another little touch that makes you feel a bit more in control of proceedings.
The Shortcut button on the rear can be set to toggle a number of useful features (face select, ISO, metering, white balance, custom white balance, servo AF, digital tele-converter, red-eye correction, i-Contrast, AE lock, AF lock, display off). Some of these functions are easily accessed elsewhere, but things like the i-Contrast toggle is well hidden in the menus. It's a useful addition with the likes of AF lock expanding your creative options.
The 3-inch LCD display on the back gives you 461k-dots, something of a bump over many rivals. The result is that image previews look spectacular on the display and given the control options this camera gives you, that's a good thing. Not only does the screen deliver, but the image playback is really slick, especially as you scroll through images using that ridged scroll wheel.
Sitting at the core of the S90 is a 10-megapixel CCD, backed by Canon's DIGIC 4 processor. It's commendable that Canon haven't just bumped up the pixels on the sensor – 10 megapixels is plenty for a compact and it means things run along at a fair lick, without giving you those huge image files blighted by noise.
Lets talk about that Control Ring. In Auto, you could almost forget it is there, as it gives you focal length setting, duplicating the zoom toggle around the shutter button. But flip into a more advanced shooting mode and it really comes into its own.
In aperture priority mode, for example, the Control Ring will allow you to change the F setting, supported by feedback on the screen. The neat thing is that as you change the focal length, the scale greys out over that part of the aperture range you can't use. This is a great visual reminder that the widest angle offers the largest aperture and draws you into experiment – recompose your shot to use the hardware to best advantage.
The Ring Func button, means that you can change the function of the Control Ring too, using the ridged scroll wheel on the back as a double act. Switch the Control Ring to change the ISO level and the scroll wheel will take over AV function. This sort of creative control really opens up the options the camera gives you and before long you'll be trying things you perhaps wouldn't normally. For enthusiasts it means it is really easy to get to settings and change them as you are shooting; for newcomers it means you can really experiment and any camera that encourages you to do that should be commended.
The same things applies to the shutter speed selection. Too many compact cameras will have you diving into a menu, moving it up and down. Here you can make changes on the fly, making the S90 a powerful compact from a creative point of view.
The flash hides in the body and powers out of the top of the camera when you need it. It has that "premium" look and feel to it, but you do need to make sure you're not gripping the camera at that point when it wants to deploy. We can envisage some will always get in a muddle with this.
If there was another minor design criticism, and we'll repeat minor, it's that we were forever pressing the mode dial over the shutter button in those fleeting point-and-shoot moments. Sure, part of it is a familiarity issue, but we’d have liked a touch more prominence on the shooting button.
The menus are typical of Canon compacts, giving you a main menu and quick access function settings, so you can dive in and change the options available to your shooting mode.
The 3.8x zoom lens gives you a 28-105mm (35mm equiv) range, with F/2.0 at the widest aperture, making this a better performer in lower light than some rivals. There is fairly severe barrel distortion at the wide angle of the lens, although this is effectively corrected by software in the camera. If shooting RAW then you'll have to allow for it and be prepared to change the focal length and recompose your picture, or use it to artistic effect.
The ISO range runs from 80 to 3200. Shadow noise creeps in around ISO 800 and above. Some pictures at ISO 2000 were acceptable however; at ISO 3200 things do look rather mottled, but if you only need a 6 x 4 print or a candid website shot, it should work out fine, which is impressive performance. It's worth acknowledging that the manual controls do at least mean you have other options besides turning up the ISO.
You get RAW shooting, something that enthusiasts will appreciate, where you'll be able to work out more detail if you are that way inclined.
Colour representation is good, if a little flat at times, but reds will sometimes come out a touch over-saturated, we like the punch that this brings so it isn't always a negative. High contrast scenes bring some purple fringing to edges, but this is relatively well controlled.
Shutter lag wasn't a noticeable problem, nor buffering. Start-up to first shot was around 3 seconds. Focusing was generally solid, but once a subject gets close, you'll have to deploy Macro, listed as working down to 5cm. If shooting in the Auto mode, the S90 identifies the scene and selects a setting, although it does tend to flip back and forth, so if you are set on using scenes, then you might want to set them manually. Some work nicely, like the fireworks setting, for example.
Autobracketing is offered, ideal for those who want to indulge in a touch of HDR photography with some post-processing, as well as continuous shooting, but only at around one frame a second. Focusing is limited to centre or face focus through the menus, and the AF lock is a little clunky, not offering a visual indicator of the focal point on the screen, so after the heady highs of getting really stuck into the creative options of offer here, you come down with a gentle bump. But the biggest bump is reserved for those interested in shooting video.
The S90 shoots video at VGA resolution, 640 x 480, which comes as something of a surprise in a camera pitching at this level. Canon explained this away as a pricing issue. However, the results are rather good. It doesn't compete with 720 or Full HD rivals, but there is VGA video capture from devices that is much worse. It holds a nice solid 30fps, so is good enough for passing video clips.
Video does get digital zoom, so best avoided, and the creative controls on offer elsewhere in the camera don't come into play here.
The battery will give you somewhere around 200 shots, which is fairly average performance for this type of camera. To prolong the battery you can turn down the screen brightness and turn off the screen without shutting the camera down, so you are ready to jump into shooting in an instant.
The Canon PowerShot S90 brings some powerful creative controls in a package that fits right into your pocket. But it is a compact camera first, and as such, delivers impressive point and shoot performance. For those looking for a little more fun, then the S90 delivers it by the bucket load.
It isn't alone in this regard, with Canon taking some of the lessons from the popular G10 and giving you a tighter pocket-friendly (if not wallet-friendly) package. It joins cameras like the Panasonic Lumix LX3 which still stands as perhaps its biggest rival and on paper, perhaps the more attractive package.
But in the hand the S90 is an absolute delight, with the Control Ring flirting with the playful side of photography, putting controls literally at your fingertips. Yes, it costs a lot for a compact, but it really puts power in your pocket.