An unexpected CES 2012 announcement, the Canon PowerShot G1 X is a high-end compact with a brand new sensor. But it’s no ordinary one. Oh no, far from it, the G1 X has a 14.3-megapixel, 1.5-inch sensor that’s similar in size to the APS-C size found in the company’s DSLR cameras, and is some 6.3 times larger than the sensor found in the successful Canon G12.

The larger surface area means a bigger pixel pitch for better quality, plus achieving a pro-looking shot with a blurred background is far easier to achieve than compared to a smaller-sensor compact. The latest DIGIC 5 processor is not only fast but also promises great picture quality from ISO 100-12,800 in both RAW and JPEG formats - though Canon refused to let us take image samples away from this pre-production model.

The G1 X sure shows a step forward in thought, in some ways following in the footsteps of Fujifilm’s X10 model.

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A larger sensor has led to a larger body, as the G1 X dwarfs the PowerShot G12 and is even larger than Panasonic’s GF3 Micro Four Thirds camera. But it’s not too big - its bulk means there’s plenty to grip hold of and the design incorporates extra dials on the body that epitomise what high-end users like to have at their fingertips.

For example the mode dial is a two-part stack - the main mode dial is mounted on top of an exposure compensation dial that sits underneath, just next to the shutter on top of the camera. These dials feel firm and are positioned as to avoid accidental knocks.

The rest of the camera has few surprises in terms of layout and feels a lot like the tried, tested and successful Canon G12 in many respects. A four-way d-pad doubles up as a rotational thumbwheel to cycle through options, and is surrounded by four further buttons to quickly access exposure lock, AF point and array, main menu and playback. There’s also a thumbwheel mounted towards the front of the camera for a more DSLR-like experience without the faff of menu digging. It makes using the camera super easy and intuitive, particularly for anyone already familiar with Canon’s menu systems and layout.

Unlike many compacts the G1 X has an optical viewfinder to complement the 3-inch, 920k-dot, vari-angle LCD screen on the rear. The viewfinder doesn’t achieve a full 100 per cent field of view, however, and doesn’t match up to the fairly impressive one in Fujifilm’s X10, but it’s far beyond what most compact cameras with viewfinders are able to muster. We’re still waiting to hear back from Canon regarding the exact field-of-view, as there was no further information available on either of the occasions we've seen the new Canon, or on the spec sheet.

One of the standout features is the G1 X’s brand new lens. Capable of a wide-angle 28mm through to a medium 112mm at the top end, the 4x optical zoom has been engineered using many of the same standards that pro-spec Canon EF lenses use, so Canon claims. Until we get a final sample to test out just how sharp this optic is we can’t see how true that statement is, but sample shots were looking good on the camera’s LCD screen. The lens’ aperture is F/2.8-5.8, meaning that the 112mm setting isn’t quite as bright as the wide-angle setting - though this is to be expected in a compact body, otherwise the camera would be even larger than it already is. There’s even a three-stop neutral density (ND) filter which is great for extending exposure times.

So far so good, but the main downside to the lens is that the zoom toggle around the shutter makes the G1 X’s experience feel a lot like many other compacts that are out there - there’s no manual zoom or focus ring on the camera itself, which is something that would have taken the camera up a further notch. The lens may look like it has a focus ring, but this is a removable plastic surrounding that can be taken off so that 58mm filter accessories can be attached. Presumably lens converters will follow in the future, though there’s not product information for the latter as yet.  

A pop up flash is also included, but the real magic can happen when using the TTL hotshoe and a Canon Speedlite - off-camera flash is even possible.

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The PowerShot G1 X’s design lends itself to easy use and the focusing system feels much the same as that found in the PowerShot S100. The focus system offers 9-point, 1-point and Face Detection, which are all quick off the mark, though not the fastest that we’ve seen in a compact camera. It’s possible to move the single focus point anywhere around the screen which makes more detailed focusing far easier than some earlier-generation Canon compacts.

However, close-focusing wasn’t easy to achieve - not necessarily surprising, but with the 28mm setting having a closest focus distance of 20cm from lens this feels rather lacking for macro work.

Full manual controls (including manual focus) are available, plus a Smart Auto mode for simple point and shoot work.

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The question on many lips for a few years now: When will Canon enter the compact system camera market? The G1 X may well hold the secret. A brand new sensor that’s not only high quality, but about the right size for use with compact-sized lenses to deliver the utmost quality. And yet it’s still different enough to the current DSLR range. Whether the GX 1 is a nod to where Canon will head is uncertain, but the company seems to be following in the steps of Fujifilm’s X100 and X-Pro1 releases to some degree.

Available in February 2012 the G1 X will be priced at £699 in the UK. It’s far from cheap, but there are plenty of high-end features wrapped up in that body that help justify the price.