(Pocket-lint) - The rise of the high-end compact camera has been gathering pace, with oodles of models well worth a look in 2014. Despite already offering plenty of quality products, it's taken Canon a little longer to get into the groove and deliver a large-sensor yet small-size compact. Which is exactly where the PowerShot G7 X fits into the equation.
We might not lavish the G7 X with praise for being an innovator, though, given that we've already seen the progression of Sony's RX100 line (now in its third generation) and alternatives such as the Fujifilm X-series put in plenty of early work. But Canon's attempt at the 1-inch sensor compact was an inevitability; it's the model to push the big red reset button and make the G-series all the more relevant in today's market.
Having used the G7 X for a week, we've come to find it a charming, well-built and largely capable compact camera. But not a perfect one. It's a good first bash at the 1-inch market, but with the competition hotter than ever is it Canon's 1-inch punch or a delayed reaction that fails to knock out the competition?
As the high-end compact camera war hots up, Canon's first dip into the 1-inch sensor market is a solid effort. If it was 2013 then Canon would have struck gold with the PowerShot G7 X. But what a difference a year makes, for the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III is a step ahead in a number of departments: it's slightly smaller, has a built-in viewfinder and, for our money, delivers the better quality images throughout the full range.
Of course the Canon G7 X isn't quite as pricey, its tilt-angle screen is both touch-sensitive and selfie-capable, and its 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens has the longer reach over the Sony too. Choices, choices. And what with the Panasonic Lumix LX100 and Fujifilm X30 just around the corner, there are many possible contenders up for consideration.
But as much as we can split hairs over which camera does this or that better, what's clear with the Canon G7 X is that it's a positive push forward for the G-series; one that takes good quality images and comes bundled into a pocketable, well-built body with customisable controls. Even if there is no viewfinder, the G7 X is one of the more notable G-series Canon cameras for a number of years.
Canon PowerShot G7 X
If you've seen the latest Canon PowerShot G1 X MkII or G16 models then the G7 X is a wonderful retreat from such bulky size. Although the Canon is slightly larger than the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III, its 103.0 x 60.4 x 40.4mm footprint is a mere matter of millimetres more, making for a pocketable design. The lens ring always protrudes from the design, but it's only when switching the camera on that the optic extends from the body.
There's a reassuring weight to the body (it's 304g, so roughly that of two smartphones) and visually, even though its a straightforward black finish throughout, the metal buttons, dials and lens control ring add a certain class that is to be expected of a high-end compact. After all, this is £579 worth of kit.
Unlike the Sony RX100 III the G7 X lacks any kind of built-in viewfinder, or the provision to add one. A hotshoe wouldn't make any sense in this design, though, as the rear 3-inch LCD screen tilts all the way up by 180-degrees so, if you should wish, you can even take a selfie. Yep, it's 2014, and everyone is obsessed with them it seems.
Still, the lack of such viewfinder provisions puts the Canon specification behind its peers, so if you're looking for something complete then this Canon may not suit.
In terms of layout the PowerShot G7 X packs in plenty of physical controls: a two-dial stack catering for shooting modes and dedicated exposure compensation on top; a rotational d-pad to the rear for cycling through settings; and a lens control ring to the front paired with a "Ring Func." button to the rear for full customisation.
It's worth highlighting just how much can be customised with the control ring, from default (i.e. aperture priority adjusts aperture, and so forth), through to ISO, manual focus, white balance, step zoom, shadow/DR correction or even aspect ratio selection. Perhaps best of all is the Custom section whereby aperture priority (Av), shutter priority (Tv), and programme auto (P) can each have their respective settings programmed in. The default action then falls to the rear d-pad rotation instead, so you don't lose functionality when using the camera irrelevant of primary setting choice, and these custom settings remain saved.
But despite being affable with its controls, the 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens is controlled using the zoom toggle around the shutter button. Nothing distinctly wrong with that, but we're rather fond of physical twist-barrel lenses to spin through the zoom at greater pace. Because, right now, the zoom control of the G7 X isn't particularly fast to extend all the way through the range unless you opt for the step zoom function. A bit more speed please.
PowerShot by nature
Despite its sizeable asking price, using the G7 X sometimes has an essence of "just another PowerShot" about it - like a more pro-spec PowerShot S120 almost. And while "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" does spring to mind, we've been mulling over the idea of some more fulfilling options. Take the Panasonic Lumix LX100, for example, which adopts that company's higher-spec autofocus and menu settings as drawn from its compact system camera line.
It's a small point to make, as using the Canon is largely successful. But where's the more complex autofocus arrangement that will leave the competition floored? Again the G7 X is much the same as the PowerShot S120 here: the simplistic option of 1-point AF with small/normal focus area sizes, or face detection priority are the full breadth of its AF options (plus auto area in Auto mode).
Select the normal-size focus area, dot it anywhere around the screen thanks to the responsive touch-sensitive panel and it's usually quick to find focus, despite the slightest of delays from time to time. Swap for the small autofocus area and that delay seems slightly more extended - and while we're talking fractions of a second here, that can be enough to miss out on moving subjects or trickier scenes.
We've been using the camera in Hong Kong where the Nikon D750 was our prime companion, but the Canon would come out for those shorter trips or late night wanders when we didn't want a bulky DSLR with us. That's where the G7 X's pocketable nature becomes its star quality, even if the autofocus speeds inevitably slow down in dim conditions. And moving subjects are a pain to conquer.
READ: Nikon D750 review
While roaming the streets we found the tilt-angle screen to be of particular use. By resting it on our laps and catching covert street scenes - the small size of the camera assists in making it less visible.
But we just wanted that something more in performance terms; a little extra special something to see the Canon gallop ahead. As it stands that's not all the way there, particularly for moving subjects (trying to shoot macaques and we just gave up, reverting back to the DSLR), even if it ticks plenty of boxes and does things by its well-established own books.
There are all sorts of additional settings on board worth a look too. Unlike some of the far larger sensor Canon compacts - the original PowerShot G1 X springs to mind - the G7 X offers a pretty decent close-up focus mode. At 24mm it can snap 5cms from the protruded lens, dropping to 40cm when extended to the 100mm equivalent. Seemed pretty accurate to us in our tests, although you may have to engage the macro mode via a left click of the d-pad to get such close-up focus to work well.
Canon has also been busy improving its Wi-Fi offering. After downloading the Canon CameraWindow application (iOS / Android only) to a smart device it's easy to share images or even remotely control the G7 X from afar (network dependent, of course). We switched on NFC and easily shared images with our compatible smartphone, even using our home network Wi-Fi rather than direct device connection to deliver the image. Extra points for the touchscreen control making light work of password entry too.
However, we weren't exactly blown away by battery life. It's fine, it's a compact camera after all, but a few hundred shots from the dinky NB-13L battery (1250mAh) and it's game over. We're not the most efficient of users, though, often leaving the camera on between shots ready for that next must-have moment, but that's how we work and a better battery would go a long way.
Elsewhere there are various picture effects built-in, 1080p video capture at 30fps, and if you want to make the most of that fast lens and utilise the aperture as wide-open as possible in daylight then there's also a built-in neutral density (ND) filter. We like.
A key reason to spend the big money on a high-end compact is the sensor, in the case of the G7 X a larger-than-normal 1-inch version. Although this 20.2-megapixel one sounds similar to the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III on paper - and it may well be the same, if rumours are true (a rare instance, given Canon typically makes its own sensors) - it can't quite top the Sony at the higher-end of the sensitivity spectrum in our view.
Saying that results are very good, part of the reason being that 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens. That wide aperture availability throughout the zoom opens up the possibility for blurred backgrounds with smooth bokeh and, perhaps most useful of all, can mean the option of shooting wide-open in dim conditions to keep the ISO sensitivity down.
The maximum f/2.8 aperture is forced into play from the 60mm equivalent and beyond - f/2 at 28mm, f/2.2 at 35mm, and f/2.5 at 43mm equivalents if you're interested - but the very ability to have such a bright aperture right through to the top-end of the zoom arguably puts the Canon a step ahead of the Sony RX100 (the first- and second-generations of which dropped to f/4.9 at their 100mm equivalents).
The G7 X's lens delivers decent results, although it can't always be considered bitingly sharp when viewing at 100 per cent scale. We'd call it on par with the Sony RX100 III having gone back and looked over a variety of images from that camera.
In part the results are down to the lightness of touch Canon has taken with image processing, which we're actually rather fond of. Shots aren't sharpened to within an inch of their life, nor is noise reduction particularly heavy - we've snapped JPEG frames with light grain visible in them that, through a ISO 125-1600 range, are barely discernible from their raw counterparts bar for some contrast and shadow boosting. We think that's a good thing too.
But if it's high ISO sensitivity you want the most then we found shots from ISO 3200 and above (maxing at ISO 12,800) take a bit of a nosedive in the quality department. Often we would need to force the camera into needing to use such sensitivities (given the wide-open aperture availability), but the level of image noise and lack of detail are less than ideal. Shots at ISO 6400, for example, bear large patches of colour noise that are interwoven in a subtle manner throughout the image - visible in dark skies or pale surfaces, for example.
At the same time we've been able to shoot at the lowest ISO 125 sensitivity on the streets at night by opting to shoot with the aperture wide open, so there's a balance to how the camera responds given its high-end specification.