(Pocket-lint) - On the evidence of the Canon PowerShot G9 X it's time to wave goodbye to the company's older, small-sensor PowerShot cameras. Why? Because the G9 X packs a large 1-inch sensor size into a slender body, making a good case to out-and-out replace models such as the Canon PowerShot S120. Bigger sensor equals better image quality.
Which can only be a good thing, really. As much as we appreciate the likes of the S120 and similar, the compact camera market has been somewhat stale over the last year - in part thanks to phone cameras getting so good. Larger sensor models, such as the G9 X, are what's needed to reinvigorate the market.
However, Canon is somewhat guilty of cramming too many models into the market. The G9 X joins the already-available and higher-spec G7 X (it has a tilt-angle screen and faster lens), which is roughly the same price at the time of writing. Therefore does the new G9 X really warrant its existence?
Canon PowerShot G9X review: All-touch
The G9 X feels like a modern camera: it's all touchscreen-based with only four physical control buttons to the rear, comprising video record, quick menu, main menu and info.
But there's no d-pad, so we've found ourselves fumbling for non-existent directional controls a number of times, before reverting to the must-use touchscreen. We're in two minds about this: one the one hand, it's taken Canon (and other camera makers) and age to embrace touch technology, a must in a smartphone era; on the other, it doesn't always feel natural in use, especially in the menus where things may feel fiddly at this scale.
This push towards touch-based controls can be felt with the shutter button's placement too: it's far too far over the camera's body, interrupted by the mode dial which sits towards the outer edge. Not a problem if you only use touch-shutter for all-in-one focus-and-shoot control, but we'd much prefer a proper shutter button position. Seems a real oddity.
We do rather like the physical control ring around the lens though. This is more naturally positioned and can be used to rotate between key settings, dependent on the mode selected. It's touches like this that make the G9 X feel like a better fusion of old and new - even if there's some work yet to be done for it to feel like the perfect marriage.
Canon G9 X review: Versus G7 X
In context, the G9 X makes itself stand apart from other Canon X-series compacts because it's slimmer. It's just 31mm deep when the lens is retracted (and 98 x 58mm front-on, should you care to know) - which is almost 10 whole millimetres less than the G7 X and its Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV competitor. That makes it a genuinely pocketable 1-inch sensor compact.
Thing is, we find both the G7 X and RX100 IV perfectly pocketable too, both of which offer considerably better maximum aperture values throughout their zoom ranges. Herein lies the G7 X's compromise: with such dimensions there's only so much lens that can be squeezed into the design.
Its lens isn't half bad, though, with a bright f/2.0 aperture available at the widest angle 28mm equivalent, ensuring plenty of light for lower-noise images and that lovely blurred background effect. However, this aperture maximum dips to f/4.9 at the 84mm equivalent - highlighting that this 3x optical zoom isn't particularly bright nor far-reaching. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to see on a similar camera from three or so years ago, namely the first-gen Sony RX100.
Given the choice we'd go with the cheaper, slightly chunkier G7 X model every day of the week. That model's 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8 equivalent is wider-angle and, importantly, still offers an f/2.8 maximum aperture at the 100mm equivalent. Extra useful for keeping the sensitivity down at full zoom.
Canon G9 X review: Performance
When it comes to autofocus Canon has kept it pretty simple in the G9 X: an AF point can be appointed anywhere around the screen using touch; as there's no d-pad it can't be pre-appointed to pre-defined areas. There are two size options, selectable using the front lens control ring, and that's as far as it goes really. Set the point, or allow the camera to auto allocate and shoot freely.
At its introductory preview session (in mid-October 2015) the G9 X was said to not be as quick as its G5 X bigger brother, but we've found its autofocus speed to be ample. We've shot at a Chelsea Wolfe gig in ultra low-light and found the results to be decent, although not pro-level decent given the conditions. Even so, locking focus wasn't an issue.
We've long been saying that Canon's cameras could do with a more complex set of autofocus options - and perhaps a mode like the pinpoint focus option as found in Panasonic compact system cameras, for example. What's on board for now is simple and effective, just not the most advanced or fastest solution out there.
Close-up focus has its limitations too, with a 5cm-from-subject maximum at 28mm reducing to 35cm at the 100mm equivalent. You'll need to manually activate the macro mode from within the menus if shooting outside of the Auto mode, which can be a bit slow and we do wonder why there's no auto-on option within the menus.
One thing we've been searching for time and again, however, is a tilt-angle LCD screen. While the G9 X's 3-inch panel has plenty of brightness and resolution (at 1,040k-dots), it can't be angled outwards for easy waist-level shooting. Which, again, would make us reach for the G7 X instead.
Don't expect any viewfinder option, nor the provision to add one, but at this level that's no surprise. If it's an essential then there are other options out there, but they'll cost you big bucks - the Sony RX100 IV being a prime example, given its roughly £800 price point making it twice the price of the G9 X.
Canon G9X review: Battery, Wi-Fi
Elsewhere this Canon's feature set includes USB charging to top-up from laptops, battery packs and the like (but a mains adaptor is also included in the box). The battery display is broken down into a three segment visualisation, which isn't as accurate as a percentage display, but we've been snapping around 300 shots per charge - which is fine considering the dinky battery on board.
To match its touchscreen tech, the G9 X also sports Wi-Fi for sharing shots with smart devices - there's even NFC (near field communication) for speeding up pairing with said devices via a single tap.
The Canon Camera Connect application - available for iOS or Android devices - can be communicated with by a tap of the Wi-Fi button to the left side of the camera. However efficient, this requires a Wi-Fi connection between smart device and camera which temporarily interferes with any existing connection you may have. Once paired, the app offers the ability to thumb through images on the camera (including saving them to your smart device for sharing as you please), remotely shoot, and location information for tacking on GPS data (which the camera lacks). We like that Canon is not dictating where shots have to be shared - so you have the freedom to Tweet, Instagram, Facebook or whatever from your phone - but there are additional hurdles to jump through to get to that point, which is an issue with pretty much any connected compact camera.
Elsewhere there are various picture effects built-in, 6fps burst shooting, 1080p video capture at 60fps (still no 4K), and also a built-in neutral density (ND) filter that might come in handy for bright days when using the wide-angle maximum f/2.0 aperture.
Canon G9 X review: Image quality
Pleased as we are with many of the G9 X's features, image quality takes a hit due to the limitations of that lens' maximum aperture. A little zoom and it's not long before f/4.9 is the maximum available.
Couple that with an Auto ISO that seems keen to opt for higher sensitivities and fast shutter speeds - more than it ought to. As an example shooting in the city in daytime saw the camera opt for ISO 2500 at 1/200th sec - and while we'd rather sharpness due to snappy shutter selection, that shutter speed could have been halved or better in the given circumstances.
Fortunately the resulting clarity is pretty good, as a macro shot of a flower with water-droplets shows, shot at ISO 800. Push the sensitivity into four-figures, however, and image noise - largely shown as colour noise within shadow areas - does begin to rear its head. We've been plenty happy with ISO 1600, though, but beyond the G9 X finds its natural limits, depending on your expectation.
Canon image quality is generally very good, with the G9 X showing a balance of processing subtlety. Shots at ISO 6400 aren't smoothed into oblivion, for example, with plenty of grain and associated image noise being visible - but actually for the better in terms of clarity. Still, as a low-light f/2.0 shot of a pint in a pub goes to show, that noise is visible at any given viewing ratio.
We're talking about JPEG images here, as while the G9 X does shoot raw, its files aren't currently accessible using any third-party software (an Adobe Camera Raw update will follow in due course).
On balance the G9 X has image quality that's decent and reflects its £400 price tag. But given the G7 X is available for roughly the same amount of money, the brighter maximum aperture settings of that latter camera really make all the difference.
The Canon PowerShot G9 X is an accomplished compact camera, but one that feels like a fill-in for the company's wider 1-inch sensor range, not quite a knock-out product in its own right. It does show off some interesting work-in-progress ideas such as touchscreen-based controls being at the fore.
But the G9 X's biggest problem is its limited lens. That's further compounded by the existence of the higher-spec and similarly priced G7 X, which has a better lens and tilt-angle screen, thus putting a big question mark over the G9 X.
Overall the PowerShot G9 X reflects where compact cameras are headed: it's all about larger sensors and more touch-based controls. In isolation its rather dashing good looks make it stand-out, but in the wider context it's simply outshone by some of Canon's other kit.