Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Canon’s S-series is back with a bang. Rod Lawton puts the 10-megapixel S90 through its paces to find out exactly what it’s made of…

If you’re looking for a neat, chic SLR back-up, check out this new S-series compact. S-series cameras were positioned just below the G-series models, and designed to offer similar control but in a pocket-sized body.

The S90 certainly is pocket-sized, at around half the size of the G11. But surely it’s not as good? In fact, there’s not much in it. The S90 only has a 3.8x zoom rather than the G11’s 5x, but that’s not a huge difference really, and the S90’s lens has a maximum aperture of f/2 at the wide-angle end.

Yes, the S90 has PASM exposure modes. Yes, it shoots RAW files. And yes, it comes with Canon’s Digital Photo Professional RAW conversion/editing software. It may be small, but there’s room for a three-inch display with twice the normal resolution at 461,000 pixels.

It doesn’t articulate like the G11’s but, amazingly, it is slightly larger. The screen takes up much of the back, leaving room for just a rotary controller on the right and four buttons. On the top, there’s a mode dial, shutter button/zoom switch, power button and ‘Ring func.’button, used to change the function of the ring mounted around the lens. It can be configured to adjust the ISO, EV and white balance compensation, or operate a ‘step zoom’ feature that sets the lens to a series of specific focal lengths.

Form and function

This is how the S90 manages to combine minimal exterior controls with maximum photographic function. Between the lens control ring and the rotary controller, it’s possible to set up and carry out your favourite adjustments in moments. That said, there is a bit of a disparity between the two.

The lens control ring is beautifully engineered, with positive click-stops and just the right weighting, but the rear controller is just a little too light. Too often you end up pressing the directional button underneath as you turn it. This is a small point, though, given that the S90 is perfectly put together in every other respect.

The design is understated, it’s devoid of stickers and spurious styling details, and its smoothed corners mean it’s easy to slide in and out of a pocket. Small cameras mean small lenses, and this generally brings more distortion, chromatic aberration and edge softness. Not here. In fact, the S90 seems to produce less barrel distortion than the G11. There’s little or no chromatic aberration, the definition at the edges of the frame is as good as it is at the centre, and it doesn’t soften up at full zoom, unlike most compacts. It might be small, but the S90’s lens is absolutely in the first division.

So what about high-ISO performance? Canon’s used the same new 10-megapixel sensor in both the G11 and the S90, and it has paid dividends. With this camera you don’t really notice a major drop in performance until you get past ISO800. It’s hard to fault the exposure system or white balance, either, and Canon’s enhanced its i-Contrast feature so it does more than just apply a quick and dirty shadow ‘fix’.

Now, the camera increases the ‘gain’, or sensitivity, in darker areas as the image is processed to produce a much subtler enhancement of high-contrast scenes. There are a few little weaknesses. There’s no HD movie mode, and the S90 can only manage 0.9fps in continuous shooting mode.
It saves RAW files in around three seconds, which isn’t bad, but takes a couple of seconds even with JPEGs.

But on the whole it’s small, it’s beautifully made and it’s a joy to use.And the pictures are very good indeed.

See below for some test shots (click to see full sized image, opens in new window):