Mini-review: Canon S90 compact

A couple of weeks ago I finally received a new compact camera after my last Ixy (that's Japan's version of the Ixus series) broke almost a year ago. I'd been content with lugging the 50D around for a long time, but on some occasions when I didn't want to carry a lot with me the alternative, my trusty G7, proved too big to fit comfortably in my pocket. It's getting old too, so I finally bought a new one: a Canon S90.


That's it. Nothing special. Just your average black camera. But it's so good. :D

It's like Canon finally listened to all of the criticism it's been getting over all the years, and decided to fix every possible problem they ever had. Well, except one, but I'll get to that later. The controls are great: besides the zoom lever there's the usual ring around the four-way pad at the back, and as an added bonus there's a digital control ring around the lens that I just can't stop twisting. It makes such a satisfying clicking noise whenever you turn it. The ring is digital, so every click changes a setting in the camera, and you can adjust per mode (PASM) what feature it should change (ISO, EV compensation, aperture, zoom). The ring's really easy to adjust, even with one hand, although using the camera with both hands feels slightly more comfortable. The one thing I had to get used to in the beginning is that the direction of operation is the opposite of what I'd intuitively expect: I twist the ring thinking the aperture should become smaller, but instead it becomes larger. This should please Nikon users who want to switch to Canon, I guess. It doesn't take long to get used to, though. The controls are great in every other way too; every button is where you'd expect it to be. The control ring around the d-pad at the back is very loose and easy to use. Now that I think about it, the mode dial was very difficult to adjust in the beginning, but it's getting more smooth during use.

For years now users have been telling camera companies to stop increasing the resolution of their sensors and to focus on image quality (and low-light performance) instead. Well, Canon listened. No huge megapixel sensor inside this camera: it's a 10 megapixel sensor, just like the Canon G7 that came out 3 years ago. That doesn't mean that Canon's been sitting around doing nothing, though. They claim that the sensor they used in this camera is excellent in low-light conditions. And it's not just the sensor: the lens is a beauty: an f/2.0 aperture and a 28-105mm range make for an excellent lens. In theory, at least. Canon feels confident enough to allow ISO values of up to ISO3200, and there's a special low-light mode available that operates at half the resolution.

For some reason Canon cut down on the movie mode. While competitors are starting to offer HD quality movie recording modes the S90 can record at a maximum resolution of 640x480. They've finally changed the compression format so you can record way longer movies on your memory card compared to older Canon compacts. That's great, but since the format is now .mov video I have to find a new video editing software.. Also worth noting is that there is no time-lapse video mode on the S90. Why!?!?! That was such a cool feature on the Ixus series, yet Canon decided to remove it here. Since Canon is not exactly known for adding features in firmware updates our only option is to hope that the CHDK people will be kind enough to hack the firmware so that we can write our own time-lapse scripts. That could take a fair while though, if ever.

So what about the picture quality? It's difficult for me to say, but I guess I'm slightly underwhelmed. Photos taken in low-light are indeed great compared to the G7 I used to use as a compact camera, but they're still far from perfect. I'm quite satisfied in this area though. What I'm less happy about is what the camera software is doing to photos taken on a perfectly clear day. Take a look at this.


Blurry-ish? Grainy-ish? Unfit for cropping, IMHO. Then again, that's not what I plan to do with it anyway. Without cropping the pictures are great, as you can see from the photo three posts below this one. This might be the one area where Canon hasn't improved much since the G7. Still, if that bothers you, you can always take RAW photos instead and process them afterwards by yourself.

All in all I'm very happy with this camera. All previous Ixus/Ixy series camera's I've owned were always lacking in some way, always missing an importing button, control or feature. The S90 has it all, and besides the image quality I really can't think of what could possibly be improved on this camera. My suggestion: if you haven't bought a compact camera in the last 1-2 years, get an S90 now. It's very worth it.

I'll end with these two night shots, taken with the low-light mode and auto ISO, choosing ISO3200 and ISO5000, respectively. Think of this as the worst case scenario.


Edit: I made a little addendum to this post after using the camera a bit more. Read it here.

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