Steve's Conclusion

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Steve's SnapShot
Thumbnail image for canon_s90_front.jpg
  • 10-megapixel "high sensitivity" image sensor
  • 3.8x wide view optical zoom lens covers 28-105mm
  • True "lens-shift" optical image stabilization
  • 3.0-inch "Pure Color" LCD with 461K pixels
  • DIGIC 4 image processing  
  • Movies at 640x480 or 320x240 with audio, with a frame rage of 30fps
  • RAW and JPEG still image capture modes (RAW+JPEG too)
  • Powerful Li-ion battery pack
  • SD/SDHC/MMC memory card slot
  • HDMI output

Pros
  • Capture beautiful 10-megapixel images
  • Fast F2.0 lens
  • Speedy shooting performance, even in RAW mode
  • Wealth of manual controls
  • Effective Intelligent Auto exposure mode
  • High-quality 3.0-inch LCD screen
  • Useful control ring mounted around lens
  • Superb build quality 
  • Unmatched high ISO performance for a camera of this size
Cons
  • No HD video format (still records best @ VGA resolution)
  • Flash doesn't Auto pop-up in all exposure modes
  • Noticeable amount of red-eye in people photos
  • Very easy to accidentally rotate the rear control wheel, which would cause exposure problems depending on the exposure mode being used
Timing Test Results
  • Power up to first image captured = 1.7 seconds
  • Shutter lag when prefocused  = less than 1/10 of a second
  • Shutter lag with autofocus = approx. 1/10 - 2/10 of a second
  • Shot to shot delay wo/flash = 2.3 seconds
  • Shot to shot delay w/flash = 2.7 - 3 seconds
  • Normal burst =  1.1fps
  • AF burst = 0.7fps
Bottom Line
The S90 is a welcomed addition to a long forgotten line of versatile PowerShot models. This high-end camera has loads of exposure control to offer, along with the ability to capture pleasing photos.
Pick This Up If...
You want a tiny pocket-rocket that gives you the control over the exposure process that you desire.
The long awaited successor to an almost forgotten line of powerful Canon cameras, the PowerShot S90 is the first "S" series model we have seen from Canon since the S80 back in 2005. Sporting an ultra-compact frame that resembles the Digital ELPH line, the S90 offers a great deal of versatility and manual controls when compared to most cameras of this size. In fact, the S90 sports many of the same features we saw on the G11, such as a 10-megapixel "high sensitivity" image sensor, RAW and JPEG still image capture (RAW+JPEG option as well), new Low Light exposure mode, DIGIC 4 processor, and Dual Anti-Noise System. Other options included on the S90 are a high-quality 3.0-inch LCD (461k pixels), a fast 3.8x f/2.0 optical zoom lens (covers 28-105mm in 35mm equivalence), Canon's lens-shift optical image stabilization, ISO settings from 80 - 3200 (in 1/3EV steps), Li-ion power source, SD/SDHC/MMC card slot, HDMI output, and a new Nostalgic scene mode, all stuffed inside a durable all-metal frame.

Canon built the S90 specifically for the advanced amateur to professional user who is in the market for a versatile compact to carry around when the bulk of their dSLR won't do. However, don't let that turn you novice, or even beginner, users away. The S90 is packed full of easy to use options, including Canon's Intelligent Auto exposure mode. This beginner-friendly exposure mode was designed with ease of use in mind, with the camera choosing not only the appropriate exposure values, but also the best scene settings too (from 22 presets). This is accomplished by the camera analyzing the shot being framed, and then adjusting the appropriate settings. Like we saw with the G11, this mode worked extremely well, correctly determining the scene being framed within almost an instance. We found during our testing that this settings was able to quickly determine the type of photograph being framed, and adjusted the cameras settings accordingly. It also did this quickly, so those who enjoy to just point-n-shoot will have no troubles at all. For those who are a bit more knowledgeable about the exposure process, the S90 offers Program, Shutter speed priority, Aperture priority, and full Manual modes. One of the more unique features Canon implemented on the S90 is a control ring that is mounted on around the lens bezel. This ring can control many functions (ISO, Step Zoom, Aperture, Shutter speed, etc.) depending on the exposure program being used. You can also change what function this ring controls by pressing the RING Function button on the top of the camera. Overall, this is a very cool feature that adds to the S90's versatile nature.

Like mentioned before, the S90 more resembles a Digital ELPH model, with it's ultra-compact metal body measuring just 3.94x2.30x1.22 inches and weighing a mere 6.17 oz. (without battery or card). Although small, I still had no problem using this camera with my large hands, with most all of the controls just within reach of my thumbs or finger tips. The control ring on the front also offers a nice secure grip on the camera with your left hand. Canon placed the various camera controls in a comfortable manner over the S90's body. I did find that the control wheel on the back is very easy to move, and in Program mode it toggles the Exposure compensation option. There were a handful of times that I found myself adjusting EV Comp., when I was merely trying to press one of the directions on the 4-way controller. This wasn't a huge problem, it just took some getting use to. Also, the shutter release is positioned a bit further inward than you would normally see on a camera of this size. This is due to the placement of the Mode dial. While I found the position to be quite comfortable, there were a few occasions where I found myself pushing the top of the Mode dial thinking it was the shutter button. When you first look at the S90, you'll probably wonder where the flash unit is. This is because Canon decided to incorporate a built-in, auto pop-up flash unit that is located on the left leading edge of the camera. Depending on the exposure mode being used, this unit stays hidden inside the camera, only popping up when needed. If you are like me, and have your left hand on the control ring when holding the camera, you will have no issues at all when the flash pops up. However, if you hold the camera by pinching the left side, you will find your index finger over top of the flash. Again, this is simply overcome by learning a different holding technique.

The 3.0-inch LCD on the S90 is a superb display, offering 100% frame coverage, and 461,000 pixels of resolution. Canon also applied an anti-reflective coating to help reduce the amount of glare caused by bright light. Thankfully this is a high-quality monitor, since it's the only viewfinder on the camera. I found it to be a pleasure to use, producing a bright live image with good color rendition. Outdoors I was able to see my subject without a problem, even in bright sunny conditions. Indoors the display also gains up in marginal lighting, allowing you to clearly see your subject; something that was not possible with 35mm film cameras. Also, because this is such a large display, icons and text are more legible for those with failing eyesight. The menu system itself is well thought out, with logical placement of the various camera settings available. If you've owned a Canon Powershot in the past, you'll feel right at home with the S90. While the color scheme has changed slightly, menu layout has pretty stayed the same.  

The S90 wears the PowerShot badge proudly, offering the outstanding shooting performance we have come to expect from Canon models. From power up to first image captured measured just 1.7 seconds, which is about as fast as as any consumer camera out there. Shutter lag was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and only 1/10 - 2/10 of a second including autofocus. The shot to shot delay in single drive mode averaged about 2.3 seconds between frames without the use of the flash and 2.7 - 3 seconds when including the flash. You are given the choice between two continuous modes (Continuous, Continuous AF.) Using the standard continuous capture or burst mode, I was able to capture 10 frames in 8.9 seconds (1.1fps), surpassing Canon's claim of only 0.9fps in this mode. Continuous Shooting AF mode captured 10 frames in approx. 14.1 seconds, acquiring focus for each individual shot. Thanks to the DIGIC 4 processor, the average user will rarely (if ever) run into a full buffer when shooting in JPEG mode. When shooting in continuous mode, the LCD briefly displays the last image captured making it difficult to follow a moving subject; this is where an optical viewfinder would come in handy. All of our tests were done using an ATP Pro Max (Class 6) 4GB SDHC card, Program mode, Large Fine quality, preview On, Auto ISO, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

The S90 also allows you to capture images in RAW format as well as RAW+JPEG. These settings are an excellent resource for those who process their photos on a regular basis. The RAW+JPEG mode is especially nice, giving you an unprocessed copy of your JPEG, which will allow you to easily change white balance, etc. later on your PC. Using RAW mode slows the camera down only slightly, which is caused by it having to process much larger file sizes (~10MB or more each). The shot to shot delay in RAW mode averaged just under 3.0 seconds between shots without the flash, while Continuous shooting slowed to 10 frames in about 10.7 (0.9fps). Overall, the S90 performed quite well when shooting in RAW mode, making this a feasible option to use on a regular basis. For editing your RAW photos, can has included their Digital Photo Professional software, which is an excellent tool for processing all of you Canon RAW format images.

When it comes to image quality, the PowerShot S90 delivers. The combination of the new "high sensitivity" image sensor and the fast F2.0 lens help the S90 to produce very nice photos both indoors and out. We found the camera was able to capture good exposures outdoors in various lighting conditions, from overcast to bright and sunny. Images also show pleasing sharpness and contrast, with only a small amount of edge softness visible when viewing images at 100%. Depending on the exposure mode being used, colors look very natural. In Auto mode, the camera seemed to produce more vivid colors than Program, which some will enjoy as it will add some "pop" to your photos. The 3.8x Canon optical zoom lens found on the S90 is a great performer, offering unmatched speed with a wide open aperture of F2.0 at wide angle. This futher enhances this models ability to capture sharp photos in marginal conditions, like you dimly lit living room, etc. With a 35mm equivalent range of 28 - 105mm, this lens favors the wide end. This range will afford nice outdoor landscapes, group shots, etc., while the telephoto end of the zoom range will help you tightly frame subjects when shooting macros or individual portraits; don't expect to be able to zoom in close on distant subjects. After inspecting all of our photos, I saw moderate barrel distortion present at the wide angle extreme, and only small traces of other aberrations.

The S90 also performs very well when using its higher ISO capabilities. I was able to capture some high-quality photos with out a problem at ISO 640 and above. When viewing our M&M man photos at 100% on my PC, I found that the S90 seems to produce very nice photos all the way up to ISO 1600. Even the 3200 setting looks usable for mid to large sized prints, depending on the amount of light available. This camera also offer the highest degree of fine ISO adjustment I have seen on a compact model, with 1/3EV increments. This means you don't have to settle for ISO 200, 400, 800, and so on. You can bump up the sensitivity ever so slightly, which is a great feature that is not even offered on their "G" series models. With great ISO performance, a fast lens, and this new 10M sensor, the S90 offers some of the best low light abilities I have seen on a camera of this size. Canon did also include their new Low Light Exposure mode on the S90, however I found the quality of images produced by this mode were not that great. Not only do you you lose resolution as the camera drops to 2.5M, but images are very soft and show almost no real detail due to heavy NR (Noise Reduction). I truly feel you can get much better results shooting at full resolution with any of the controlable exposure modes (program, aperture priority, manual, etc.), by manually choosing a higher ISO setting.

Using the built-in flash produced produced nice portrait and macro photos, with the camera controling the flash output well when shooting close objects. Canon claims the flash can cover up to 21 feet at wide angle using ISO Auto. I found the flash to be quite powerful for such a small camera, especially when it selects a higher ISO setting. We achieved our sample shots shooting from 6-7 feet away, and you can see that our subjects are very well lit. Just remember that when you lower the sensitivity, and use the zoom, flash range will drop off dramatically. The only issues I had with the flash were several instances of red-eye in many of our photos, and the Auto pop-up feature didn't work properly in Program mode (or Custom for that matter). The camera seems to pop the flash up as soon as you enter this mode, even when using the Auto Flash mode setting. This means that unless you manually select the Forced off flash mode setting, the flash will be out. This is true for the other "manual" modes, where you choose for the flash to either be On (up) or Off (down).   

One of the "cool" options Canon included on the S90 is the Nostalgic scene mode. This mode will fade colors along with adding a roughness to the photo, with 5 levels of intensity available that are controlled by rotating the control ring. They claim this allows you to give your photos an aged look, and we did find that this mode allowed us to make some of our usual subjects look as thought they were capture many years ago. When you use the extreme setting, you will find that the camera produces a B&W photo with a strong "grainy" look. Overall, this was a fun mode to "play" with, and is sure to entertain those creative users who love to add that certain look to their photos.

I was really hoping Canon would have included some sort of Wide format or HD video mode. However, like the G11, the S90 only offers your standard VGA and QVGA video resolutions. That said, the S90 does capture decent video, with very little noise and smooth playback thanks to the 30fps (real-time) frame rate. The microphone produces decent audio, and had no issue recording the voices of the children playing football in our sample video clip. However, the mic is so sensitive that it will pick up near-by "background" noise that you may not have noticed when recording this video. This is all to common with digital cameras, and is not just an issue held by the S90.

The S90's battery life was good for a compact model. Canon claims you can capture about 220 photos on a single charge. This seems to be a pretty accurate claim, as we were able to capture about 200 or so shots on a single charge, however this also included several short video clips along with extensive menu navigation and image playback. While I would confidently take the S90 out for a days worth of shooting, we still recommend that a second spare battery pack would be a wise addition to your purchase. You can easily charge one pack while using another since the S90 comes with a handy AC charger with fold away prongs. This should help ensure you don't miss a spontaneous photo opportunity due to a dead battery pack.

Bottom line - Canon's PowerShot S90 is an exceptional ultra-compact model that offers the latest in Canon technologies and features, along with a wealth of exposure controls options; somewhat like a shrunken down G11. While aimed more towards advanced users looking for a compact camera to carry around on their "light" days, the S90 can still be appreciated by the novice to beginner users. With excellent image quality, robust shooting performance, great high ISO shooting performance, and a well-built frame, I can highly recommend this camera to anyone looking for an extremely versatile camera that can be tucked into your pocket. While we really like the S90, it does carry a lofty price tag of about US $399. With this said, I feel the level of control offered by such a compact camera, along with the high-end features it boasts, justify the price increase over the top of the line Digital ELPH models. So, we urge you to make certain this model has everything you want and need in a camera. If you love the image quality and performance offered by the S90, but do not need all of the manual control options, be sure to take a look at some of Canon's other compact models that might a bit easier on the pocket book. These include the PowerShot SD980 IS and SD940 IS.  

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