There was a lot to like about the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, and much of it remains in this year's PowerShot S5 IS, including Canon's veteran optical image-stabilization technology, excellent metering and focusing systems, the signature flip-and-twist LCD display, and a hefty set of manual and semimanual controls. The S5 IS bumps up to 8 megapixels from the S3's 6-megapixel sensor, increases the LCD size from 2 to 2.5 inches, and adds trendy bonus features like face-detection autofocus/autoexposure, maximum sensitivity of ISO 1600, and an ISO-shift mode that lets you jack up the setting with a button press when the camera tells you the shutter speed is too slow. We can thank the upgrade to a Digic III processor for many of the new capabilities.
I liked my description of the S3 IS so much I'll use it again for the S5 IS: its aesthetic seems to be a cross between those of a classic Volkswagen Beetle and a Busy Box. But somehow, it still works. It's gained a few ounces over the year, up to a not-so-svelte 1 pound, 3.4 ounces. The larger LCD has also caused some middle-age spread, widening the camera to 4.6 inches. However, it remains comfortable to hold, reasonably fluid to operate--once you know where everything is--and feels as solid as the aforementioned classic car.
Canon implements the S5 IS' features quite well. For example, the camera includes a dedicated record button for movie capture, plus stereo microphones, a wind filter, and audio volume adjustment. Unlike most implementations, which force you into a specific face-detect scene mode, Canon makes face detection one of the focus-area-selection options. You can select a face in a scene and jump back to it with a couple of button presses, or you can let the camera seek out up to three faces in the scene and automatically select the most prominent one. It lets you see the runners-up, but you can't make your own pick in the latter mode. Using face detection can be a bit confusing--both to understand and use effectively--and I'm not convinced that either simply focusing on your chosen face and recomposing or setting an off-center focus point on the face aren't lower-tech but ultimately more efficient solutions. For any camera.
The S5 IS' performance splits right down the middle. It delivers very good speed for its class. It wakes up and shoots in 1.3 seconds, with a shutter lag of 0.5 and 0.8 second in bright and dim light, respectively. It can shoot consecutive single images 1.6 seconds apart, growing to a reasonable 2.1 seconds with flash enabled. Continuous shooting is fixed at about 1.5 frames per second (fps), regardless of image size, and can run for about 18 shots before it starts to slow.
But the functional aspects of the S5 IS' performance--lens geometry and sharpness, viewfinder usability, and noise--are less impressive. The centerpiece of a megazoom camera is the lens, in this case the same 12x zoom, f/2.7-3.5 36mm-to-432mm as that of the S3 IS (And the S2 IS). On one hand, the optical stabilizer, focusing system, and exposure rendering are as good as they've ever been. But the EVF (electronic viewfinder) is kind of coarse for manual focus unless the subject is fairly simple--think of a rock versus a white, puffy dandelion.