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Canon PowerShot S3 IS review: Canon PowerShot S3 IS

Canon PowerShot S3 IS

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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4 min read

The Canon PowerShot S3 IS's aesthetic seems to be a cross between those of a classic Volkswagen Beetle and a Busy Box. Granted, it's the same body as its predecessor's, but the silver bits stand out more against the current version's iridescent, dark gray plastic than they did against the previous model's silver coloring. As with the S2, there's certainly enough here to keep you busy for a long time, though, and loving every minute of it. (For more details about the S2/S3's basic design and features, read the PowerShot S2 IS review.)

7.7

Canon PowerShot S3 IS

The Good

Fast and responsive; comfortable design; decent movie capture; flip and twist LCD; fast, high-quality lens with effective optical image stabilization.

The Bad

Tiny LCD; lacks raw support; faux wide-screen capture.

The Bottom Line

A very well-executed megazoom camera, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS reminds you why dSLRs still have competition for photo enthusiasts' hearts.
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I went car shopping awhile back--the first time I'd ever looked for one on my own--and, accustomed to the rapidly changing pace of the tech sector, I innocently asked the salesman what the differences were between last year's model and the new versions slated to come out soon. He looked at me blankly, blinked, then responded, "The shape of the headlights." Well, Canon changed a bit more than the shape of the headlights between the PowerShot S2 IS and the S3 IS, but not much. The newer model integrates a 6-megapixel CCD instead of 5 megapixels, and Canon tosses in a few new features, but ultimately, it's the same camera. That's not necessarily a bad thing--the S2 remains a great camera, and the S3 carries on the tradition.

For the S3, Canon upped the size of the flip-and-twist LCD to 2 inches from 1.8, which is still disappointingly small. The company also added a ludicrous 16:9 aspect mode: not only does it simply crop and letterbox the standard 4:3 image, but the LCD is too small for a functional letterbox display. More useful is the new 320x240 60fps movie-capture mode, which produces slick little movies, as does the VGA, 30fps mode. Unfortunately, the camera still lacks raw format support.

Oddly, despite the different sensors--or perhaps because they use the same f/2.7-to-f/3.5, 36mm-to-432mm lens and Digic II imaging processor--the S3's photos look almost identical to the S2's. They display a broad tonal range, albeit with some clipping in the highlights and shadows, very good color accuracy and saturation, and acceptable edge-to-edge sharpness. Its noise profile follows suit as well: low until about ISO 200, then increasingly bad. Though the camera can now boost ISO sensitivity to as high as ISO 800, either manually or by enabling ISO Boost in a programmed-exposure mode, the noise at that setting is quite obtrusive. In general, the S3's photos look good but can't really shake the digital look, either onscreen or in print.

Canon PowerShot S3
The haloing around the hands, the smearing in the corduroy, and the general lack of detail in the bricks make this photo look obviously digital. Keep in mind that this was shot at maximum telephoto, however.

Performance, while not identical to the S2's, is either the equivalent or better. Start-up to first shot takes only 1.5 seconds, which is quite zippy overall, and extremely good for a camera that has a long lens to extend. Shutter lag in bright light runs about 0.4 second and doubles to 0.8 second when the lights get low. The S3 is also relatively responsive: 1.1 seconds typically from shot to shot, plus another second if the flash needs to recycle. Though it maxes out at 1.5fps in continuous-shooting mode, there's no buffer-constraint on the number of sequential shots at maximum resolution; I find that much more useful than a fast but limited burst mode. It was certainly sufficient to capture active dogs and children playing in the park, including kids spinning in a tire swing.

Autofocus occurs quickly for the most part, although a few of my shots looked as if the focus hadn't locked before capture. I didn't experience any of the problems that the S2's reviewer did with SuperMacro mode; it worked fine for me, even with the lens almost pressed against the subject. The image stabilization bought me about two stops of shutter latitude, but my hands shake like an octogenarian's--a coffee-drinking octogenarian.

I'm not a big fan of electronic viewfinders (EVFs), and the S3's didn't convince me otherwise; though it's fine for framing, I hate that it freezes when the shutter is pressed. The LCD is certainly viewable in most light, but I prefer an eye-level viewfinder to the unsteady arm's-length approach.

True, a cheap dSLR will provide better performance, and a moderately priced one will deliver better photo quality. But the Canon PowerShot S3 IS's combination of features, performance, and relatively compact design certainly gives megazoomers a compelling alternative.

Shooting speed  
(Seconds; shorter bars indicate better performance)
Shutter lag (typical)  
Time to first shot  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
0.6 
2.8 
1.5 
Kodak EasyShare P850
0.6 
4.0 
1.7 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ4
0.5 
2.8 
1.1 
Canon PowerShot S3 IS
0.4 
1.5 
1.7 
Sony Cyber Shot DSC-H2
0.4 
2.6 
1.5 

Continuous-shooting speed   
(Frames per second; longer bars indicate better performance)
Typical continuous-shooting speed   

7.7

Canon PowerShot S3 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Image quality 7