Canon PowerShot S90 - digital camera review: Canon PowerShot S90 - digital camera

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The Good Excellent control system for manual, semimanual shooting; fantastic wide-angle f2 lens; very good low-light photo quality.

The Bad Performance is merely average; no HD movie mode or optical zoom while recording; no optical viewfinder and a couple other design miscues.

The Bottom Line As long as you're not expecting dSLR speed in a tiny body, the Canon PowerShot S90 is an excellent compact camera for advanced amateurs.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

Editors' Note: As of May 11, 2010, Canon has announced the release of the PowerShot SD4000 IS, a slightly pared-down version of the S90 reviewed here. The SD4000 IS features the same f2.0, wide-angle lens as the S90 as well as aperture- and shutter-speed-priority shooting modes. It also features HD movie capture, which cannot be found on the S90.

The Canon PowerShot S90 is designed for photography enthusiasts and it carries a hefty price tag to prove it. It also has some of the best controls you'll find on a compact camera for manual and semimanual shooting modes. Its lens and photo quality are top notch, too. Actually, about the only thing that's unimpressive with the S90 is its performance; those searching for digital SLR speed in a pocket camera probably won't be happy. But, aside from a few other minor criticisms, the S90 is a first-rate compact camera for advanced amateurs.

Key specifications Canon PowerShot S90
Price (MSRP) $429.99
Dimensions (WHD) 3.9x2.3x1.2 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 7 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 10 megapixels, 1/1.7-inch CCD
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch LCD, 461K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 3.8x, f2-4.9, 28-105mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG, CR2 (raw)/H.264 (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 3,648x2,736 pixels / 640x480 at 30fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital
Battery type, rated life Lithium ion rechargeable, 220 shots
Storage media SD, SDHC, MMC, MMCplus, HC MMCplus

The S90 looks fairly innocuous; it's a textbook Canon box-and-circle design. The body is completely flat for a minimalist appearance, but it gives you nothing to grip. The black metal casing doesn't make it any easier to hold onto either. The S90's finer design points revolve around the excellent wide-angle f2-4.9 lens and its manual and semimanual shooting controls.

Around the lens is a new Control Ring that can be assigned to handle changes to aperture, shutter speed, focus, zoom, white balance, exposure compensation, or ISO. (A button on top lets you speedily change what it controls.) The ring rotates with firm, pleasing clicks so it's easy to select settings accurately and it makes using the camera quite fun. The opposite can be said about the Control Dial around the directional pad on back. This dial works in tandem with the Control Ring to change settings quickly. For most of the shooting modes, it defaults to exposure compensation; however, in Scene mode, it changes the scene type you're using. However, it moves much too freely and can result in accidental changes. Otherwise, the combination of the two rings is great and makes for swifter changes than you'll get on other compact cameras.

On top of the body is a small flash that automatically pops up and retracts when turned on and off. The S90 is also compatible with Canon's add-on HF-DC1 flash unit. There are mini-HDMI and USB/AV outputs under covers on the right camera's right side. And, well, the rest of the design is similar to the majority of Canon's PowerShot lineup. The buttons are nearly flush with the body and everything's packed close together, which might upset some users.

General shooting options Canon PowerShot S90
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 80, 100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1,000, 1,250, 1,600, 2,000, 2,500, 3,200
White balance Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, Underwater, Custom
Recording modes Auto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, Scene, Movie, Low Light
Focus modes Face AF, Normal AF, Manual, Macro AF
Metering modes Evaluative, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Custom
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

There are no less than 25 shooting modes available on the S90. The bulk of these are specialty scene modes; 17 in all and none of them are out of the ordinary for PowerShot models. There is also an Auto mode that is pretty much Canon's reliable scene-recognizing Smart Auto feature. There is a Low Light mode that drops the resolution to 1,824x1,368 pixels (2.5 megapixels), but allows for a sensitivity of ISO 12,800. A VGA-quality movie mode is on the dial as well, so HD fans are out of luck. Plus, you can't use the optical zoom while recording, not that there's a lot there to use.

The remaining shooting modes put more and more settings under your control: Program AE, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual, and Custom. The last mode lets you assign a frequently used set of shooting options and settings to the C position on the mode dial. To go with it, you can register up to five commonly used menu items to a My Menu tab in the main-menu system.

Other advanced options include exposure bracketing and focus bracketing that will take one photo at a manual focus position and then one each at preset positions nearer and farther; manual white balance correction; and raw or raw plus JPEG capture. There are 45 shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1,600 of a second and 14 aperture values--f2 through f8. You also get a selectable range of 17 ISOs between ISO 80 and ISO 3,200. The amount of tweaking available is great for a compact camera and the control layout makes it reasonably fast and painless.

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