Camera Review: Canon PowerShot G1 X

April 12, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The 14.3-megapixel Canon PowerShot G1 X is one of the best compact cameras I’ve ever shot with, though calling it a “compact” really is a bit of a stretch. This sucker is big. And heavy. Not to mention, Canon’s latest “flagship” PowerShot is expensive too. For just a little more money than the $800 you’d pay for the G1 X, you could get the Rebel T3i, Canon’s second-tier up digital SLR along with an 18-55mm kit lens.

But, of course, you don’t want the Rebel T3i or its mediocre kit lens since you likely already have a bigger and better DSLR/lens set-up that does all the professional heavy lifting for you. The G1 X, on the other hand, is what I like to call a “project” camera, as in, you might have a particular project you’d like to shoot that calls for a smaller, less expensive, more discreet camera. That “project” could be anything from photographing dishwashers in Indonesia to capturing candids of your kids on holiday in Florida.

The point is that your big DSLR or medium-format camera feels like work. A camera such as the Canon G1 X and the many competing high-end compacts out there are designed for looser assignments, even if those assignments include a personal project you come up with on vacation.

And in that way, the G1 X succeeds, big time. Its image quality is on par with most entry-level digital SLRs, in part because it’s equipped with an image sensor that’s almost the same size as what’s in those cameras.

But it also has a very good zoom lens: a 4x optical (28mm to 112mm equivalent) with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and image stabilization. The fact that it sits on the front of the camera like a giant metal doughnut is a bit distracting but only further emphasizes the seriousness of the big sensor inside this camera.

Otherwise the Canon G1 X comes equipped with many high-end bells and whistles including 1080p HD video capture and a flip-out, 3-inch vari-angle LCD with 922,000 dots of resolution on back. Let’s take a closer look at Canon’s small-ish wonder.  

Getting a Sense
People—including yours truly—have been saying for years that if Canon put a DSLR-size sensor in a compact camera, photographers would go crazy for it. And while the 1.5-inch (18.7 x 14mm) CMOS imaging chip in the 14.3-megapixel G1 X is just a smidge smaller than those APS-C sensors in many DSLRs and some “mirrorless” compact system cameras (CSC), such as the Sony NEX-7 and Samsung NX200, it’s pretty darn close.

The G1 X’s sensor is also, it should be noted, slightly bigger than the Micro Four Thirds sensors you’ll find in Olympus’s and Panasonic’s mirrorless CSCs. I mention this mostly because Canon, at the time of this writing, has decided to forgo the whole CSC category in favor of a high-end, all-in-one traditional compact camera (aka the G1 X).

Whether this is a good decision remains to be seen. I was lukewarm to CSCs when they first emerged a few years ago, finding them too slow and image quality only a slight improvement over traditional compacts, despite CSCs’ interchangeable lenses and bigger sensors. But CSCs have gotten a lot better and I’ve tried several that are almost as fast and with comparable image quality to entry-level DSLRs but in a smaller package.

“Knurly” Design
Who knows what Canon will do in the future but for now, the G1 X offers a compelling alternative not just to DSLRs but also to CSCs. The G1 X is a big (4.6 x 3.2 x 2.5 inches), serious-looking customer, weighing in at just over 19 ounces with the thick, rechargeable battery installed.

It resembles the older top dog in Canon’s PowerShot line—the 10-megapixel G12, which uses a comparatively tiny 1/1.7-inch size sensor—but pumped up on hormones. (Incidentally, Canon says the G12 is staying in its line—at least while supplies last—and is selling for between $400 and $500.)

The G1 X’s grip is bigger and has a comfortable textured feel and, as previously mentioned, its built-in zoom lens is physically larger even if its range is actually a bit shorter (4x vs. 5x). The G1 X fires up rather quickly—taking just over two seconds—despite the long lens, which extends about two inches in front when powered on.

There’s a large, knurled ring around the lens that provides a comfortable handgrip along with knurled rings around the exposure compensation dial and mode dials on top of the camera. In other words, you could say the G1 X is rather knurly.

The overall effect is more severe than the slightly rounded G12 but also more professional looking. While the G1 X is heavier, it feels nice and balanced in your hand. Like the G12, there’s plenty of external control on this camera, which lets you change settings without having to dive through menus—or hoops—to do so.

In a Flash
One major difference in the layout of the G1 X is that it adds a small pop-up flash on the left, whereas the G12 has a flash set in the front plate of the camera. The advantage to the pop-up is that it gets the flash further away from the lens, preventing red-eye and harsh brightness on the face.

We still got some instances of red-eye but less frequently than with the G12. Also, when we fired the flash—which pops up about an inch—while photographing musicians at a concert, we got more flattering light. The effect wasn’t dramatic—personally I would try not to use the flash or, instead, mount a strobe on the hot shoe or, ideally, go off-camera—but it was an improvement.

The trade-off to putting the pop-up flash on the G1 X’s left shoulder is that you lose real estate for external controls. Disappointingly, Canon decided to eliminate the ISO dial from the camera while keeping the exposure compensation dial. (I would’ve done the opposite.) You can still access ISO by pressing the top of the rear control dial, which calls up the range on the LCD screen, but it’s an extra step. This is a small annoyance; especially since exploring the wide ISO range—100 to 12800—is what’s so great about the G1 X.

On the other hand, I appreciated that Canon was able to squeeze a bigger, 3-inch swiveling LCD screen with ample (922,000 dot) resolution onto the G1 X. If you haven’t used a flip-out screen recently (most DSLRs still lack them), you forget how incredibly handy they are.

While photographing the musicians on stage in a crowded club, I was able to hold the camera at arms length above my head and compose nice wide-angle images and HD videos of the concert. Later, while shooting product photography in natural light on the roof of a studio, the swiveling screen let me hold the camera away from me so I didn’t block the light source and have my shadow fall on the subject.

Nice Quality
Even though resolution is a bit higher on the G1 X compared to the G12, its bigger sensor has given it significantly bigger pixels for absorbing more light. In fact, the G1 X’s individual pixels are more than twice as large as those on the G12: 4.16 microns compared to 2.03 microns.

This combined with the very good 4x optical (28mm to 112mm equivalent), f/2.8 to f/5.8, IS zoom lens and the G1 X’s noise-killing DIGIC 5 processor, has created one of the best low-light compacts we’ve ever tested.

With swirling red, blue, and green lights and a dark background on the stage, the concert provided a challenging setting for photography. Unless we used the flash, anything below ISO 3200 was out of the question because of image blur even at f/2.8 with the G1 X’s lens set at the wide angle. Turns out though, the camera did surprisingly well at both ISO 3200 and 6400. Certainly not on par with a full-frame DSLR, but the G1 X’s clean images at high ISOs were as good or better than most entry-level, APS-C DSLRs we’ve tested. The camera also trumped most competing CSC models—aside from the Sony NEX-7, which uses an APS-C size sensor.

While ISO 6400 and 3200 were good, its ISO 1600 shots were outstanding: a portrait we shot of one of the musicians in bad bar light was clean as a whistle, with skin tones looking natural and pure.

The G1 X’s clean performance carried over to our lower ISO (100 to 400) product shots in natural light, which looked positively creamy. The large sensor also gave us some pretty decent background blur (aka bokeh), something that was darn near impossible with the G12 and CSCs with smaller sensors, such as the Nikon J1. If you want to get the most out of your photos, the G1 X offers 14-bit, RAW+JPEG shooting as well.

The G1 X was a very good HD video shooter with the leap up to 1080p at 24p with stereo sound and the availability of both optical zoom and continuous autofocus a real boon to budding filmmakers. Overall, image quality was even better than we’d hoped.

Speed Needs
The one area we wished the G1 X performed better was in its speed. The G1 X’s DIGIC 5 processor—a step up from DIGIC 4 in the G12—did an OK job running the larger sensor, bigger lens and 1080p HD video shooting, but it wasn’t exactly quick.

As mentioned, the G1 X’s start-up was about two seconds, but start-up until you could actually shoot a photo was more like four seconds. If you’re in a hurry to capture a sudden candid moment, that can feel like a lifetime. Shot-to-shot times weren’t impressive either, clocking in at about two seconds between shots.

On the plus side, the G1 X adds a High-Speed Burst HQ mode that lets you fire up to six shots continuously at full resolution. While this is handy when shooting fast moving subjects, I’d preferred it if the G1 X was more fleet afoot when snapping photos on the fly.

The Bottom Line
Photographers had been hoping that Canon would come out with a compact camera with a DSLR-size sensor for the last few years and while the G1 X isn’t exactly that camera—its CMOS chip is just a smidge smaller than APS-C—it’s very close. Even better, that bigger sensor delivers excellent results in both regular light and in dim conditions at high ISOs up to 6400. (At ISO 12800, things start to get dicey.) I also liked the hefty but solid build of the G1 X, with its comfortable handgrip, plethora of external controls and the very nice 3-inch, swiveling LCD screen. Yes, it’s big enough that you really couldn’t call the G1 X a pocket camera but when it’s powered down, it comfortably slides into a coat or bag for travel. If it’s slower overall than we’d hoped—especially when powering on to first shot and the recovery time between shots—the G1 X does so many things so well for a small camera, I can overlook that one stumble. If you’re looking for a great portable camera, the G1 X is worth the price.
Canon PowerShot G1 X

Pros: Excellent overall image quality; surprisingly low noise results without significant loss of detail up to ISO 6400; very nice 3-inch, vari-angle LCD; superb 1080p HD recording with stereo sound; chunky but still portable camera build; better pop-up flash

Cons: Slow start-up to first shot speed; slow shot-to-shot speed; ISO dial removed to make room for pop-up flash; expensive


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