Camera Review: Canon PowerShot S100

January 13, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The Canon PowerShot S90 from 2009 was, perhaps, the first compact camera coveted by consumers and pros alike. The slick, little S90 may have looked like a pocket-friendly style camera—and it was quite small and stylish—but it packed a powerful punch. What most interested serious photographers, though, was not the fact the S90 shot RAW, had a 3.8x zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.0 and came laden with features (though those were all strong selling points).

Canon took the then-radical approach of keeping the pixel count on the S90 under control by limiting it to 10MP when some lower-end compacts boasted nearly twice that resolution in their tiny 1/1.7-inch sensors. The show of restraint on the S90 produced two benefits: Combined with the f/2.0 lens, it made this tuxedo-black PowerShot shine in low light; it told pros that Canon realized what a suicidal march the megapixel race had become.  

Though Canon’s G Series cameras are its true “flagship” compacts, most pros I know own an S90 or its similar successor, the S95, and use it as a fun but effective little “throw-in-the-bag” go-anywhere compact.

With the S100, Canon has not reimagined its premiere pocket shooter but it has significantly upgraded its specs. While the pixel-phobic might blanch, Canon changed the 10MP CCD sensor from the previous two models, giving the S100 a 12MP CMOS chip. The zoom is also wider now: The S100 has a 5x lens, equivalent to 24-120mm in a 35mm format with an aperture range of f/2.0-5.9 and a built-in neutral density filter.

Other changes include a new DIGIC 5 processor, which promises to speed up performance while reducing noise at high ISOs; a broader ISO range of 80-6400; faster continuous shooting at 2.3fps along with high-speed bursts of 9.6fps for eight frames; full 1080p HD video with optical zooming (a big plus!); a direct movie record button; and GPS image tagging.

And oh yeah, the S100 now has a slight handgrip on the front where the previous models were smooth and easy to drop. Along with classic black, the S100 comes in sleek silver.

Better Designed
The front handgrip, really just a thin metal bar with an indenture, might not look like much, but combined with a new, rubberized thumb pad on back, it makes the S100 easier to hold than its predecessors. With the S95 and S90, I griped about how easy it was to change settings accidentally because of the loose command dial on back but that’s no longer the case on the S100. At the same time, the control ring around the lens, which you can program to adjust settings such as ISO, focus or white balance, feels slightly stiffer so there are fewer accidental switches.

The new direct movie record button—signified by a red dot in the middle of the button—is also a good call as is the slightly larger shutter button on top. In its third incarnation, the S100 seems to have ironed out some of the design wrinkles of its predecessors, making this an easier and more intuitive camera to use.

Speed Needs
I only wish the S100 was faster. All around, it felt a tick quicker than the S95 but nothing dramatic—and that camera as well as its predecessor was notoriously slow. It took the S100 nearly 2.5 seconds to start up, extend its 5x lens and be ready to take a picture. That’s actually slower than the previous model, most likely because of the added time to unpack the S100’s longer lens.

Shot-to-shot times were a little bit faster—but still slow—while shutter lag was improved if not exactly lightning fast. This may sound like I’m griping but the performance issues are what keep the very good S100 from being a truly great camera. Since the S100’s small size and superb image quality (for its size) make it ideal for candid photography, it would be nice if it could keep up with faster moving subjects. For street photography or even moderate speed sports, the S100 isn’t up to snuff.

The bump in the S100’s continuous speed is much welcome as is the special high-speed burst mode, which lets you shoot nearly 10fps. But after one of these big bursts, the camera locks up for a few seconds before you can shoot again.

Also, while being able to shoot at f/2.0 in a compact is nice since it helps in low light, it’s really only achievable on the S100 if you’re shooting at 24mm. When you zoom in, the aperture gets smaller and smaller and the amount of incoming light goes bye-bye.

While it was easier to overlook these similar flaws in the S100’s two predecessors, I can’t help but set the bar higher for this third-generation product.

Don’t get me wrong: The S100 is still a wonderful little camera. In fact, it might be the best fixed-lens compact on the market right now. (Though my personal favorite is still the Panasonic LX5.) For a camera with a 1/1.7-inch, 12MP CMOS sensor about the size of a fingernail on your pinkie, the S100 fares surprisingly well at up to ISO 800. Meanwhile, images captured at ISO 100-200 look stellar.

Also, along with the new features mentioned earlier, I liked the S100’s super-slow-motion movie recording function and its extra scene modes. And the bump up to luscious 1080p HD at 24p shouldn’t be overlooked.

But all these added features come with a price: The S100 has a surprisingly high, $430 price tag, which is $30 more than the S95.

The Bottom Line
In short, while the S100 is still a pretty sweet compact camera with excellent image quality, an improved design and a bunch of great new features, its high asking price and disappointingly slow performance make this camera a real head-scratcher. Yes, it’s good but if you own one of the S100’s predecessors already or a similar top-of-the-line compact from a competing brand, you might want to keep your wallet in your pocket this time around.

Better design that makes it easier to hold and use than previous models; 1080p HD video with optical zoom and a one-touch direct movie button; built-in GPS for geo-tagging images; longer, more useful 5x zoom lens with wide angle of 24mm; excellent image quality.

Disappointingly slow to use; f/2 aperture only achievable at wide angle; expensive.


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