Canon’s S-series lineup has, since the S30 way back in 2001, been the prosumer yet pocketable line slotted between the less functional ELPHs and larger G-series. The cameras are a DSLR owner’s pocketable alternative or a high-end point and shoot for those who value image quality in a petite package. After a four-year hiatus, the series was revived with 2009’s S90, a camera that successfully married a fast, f2.0 lens with a large 10-megapixel chip. With high image quality, manual settings, and an ingenious control ring, the S90 spawned a swarm of competing products in the prosumer niche, most notably from Panasonic, yet subsequent releases in the S95 and now S100 have kept Canon firmly entrenched in the market.
The S100 was released back in September of 2011, and includes a number of notable upgrades to the S95. Most importantly, the new camera includes a 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor that yields ISOs up to 6400. The zoom has also been lengthened to a 5x optical, starting at 24mm rather than the S95’s 28mm, although has lost a bit of speed in the switch. Canon has also upped the video to full 1080/24p and fit a GPS into the body (while still slimming it slightly). These changes may not be enough to entice S95 users to upgrade, but is the S100 compelling enough to grab market share back from the competition?
Body and Design - Canon PowerShot S100
There are two colors available for the S100, matte black and
a slightly glossy silver, and your choice of color actually affects the build
of the camera. While the silver (which happens to be our review model) is an
entirely smooth plastic, the matte black is a very grippy surface that is a
pleasure to hold. While both are well-built, the back version is really in a league of its own and the better choice.
The first thing you’ll notice about the S100 is the large stepped control ring encircling the lens. Neither the lens nor control ring sit flush with the camera body but stick out about a quarter of an inch. That may not sound like much but it does make the camera’s footprint a bit bigger than the specifications would have you believe. Canon has also included a subtle yet useful vertical rubber strip on the front of the camera, which alleviates the problems S95 users were having with holding the camera securely.
The top of the S100 includes a motorized pop-up flash on the
left side, the On/Off button, the shutter button ringed by zoom toggle, and
finally a mode dial with quick access to manual modes as well as automatic and
scene modes. The back of the camera features a 3-inch, 461,000 dot LCD that,
while sharp, is looking a little lackluster compared to some of the higher
resolution screens seen on the competition. Next to the screen is a nice thumb
grip that doubles as the speaker, a customizable Ring Function button, and a
Record button. The 4-way controller offers quick access to Macro or Manual
focusing, Exposure Compensation, Flash, the Display toggle, and a Function/Ok
button in the middle. A ring to facilitate fast menu operation encircles the
whole assembly. Below the ring lie the Playback and Menu buttons.
User Experience and Performance - Canon PowerShot S100
As an enthusiast camera, the S100 features manual modes as well as an array of scene settings and special effects. The Automatic mode is there on the mode dial if you need it, and indeed it works quite well, but most will find themselves enjoying the extra controls available elsewhere. There are color controls tofiddle with in the My Colors menu, bracketing options, a Neutral Density filter, andthree metering modes to choose from all at your fingertips. These are all unavailable in the Scene, Creative Filter, and Auto modes. The 14 scene modes include the usual assortment of Portrait, Fireworks, Underwater, Landscape, and Stitch Assist as well as some more diverse options like Movie Digest, which records snips of video before and after each shot, and Smart Shutter, which triggers the shutter when the camera detects a smile. More specialty modes are found among the Creative Filter setting, which includes novelties like Nostalgic, Fish-Eye, Miniature, Toy Camera, Color Swap, and High Dynamic Range. We should note that although the camera is able to quickly shoot, align, and combine images for the Twilight Scene mode, it is unable to align images taken for HDR(see left example). A tripod is a must.
There’s little to complain about regarding the S100’s speed.
Startup splashes a High Speed (HS) logo while the lens extends and the camera
is ready to go in about a second. Autofocus is quite fast in good light, but
does hesitate in lower light while the autofocus lamp turns on. While this might mean some extra time
before you can take a picture, you can rest assured that the camera will eventually find apositive lock. The S100 also has autofocus tracking, which
attempts to follow the subject while the shutter is half-pressed. The focus box
grows and shrinks impressively as the subject or camera moves, but shift too
quickly and the camera may decide to track something else instead. Despite this
issue, menu scrolling, zooming in and out of images in playback, and flipping
between images are all extremely responsive. There are numerous burst mode options too, including one with tracking that shoots at just over 1fps, a faster continuous burst that's about 3fps, and a high-speed scene setting that takes eight full-resolution photos in one second.
Arguably the most impressive point of the Canon S100’s User Experience is the control ring. The ring’sfunction changes depending on the mode, changing zoom in the automatic modes and either aperture or shutter speed in the others, yet the Zoom Function Button on the back allows for real customization to suit your shooting needs. In fact, there are twenty different settings the Ring Func. Button can be set to trigger, including ISO, white balance, metering, drive mode, AF or AE lock, aspect ratio, and more. The customization options extend to a Custom shooting mode and a customizable My Menu, which provides faster access to your favorite menu options. This amount of customization makes it hard to dock the S100 for any user experience issues, for they can almost always be changed to exactly your preference.
Image Quality - Canon PowerShot S100
Thanks to the 1/1.7” CMOS sensor used in the S100, image quality is superb. Images at ISO 80 are exceptionally clean and detailed, especially when the lens is stopped down a tad, and colors are vibrant without seeming oversaturated. There is no doubt that this is a Canon camera, for the S100 sports thesame natural look found in cheaper models too. ISO results are also very good and, indeed, better than any compact camera we’ve reviewed in the last six months. Users should have no problem taking photos up to ISO 1600, with 3200 available in a pinch if need be. There’s a color shift at ISO 6400 and quality obviously suffers, but results are still leagues ahead of most pocketable cameras.
The S100 also features RAW capture, an uncompressed file format that is more malleable in post processing than the standard JPG format. We converted the RAW files in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) without any develop settings. Doing so is a great way to judge just how well Canon’s in-camera JPG processing is, and whether shooting RAW yields real benefits in detail or noise reduction. After some careful comparison, it looks like there is very little detail benefit to shooting RAW below ISO 800, as the JPGs are both smoother and pull more detail out of the scene than the RAW files. Sharpening after the fact can reduce this difference to some extent but with the downside of more grain. ISO 800 seems to be the
tipping point, however, where JPGs begin to look too smooth and lose detail to noise reduction. The RAW files at 1600 have much more detail (as well as noise), but careful processing in a dedicated noise reduction program clearly give the RAW files the edge. Other benefits to shooting RAW, like changing white balance in post or benefiting from automatic lens correction, may also make it worth your while.
The lens is impressively sharp as well, despite the increase to a 24mm 5x optical zoom. Optimum sharpness at the wide end is definitely achieved at f2.8 or even f4, but f2 is usable. Chromatic aberration was never a problem and flare, though reasonably well controlled in most situations, did become an issue when shooting into the sun. The lens is noticeably worse at the long end, but it’s better to have that long end than nothing. The main problem with the lens, especially when compared to the competition, is that i slows down considerably as you zoom in. F2.0 is great at the wide end, but the lens advantage diminishes too quickly: the S100 is f2.8 at 35mm, f4 at 50mm, and f5.6 at 100mm. Compare that to the Panasonic LX5’s f2.0-3.3 aperture, the Olympus XZ-1’s f1.8-2.5, or the new Samsung EX2f’s impressive f1.4-2.7. All three are about two stops faster than the S100 at the long end.
Video quality on the S100 is excellent. It’s clear of tearing or distracting artifacts and the stereo sound is quite clear. You are able to zoom while filming, and the camera does so smoothly and quietly.
Conclusion - Canon PowerShot S100
There’s a lot to love about the S100, and as a highly functional compact it checks almost all the right boxes. Images are sharp and rich with detail in both good and bad lighting conditions, and the 24-120m lens is versatile enough to not feel limiting. The very good HD video is an added bonus, as is the inclusion of a GPS (although it didn’t always tag the right location or find a signal). Usability is top-notch thanks mostly to the control ring, which truly allows the user to tailor the camera to his or her needs.
There are some problems, however, that keep the S100 from achieving top marks. While it is a bit cheaper and smaller than the other enthusiast cameras on the market, lens speed at the long end of the zoom is significantly worse than on competing models. Image quality is very similar to these others at a given ISO, but the camera forces you into using much higher ISOs due to the smaller aperture. The S100’s image quality may be impressive, but it is nowhere near two stops better than others out there. For a point and shoot user looking for better image quality, we’d have no trouble recommending the compact S100 as a good choice. DSLR owners looking for a functional pocket camera, however, will most likely prefer the faster lenses (albeit attached to heavier and larger camera bodies) found on competing models.
Many of the cameras already mentioned in the review are worth a good hard look before deciding on the S100. The Olympus XZ-1 is quite close in size and weight to the S100 but features a much faster f1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens. The Samsung EX2f also looks to be a solid competitor although it is much larger and hasn’t hit the shelves. The Panasonic LX5 is the second most popular choice in the enthusiast segment and was a direct competitor to the old Canon S95, but as a summer 2010 model should be due for an update shortly. Finally, Sony’s new RX100 is currently the model to beat, with its larger 20.9 megapixel sensor and impressively competitive form factor. It costs nearly twice as much as the S100, but the features may just be worth the premium.