The PowerShot S100 is Canon’s latest high-end compact camera. It has a larger than usual 1/17” sensor for a compact camera, similar in size to the 2010 PowerShot G12. It also comes with full manual controls, a control ring round the lens and a control wheel on the back to quickly change essential settings. It opens with a wide 24mm lens, combines with a fast f/2 aperture.
While the S95 before it was a general update to the much older S90, the S100 brings significant changes to the table. The sensor resolution has been upped from a 10MP CCD sensor to a 12MP CMOS sensor, video resolution has increased from 720p to 1080p, and optical zoom has been lengthened from 3.8x to 5x. A GPS module now comes built-in, and handling has been improved with a front grip.
The S100’s matte-black finish gives it an almost military feel, like it was a stealth camera straight from a covert ops unit.
Almost everything we didn’t like about the S95’s handling has been addressed in the S100. The S95’s flat front was too smooth to hold, and it removed the thumb grip found on the S90. A new front grip is back; both make the S100 easier to hold on to. But the front grip, while improving the S100’s function, is unattractively shaped, and we wished Canon had taken a cue from competitor Panasonic’s LX5 curvier grip instead.
The stub of a zoom toggle on the S95, which always felt like it might snap off, has been changed not the zoom toggle looks thicker and feels sturdier. The mode ideal is a lot smoother than it used to be on the S95.
The Ring Func. button has been moved from the top plate to the back of the camera, and it can be used to change which settings the control ring is changing, e.g. from aperture to ISO. The button is also a customizable button which can be changed to trigger one of any twenty commands. The Func. Set button in the middle of the d-pad brings up a light of common settings via an overlay menu on the screen, very handy for switching things quickly.
What makes the S-series so special are the control ring around the lens and the control wheel on the back. Both combine to give you quick manual control over the camera, something you won’t usually find on a digital compact. For example, in Manual mode the control ring dictates aperture settings, while the wheel determines shutter speed. In Aperture Priority mode, the ring determines aperture settings, while wheel sets exposure compensation; but only after pressing up on the d-pad.
The S100’s handling is almost perfect but there are littler oddities and quirks. For one, you can’t completely toggle off all display info on the monitor, there will always be little numbers obscuring the view. You also can’t choose a ‘normal’ multi-area AF in the menu.
The S100’s battery like is short, rate around 200 shots on a single full charge. If you’re buying this camera, either charge it daily or buy a spare battery.
Image resolution is high, returning an excellent score of 2000LPH vertical and horizontal on our test chart. ISO performance is also excellent, if you’re not pixel-peeping shots up to ISO 1600-2000 can look quite acceptable. At higher ISO levels, image softness and noise is more evident, but it’s admirable how Canon has kept the noise to a fine grain, and how it’s mostly luminance noise so colors aren’t adversely affected.
If we do pixel-peep, we see noise reduction kick in quite early at ISO400, with the result that some detail is already lost at that stage. Even though eagle-eyed shooters will find a little softness from ISO4000 onwards, a good balance between detail and noise can be found up to ISO1600, and that’s an impressive feat for a digital compact when you’re not looking at 100%. You can set noise reduction to ‘low’ in the menu, or shoot RAW.
Of more concern is the corner softness that some online and we ourselves have seen in our test shots. Generally speaking, the middle aperture values from f/4-6.3 seem to fare best. But we want to emphasize that discerning user, we believe most users won’t notice either the detail or corner softness in real world images. Instead they’ll see about average images which just look better than results from other digital cameras.
With its great image quality and handling, the Canon S100 in one of the best compact camera we’ve tested yet. We’d almost recommend it unreservedly for the casual user who just wants a digital camera that take great pictures, especially in low-light, but for the low battery life. We’d recommend it with some caveats to the more seasoned user, who might mind the softness in some corners. But the benefits you get are a camera with great manual handling and the best low noise images ever to come out of a camera this compact.