The Canon G-series camera has for a long time been something of a reference in the world of expert compacts. These are advanced snappers that are often meatier than classic compacts, but which in turn come loaded with better-quality components (bigger sensors, in particular) and the kind of settings you'd expect to see in an SLR. That was certainly the case for the G12, which wasn't the most cutting-edge of cameras (no Full HD video, for example), but which could boast a 1/1.7" sensor, an optical viewfinder, a swivel screen and loads of buttons and dials all packed into a metal body with an impeccable finish.
Two years down the line, the market has changed somewhat. A notably more "sexy" series of expert compacts has hit the shelves this year (including Canon's own S110) and the Sony RX100 has seriously changed the game with its 1" sensor (almost tripling sensor size, in fact!). So seeing as the G15 is sticking with a 1/1.7" sensor, it'll need to seriously impress with its design and handling in order to compete.
But this year's G camera has been slimmed down and skimmed down rather too much for our liking. Direct access to the self-timer has been ditched, as has the ISO settings dial and—above all—the swivel screen has gone! This has always been something of a trademark feature of PowerShot G-series cameras, setting them apart from competitor models. Plus, Canon has decided to drop this key selling point at a time when Nikon has just introduced it as a feature in one of the G15's direct rivals, the Nikon P7700.
As well as being firmly fixed in position, the G15 screen isn't calibrated as accurately as it could be, with excessive contrast and approximative colour fidelity. It's pleasant enough to use, with finely detailed images and good viewing angles, but you should think twice about relying on the onscreen image to set the white balance, for example, or to sort and delete pictures.
Otherwise, the G15 is a very nicely built piece of kit. It feels both sturdy and reassuring. All the controls make proper click sounds and the menus are clear and effectively organised. The G15 also offers a good selection of advanced customisable options.
But compared with the G12, several features that really could have done with some attention have been left untouched (notably the viewfinder). And in some fields, the camera has even taken a step backwards (screen, direct access controls). And writing off these losses as victims of the slimmer design doesn't really wash, as users looking for a smaller model can always opt for Canon's PowerShot S110, which cleverly uses its touchscreen to boost the number of directly accessible settings.
The G15 isn't always lightning fast, but performances here are generally on the better side of average. The camera takes just over two seconds to start up and it focuses quickly. Photos aren't amazingly fast to save, but they're not excessively slow either (except perhaps with RAW shots, which take 2.6 seconds to save).
The 2.6 fps burst mode is pretty standard stuff. It's no match for the likes of the Samsung EX2F or the Panasonic LX7, but it still does a better job than most consumer compacts.
The G15 is a major update compared with the previous model. In fact, the only thing that's the same here is the focal range of the lens (28-140 mm). The aperture has been seriously upped (to f/1.8-2.8) and Canon has finally switched to a CMOS sensor with 12 Megapixels (but still in 1/1.7" format).
It looks like the G15 is using the same basic electronics as the S110, as the ISO test results are almost identical. Noise and smoothing appear very progressively and remain discreet up to 1600 ISO. However, both effects kick in with force at 3200 ISO, a setting you should generally try to avoid (except for small-sized prints or onscreen viewing, and you can forget about cropping). At settings above that, your shots will start to look like abstract art. Note that the Sony RX100 stops at a more reasonable 6400 ISO in spite of the fact that its sensor is three times bigger!
The lens is a fairly bog-standard 5x zoom (starting at 28 mm, so no very wide-angle), with a generous but not particularly spectacular aperture (f/1.8-2.8 compared with f/1.4-2.3 for the Panasonic LX7) and housed in a package that's not especially compact.
All in all, we can't help feeling a bit disappointed. At wide-angle and telephoto, sharpness levels are good in the middle of the frame but they soon drop around the edges of shots. At full aperture, this unevenness is visible if you look closely at 8" x 10" shots (20 x 27 cm). Although there is a visible improvement at f/4, the lens still isn't as precise as the one seen in Panasonic's LX7. While Panasonic's lens doesn't zoom as much, it gives better quality results. Worse still, Canon's S110 generally takes more even-quality shots than the G15, as does the Nikon P7700, which is no doubt the G15's closest rival.
Like other recent Canon cameras, the G15 films Full HD video at 24 fps. Juddery glitches are therefore sometimes visible (these will bother some users more than others). In fact, we can't understand why Canon doesn't just switch to 30 fps like the rest of its competitors. Especially since the likes of Sony and Panasonic are already filming video at 50 fps and 60 fps!
The video image is accurate and pleasant to watch, but areas of bright light are soon overexposed. Sound is relatively accurate and the stereo effect is well rendered. However, the zoom motor can be heard buzzing in the background of quieter scenes and gets muffled in noisier situations. In the end, you're better off not zooming at all while filming if you want to use the audio recorded by this camera.