Updating a well-liked and successful camera is always a delicate affair. So seeing as Canon's S95 was a very nice expert compact indeed, it comes as no surprise to see that the PowerShot S100 doesn't stray too far from the original concept. On the inside of the camera, however, everything has changed—absolutely everything—and radically so. What's more, the S100 is the first expert compact to be equipped with all the features we regularly take for granted in the most basic entry-level Ixus, including Full HD video.
HandlingIf it ain't broke don't fix it. Anyone familiar with the old PowerShot S series will be right at home with the S100. Build quality is still excellent and the camera is sturdy and reassuringly robust—the controls even make reassuring 'click' noises. The only small complaint we have is that the settings wheel around the four-way arrows is a bit loose. Although it clicks round in steps for precision control, we still found it was far too easy to end up moving the wheel accidentally.
New features include a vertical bar on the front of the camera and a thumb-rest on the back, both of which help improve grip. A few buttons have been moved around too, namely Disp. and Ring Func. (which allows you to change the function of the control ring around the lens and the click-round settings wheel). A video record button has been added too. Direct access to the self-timer has found itself ditched in this shake-up, but if need be it can always be assigned to the Ring Func. button, which can be customised with around 20 different options.
The screen has been lifted straight out of the S95. It's reasonably sharp and is nice to use but colours aren't reproduced accurately (deltaE over 9) and the excessive contrast swamps dark areas and overexposes light tones.
The addition of a GPS isn't necessarily the most revolutionary idea, but this actually works better than the GPS chips typically found in compact cameras, finding a location in under a minute while most models take two to five minutes. The GPS does use up battery power, though, and the S100 isn't exactly the most power-packed camera out there—Canon only announces a battery life of 200 photos according to CIPA standard (GPS off). Note that this is ultimately why the S100 loses its fifth star in our review, as a camera needs to shoot at least 300 photos to bag a top score in our tests, especially an expert model that's likely to be used quite intensively.
ResponsivenessCanon doesn't seem too bothered about competing for speed with the other CMOS sensor cameras on the market right now. Don't get us wrong—the S100 is a responsive camera, but it's certainly no speed demon. The autofocus works in 0.6 seconds, for example, which isn't particularly slow, but which takes twice as long as the fastest point-and-shoot compacts.
Photo-to-photo turnaround takes just under two seconds for Jpeg shots and 2.5 seconds for RAW photos, while the continuous shooting mode snaps at two frames per second or one frame per second for RAW shots. Again, that's good, but nothing extraordinary.
One thing that did disappoint us, however, was the start-up time of 2.4 seconds. That's actually slower than the S95, and when you're out and about it can be pretty annoying to have to wait for the camera to switch itself on. It's really something we'd like to see manufacturers (not just Canon) make more of an effort with.
Picture QualityOn the inside, the S100 couldn't be more different from the S95. For starters, there's a new lens that boasts improved wide-angle (24 mm instead of 28 mm) and telephoto (120 mm instead of 105 mm) settings in spite of its highly compact design. Next, the long-serving 10-Megapixel CCD has been replaced with an all-new 12-Megapixel CMOS sensor made by Canon.
Since a compact design rarely does any favours to a zoom lens, we were particularly keen to put the S100 though its paces. We were interested to see what the sensor was made of too. Note that while for super-small sensors with very high resolutions, BSI CMOS technology has certainly revolutionised things, it's apparently pretty much useless on SLR sensors. For this sensor then, with an intermediate pixel density, Canon has stuck to a standard CMOS.
So has the CMOS sensor changed things radically? Well, not really. The image processing system in the S100 does an excellent job, with Jpeg pictures that show no noise or smoothing up to 800 ISO. Even 1600 ISO shots come out reasonably well and can generally be used without a second thought. Things go noticeably downhill at 3200 ISO, however, as the picture loses a great deal of quality particularly in areas of coloured detail. On the whole, there is a noticeable improvement on the S95's CCD but, to be honest, it's pretty minor.
The S100 lens performs in a surprisingly similar way to its predecessor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that at wide-angle settings the image isn't as consistently sharp across the frame as it is at telephoto settings. Compared with the SX230, for example, sharpness is comparable at long focal lengths, but at wide-angle settings the edges of the frame are noticeably more hazy.
We suspect that this actually shows up the limit of Canon's image processing system, as in RAW shots, wide-angle pictures show quite spectacular barrel distortion and correcting this—by stretching the edges over 15% of their original size—is bound to mean that some quality is lost.
VideoThanks to its CMOS sensor, the S100 can finally film Full HD video. At a time when even the Ixus 115 HS films 1080p video, expert compacts can't really be left trailing behind with 720p modes, after all!
Video quality is pretty much the same as in Canon's other cameras, but speckling noise is less of a problem since the S100 sensor has a lower pixel density and is more sensitive. Video images are crisp and sharp, and distortion is thankfully corrected in video mode too.
Sound is decent, and although the stereo effects aren't spectacular, they're still audible, and distinct sounds are recorded with no confusion. The only slight problem is the zoom, which is a little noisy. That said, you'll only really notice it when filming very quiet scenes.
All in all, the S100 is a perfectly satisfactory replacement for a camcorder from time to time. That's something pretty new for an expert compact!