It's the oldest megazoom camera in this roundup, but it's hardly a dinosaur. Canon's $400 PowerShot S5 IS, released In May 2007, represented the company's latest foray into the advanced, high-zoom digital camera market. Like its 2008 competitors, it has the look and feel of a smaller digital SLR. Its optical zoom maxes out at 12X.
The S5 IS comes loaded with a host of bells and whistles, including excellent optical image stabilization; the feature worked brilliantly for stills and movies in my testing unless I was zoomed in to the max. The face-detection technology is also clever, although sometimes it seemed just as easy to set the focus yourself. The camera also has a basic video editing feature, stitch assist for piecing together panoramic or mosaic images, and color adjustment and white balancing options for unusual and low-level lighting situations.
The chunky handgrip offers a stable hold with easy access to every control with either your index finger or your thumb. A convenient, dedicated movie record button sits next to the camera's viewfinder, and a clever power/mode lever allows easy toggling between modes. In fact, the only control I really missed was a ring for manual focusing; instead of a ring, you must use a directional pad for your thumb, which I often found more difficult and time consuming than it ought to have been.
The flip-out LCD screen on the S5 IS is a huge plus: It's large, bright, sharp, and fully articulable. And that's fortunate, since the camera's electronic viewfinder has a picture reminiscent of a gas station security monitor; it's pretty much useless for anything other than gross composition.
The 12X zoom is quick and quiet, and the autofocus was snappy except at maximum zoom; sometimes it had to search for the proper subject when I zoomed way in. Picture quality was a mixed bag: Otherwise good images sometimes suffered from a noticeable degree of noise at anything above midrange ISO. I also noticed an odd blurriness around the periphery of many images, a hint that Canon may have stretched these optics to their limit.
Despite a handy function menu for the most commonly used options, the S5 IS has an overabundance of hey-let's-just-throw-it-in features that can clog menus (a wolf-howl sound effect for the self-timer? Really?). This feels indicative of the uneasy balance Canon has struck between the consumer and professional markets: For every great feature the S5 has (image stabilization, stereo microphones), another is missing (so-so optics, no RAW file support). Overall, though, the good outweighs the bad, and the S5 is a solid camera for aspiring amateurs.