Canon PowerShot S100 Review: A Near-Perfect Pocket Camera
At a Glance
The third and latest version of Canon’s popular pocket-size S-series camera, the PowerShot S100 ($430 as of December 22, 2011), continues its predecessors’ legacy by offering a compact body and manual controls. Since the PowerShot S90 debuted a few years ago, the “premium point-and-shoot” category has branched out significantly, with competition from cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix LX-5, Olympus XZ-1, Nikon Coolpix P300, and Fujifilm X10.
At its core, the S100 offers an all-encompassing range of manual options for experienced photographers, as well as easy-to-use automatic modes for more-casual shooters. Because it covers so many bases, it’s a great option for those who want to use it as a learning tool, as well as for shutterbugs who simply want to point, shoot, and come away with outstanding-looking images.
Although the S100 offers many of the same features as its predecessors did--including the signature control ring encircling the lens for adjusting several in-camera settings--Canon has built upon the foundation of last year's PowerShot S95 by making more than a few meaningful changes. The S100 offers a wider-angle 5X-optical-zoom lens with a useful focal range of 24-120mm, a new 12-megapixel CMOS sensor that marks a significant shift from the previous S-series models’ CCD sensors, the company’s new Digic 5 image processor, full HD 1080p video, GPS, and a small handgrip. Combined with its core attributes, those updates will keep this camera on the hot list for quite a while.
Hardware and Design
The PowerShot S100 is built around a 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, complemented by Canon’s latest Digic 5 processor. Thanks to those components, the S100 now offers 1080p high-def video capture, as well as improved low-light/high-ISO performance when shooting stills.
The new processor-and-sensor combo is also responsible for slightly faster continuous shooting, so you get multiple benefits from these two updates. Also notable is the 5X-optical-zoom lens, which now starts at a wide 24mm at F2.0 and zooms to 120mm; at the telephoto end, however, the maximum aperture stops down to F5.9.
Canon provides a standard bundle (rechargeable battery and charger, wrist strap, USB cable, small printed "Getting Started Guide," and software) with the camera, but because the S100’s battery is rated at a paltry 200 shots per charge, it’s important to pick up a spare--especially if you’re using the camera’s GPS function regularly, as that puts a drain on the power source. The camera accepts a mini-HDMI cable for HDTV connections, and a separately sold underwater housing is available as well.
The truly pocketable body measures 3.90 inches wide, 2.34 inches tall, and 1.05 inches deep; it weighs about 7 ounces fully loaded, and the camera’s build feels solid in the hand. Available in black or matte silver, the S100 will fit easily into all but the skinniest jeans pockets, so it’s easy to take anywhere and everywhere. Responding to one of the complaints about the S95--the lack of a raised handgrip altogether--Canon added a low-profile ridge along the front of the camera and a small thumb rest on the rear panel. Holding the S100 is much easier and more comfortable.
The 3-inch, 461,000-dot LCD carries over from the S95, and it works well under almost all conditions, including outdoors in the sunlight. Canon has done a nice job of integrating the GPS antenna in a way that maintains the camera’s simple lines, but the control layout has changed slightly.
For example, the Ring Function button, which allows the user to assign and control functions using the lens-circling control ring (ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, and manual focus, among others) has moved to the rear panel. I found it to be much more convenient there than in its position on the S95, along the top edge of the camera.
As you might expect, the top deck is home to the on/off button, the shutter/zoom combo, and a relatively small mode dial. The camera’s small flash is positioned on the top deck, at the far-left edge--just where it’s comfortable to place your left hand--and it can be annoying since it pops up automatically when needed and closes when the camera is powered off.
A dedicated, one-touch “red” movie button has been added to the rear panel. While other controls have shifted slightly, the S100 still offers a four-way controller with a center Function button (to call up a quick menu), surrounded by a control dial that you can use to scroll through menus, change shutter speed, and/or adjust aperture settings, depending on the mode selected. Overall, the S100’s control positioning works even better than that of the S95.
Shooting Modes and Features
The Canon PowerShot S100 provides a good balance of manual and automatic features, with enough of each to appeal to a wide range of photographers. More-experienced photographers will appreciate the full manual and semimanual (aperture- and shutter-priority) exposure modes, along with RAW and RAW+JPEG capture. Snapshooters can easily capture great images without a second thought using the Program, Auto, and Scene modes; or, if they're so inclined, they can use the S100 as a learning tool to hone more-advanced photo skills.
Scene modes include the standard portrait, landscape, kids and pets, beach, underwater (which is optimized for the separately sold waterproof housing), foliage, snow, fireworks, and stitch assist for panoramas. Hidden within scene selections are specialty options such as Movie Digest, which takes a video clip with each shot and compiles a movie “summary” of the day’s photography, along with Smart Shutter, which uses face detection to take pictures automatically.
The S100 has a peppier burst mode than its predecessor did, as its high-speed burst mode captures pictures at up to 8 frames per second. Exposure and focus are set at the first shot, so you don’t get the benefit of continuous autofocus when you’re shooting in burst mode.
Canon has added a Neutral Density filter and Intelligent Image Stabilization. The latter automatically applies the appropriate level of optical stabilization in Smart Auto mode depending on whether you’re shooting a macro shot, a panning shot, or a telephoto shot. Some of the IS options work in video, too, and standard optical image stabilization is available in the camera's shooting modes outside of Smart Auto.
Like its predecessors, the S100 offers a number of creative filter options, including Canon’s trademark “My Colors,” with a wealth of color adjustments, selective color capture, the ability to lighten or darken skin tones, and much more. New for the S100 is what has become pretty standard on compact cameras: a Toy Camera option (reminiscent of the soft shots from a Holga).
More useful, however, is the handheld night shot mode, which takes multiple shots and merges them for a better, less blurry image. It works very well, although the camera’s image-stabilization and high-ISO capabilities assist low-light shooting outside of that mode, as well.
Video options have expanded. The S100 can now capture full HD video at 1920 by 1080 (1080p) at 24 frames per second (as well as 720p video at 30 fps and a Web-friendly 640 by 480 at 30 fps). High-speed video capture is available at a whopping 240 fps at a reduced 320 by 240 resolution, which is a cool option for slowing down fast-moving scenes. Creative moviemakers might want to give the Miniature Effect video mode a try, which captures sped-up-looking footage at a maximum of 6 fps. The good news is that the zoom is enabled during video capture and produces little--if any--audible noise when zooming.
Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality
In PCWorld Labs subjective tests for image and video quality, the PowerShot S100 turned in scores that backed up its “premium point-and-shoot” title. It earned a word score of Superior for image sharpness, and ranked as Very Good in the categories of exposure quality and color accuracy. Distortion was a comparative weak spot, but in that category it still received a rating of Good.
In my hands-on tests, I found that the S100 turns out excellent images; on a purely personal level, however, I thought the S95’s CCD sensor (which is the same as the one found in the PowerShot G12) might deliver slightly better overall quality.
With the S100, I found colors nicely saturated, and test shots appeared sharp and well detailed. Exposures were almost always accurate, with a slight tendency to blow out highlights. The biggest flaw I could find was the occasional (but sometimes serious) haloing and purple fringing around high-contrast edges when shooting at telephoto. But this aberration was visible only when I blew up the files to 100 percent on the computer.
Canon made a couple of promises with the Digic 5 processor, namely speed and less image noise at higher ISOs. A superhigh-speed option shoots at full resolution at close to 10 frames per second for a total of 8 shots. However, you basically have no control over exposure or other parameters in that mode. Outside of that mode, the burst rate more than doubles that of the S95, at about 2.3 frames per second, but the camera is still no speed demon.
The highest shutter speed has increased to 1/2000th of a second, which is good news for stop-action shots, and autofocus in good light is pretty responsive. Powering the camera on and off seems a bit faster than on the S95, as does overall shooting. However, in my day-to-day use, the S100's flash-recycling time and RAW shooting both seemed a bit sluggish.
Although the zoom lens, which moves smoothly throughout its focal length (but can be set to stop at commonly used distances), showed only minimal distortion at wide angle, it’s disappointing to see that fast 2.0 f-stop drop to a barely usable F5.9 at telephoto. That’s a common issue with most, if not all, fixed-lens zoom cameras; but with such a small aperture, shutter speeds slow down, and it’s time to use the camera’s capable image stabilization and push the ISO higher.
The S100’s ISO maximum native setting has extended from 80-3200 to ISO 80-6400. You can set the user-selectable High ISO NR feature to Low, Standard, or High to help control image noise. I expected image noise to be the same--or worse--than the S95’s, but I was pleasantly surprised at the way in which the S100 handles image noise. Our high-ISO shots (up to about ISO 1600) looked pretty sharp, especially when we captured them in RAW and cleaned them up in Adobe Camera Raw.
On the video side of the equation, the S100 is a standout performer, as well. In PCWorld Labs subjective tests, the S100 earned an overall score of Very Good for video quality. In my hands-on tests, I found that the S100 does a better-than-average job of adjusting exposure while shooting. When panning slowly, the camera exhibited little to no rolling shutter effects (wobblies), which is usually a concern for CMOS-based cameras.
Overall, it’s a great little camera--one that will find its way into the pockets of professionals and snapshooters alike.
For frequent travelers, the S100’s in-camera GPS capabilities may be an enticing feature, although they’re relatively bare-bones when compared with the full in-camera mapping capabilities found on cameras such as the Casio Exilim EX-H20G.
The S100’s GPS feature adds raw location information to the image’s EXIF data when you take each shot, and the mapping capabilities are designed to be used with services such as Google Maps and Flickr once you've offloaded the images to a computer. The camera also features a logging function that runs in the background while you’re not shooting; it adds information about how you traveled from location to location, which you can also add to popular mapping services.
If it’s enabled, the logging function will continue to track location even when the camera is turned off. Given that the S100’s battery is already relatively weak, it’s essential to turn off the GPS via the menu system if you’re not using it.
Canon did an excellent job updating its S-series line with the S100, bringing additional features, improved high-ISO/low-noise performance, and very good image quality. As a result, this camera is the perfect companion for anyone interested in manual shooting, as well as people who would rather let the automated settings do the work.
However, at $430, it’s certainly pricier than your average camera. You might want to check prices on the Canon PowerShot S95 before it disappears from retailer shelves, especially if you don’t need the S100’s wider-angle lens, GPS, or 1080p video capabilities.