Canon PowerShot S100
Written by Gordon Laing
Canon’s PowerShot S100 makes a number of key improvements to its predecessor to become one of the best pocket cameras for enthusiasts. The body, screen and connectivity may be essentially the same as its predecessor, but under the hood there’s a new 12 Megapixel CMOS sensor, broader 5x optical zoom, 1080p movie capabilities, quicker continuous shooting and even a built-in GPS. There’s also a raft of smaller but valuable improvements, such as being able to adjust the position of the single AF area mode.
Canon has done all of this without compromising the core appeal of the revitalised S-series: namely packing a great deal of enthusiast-level features into a genuinely pocketable body. Interestingly Canon is the only company to have gone down this route, with main rivals Olympus and Panasonic sticking with larger form factors. Larger bodies may allow both the Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX5 to pack brighter lenses (especially when zoomed-in), along with hotshoes and accessory ports, but for many they’re uncomfortably approaching the size of mirrorless ILCs which may not match their built-in zoom ranges or focal ratios, but pack the undeniable draw of considerably bigger sensors.
Smaller size was the big advantage of the S95 last year, and without any successors to the LX5 or XZ-1, the S100 now adds the benefit of the latest electronics and gadgets. As such it’s become an even more compelling option for those who value compact dimensions as a priority, but before comparing it to the competition, let’s take a closer look at how the new features measure-up.
I’ll start with image quality. Canon’s swapped the 10 Megapixel CCD in the S95 for a 12 Megapixel CMOS sensor in the S100, and it’s clear from my Canon S100 quality results that the older model delivers punchier images using the default settings. In direct comparisons the new S100’s images look softer and more laid back. We have seen a similar difference when other companies, such as Panasonic, switched from CCD to CMOS, but the important thing to take away here is a boost in contrast and sharpness on the S100 will see it virtually match the style of the S95 without compromising noise levels at higher sensitivities. You can apply this in-camera, or better still adjust RAW files in software later.
As you can see in my Canon S100 noise results, the actual noise levels are a little lower than the S95 at the highest sensitivities, and again any softness can be boosted if desired. It’s also worth adding while the S100’s JPEGs with the default settings look less punchy in direct comparisons with the S95, they look perfectly good viewed in isolation. Just check my Canon S100 sample images (all of which you can download for evaluation) and there’s a pleasing, natural-looking quality to them which would please most owners. Ultimately I would not say the older S95 has superior image quality.
Moving on, the next big upgrade is the broadening of the optical range from 3.8x to 5x, gratifying extending it at both ends. So rather than 28-105mm of the S95, the S100 now enjoys 24-120mm, giving it greater flexibility as a general-purpose walk-around lens; it also crucially now matches the LX5’s wide angle coverage, eliminating this advantage of its major rival while comfortably trumping it at the telephoto end.
Despite the longer range, Canon’s managed to maintain the nice bright f2.0 focal ratio when zoomed-out, which allows it to gather more light than typical point-and-shoot cameras, not to mention kit zooms on mirrorless ILCs. Unfortunately Canon can’t rewrite the laws of physics though, so to maintain the S100’s small body and automatic lens cover, the focal ratio greatly reduces as you zoom-in. Indeed the already slow f4.9 of the S95 at its maximum focal length of 105mm drops to f5.9 on the S100. This is where its rivals, the LX5 and especially the XZ-1 really clean-up with much brighter focal ratios at their longest focal lengths.
This is the trade-off you’ll need to make, and it’s an entirely personal decision. The LX5 and XZ-1 boast much brighter lenses when zoomed-in, but are larger, heavier and require lens caps. The S100 loses its fast focal ratio pretty much as soon as you start zooming-in from wide angle, but you get a smaller, lighter body with an automatic lens cover.
I keep making the point about the lens cover as the S100 really is faster to taking a shot from power-up than any camera with a lens cap (that’s fitted of course), and quicker to power down and put away again. This won’t affect slower, considered shooting, but if this camera is also doubling-up as a general-purpose point-and-shoot, the S100 will be quicker to react to spontaneous opportunities, and there’s no chance of losing the lens cap. And while the lens caps of the LX5 and XZ-1 are undoubtedly tougher than an automatic cover, they do add to the overall thickness in your pocket. The S100 when powered-down is much slimmer than an LX5 or XZ-1 with their lens caps fitted.
Moving onto video, Canon’s made a raft of important upgrades to the movie mode, which all add up to a better overall experience than the S95 – and its rivals which are also lagging behind in this regard due to their older age.
The bump from 720p to 1080p resolves finer detail and puts it ahead of the LX5 and XZ-1, the various slow motion and effects modes are fun to use, and while the optical zoom isn’t as smooth as it could be, I’m just happy Canon has finally enabled this facility after locking it down on previous models. Meanwhile the Continuous AF may not be as quick or confident as recent Panasonic models (which bodes well for an LX5 successor), but keep the movement gentle and the S100 does a fairly good job at refocusing. S95 owners will also welcome the elimination of saturated vertical streaks thanks to the switch from CCD to CMOS sensor technology.
The boost in continuous shooting is also a welcome – and necessary – upgrade over the S95, which brings the main mode to a similar level to the LX5 and XZ-1. All three cameras offer higher speed options with limitations, although I personally preferred the sacrifice of frame count on the S100 in order to support the highest resolution. That said, others may prefer the longer bursts at lower resolutions of rival models.
As for the GPS, it’s a useful addition to the camera, again giving it a feature-advantage over its rivals. The receiver locks-onto a signal pretty quickly, embedding your location and altitude on images and setting the clock too if desired. The Logger feature is also fun to track your movements around town. The GPS does however have a significant impact on what was already a relatively modest battery life. Switch it on, especially with the Logger facility, and you’ll quickly see the battery life depleting, but again that’s one of the sacrifices of the small and light body. Ultimately I liked having the GPS built-in and simply switched it off when not required.
Beyond the headline specifications, there’s also a number of smaller, but still welcome improvements. New bulges on the front panel and rear corner may spoil the clean aesthetic of the S95, but certainly make the S100 more comfortable and secure to hold. The ability to adjust noise reduction is nice, as is the dedicated record button, but for me I’m happiest to now be able to adjust the position of the single area AF frame. That said, there’s still no Program Shift without first locking the exposure, and that in turn requires a fiddly button combination or the reassignment of the Ring Function button. The new record button and GPS receiver also come at the cost of losing the configurable shortcut button of the S95. Sure, you can now customise the Ring Function button, but doing so means you’ll now need to enter the menu to customise the ring wheel control.
These are all minor complaints though and the only serious thing to mention is the modest battery life which becomes even shorter if you enable the GPS (particularly with the Logger feature). Beyond this, yes, the images are softer than the S95 with the default settings, but these can be tweaked if preferred. Sure it would also have been nice to have a brighter lens when zoomed-in, along with some kind of accessory port, but both would have resulted in a bigger body which would subsequently lose the charm of this form factor. Of course doing so would also bring the S100 into Canon’s G-series territory and without an upgrade to the G12 alongside the S100 we can all keep our fingers crossed for something special in that category in 2012.
So before my final verdict, how does the S100 compare to its closest rivals?
Compared to Canon PowerShot S95
The closest rival to the S100 is of course the previous S95, and there’ll be many existing owners wondering if it’s worth upgrading, and equally many bargain hunters wondering if it still represents a good buy.
Both models share essentially the same body and screen, but inside the S100 boasts a number of key advantages over its predecessor. Most notably there’s a broader lens range which is wider and longer than the S95, although optically slower when fully zoomed-in. The movie mode is a big improvement with 1080p, continuous AF, zooming while filming, slow motion and miniature options, and the elimination of vertical streaks in saturated areas. Continuous shooting is also faster, there’s a built-in GPS, and some useful minor tweaks like a better grip, noise reduction settings and an adjustable AF area option. If you’re an existing S95 owner who values these features, you’ll certainly be tempted to upgrade.
It’s not all one-sided though: the earlier S95 sports a customisable Shortcut button, punchier JPEGs using the default settings and a discounted price. Crucially it still has RAW capabilities, a bright f2.0 lens when zoomed-out, full manual control and the same pocketable form factor. So if you don’t need any of the benefits of the S100 above, but still want a pocket camera with enthusiast-level features, the S95 could be a bargain buy. As always check prices closely as sometimes volumes mean newer models are actually cheaper, but if the S95 can be had for a comfortably lower price than the S100, it’s a pretty tempting buy.
See my Canon S95 review for more details.
Compared to Panasonic Lumix LX5
The Lumix LX5 may not have been upgraded in 2011, but even at a year older than the S100, it remains a key rival and a popular choice for enthusiasts looking for a pocketable camera with powerful features. As before there are several things in common, but the new upgrades on the S100 make for an interesting comparison. So what are the key differences?
Most obviously the PowerShot S100 is smaller. By employing a body that’s shorter in every dimension with fewer protrusions and a lighter weight, the S100 looks and feels noticeably smaller in use – and crucially it’ll squeeze into smaller pockets than the LX5. The absence of a lens cap also makes it thinner, not to mention quicker to power-up and down again. The S100 also features two control wheels, with one thumb wheel on the back and one programmable ring around the lens barrel, along with twin microphones for stereo sound. The S100’s motorised flash can also raise and (neatly) lower itself automatically, and some may prefer the screen being the same 4:3 shape as the best quality photo setting.
So far so similar to the earlier S95, but the S100 now boasts a broader lens range which starts at the same 24mm as the LX5, but reaches much longer at 120mm compared to the LX5’s 90mm. There’s also higher resolution 1080p video with optional slow motion and miniature effects modes, and a built-in GPS.
The major advantages of the LX5 over the S100 remain a brighter lens when zoomed-in, a hotshoe for external flashguns and an accessory port for an optional electronic viewfinder. In addition the LX5 enjoys finer zoom increments, the choice of aspect ratios without compromising the field-of-view, manual control over exposures for video, fast flash-sync speeds, double the battery life and quicker focusing in my tests. You can also mount filters with an optional tube accessory, although it should be noted third-party filter adapters are also available for the Canon from companies like Lensmate.
Previously the S95 was outgunned on features by the LX5, but while the Panasonic still boasts a selection which remain lacking on the Canon, the S100 fights back with a raft of new features like 1080p video and GPS. So unless you have a major preference for one of these exclusive features, the decision really boils down to size and speed of operation. The S100 is much more pocketable and quicker to first shot with its automatic lens cover, but the larger LX5 focuses faster, features a brighter lens when zoomed-in and again has the hotshoe and accessory port.
It’s a personal preference only you can make, but as before, if you’re willing to accommodate the larger size of the LX5 – or indeed the XZ-1 below – you’re fast-approaching mirrorless ILC territory, and while none will match the coverage, focal ratio and overall size of these compacts with their kit lenses, they do boast considerably bigger sensors.
See my Panasonic LX5 review and Panasonic GX1 preview for more details.
Compared to Olympus XZ-1
The Olympus XZ-1 is another chunky compact aimed at enthusiasts, and while it again is getting on for a year older than the S100, it too remains a key rival. Like the LX5 above, the XZ-1 is a larger camera with a brighter lens and greater accessory options, but it’s unique selling point is a faster focal ratio than the pack.
Once again the major difference is size, with the PowerShot S100 being much smaller. By employing a body that’s shorter in every dimension with fewer protrusions and a lighter weight, the S100 looks and feels noticeably smaller in use – and crucially it’ll squeeze into smaller pockets than the XZ-1. The absence of a lens cap also makes it thinner, not to mention quicker to power-up and down again. The S100 also boasts a broader lens range which zooms wider at 24mm vs 28mm and slightly longer at 120mm vs 112mm. There’s also higher resolution 1080p video with optional slow motion and miniature effects modes, and a built-in GPS.
The major advantages of the XZ-1 are its brighter lens across the entire range, a brighter and more detailed 610k OLED display, and a hotshoe / accessory port which can be used to connect a flash, electronic viewfinder or even an external microphone port. The lens is the real highlight though, being slightly brighter at the wide end (f1.8 vs f2.0), but over two stops brighter when zoomed-in (f2.5 vs f5.9). The battery life is also over 50% longer than the S100, although not as long as the LX5.
Once again there’s no clear winner, as the decision boils down to which features are more important to you. The S100 is undoubtedly much more pocketable while also boasting a broader lens range, 1080p video and GPS, but that bright lens on the XZ-1, along with its flexible accessory options are also very tempting.
Also consider: a mirrorless ILC
The Canon S100, Panasonic LX5 and Olympus XZ-1 are all very nice, but their prices are fast-approaching those of budget mirrorless ILC cameras which all feature considerably bigger sensors, along with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. Crucially the LX5 and XZ-1 are also similar in size to the smallest ILCs.
Of course an important difference in the favour of the S100, LX5 and XZ-1 are that they include built-in zoom lenses with broader ranges, brighter focal ratios and much smaller size than any ILC lens. An ILC body may be close to an LX5 or XZ-1, but add a kit zoom and it’ll become much larger. The exception in size is the Panasonic GF3 or GX1 when equipped with the company’s latest Power Zoom kit lens, but this combination is much more expensive.
That said, if you’re considering a compact enthusiast camera, you should carefully consider whether an ILC would be a better choice overall. Check out my Panasonic GF3 review, Panasonic GX1 preview, Sony NEX C3 review and Olympus E-PL3 review for details.
Canon PowerShot S100 final verdict
Canon’s PowerShot S100 builds upon its predecessor to become one of the best pocket cameras for demanding enthusiasts. It keeps the full manual control, RAW files, bright f2.0 lens (at wide angle), detailed 3in screen and genuinely pocketable body, but broadens the zoom range to 5x, upgrades the movie mode to 1080p with zooming and continuous AF not to mention slow motion and miniature options, accelerates the continuous shooting and even manages to squeeze in a GPS to tag photos with your location and altitude.
Unlike the minor changes between the earlier S90 and S95, the new benefits of the S100 all represent a significant upgrade to what was already one of the most compelling compacts for enthusiasts. Canon’s also managed to address pretty much all the complaints I had with the S95, namely lack of 1080p video, slow continuous shooting, the inability to zoom or autofocus while filming, the locked single AF area, and the vertical streaking you’d see on saturated video. All now fixed on the S100.
Many people have seen direct comparisons with the S95 and concluded the image quality of the older model is superior, but that’s not the case. The S95 certainly delivers punchier-looking images with the default settings, but the resolution is essentially the same and the noise levels are actually slightly better on the S100 at high sensitivities. It’s the processing that’s more laid-back on the S100, and if you prefer the style of the S95’s images, simply dial-up the contrast and sharpening a notch.
The only real complaint I have regards the relatively modest battery life compared to the competition, which becomes even worse when you enable the GPS. But then Canon couldn’t have realistically improved that without increasing the body size. Likewise the desire for the optically brighter lenses, hotshoes or accessory ports of the LX5 and XZ-1. All very nice, but not possible unless you want to make the camera bigger and heavier.
And I wouldn’t want Canon to make the body any bigger as size is what makes the S-series unique. Despite the improvements of the S100 over its predecessor, its key selling point remains the same: compact size. This is a camera which, unlike the LX5, XZ-1 and any of the ILCs out there, will squeeze into just about any pocket. There really isn’t any time when the S100’s left at home because it’s a bit too big or inconvenient – it goes everywhere with you, regardless of your clothing or bag.
This is a critical advantage of the S100 over the competition: it does enough to satisfy most enthusiasts while remaining very small. Indeed in today’s market where DSLR sensors can be found in relatively compact ILCs, the PowerShot S100 still feels the most relevant in its peer group. It may not feature the bright lens, hotshoe and accessory options of the LX5 or XZ-1, but with genuinely pocketable dimensions, it offers a more portable proposition. In contrast the LX5 and XZ-1, while no giants, are just physically too close to ILCs for my personal liking. I know both these models pack broader and brighter zooms in a smaller package than any ILC, but the draw of a DSLR sensor in a body that’s not much bigger is hard to resist.
So like its predecessor, the S100 is all about size. If you want a pocket camera with loads of control and features, but prioritise ultimate portability over focal ratio and accessories, then the S100 is hard to beat. Last year the conclusion was the same for the S95, but with the numerous upgrades, the S100 has decisively leap-frogged the competition in all aspects which didn’t involve compromising the dimensions. An easy model to Highly Recommend.
(relative to 2011 enthusiast (non-ILC) compacts)
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