Canon PowerShot S90 Review

My search is over.

Canon PowerShot S90

When I first read about the Canon S90, back in August of this year, I held out hope that it was the pocketable camera I was looking for to complement my Nikon D90. The only thing pocketable I had was a Canon SD200 (yeah, ancient). By the time the S90 was announced, I had tried and rejected a Canon SD870IS, a Nikon P6000, a Canon G10, and a Fuji F200EXR; okay, that last one’s a bit of a lie. It’s been my point-and-shoot up until now.  The SD870IS didn’t have the IQ or controls I was looking for, the Nikon P6000’s IQ was disappointing, as was its shot-to-shot performance (over 3 seconds between JPEGs, around 10 seconds between RAW), and the Canon G10 had good IQ and fantastic controls and performance, but was too large to fit in a pocket. That meant carrying a bag, in which case, I felt I might as well bring my DSLR. The Fuji F200EXR ended up being a compromise to myself. The low-light IQ was quite good, size was pocketable, but I sacrificed most of the manual controls I wanted.

So you might have gathered by now what my ideal P&S camera would be: small enough to fit in a pocket, have good image quality, especially in low-light situations, and give me manual control over exposure. The S90 hits all these points. I bought one on the first day it was officially available from Best Buy, October 11, so I’ve had some time to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not so great.

Design

After a couple iterations of my search with the G10 and P6000, I realized that there was one criteria I simply could not sacrifice: size. I didn’t have a camera that could slip into a pants pocket and not freak people out when pointed at them, as a DSLR too often does. The G10, and to a lesser degree, the P6000, are serious-looking pieces of photographic gear, and can’t easily fit into a pocket.

The S90 measures 10cm x 5.8cm x 3.1cm. By comparison, the SD870IS, which I also tried, measures 9.2cm x 5.9cm x 2.6cm. The body of the S90 isn’t much larger than that of the SD870IS – the lens housing protrudes somewhat, making the dimensions a bit larger front-to-back than the SD870IS.

Canon S90 size compared with Nokia E71
The S90 has a slightly smaller footprint than my Nokia E71, but is around 3 times the thickness.

From a size-performance standpoint, the main competitor of the S90 seems to be the Panasonic Lx3. Although 1.5 years old, the LX3 is still the reference point for the small, compact, high-performance camera. Its price, at least in North America, is a bit higher than the S90’s. The LX3 is advertised by Panasonic to be 10.9cm x 6.0cm x 2.7cm. However, this doesn’t seem to take into consideration the large lens protrusion, which brings the camera’s thickness to around 4cm. From a size standpoint, the S90 wins out by a fair margin, especially in the important thickness dimension. The S90 fits in a 28-105mm f/2.0-4.9 lens, which is slower, but covers a wider range than Panasonic’s 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 lens.

Canon S90 versus Panasonic LX3 thickness

As you can see, there’s a pretty significant difference in the size of these two cameras. The key thing here is that the S90 can pass itself off as just another point-and-shoot. I don’t feel like the group photographer or any sort of awkwardness when I carry the camera to a social event. That’s very important. It means a whole new range of photographs can be taken, with decent image quality.

The S90 has a metallic-feeling outer casing, and is generally well put together. There’s no flexing of the chassis and carries some heft (175g, without battery or SD card) to give the impression of quality as well. When the flash unit is enabled, it rises up from the body using a motor, and retracts (motorized as well) when flash is disabled. It feels very confident and there’s no wobble or weird sounds from the motor system.

The Dark Side

The lens housing dominates the otherwise plain camera face. An autofocus assist light is just above and to the left of the lens. Otherwise, a couple logos adorn the front. Overall, it makes for a relatively quiet subject-facing design. There’s really nothing indicating serious camera equipment, hiding in the back.

Unlike the Panasonic LX3, there is no hotshoe. I presume Canon decided it simply isn’t what the targeted demographic is interested in. I don’t blame them. When I had the Nikon P6000, I tried mounting my SB-600 flash on it. It was comical. The flash head was about 2.5 times the volume of the camera and weighed 50% more. It was unwieldy to hold and use. It mostly defeats the purpose of a camera as small as the S90, if its size is doubled by just about anything you could mount on a hotshoe.

On the left side of the camera are mini USB and HDMI ports. At the bottom of the camera is a sturdy feeling flap for the battery and SD card compartments. The S90 takes NB-6L batteries. Also on the bottom, at just about the centerline of the lens is a metal tripod mount.

Microsoft Zune HD – Thoughts on Integration

Disclaimer: The following are my thoughts and opinions and are in no way those of Microsoft, nor are they endorsed in any way shape or form by the company.

I played briefly with the Zune HD at the launch yesterday. Surprisingly, the events at the Microsoft campus were quite muted. There was a tent set up and quite a bit of swag given out, but the actual Zune HDs were few and far between. When I finally got my hands on one, the lady I spoke with told me that every effort was made to get as many of the devices into customers’ hands as possible. Hence, even the launch crews were short-Zuned! Given that most of the stores in the region that were supposed to be carrying the Zune HD did not have them on launch day, this course of action was probably prudent, yet still insufficient. But enough on the shortages, what about the device?

Microsoft Zune HD

The thing that strikes you first is just how light the device is. Seeing as it’s sheathed in metal, I expected it to be pretty hefty, but instead, it feels substantially lighter than my Nokia E71, which I had for comparison. A glance at the specification plays that out. At 73.7g, it’s only 1.5x as heavy as the flash-based Zune I have, or about 65% the weight of the iPod Touch. That’s a hefty difference. Still, fit and finish is great; there’s no creaking or play in the device at all.

The OLED screen is superb, with one caveat: it suffers under direct sunlight. Launch day turned out to be a scorcher, with unhindered sunlight. I started off in the launch tent, but I asked permission to take the player outside to test it in the sun. The demo lady obliged and followed me out, where the screen washed out under the sun. With no transflective property, it’s going to be pretty hard to use the device in those conditions. You can still see the screen if you try real hard, or more realistically, shield it with one hand. Still, that’s a slight downer for usability. You gotta pay somehow for the fantastic colors in less-than-direct sun, it seems.

The operating system is what I was/am most excited about, and it delivers excitement in spades. There is no sign of hesitation in any of the transitions. The fluidity creates a user experience like no other Microsoft mobile device. You saw parts of the UI design pattern in the previous generation Zunes, but the Zune HD takes it a step further, and the more natural touch interface works really well with the slick animations. The integration with Zune Marketplace is seamless, grabbing albums by the same artist, bios, photos and more. There is a big emphasis on the Zune Marketplace, something I’ll explain in a moment. I wasn’t able to try the on-screen keyboard in the web browser, as there was no Wifi available in the middle of the soccer field the tent stood on.

Microsoft is increasingly focused on the integration of the three screens (PC, TV, and mobile) and the cloud. The recent Zune development is one of the most visible products to come out of that mentality. Zune Marketplace exists on the PC and can also be accessed through the Zune. The TV will soon get Zune integration, via Xbox 360. The value proposition presented by seamless media portability across these three device types is mouth-watering. The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future. Apple was actually way ahead of the integration game with their computers, iPods and Apple TV, along with iTunes. However, Apple TV didn’t sell terribly well, so Microsoft has a chance to capture some of the home theatre market with the already established Xbox user base.

I mentioned previously that I had signed up for the Zune Pass. It was a great choice. With the focus on the Smart DJ and mix-view in the Zune 4.0 software, I’m discovering so many new artists and albums. There’s no obstacle preventing me from downloading or streaming music nearly at will. On the 10mbps+ connection we have here now, I can listen to most songs instantly. The QuickPlay screen of the Zune 4.0 software mimics the design goal of the QuickPlay feature of the Zune HD – it’s an easy way to get at your most commonly played media. Shown below is the Smart DJ listings I’ve set up. Clicking the albums below the DJ lists makes the recently played, recently acquired, and pinned content swoosh in.

Zune 4.0 software

Many people have openly questioned Microsoft for not putting a cellular module in the Zune HD and swinging for the mobile fences. Now, my immediate reaction to that is simply of a feeling that it’s really not the hardware that is the main driver behind the Zune HD, it’s the software/firmware. You can be sure that the Zune software DNA will find itself in Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile 7 (and even in small part, in 6.5). Microsoft still believes it has the correct mobile market model is in providing software for hardware partners, as they do in the PC market. I tend to believe given Microsoft’s completely different position in the mobile market (compared to their domination in the PC market) that it’s not the most effective model. That aside, the interface and user experience will carry on into devices that other companies will manufacture, which I believe will make the difference in the user perception of Windows Mobile down the road. The hardware is really nothing terribly special. That’s the really compelling part of the Zune experiment. It may not end up becoming a popular mobile media device, but it will set the tone for Microsoft’s next generation of mobile and media-centric software. In that integrating capacity, I look forward to it. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the new features of the Zune HD release.

The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future.

Olympus E-P1 – This Could Be It

Olympus has me all worked up with today’s launch of the (much leaked) E-P1, the reintroduction of the Olympus Pen series film cameras from 50 years ago, but in digital form. The E-P1 manages to shoehorn a Micro Four-Thirds sensor into a body that isn’t much larger than a compact point-and-shoot. Plus, it adds 720p video recording and in-body image stabilization. With what should be very good image quality, I can seriously see this as an almost pocketable carry-everywhere camera to complement my DSLR. Certainly it won’t need a dedicated camera bag like my D90.

While the E-P1 takes advantage of the mirror-less design of micro 4/3rds to reduce the size of the camera, it is not without faults. Certainly, one of the most major is the lack of an electronic viewfinder, instead opting for a plain old LCD, which only has 230,000 dots (QVGA), as opposed to the VGA version used in most mid-to-high end DSLRs nowadays. Both the Canon G10 and Panasonic LX-3 high-end compacts have higher resolution 460,000 dot displays.

Furthermore, the contrast-detect autofocus employed seems to be pretty sluggish, at least in pre-production units, slower than many point-and-shoots, which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Hopefully production hardware and firmware can improve that. The Panasonic G1 shows that it is absolutely possible to achieve very good AF performance using the contrast-detect method.

With those thoughts in mind, I’m still very excited about the Olympus E-P1. Although not cheap, the $799 MSRP for the body and 14-42mm kit lens is fairly reasonable, and less than what many predicted. Certainly, in light of the Panasonic G1’s identical MSRP of $799, it doesn’t look too expensive.

Microsoft Zune HD

This past week, Microsoft launched the Zune HD, which won’t become available until the fall. In the meantime, a few sites (Engadget, Gizmodo) have had a chance to see the device in action. I’m not sure if these are prototype devices or actual production units, but the software seems well-polished. On the other hand, fall is quite a whiles away, so you’d imagine Microsoft wants that time to fix up some things.

Zune HD

Gizmodo posted this ‘hands on’ of the Zune HD. Unfortunately, the video camera seems to be focused on the carpet instead of the device, but you get the idea.

All the animations and transitions are oh so smooth. There’s no lag when accessing the different functions. The photo album flips to landscape mode without hesitation and extremely smoothly, which is more than can be said for the iPhone. There’s buzz that NVIDIA’s Tegra may be behind all this action, which could presumably allow some Xbox-level games to the played on the device. The most surprising aspect of the iPhone/iPod Touch has probably been its uptake by casual gamers, and I’m sure Microsoft has that on its radar. NVIDIA’s Tegra may also be why the device won’t be ready until the fall, as production of the Tegra isn’t supposed to start until this summer.

On another note, WMPoweruser.com had rumoured Zune HD specifications and a 3D render from a month and a half ago. Back then, most other sites rejected them as ‘fanboy specs‘, but now that the real deal has been launched, the available specifications as well as the render were spot on. That makes me think whoever leaked the specs knew what was going on. With that in mind, the only major feature from the rumoured specification, not yet made public by Microsoft, would be the 3D Xbox games, although even the rumour isn’t sure what form that would take.

Whatever the case, with the E71 having replaced the iPhone in my day-to-day use, I would definitely consider an upgrade from my Zune 8GB for portable music purposes.

Oh, I sure hope they give these to the interns in the fall! 😉

Deal – Zune 16GB with AC Adapter $124.99

Future Shop has the Microsoft Zune 16GB flash MP3 player for $129.99 this week, $50 off the regular price. Even better, BestBuy is carrying the same player for the regular price of $179.99, meaning a price match brings it down to $124.99. Furthermore, BestBuy is bundling a free AC adapter with the 16GB Zune. All told, a very good deal for a good capacity flash MP3 player.

I’ve written about this very capable player in the past. It still serves me well to this day. The Zune software is so much better than iTunes (in Windows) it’s scary. If you’re looking for a player that does music and does it well,  I can heartily recommend the Zune.