The PowerShot S3 IS will look very familiar to anyone who has used its predecessor - it is almost identical externally, save for the more serious looking gunmetal paint job and the larger screen. As with it predecessors, the 'miniature SLR' design works well, no space has been wasted, and a lot of attention has been paid to handling and ergonomics. The only other change is a welcome one; the addition of a dedicated ISO button. With the current fashion for simple, minimalist cameras that eschew buttons and switches in favor of menu-driven control it is a real treat to use a camera designed first and foremost for taking photographs. It looks a lot nicer in black than its silver predecessors, and the S3 IS feels, and in most cases operates, like a real camera.
In your hand
The handgrip is excellent and the most important controls (zoom, shutter, shooting mode) are all perfectly placed for one-handed operation (though with a 12x zoom lens you may want to put the other hand to use too!). Despite the plastic construction the S3 IS feels robust and well balanced and handles beautifully. At over half a kilo fully loaded it is still one of the heaviest cameras in its class, but it does offer excellent stability without over-straining the neck strap.
The S3 IS takes standard AA cells - NiMH are recommended and were used for this test. In an effort to keep the price keen Canon does not supply any rechargeable batteries, so you'll need to budget for those - plus a charger. Battery life is surprisingly good for an EVF camera (560 shots using the CIPA standard for NiMH, 130 with alkalines). Batteries last slightly longer using the EVF rather than the LCD screen.
The SD card slot is also located in the hand grip under a solid hinged door.
The S3 IS features a small electronic viewfinder (EVF) - essentially a 0.33-inch LCD behind a magnifier. The EVF has the same resolution as the LCD screen (115, 000 pixels) - and appears to be identical to the S2 IS. It has a good refresh rate, but does exhibit some video lag and is not brilliant in very low or very bright light, but it's certainly usable.
The screen has been increased marginally (from 1.8 to 2.0 inches) but the resolution is still the same - 115,000 pixels. A higher res screen would be nice (as would a bigger one), but would decrease battery life.
The refresh rate is fairly high and menus are easy to see. The screen swings out through 180 degrees and swivels through 270 degrees, offering plenty of shooting versatility. It also means you can also 'flip' the screen (so the LCD face is flush against the back of the camera), protecting the delicate screen when the S3 IS is in your bag.
The S3 suffers from the same problem as its predecessors with glare in bright shooting conditions - a problem by no means unique to this camera.
The shutter release is big, responsive and perfectly positioned at the front of the large chunky handgrip. The zoom rocker - in the form of a collar around the release - is also nice, and offers two zooming speeds. Move it a little and the zoom extends at a glacial speed, push it all the way and the speed picks up. A small touch, but a nice one. The zoom rocker also controls playback magnification (and activates thumbnails).
The pop-up flash on the S3 IS is a fairly powerful unit that works well and recycles quickly with fully charged batteries. Like the S2 it doesn't actually pop up - you have to open yourself if you want to use it. Once open you have the usual array of flash options. Canon also sells an add-on slave flash (the HF-DC1), with a guide number of 18 (ISO 100, meters), that approximately doubles the range of the built-in unit.
The key selling point of the S3 IS has to be the Canon 36-432mm equiv. F2.8-3.5 zoom lens. Its USM means focusing is very quiet indeed, and even the zooming mechanism is little more than a whisper. The small button below the lens unlocks the cosmetic front ring, which can be removed to allow the attachment of wide, tele and macro bayonet fit adapter lenses.
The lens extends by around 30mm (1.1 inches) when powered up, after which most of the zooming is internal (the barrel doesn't extend any further).
The USB (2.0 high speed) and DC-in ports are located under a rather flimsy rubberized cover on the side of the handgrip (above the SD card slot cover). The AV port sits under a similar cover on the opposite side of the camera.
The main power switch swaps between record and playback modes. You can power the camera up directly into playback mode (in which case the lens doesn't extend), and you can quickly move from play to record with a half-press of the shutter release.