The S90 shows just how important the 'entry-level' mass market has become to the major camera manufacturers. It has none of the ultra-compact all-metal body styling of the P series cameras, and even the conservatively-styled W series cameras look positively sleek next to the boxy, anonymous plastic block sat on my desk. It's not that the S90 is an ugly camera, nor is it a camera that feels even vaguely insubstantial (at just over 250g fully loaded it's as hefty as all its main competitors). It's just a camera that fails to make an impression, visually, and one that - without the logos - you would probably never guess came from the Sony stable (though to be fair this is a budget camera). On the positive side the size adds stability (see below) and there are enough external buttons to allow quick access to commonly used features; flash, macro, self-timer, image size and shooting mode.
In your hand
It may not be the prettiest kid on the block, but the slightly bulkier format does give the S90 a very solid feel in the hand (despite the all-plastic construction), and handling is excellent. The gently curving grip could do with being a little deeper, but it does its job perfectly well, helped by the extra chrome finish finger grip on the front and small thumb grip on the rear. I found single-handed operation possible, though far from comfortable - especially if using the zoom, and doing so meant accidentally setting off the self-timer or macro mode was an ever-present danger.
The combined battery/Memory Stick compartment sits under a sturdy spring-hinged 'slide out and swing open' door. There's nothing to hold the batteries in place when you open the door, so be careful when changing cards. Battery life from the two AA NHM cells (420 shots/210 minutes according to Sony, using CIPA standard testing) is excellent.
No Memory Stick is supplied with the S90 (the camera has 32MB of internal memory to get you started).
The small flash is pretty average for this class of camera (a quoted range 3.8m). The red-eye reduction (using a burst of pre-flashes) has to be turned on and off via the setup menu, which is fiddly, but you do at least get a slow synch function and a three-step output level control (-, normal, +). For social snaps of small groups or a little fill-flash it's fine, but don't expect miracles.
The S90 sports the usual 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens covering a range equivalent to 39-117mm. The F2.8 to F5.2 aperture is nice and bright at the wide end, but - inevitably in such a small unit - is less useful at the long end of the range, which means slower shutter speeds or increasing the CCD sensitivity. The lens retracts fully into the camera body completely when not in use, and can be extended with various Sony wide and tele adapters, and filter kits.
The combined data (USB) and audio/video (AV) port sits on the base of the unit. The connector is used with the supplied cables, or with an optional 'dock' (Cyber-shot Station).
The 2.5-inch anti-reflective screen is big for a budget camera, and is very bright. It has a fairly high refresh rate and suffers from very little perceptible lag. On the downside it only has 115,000 pixels (not a lot for such a big screen), meaning it looks a little more 'pixellated' than we've come to expect from Sony models. It does work very well in bright light, and gains up automatically in very dim conditions.
The optical viewfinder is pretty standard fare for this type of camera. Sure, it only shows around 85% of the scene, is too small and isn't even that clear, but it is at least usable, and near enough to the lens to avoid parallax errors in most normal shooting circumstances. Two LEDs indicate focus status (top, green) and flash status (bottom, yellow).
The main mode dial - the S90 has three main shooting modes; auto, program (fully automatic but with many more menu options) and full manual, and seven scene (subject) modes. The other positions on the dial are for movie mode and playback. In the middle of the dial sits the large, very sensitive shutter release.
The remaining controls are clustered around the ubiquitous four-way controller on the rear of the camera.
The zoom rocker switch sits at the top of the rear of the camera, perfectly positioned for operation with your thumb. The buttons are also used for magnifying images in playback mode and for switching to thumbnail view.