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Design

Once the shining star of Canon's PowerShot range, the SXX series was struggling to find a market by the time the S80 was retired in 2006. Cheap SLRs and bridge cameras ('super zooms') were starting to draw away the 'enthusiast' dollar, once unique features such as a 28mm lens and manual controls were becoming far more common, and the steadily shrinking prices and dimensions of compacts left the S80 looking a little like an expensive, overweight white elephant.

Since then the success of the Panasonic LX3 and paucity of competition in the 'high end' compact market has tempted Canon to bring the SXX series out of retirement. And after four years and a serious amount of nip & tuck, the S90 emerged in a considerably more svelte, truly pocketable body that has a lot more in common with the Ixus/Elphs than it does with the G10/G11 (considered by many to be the spiritual successors to the S80). The styling is - compared to previous generations - unashamedly minimalist, with Canon obviously having learned at least one lesson from Panasonic's LX3: serious photographers prefer serious-looking cameras.

Gone is the fat body, sliding lens cover and optical viewfinder; this is a truly compact camera that - unlike the S80 and its predecessors - happily slips into a pocket and that can be taken with you wherever you go. The mostly metal body (the top and bottom plates are high impact plastics) is nicely made and feels pretty solid, but lacks any real grip, which, combined with the smooth surface, means handling has been seriously compromised for size and style (more of which below). It's also worth mentioning that the S90 is surprisingly light - at just under 200g it's almost a third less weighty than the Panasonic LX3.

That all said, for a camera so small the S90 packs in an admirable level of control, with not just one but two command dials (one of which is the new Control Ring, around the base of the lens).

In your hand

Given it's obviously been designed, above all else, to be as small as possible, the S90's handling was always going to be somewhat compromised, but the smooth surface and lack of anything approaching a grip mean it handles about as well as a bar of soap. I would not recommend using the S90 single-handed without a wrist strap as it's way too easy to lose grip when shooting. What's annoying isn't the size or shape (it is what it is - you don't buy a two seater sports car then complain it won't fit a family of five), but the fact that it could be so much better with even a tiny grip on the front - or just a bit of texture to prevent slipping.

In practice the S90's design is - inevitably perhaps - perfect for the kind of point-and-shoot full auto operation you'd use any compact camera for; when you start shooting more manually you need to take care not to accidentally change settings as you handle the camera between shots (more than once we found we were suddenly shooting at ISO 3200 in bright sunshine). Most of the handling issues disappear if you shoot using both hands, something you'll inevitably do if you're using the Control Ring. It's an odd experience - shooting with a tiny camera (with no viewfinder) held like it was an SLR - but it works well and once you've mastered the controls it's surprisingly photographer-friendly.

Update: the Richard Franiec Custom Grip

Since completing the S90 review we've had chance to play with Richard Franiec's custom grip for the S90. The grip (available here) is, to quote Richard, 'individually 3D CNC machined from a solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum before being glass-bead blasted, black-anodized and nickel-sealed for durability and good looks'. It attaches to the body using 3M VHB (very high bond) clear transfer film.

The grip itself is machined from a single block of aluminum On the back you'll find ultra powerful adhesive tape. There's full instructions included on attachment .
Once attached the grip is a good visual match, and fits perfectly flush. The grip itself may not be very big, but it's a huge improvement on the bare S90.

For around $35 you the custom grip totally transforms handling of the S90, it's a perfect match visually (and fits very snugly. Just as important, it doesn't make the camera any less pocketable (the overall thickness doesn't change). Canon may not have considered a grip as being as important as maintaining the clean lines of the S90's body, but we'd take the S90 with Richard's grip over the unadorned original any day.

Control Ring

We're not looking to take credit but we've been suggesting a rotating control ring around the lens to every manufacturer we've talked to for years. This is perhaps us just showing our age: if you grew up taking every picture using a lens with an aperture ring, your left hand feels strangely underutilized when shooting with most modern cameras. This is especially true with compacts like the S90, which really need the support of both hands (to avoid them flying across the room mid-shot and to reduce the inevitable wobbles associated with such small bodies). Whether our suggestion had an effect or not (and let's be honest, it's unlikely), we were mightily pleased when we saw our wish finally granted with the S90.

The Control Ring (which, like the rest of the camera, is made of metal) rotates in a pleasingly smooth manner and has around 36 gentle click stops (virtually everything it controls has discrete, rather than continuously variable values). It's really nice to use and (unlike the freely rotating dial on the back of the camera) it is very difficult to accidentally knock the dial and inadvertently change settings when handling the S90 between shots.

The Control Ring is highly customizable, and in addition to the default (which varies by mode; in Av mode, for example, it controls aperture) it can be set to control the Zoom (a 'step zoom' function), White Balance Adjust, manual Focus, AE compensation and ISO. If you do choose to override the default option then the S90 will pass control of that function over to the rear control dial.

Our only complaint - and it's not so much a complaint as an observation - is that the RING FUNC button, which Canon has given a prominent position on the top plate, is almost totally redundant. We found we rarely - if ever - used it (once you've decided what the ring will do you tend to stick with that most of the time) and its functionality could easily be placed into the menu system.

But that's not the problem - there are plenty of buttons on plenty of cameras that we never use. No, the problem is that it's almost exactly the same shape and size as the ON/OFF button next to it, and is positioned right where we'd expect to find the main power switch. The result is that - even after several months' use - we kept pressing the RING FUNC button to turn the camera on (which is annoying since it, erm, doesn't turn the camera on) or, on occasion, turning the camera off when checking what the Ring Function is currently set to.

The Control Ring works just like an aperture dial on a traditional lens. The knurled metal finish and soft click stops give it a tactile appeal beyond mere utility.
The RING FUNC button is used to set what the Ring controls. Press it and a small menu appears (STD is the default setting - what it actually does varies by shooting mode).

Functions assignable to the Control Ring

The table below shows the various functions controlled by the Rear Dial and Control Ring by default (the STD) setting and when one of the five other options are selected. In Auto and most of the scene modes the Control Ring is fixed to Step Zoom (the exception is the 'Nostalgia' scene mode where the front ring controls the intensity of the effect). In AUTO and Low Light modes the rear dial is disabled; when the mode dial is set to SCN it cycles through the various scene modes.

    M Av Tv P
STD
Aperture Aperture Shutter Speed ISO
Shutter Speed AE comp. AE comp. AE comp.
ISO
ISO ISO ISO ISO
Aperture /
Shutter speed *
Aperture /
AE comp. *
Shutter speed /
AE comp. *
AE comp.
+/-
Shutter Speed AE comp. AE comp. AE comp.
Aperture Aperture Shutter speed / AE comp. ISO
MF
Adjust focus Adjust focus Adjust focus Adjust focus
Aperture / Shutter speed * Aperture /
AE comp. *
Shutter speed / AE comp. * AE comp.
WB +/-
White balance correction White balance correction White balance correction White balance correction
Aperture /
Shutter speed *
Aperture /
AE comp. *
Shutter speed / AE comp. * AE comp.
ZOOM
Step Zoom Step Zoom Step Zoom Step Zoom
Aperture /
Shutter speed *
Aperture /
AE comp. *
Shutter speed / AE comp. * AE comp.

( Where two functions are controlled, pressing the +/- button (up arrow) toggles between them.

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