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Conclusion

In the previous pages you'll be able to see plenty of discussion of the various strengths and weaknesses of these three cameras, but the bottom line is that all three are capable of truly excellent results. Indeed, as far as image quality is concerned, and taking all considerations (not just resolution) into account, images from the S95, P7000 and LX5 are amongst the best we've ever seen from any compact camera. Although it is possible to make distinctions between the output of the three models, in the final analysis the main differences between them are operational and ergonomic.

Canon Powershot S95 - Pros

  • Very good image quality, particularly at lower ISO settings
  • Generally well optimized JPEGs with good color response
  • High ISO performance good up to ISO 800 (and higher if processed from RAW)
  • Sharp 28-105mm (equivalent) zoom range with effective stabilization
  • Fast, responsive operation, and impressive buffer
  • Good LCD screen - bright and high-contrast
  • Exposure preview live view and accurate virtual histogram
  • Effective manual controls (including excellent Control Ring)
  • Face detection / tracking AF modes
  • Compact, very well constructed

Canon Powershot S95 - Cons

  • Tendency to underexpose when presented with large highlight areas (such as sky)
  • AWB can deliver different color rendition depending on screen composition
  • Fringing can be a problem around high-contrast edges (like foliage against a bright sky)
  • No control over noise reduction (although noise is well controlled by default)
  • Optical zoom and AF unavailable in movie mode
  • Flash underpowered (but this is far from unusual)
  • Manual focus preview too low res to be useful (and tends to give the false impression of being in focus)
  • Lack of 'proper' grip can make handling awkward (especially one-handed).
  • Relatively poor battery life

Nikon Coolpix P7000 - Pros

  • Very good image quality, particularly at lower ISO settings
  • Excellent video mode - including external mic socket, optical zoom and AF
  • High ISO performance excellent up to ISO 800 (and higher if processed from RAW)
  • Good flash metering
  • Versatile (and sharp) 28-200mm (equivalent) lens
  • Exceptional amount of manual control possible
  • Good LCD screen - very high-resolution
  • External mic socket and inbuilt stereo microphone
  • RAW capability with decent RAW conversion software included
  • Well-featured in-camera RAW conversion
  • Useful electronic virtual horizon
  • Well-proportioned hand grip
  • Good battery life

Nikon Coolpix P7000 - Cons

  • Bafflingly unuseful 'Fn' button
  • 'Button lag' a depressing aspect of virtually any menu interaction
  • Poor optical viewfinder (bordering on pointless)
  • Occasional underexposure issues when presented with bright areas in a scene
  • Unpleasantly yellow colors under tungsten lighting
  • Bulky compared to competition (and lacks the articulated LCD screen of Canon's similarly-sized G-series)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 - Pros

  • Very good image quality, particularly at lower ISO settings
  • Versatile video mode and good video quality (although sensor blooming is an issue in some situations)
  • High ISO performance very good up to ISO 800 (and higher if processed from RAW)
  • Reliable focus and white balance (although colors can be rather cool in daylight)
  • Extremely bright F2-3.3 lens
  • Useful 24mm equiv. wide angle to 90mm (equivalent) range
  • Accessible, quick-to-use manual controls
  • Useful external aspect ratio switch
  • High-resolution 16:9 and 3:2 aspect ratio modes (thanks to multi-aspect sensor)
  • Exceptional amount of customization options
  • Face recognition works well (more than just a gimmick)
  • Decent handgrip (much better than LX3)
  • iA mode very handy for snapshots
  • Compact, very well built

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 - Cons

  • Poor buffer in RAW mode, rather uninspiring continuous shooting performance in general
  • Color rendition can be rather cool
  • Sensor blooming can be a problem in some video shooting situations (albeit extremely occasionally)
  • LCD screen gives poor indication of actual exposure/color (especially outdoors)
  • Rear dial can be rather awkward to manipulate with cold/gloved fingers
  • 'silver on silver' rear control labels virtually unreadable
  • Menus lengthy and can be confusing (in PASM modes)
  • AF mode switch easy to knock by accident
  • Fiddly lens cap design (we'd prefer an equivalent to Ricoh's LC-1)

Overall conclusion

The market which these three cameras occupy today is very different to that into which their predecessors were released. At their current pricepoints, there isn't a huge financial gap between any of these three models and the low-end DSLRs which have squeezed most of the life out of the once crowded high-end compact market. However, to dismiss them as too expensive, or too limited in functionality compared to a DSLR is to miss the point entirely. The people most likely to purchase these cameras are existing DSLR owners that want a more compact alternative to their large, bulky kit, with a minimal sacrifice in image quality.

All three of these cameras fulfill this need, although of the three, we're most impressed by the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, which combine excellent image quality with hassle-free ergonomics and genuinely compact bodies. The Nikon Coolpix P7000 turns out great images but is considerably larger and heavier, and- crucially - its quirky, and frequently very slow operation is impossible to overlook.

Image Quality

As far as image quality is concerned, none of these three cameras disappoint. All of them are capable of detailed, colorful results in JPEG mode, and even in poor light, noise is well-controlled considering the size of their sensors. At higher ISO settings best results are achieved by careful manipulation of their RAW output, but even JPEGs look fine at small print sizes or for sharing on the web. In terms of critical image quality, there isn't much between them, but if we had to pick one camera purely on the basis of image quality we'd probably plump for the S95, for its sharp, detailed JPEGs.

It's a close run thing though - the P7000 gives excellent images, especially from RAW files and although it is slightly noisier at its highest ISO settings, the LX5 is capable of extremely high quality output. The LX5's trump card, of course, is its multi-aspect sensor, which can turn out higher-resolution images at its various aspect ratios than the S95 or P7000. If you enjoy shooting panoramics, we'd certainly recommend the LX5 over the other two cameras here.

Handling

Handling is of course largely a subjective matter, and there is no substitute for actually picking up and using a camera and drawing your own conclusions. That said, there are some ergonomic quirks to all three of these cameras which we think are worth pointing out. In general, in terms of their operational ergonomics, all three work well. They are all designed to provide the maximum of manual control over photography, and in this respect, they all succeed. We like the dual control dials of the P7000 and (especially) the Canon S95, but the LX5's single dial, push-to-switch system works well, and soon becomes second-nature.

If you're looking for a genuinely 'compact' compact camera the Canon S95 is worth serious consideration. It's the smallest and least-expensive camera in this group, and although we'd like to see Canon add a grip of some sort, it is comfortable and easy to use, as well as being slim enough to fit inside a shirt pocket. The LX5 isn't much larger, but it is significantly less pocketable than the S95, thanks to its larger lens. The LX5 is less pocketable as a consequence, but still relatively compact, and a great deal easier to tote around than a DSLR. If you're the sort of person that loves buttons and dials we'd direct you towards the P7000 (or the Canon Powershot G12).

However, whilst the P7000's 'hands on' ergonomics are supposed to make the camera easier for the enthusiast to get to grips with, its quirky interface, and intermittantly unresponsive controls are disappointing.

Performance

We've already seen that in terms of its operational speed and AF reliability, the Nikon P7000 with original firmware was the weakest of these three cameras as far as performance was concerned. However, the recent update to firmware V1.1 has definitely improved matters. It is too early to say for certain whether the P7000's AF stability is significantly improved, since the documented AF failures under firmware V1.0 were very occasional, but the write times for .NRW files are much more acceptable than they were.

Even with firmare 1.0, the P7000's flaws weren't necessarily fatal - JPEG shooters might have been happy enough with the P7000's performance, and the occasional AF issues didn't prove to be a major annoyance during our initial testing. There is no doubt though that the P7000 is a much more likeable camera with firmware V1.1 installed than it was before. Sadly, the perennial 'button lag' which we complained about in our initial testing has not been addressed, but it should be stressed that although the P7000 still isn't quite the camera that we want it to be, the performance of its other systems (such as metering and WB) is extremely high, as is image quality.

Decent pictures aren't enough to redeem the P7000 in our opinion though, even after the recent firmware update because ultimately, the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5 also kick out great images, boast equally reliable systems and offer considerably slicker, faster operation. It is worth noting that the same can also be said of the Canon Powershot G12. The LX5 isn't a particularly fast camera in RAW mode, and its 3-frame buffer is disappointing, but we never felt that it was keeping us waiting in the same way as the P7000 sometimes does. The Canon Powershot S95 is the fastest of the three cameras by some margin, and even in RAW mode, it is pleasantly swift and responsive.

The Final Word

This review is not intended to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of the high-end compact market. There are only three cameras on test here, and conspicuous by its absence is the Canon Powershot G12, which for logistical reasons was tested separately. What this review is intended to do is to assess three of the most recent, and most interesting high-end compact cameras on the market, through detailed comparison alongside one another. The benefit of this approach is that every time we found a particular quirk, or point of interest on one of the three, we were able to turn directly to the other two cameras for a direct comparison.

At the end of this (lengthy) exercise, we are left feeling very positive about the current state of the high-end compact market. Ultimately, we can't think of a single camera of this type, at this level, which we would consider unequivocally 'bad'. Of the three models in this test, our least favorite - even after its recent firmware update - is still the Nikon Coolpix P7000, but this is purely down to its slow operational speed and slightly ragged handling. As far as image quality is concerned, it - like the S95 and LX5 - is absolutely excellent.

Basically, what this means is that if you're considering purchasing one of these cameras, you don't need to worry about image quality. They are all - to any practical extent - essentially on a level. What differentiates them is their feature sets and their handling. The dpreview office is somewhat divided on which is the 'best' camera of the three, but on balance, we consider that the Canon S95 is the most pleasant to use. Although it lacks the huge range of customization available from the LX5, or the versatility of the P7000's 28-200mm (equivalent) lens, the S95 is exceptionally quick, very portable, and produces great images. If you want more manual control, and you like the idea of a faster lens, there is no doubt - the LX5 is the camera for you. Given that the S95 and LX5 offer extremely similar image quality, unless you really need the 200mm (equivalent) lens, we would recommend both over the P7000, which languishes in third place in this test.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.

Canon PowerShot S95
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Taking everywhere - the snapshot-friendly body is small enough to fit inside a shirt pocket, but with no penalty in image quality.
Not so good for
Shooting video, where the lack of AF and optical zoom control are very limiting, and use outdoors in cold weather, when the tiny buttons become hard to manipulate.
Overall score
72%
The S95 is a subtle upgrade to its predecessor, but the improvements are worthwhile - refined ergonomics, a higher-resolution video mode and added customizability all make the S95 more appealing than the S90. Image quality is very high, and the small bodyshell makes the S95 the most genuinely 'compact' camera in this sector of the market.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Full-on manual control and low-light work, where the fast lens is invaluable. Also, the multi-aspect sensor is great for panoramics.
Not so good for
Anything requiring speed, and outdoors in very bright light, when the LCD screen gives a very poor guide to exposure/color.
Overall score
73%
Successor to the popular LX3, the LX5 brings a host of improvements and new features, including an excellent multi-aspect sensor, a slightly more versatile optical zoom range, and better ergonomics. It's not the fastest compact around, but it is a great camera for the enthusiast photographer or DSLR user who wants something a little smaller.
Nikon Coolpix P7000
Category: Premium Enthusiast Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
'Hands on' photography, where the huge amount of external controls mean that you rarely have to press the 'menu' button. Also, any applications where critical image quality matters more than speed.
Not so good for
General photography. Even after the recent firmware update, the P7000 is simply too underpowered for a camera of this type, at this pricepoint, in this day and age.
Overall score
65%
Nikon's engineers have clearly been looking to Canon's G-series for inspiration, and the P7000's boxy build, and plethora of external controls put it closer to the Powershot G12 than any previous P-series compact. Ultimately, the P7000's excellent image quality, and functional ergonomics are let down by slow, glitchy operation and lack of responsiveness.

Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean

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