Group test: Canon Powershot S95, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Nikon Coolpix P7000
Canon Powershot S95
Body/Design and Operation:
The Canon Powershot S95 replaces the S90, which was released (and reviewed) last year. The S90 was Canon's first S-series compact camera for almost four years, during which time the company's sole offering in the high-end compact camera market was the G-series, in the shape of the G7, G9 and G10.
In complete contrast to the larger boxy G-series, the Powershot S95 retains the S90's svelte, truly pocketable body design that has a lot more in common with the Ixus/Elph cameras. The styling is - compared to previous generations - unashamedly minimalist, with Canon obviously having learned at least one lesson from Panasonic's LX-series: serious photographers prefer serious-looking cameras. The S90 might have been quite a break from earlier S-series Canon Powershots like the S80, but the S95 is a near-twin of its immediate predecessor.
The S95 takes the same basic package and updates it with slightly tweaked ergonomics and a more versatile video mode (720p as opposed to VGA). It features the same controls as the S90 in much the same places but, importantly, the rear control dial now has detents at roughly every 30 degrees.
The Control Ring itself (which, like most of the rest of the camera, is made of metal) rotates in a pleasingly smooth manner and has 36 gentle click stops (virtually everything it controls has discrete, rather than continuously variable values).
Compared to its predecessor the S90, the most obvious changes are a less glossy finish on the body, and the deletion of the S90's slightly oddly shaped (but quite comfortable and stable) thumb 'catch' on the top right of the rear plate. The mostly metal body (the top and bottom plates are high impact plastics) is nicely made and feels solid, but lacks any real grip, which, combined with the smooth surface, means that arguably, Canon has compromised the S95's handling for size and style. 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 LX5.
Given that it has clearly been designed, above all else, to be as small as possible, the S95's handling is always going to be somewhat compromised compared to a camera like the Nikon Coolpix P7000 which bristles with control points. When we reviewed the S90 we said that its smooth surface and lack of anything approaching a grip meant that it handled about as well as a bar of soap. The S95 is slightly better in this respect (the finish of its body shell is slightly rougher) but it is still difficult to take a truly 'firm' grip on the camera with one hand. We had really hoped that Canon's designers might address this criticism of the S90 when it was replaced, and we're chalking this one up as a missed opportunity.
Thankfully third-party options are available, such as the one we mentioned in our review of the S90.
In practice the S95's design is - inevitably perhaps - perfect for the kind of point-and-shoot full auto photography that 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, but the rear control dial's detents make this less of a problem in day to day use than it was with the S90.
With the aforementioned exceptions, the handling experience of the S95 is pleasant and all of its controls are well-placed for both point and shoot and more involved, 'manual' operation. Of the three cameras in this group in fact, the S95 is the one which we'd most instinctively turn to when heading out to a bar, or to meet friends. It's a good camera in a nice-sized package that fits neatly inside a shirt or jacket pocket.
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