Customer Review

128 of 141 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great pocket low light performer, with some problems and lagging behind in some areas., October 6, 2010
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This review is from: Canon PowerShot S95 10 MP Digital Camera with 3.8x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3.0-Inch LCD (Camera)
Length:: 0:18 Mins

SUMMARY:
A star of pocket-sized, high image quality camera, S95 does have its problems. The software is a bit buggy as it crashes, lags, and even macro button not doing what it is supposed to do. The menu system is also extremely convoluted as it is an overgrowth of the same old powershot menu since 10 years ago--the structure should have been completely revised rather than layered with hidden tag-ons.

It also has flash control problems (pretty serious slow sync failures), pretty inept AF (hunts and misses a lot especially in low light), dead sensor pixels, subpar video quality, and the jpeg compression that generates a lot of artifacts (including low ISO's), something my older LX3 can easily trounce. The quality control as some mentioned here and elsewhere is also problematic, as there were dusts in the paints and scratch on the lens barrel trims on mine, not to mention hot/dead sensor pixels in both video and photo--hardly what you should expect for the money. Buyers should beware: despite the great name Canon has made for itself, they really have been taking advantage of this rather than building on it.

That said, there's probably no smaller camera with this size sensor (1/1.7"), not to mention it's also a Sony EXMOR backlit CMOS, which gave it such great low light capability (and probably also artifacts). However, any decent low end DSLR should easily beat its image quality, just out of physical property of the sensor size alone (this is still about 1/5 the size of a micro 4/3 chip, or about 1/9 the size of a APS-C as found in most DSLR or some newer EVIL cameras like the Sony NEX-5). It's not quite a DSLR replacement, but rather a pocket camera for sticklers who can't suffer loss of image quality along with weight and size. The perfomance to size ratio is unique to S95, even with all the aforementioned drawbacks.

FULL REVIEW:
Canon isn't my favorite brand these days because it appears to me that they've been lazying around for a while now just because they are Canon; i.e. they have loyal fans who are often blind to their faults, so they weren't even trying. To me S90/S95 was something of an exception, in that they sensed (or rather, forced to recognize) the desperate need for a low light, high image quality, yet still compact performer (which is surprisingly absent in today's saturated digital camera market), and responded with a semi-sincere effort. Like many others, Canon decided to employ a larger than average sensor for better light capture(average point and shoot sensor size is 1/2.5", S95 is at 1/1.7" which is almost 50% bigger area than average, and similar to LX3/LX5's 1/1.65"; still way smaller than APS-C or micro 4/3s but the latter would require much larger bodies. For an excellent reference and visual comparison of these sizes, search "image sensor format" in Wikipedia). Additionally, they seemed to have borrowed the excellent and innovative backlit CMOS sensor from SONY for even better low light capability. While these features aren't unique to S95, what made it stand out is how Canon managed to squeeze that with a fast f/2.0 wide angle barrel lens into a body that's barely larger than a standard point and shoot. (for size comparison, the upcoming and much larger G12 supposedly uses the same sensor found in S95).

I purchased a s95 because my outgoing LX3 was still too bulky (almost the size of a micro 4/3 camera with much less image quality to justify it), but otherwise I liked it a lot. I felt that Panasonic is so progressive and on point with their consumer camera line that Canon's by comparison is looking tired and confused. In fact Canon S90 was their answer to Panasonic LX3's phenomenal success in some ways, but screwed up big time when they didn't include HD video and had some serious ergonomic issues. Even S95's video looks a little contrived and noisy, which is one of my gripes. The lack of ultra wide like 23mm is also a glaring omission (though it probably preserves better optical consistency since it's so thin).

However, Canon's still has among the best colors (that other makes like panasonic just can't quite match yet, in general), and on S95 they threw in some nice exposure features like contrast enhancement that really worked in correcting tricky lighting situations by artificially extending the dynamic range. The auto pop up flash looks like the ones on Panny LX series, but it goes up by itself, controlled electronically via the menus rather than a mechanical toggle switch. I thought it was cool until it started pushing my fingers around, since it's located in a convenient place where one tend to hold the camera, and often so abruptly and forcibly it almost ejected the camera out of my hands.

There are some quibbles I--being somewhat anal retentive--have about this camera's quality control, something that seems to have been a constant nag with Canon's Powershots. Details like the paint isn't perfect on mine, with bubbles and hair/dust trappings in both of the two S95 I received (which is in stark contrast to Panasonic's impeccable finishes across their lines--and I've owned two LX3 and other lower end Lumix's), scratches on the lens barrel's metallic trims, and the CMOS showing some dead/hot pixels in RAW files (not the LCD display but the image sensor) uncorrected and unmapped (Canon admitted it's faulty and sent a service ticket). I had hoped being "Made in Japan" and a higher end pocket-able would mean extra attention to build quality from Canon. Alas, that evidently just isn't the case.

The AF performance is also remarkably poor, often missing the foreground subjects or faces even with bright light, or completely misfocuses in low light even with assist lamp. Despite that Canon's pocket cameras had suffered from this issue before, this is still surprising, not to mention frustrating, for a camera of this class (by contrast Panny LX series's AF certainly does noticeably better). Nevertheless, despite the less-than-tact-sharp lens and miserable jpg compression (that maybe circumnavigated by shooting RAW and post process in computer with software), the camera excels in high ISO performance, color saturation/accuracy, and exposure control.

The above referenced "miserable" JPEG compression is probably worth special mentioning because it really saps excessive amount of quality away from the original image as seen from the RAW files. Canon only had two JPEG compression modes (fine and normal), and both are equally horrible. I think it behooves you to try processing the RAW files (which isn't that easy as many popular imaging softwares still don't recognize the RAW output from S95 as of October 2010) and you will see how much detail is lost. This loss is expected in JPEG files, but in the S95 it's especially remarkable. I feel that they should have had at least a better compression mode or algorithm as the "fine" setting produced results that didn't do the camera justice--it can do much better, and it shouldn't require laborious RAW post processing to achieve.

The control rings are really a draw for me as I yearn for the traditional and straight forward camera controls. They do work, though not nearly as straight forward, since their functions often change depending on which level of menu or function you were at. You simply cannot take your eyes off the screen to figure out what is going on. It's still the same Canon interface that's been around since the first digital Elphs a decade ago, and frankly I'm thinking that should really be drastically updated or completely revised to fully take advantage of these two rings, which by themselves a great concept in the right direction. As for now, with the convoluted menu (there's main menu, and then there's a function menu, not to mention all the function keys with their own sub menu--like flash button--and in it more subset of control keys and wheel assignments: you get the idea) the control rings are really little more than (rather laggy and confusing) fast toggle key selectors, most of the time. That isn't bad, and with ample customization options it is arguably better than directional buttons, but it can really be so much more.

Battery life felt short out of the box, but it definitely improved after only a few charging cycles, typical behavior of fresh lithiums. It still felt short to me, as I often couldn't complete a day of shooting without the battery running out. However, I haven't been fair, as in the most recent excursion, it again ran out of power on me before I liked; yet this time I paid attention to the number of shots taken: I squeezed 458 photos out of it, many with daylight flash fill (high power drain bright flashes), slow sync indoor flashes, probably 20% with RAW(RAW copies not counted), 30% with exposure bracketing (3 consecutive shots), and almost a dozen short HD videos (highest power drain). I think even if it's not amazing, that's still pretty good and respectable for a camera of this size. Numbers are more convincing than my subjective feelings in this case.

I (and many others) thought it was a big flaw when it didn't have at least 720HD video on S90, when AVCHD is already making its way onto consumer cameras and many competitors already have very good 1080p (e.g. Sony's TX), ideally merging a dedicated HD camcorder and high quality photo camera. It's an improvement on the S95 that now it supports H.264 720p 24fps video in stereo, but for the price segment it was almost not enough. As a point and shoot S95 is probably an overkill (although the incredibly well engineered AUTO mode is nearly foolproof, or the very mission and purpose of AUTO modes); but if you want to play with creative manual controls, RAW capability, one of the best color processing, true pocketability, and don't mind the so-so HD video, it is truly one of the best pocket cameras on the market in absolute image quality and low light performance.

Update: 10/22

A few things that's worthy of a firmware upgrade, or at least users should probably demand for one:

- Besides the convoluted menu controls which really slows things down at times--exposure bracketing as another example, would require you to exit all menus (the button to exit can be menu key or set key or a combination of keys, depending on where you are, often leave you fidgeting just trying to clear the screen), click the exposure compensation key, and then click the display key for bracketing, and then rotate the wheel for bracketing range; after shooting, repeat to cancel--not exactly the easiest or fastest for a pretty important function, even with those wheels. It really feels like the dated menu of other powershot cameras, or the kind that threatens you with missing the "decisive moment" if you are ever presented with one. The response of the flywheels or the menu button also isn't very direct. There's a significant lag between the wheel or button click action and software response. It's like "rowing" through a menu list rather than wheeling through them, which kind of defeats the wheels' potential. In other words, the software is a bit slow (or euphemistically, "not fast enough") for a high(er) end camera. The pretty menu transition effects (yes it's minor but it's there) also gets in the ways of speedy response and should have had an option to remove (as on some other powershot models).

- Manual mode, in combination with live exposure preview, has become my favorite as the two wheels finally gets more dedicated functions as in classical camera setups, and allows this design innovation to truly shine--I can scarcely think of other similar sized cameras with better simultaneous shutter/aperture control. However, it crashed several times within the 3 weeks that I've owned it. The screen would just go black with the lens still extended, and I have to wake it up using the power button.

- The slow sync flash is extremely inconsistent. Sometimes using fill flash in low light background situations get better results which is very strange (as the shutter should be so fast that backgrounds should be darkened). I haven't figured out what rhyme this slow sync goes by, but it often wouldn't brighten foreground subject enough, or at all (it would look as if the flash was off, and I was certain the subject was within the flash's range), and other times washes out the foreground subject with overexposure. I have tried first or second curtain sync, adjusting flash power (which kind of worked but not always predictably), neither really worked. It should be much less painful than this.

- Ever since Digic 4, or probably even before that (but with DIGIC-IV processing being rather obvious), Canon's post processing tend to generate a smooth, glowing skin tone. I think this is one of those "innovations" several manufacturers (Fuji had one too, to the rave of Japanese/Asian beauty magazines) were able to pander to the public as a favorite feature of particularly (fashion conscious) females. It sometimes can miss, however, and make the skin tone look rather unnatural (or, without offense to those who like this feature, as if the subject's got dipped face down into a bucket of makeup). This is present on S95 as well. Even if it's not always as terrible, I sure hoped the post processing would lean towards verisimilitude where possible, particularly since it's a higher end model.

- Preview exposures on screen which is a very useful Canon feature that helps tremendously when you are trying to manually set exposure controls (by contrast LX3 didn't have this). However, exposure preview (via darkening or brightening the screen) would simply go away with any of the flash modes switched on. It's okay and makes sense since it's hard to predict the outcome of the flash without firing a test burst. However, in slow sync mode, and especially manual mode, it would probably be a good idea to give an option for preview since the background would depend on exposure settings rather than flash exposure. I can't find options in the menu to change this behavior. You are left with the meter which is still okay, I suppose, but it's just another one of those UI inconsistencies that you have to think on your feet to work around (e.g. when you got used to exposure preview, you may think because you can see the results on screen that it'll appear on flash photos, which is often untrue particularly for slow syncs).

- Wind noise filter in video mode doesn't seem to make any difference after some tests (and no I didn't always just blow straight into the mic to test it, but real life situations where it's often just a gentle breeze). As the mics are in the front, it's very easy to get wind noise in this camera. (11/7 addendum: tests reveal the wind filter is just a simple frequency equalizer, in that it reduces the mid-low bass frequencies typically present in wind noises; i.e. you still hear wind noise, but it has reduced bass frequencies.) That, and video compression can use some quality options, because while the results aren't horrible per se, they don't look as good as a 720p with autofocus should, even at 24fps. (also why can't they give us AF or zoom during video? I'm sure they CAN do that--CHDK was able to do it on basic Canon Elphs--and I wouldn't mind the AF/zoom noise as long as I can get the subjects in focus/frame.)

- The audio pickup from the two microphones are less than underwhelming. Despite being "stereo", the sound it picks up is completely devoid of bass, making everything sound tinny. I have tested it on full frequency range speakers, so I'm pretty sure it's not the speakers but the way the sound was recorded. I don't know how Canon managed that, as it's pretty hard to imagine what happened. **11/7 addendum: tests reveal that it's the wind filter, which seems to be just a equalizer that attenuates the mid-low bass frequency range that is present in wind noises (but you can still hear the wind noise, just not as bass heavy). For fuller audio range response, the wind noise filter needs to be switched off.

- a strange thing that I've discovered is that the macro button doesn't seem to do anything to the focusing range (in all modes; in AUTO it's supposed to auto detect a macro shot). In other words, I could focus down to the 5cm minimal distance with or without the macro mode on. It doesn't bother me, as it's more convenient than having to jump through hoops (of that dreaded menu) and take my eyes off the subject to get a macro shot. However, it can also be the probable cause of why AF hunts so much and misses so often. It also makes me wonder if the software is as finished as it should be. (the slow sync problem is also highly suspect)

Another few s95 differences/improvements from S90 off the top of my head:
the body is a nice matt/rough finish to help with grip (the same finish used to be on S90's top plate, now it's reversed with smooth finish on top of the S95 and rough around the body). it's like the Ricoh GR finish which I like.
the lcd adds glass panel for duability and dust proofing
the zoom toggle and shutter button is now specially shaped to avoid confusion
the rear control dial now has a clicky feeling to prevent accidental adjustments (which was the most complained problem in S90)
720HD H.264 video with stereo sound
hybrid image stabilization (2 axis instead of 1)
support of SDXC cards?
some claim a new sensor? but i doubt it. It's the same larger than average Sony EXMOR backlit CMOS sensor employed in several other brands' high end consumer models, credited for the superb low light performance.
The new HDR mode isn't really that useful, in that it really REQUIRES a tripod, as the processing cannot line-up the image thus any movement would render the results useless. Better off with just exposure bracketing and post process in the computer.

Some worthy competitors considered:
FUJI F300EXR - Also features a break-through sensor technology with phenomenal low light/high ISO performance, excellent wide angle optics, and manual controls. The innovative sensor is slightly smaller at 1/2".
SONY TX/HX series - Compact yet also with the EXMOR sensor technology employed in Canon (but smaller at 1/2.4"). Limited manual controls on some, TX's folding lens suffers in optical quality and no RAW capbility, but much better (incredible in fact) video and loaded with software shooting features.
Panasonic LX3/5 - Extremely well rounded high end "compact" camera that's quite popular and already a classic. Uses Panny's own inhouse sensor at 1/1.63" with excellent results. However it is significantly more bulky that it's not truly "pocket-able" except for likes of cargo shorts pockets; and with its popularity, significantly pricier.

Update: 12/16
Adobe Camera RAW 6.3 and Lightroom 3.3 updates are released. These updates support the S95's RAW format. This is important if you have been waiting to process all those RAW .cr2 images. It also resulted in a few things that I can observe:
- The proper crop information is supplied, resulting in raw files with cropped borders (seems to crop quite a bit, or the same crop percentage as the jpeg results; also distortion correction is applied, contrary to RAW files produced in some other cameras, like the LX), removing the large left black edge area which was previously present and showed some bright pixels.
- Proper color information is now readable, making post-processing much easier. Canon has one of the more accurate color information from RAW files, and relatively easy to process in my opinion.

As it is serving as my full time go-anywhere camera, this review maybe updated continually.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 19, 2010 8:52:30 PM PST
flyboy says:
great review. Thanks for the updates. I just picked one up so I have an idea what to look for.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 21, 2010 7:33:33 PM PST
YSC says:
Thanks. I'd be interested in your experience as well. I also found that focus bracketing doesn't seem to work (still testing). It's a fine camera if they iron out the bugs, and I can't wait for a firmware upgrade.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 30, 2010 9:39:10 PM PST
Scuba says:
YSC- thanks for the great review. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the S95 vs. G12 through whoknowswhat, which allows me to give you a tip in return. (I was intent on buying the s95 until I saw the lack of video AF and other issues in your review).

If you can, please take a look at my question about 4/3's on there-- either at the whoknowswhatapp twitter feed or www.whoknowswhat.com/wkw-5/0005 . The beta code is harvard.

Thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 8, 2010 11:12:48 AM PST
YSC says:
just saw this. congrats on the new cam.

Posted on Dec 11, 2010 1:03:09 PM PST
Informative and comprehensive review. Thanks.

Posted on Dec 14, 2010 12:38:23 AM PST
pskils says:
A very thorough and balanced review. Most helpful. I look forward to your updates - I expect to purchase this camera and your remarks are very helpful in my learning about its functions. I think RAW is huge in a camera at this price level.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 14, 2010 1:01:03 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 15, 2010 1:46:06 AM PST
YSC says:
Thanks. The manufacturers sure make you pay for RAW, seeing how it's really a software feature: CHDK enabled Canons-- or mostly before digicIII as Canon seems to have locked it out after digic 4--can all have RAW, even the lowliest A series, to great image quality improvements. The last generation A590is with the CHDK is probably the best bang for the buck of any consumer camera. Alas, that's no more.

I'm using it regularly. The roughened finish proved to be fairly durable (or just that it hides blemishes better), though the edges of smooth paint area are getting that shiny "patina" from wear. The seemingly little size difference between this and the Panasonic LX is immeasurable when it comes to putting it in your pocket: this is so much more portable and effortless. I do miss the Panasonic's 25mm lens, its sharpness, and the 1cm macro ability, but not the weight and bulk. I think the only other camera comparable to image-quality/size ratio is the Ricoh GR Digital, and that has its own limitations (especially price).

The mentioned problems remain a constant nuisance, especially AF and the seemingly high jpeg artifacts (that can be mistaken as noise) at all ISOs. I am still looking out for a firmware update, though RAW support is now available from Adobe Camera RAW 6.3 (and thus relevant products like Lightroom and Photoshop). I will follow up with updates if these problems see any improvements.

Posted on Jun 24, 2011 2:52:39 PM PDT
J. Chaikin says:
I really do appreciate reviews with mentions of comparable models. Thanks for your research.

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 11:45:41 AM PST
Grace says:
If you need to convert RAW from a newer (or older) camera with no current Adobe RAW updates, download the Adobe .DNG converter. It will convert any RAW files to a .dng file which Photoshop (or probably Lightroom) can read.

Thanks for the great review! I wish there was some company like CNET that would highlight side by side what strengths each camera has. ( E.G. I care more about picture quality and speed than video.)

Posted on Dec 9, 2011 11:47:03 AM PST
I think you need a camcorder!
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