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Canon PowerShot S100 Review: Powerful and Pocket Friendly
by Jim Keenan -  12/14/2011

Announced in September 2011, the Powershot S100 at first blush might appear to be just another compact digital: shirt pocket portable in size, with a 5x zoom lens spanning the 24 to 120mm focal range. There is a "smart" shutter, blink detection, face and advanced subject detection as well as "smart" auto featuring a 32 scene library from which the camera chooses settings. A typical scene shooting mode offers 14 specific options and a creative filter palette offers an additional 10 effects.


However, Canonistas know that in the current lineup Powershot models carrying an S or SX prefix slot into the "high-end, advanced digital camera" portion of the spectrum. The S100 is the follow-on to the S95 and closer inspection reveals some fairly serious hardware and performance features as well. The new camera abandons the CCD sensor of the earlier model in favor of a new high sensitivity CMOS sensor offering 12.1 megapixel resolution, pairing the sensor with Canon's latest generation DIGIC 5 image processor.

Sensor size is 1/1.7 inch, larger than normal for a typical compact digital camera. The processor is credited with having increased processing speed and power along with more refined image quality and improved noise reduction. The faster processing speed also results in a faster continuous shooting capability while maintaining full image quality. The DIGIC 5 also makes possible a new, highly advanced automatic white balance system which analyzes several areas of the image to determine whether different adjustments are needed for specific areas of the frame. Native ISO range runs from 80 to 6400.
The 5x zoom lens offers a fast f/2 maximum aperture at wide-angle (albeit with a slightly slower than average f/5.9 at the telephoto end). Here's a look at both ends of that zoom:

Canon S100 Sample Image
Wide Angle

Canon S100 Sample Image
Telephoto

There's a full HD 1080 video capability with stereo sound and a dedicated video capture button along with an advanced intelligent IS stabilization system that automatically chooses from among six modes depending on image capture conditions. You can capture up to eight still images with a high-speed burst mode or video in super slow motion. Shooting and recording modes include JPEG, RAW, and RAW/JPEG combinations, and the camera offers full manual exposure controls for more advanced users. There's a built-in GPS tracker and 3.0-inch LCD monitor. The camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC and Eye Fi memory media but Canon does not guarantee that the S100 will support Eye-Fi card functions. Canon includes a battery pack and charger, wrist strap, USB interface cable and CD-ROM software with each camera. A basic printed user's manual is included; the full manual can be found on the CD-ROM. MSRP is $430.

The S100 was slated to have been available in early November in a black body; a silver variant is now scheduled to appear "sometime" in December. Supplies of the camera appear to have been impacted by the Thailand floods as reputable vendors such as Adorama and B&H list the camera as "temporarily unavailable" or on back order with no estimated delivery date as this review is being written. While getting an S100 for your Christmas stocking may be a little difficult at this point, we've got a black version in hand so let's see what Canon's newest Powershot has to offer.

BUILD AND DESIGN

The S100 has the look of a classic compact digital - a rectangular metal body about the size of a deck of cards with gently rounded edges and external controls arrayed about the camera top and back. The camera measures about 3.75 x 2.37 x 1 inch with the lens retracted and weighs about 6.9 ounces with battery, memory card and wrist strap onboard. The camera appears well-built.

Canon PowerShot S100

Ergonomics and Controls
The flat black paint finish on the S100 has a slightly rough texture to it, almost like fine sandpaper, which helps maintain a grip on the camera. There's about a 1.25 inch depression with a slightly raised rubberized ridge on the right front of the camera body to facilitate grip as well, along with a small patch of rubberized material which serves as a thumb rest on the upper right rear of the camera body. The tip of my right index finger fell naturally to the shutter button and my right thumb centered itself on the thumb rest at the rear; the rest of the thumb overlays camera controls on the right rear of the body but the design and array of these controls did not cause any difficulties with inadvertent activation.

The power button, shutter button/zoom ring and mode dial take up the top right half of the camera body; a pop-up flash can deploy from the top left corner. The right rear of the camera back features ring function, video capture, playback and menu buttons along with a typical control dial incorporating left, right, up and down buttons. The control dial is also equipped with a central function set button. The rest of the camera back is devoted to the 3.0-inch monitor.

Canon PowerShot S100

Around the base of the lens is a control ring that may be used to adjust certain camera functions depending on the particular shooting mode the camera is in: it changes lens focal length in automatic, scene and movie modes; adjusts ISO in program auto and custom modes; changes aperture in manual and aperture priority modes and sets shutter speed in shutter priority. The feature is disabled when shooting in HDR, and may be customized by the user to perform functions other than the defaults including but not limited to ISO, exposure compensation, manual focus, white balance, and zoom.

Canon S100 Sample Image

Menus and Modes
Internal menus in the S100 consist of shooting, set up, playback, print and "my menu" options; these menus are fairly simple and intuitive, and should be familiar and easily navigable by anyone who has had a compact digital in their hands before. Here's a look at the first pages of the shooting menu and playback menu, respectively.

Canon PowerShot S100
Shooting Menu
Canon PowerShot S100
Playback Menu

There is also a function menu displayed directly on the monitor via the function set button on the camera back that will display and permit changes to various shooting parameters depending on the particular shooting mode in effect. Automatic and scene modes have a fairly restricted menu while the manual modes offer a wide variety of access to settings such as ISO, white balance, my colors, bracketing, single or continuous rate shooting, self-timer, autofocus and metering choices, a neutral density filter, still image aspect ratio, image type and size. Here are function menus for manual and automatic control.

Canon PowerShot S100
Function Menu, Manual
Canon PowerShot S100
Function Menu, Auto

Shooting modes encompass the automatic and manual exposure modes one would expect from a high-end, performance-oriented compact digital:

Display
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the S100 has a 461,000 dot composition, offers 100% coverage and is adjustable for five levels of brightness. Peak brightness registered 503 nits with a contrast ratio of 785:1 in our studio measurements; both figures are above the 500 nit/500:1 threshold levels that tend to identify monitors with better outdoor performance. In practice the S100 monitor was fairly good outdoors but could still be overwhelmed by the right conditions of lighting and subject contrast. There is no viewfinder.

PERFORMANCE

With full manual controls and the ability to shoot in RAW and JPEG along with typical compact digital automatic modes, the S100 has the potential to attract a user base ranging from folks who never go beyond full auto well toward the enthusiast end of the spectrum. Let's see how well the S100 can serve both masters.

Shooting Performance
The S100 presents a shooting screen in about 1.5 seconds after power up and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.75 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.75 seconds with a 16GB 95 mb/sec SDHC UHS-1 memory card. Performance was the same with a 4GB class 10 (30 mb/sec card).

There are several options for continuous rate shooting with the S100: modes with and without autofocus produce approximately 0.8 and 2.3 fps rates respectively, and in each case when the camera reached 35 shots with no sign of slowing I called off the experiment. Within the scene menu there is the "high-speed burst HQ" mode that provides a continuous rate in the vicinity of 10 fps for an eight frames capture. Canon rates the S100 for "up to" 9.6 fps in this mode while our studio test generated 10.5 fps, obviously a bit better than advertised. Write times for the eight shot burst using both the 95 and 30 mb/sec cards ran about 3.4 seconds in each case - the camera will not allow additional captures while writing.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 0.01
Canon PowerShot S100 0.01
Nikon Coolpix P300 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 0.18
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 0.32
Canon PowerShot S100 0.39
Nikon Coolpix P300 0.43


Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 10 11.4
Canon PowerShot S100 8 10.5
Nikon Coolpix P300 7 6.9
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 14 5.5

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag was a speedy 0.01 seconds and autofocus acquisition times ran about 0.39 seconds in good conditions. Even with the focus assist lamp, the S100 took longer to acquire focus in dim conditions, a not uncommon occurrence for compact digitals.

Stabilization in the S100 is a simple matter for the user: continuous image stabilization for still captures is on by default as is powered image stabilization which improves stabilization for shooting movies with a long zoom. The user has the option to change from continuous to "shoot only" stabilization for stills or disable stabilization entirely; powered IS may be enabled or disabled independent of the settings chosen for still image stabilization.

On the other hand stabilization in the S100 is a bit more complicated for the camera, whose "intelligent IS" analyzes camera movement and applies the best shake correction method for the shooting situation. For stills, the system automatically selects among normal, panning, hybrid (macro) and tripod modes. When shooting video, the system automatically selects among dynamic, powered, hybrid and tripod modes.

Canon doesn't publish a built-in flash guide number for the S100, but lists a range of 1.6 to 23 feet at wide-angle and 1.6 to 7.5 feet at telephoto; this suggests a guide number of about 10 at ISO 80. Canon also lists a flash recycle time of 10 seconds or less; the S100 has a flash ready indicator that blinks while the flash is recycling and then goes steady when the flash is fully charged - but the catch is you have to do a half push of the shutter button to accurately check the status. If you merely take a flash photo and leave your finger off the shutter button the flash ready indicator displays an unblinking image which suggests the flash is fully recycled. It takes a half push of the shutter button following a flash discharge to accurately display the flash status - you can immediately institute a half push following a flash discharge and the S100 will reacquire focus after the camera writes the preceding image and the flash fully recycles. In my experience with the S100 flash across a range of lighting conditions recycle times ran in the 4 to 8 second range.

The GPS function on the S100 has two components: GPS and GPS logger. The former, when enabled, records the shooting location (latitude, longitude, elevation) and date for still images and movie clips. Search and Rescue folks needn't bother asking - UTM (Universal Trans Mercator) coordinates are not available. GPS logger continues to receive GPS signals after the camera is turned off and records location information for a single date into a log separate from images or movie clips. These logs can be used with software provided with the S100 to view the route traveled. As we'll see shortly, the S100 is not overly strong in terms of battery capacity and the GPS logger feature continues to use battery power once the camera switched off. Users need to weigh the need, advantages and disadvantages of enabling this feature in a camera where power management is a definite concern on all day shoots. Here's a look at the GPS data record for a particular image.

Canon S100 Sample Image

If you're shooting the S100 near the low end of the ISO range with flash, you may find images darker than you'd like due to limited flash range once you start zooming towards the telephoto end of the lens. One option is to post process the image in Photoshop or some other software, but the S100 also offers intelligent contrast (iC) as part of the replay menu so images can be processed in the camera. Here is an original underexposed flash shot of Kiwi and the same shot processed by the S100 using "high" iC - (there are auto, low and medium settings as well).

Canon PowerShot S100
Original
Canon PowerShot S100
With High iContrast

One drawback to using iC either enabled in the camera or as part of the playback menu to process images is that noise generally is increased as a result of applying the process.

Canon lists a 200 image battery capacity for the S100 and users would be well advised to consider that as an absolute upper limit; while I never shot the camera to battery exhaustion my impression is 200 might be a bit generous. I never approached 200 image captures in any single shooting session but still ended up with a flashing red battery icon on a couple of occasions. The battery life indicator is an icon with three segments within the battery outline: three segments indicates a sufficient charge; two segments is slightly depleted but sufficient; one segment and flashing red is nearly depleted/charge the battery which is then followed by "charge the battery pack" just before the camera shuts down.

Canon PowerShot S100

Lens Performance
The 24 to 120mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens on the S100 displays a bit of barrel distortion at the wide-angle end while telephoto proved fairly distortion free. There's a bit of softness in the corners at wide-angle but edges remain fairly sharp; telephoto is likewise a bit soft in the corners but otherwise fairly consistently sharp. Chromic aberration (purple fringing) is present at both ends of the zoom and a bit more pronounced at the wide end but is fairly well controlled and requires 300% enlargement or better to be readily visible.

Video Quality
Video quality was quite good in the S100 and a dedicated one touch video capture button is always a welcome feature. The camera may be zoomed during video capture but zooming noises will be recorded, and the control ring is unavailable for lens zooming during video capture. There is a wind cut feature for audio.

Download Sample Video

The switch to a CMOS sensor brings rolling shutter effect into play and while the S100 exhibits a small amount of this defect, it is generally well controlled and requires exaggeratedly fast pans to produce some noticeable distortion. Maximum clip length is approximately 29 minutes and 59 seconds for normal video, assuming adequate memory capacity, and class 6 or faster memory is recommended. Clip length is about 30 seconds for slow motion capture at either 120 or 240 fps. Video is MOV Image: H.264; Audio data is Linear PCM (Stereo).

Image Quality
At the beginning of the performance section I mentioned that the mix of automatic and manual features in the S100 could cause it to appeal to a broad spectrum of users. For that reason I shot a portion of this review at Disneyland using the automatic mode with its default settings get an idea of what a casual user can expect from the S100.

The first problem is that the S100 outputs JPEG images at 180 dots per inch (dpi), which happens to be about the lowest pixel density that an Epson printer can make a good quality print with. If you want to maximize your print quality you'll be resizing to 300 dpi or greater, and if you're sending images over the Internet you'll be downsizing to 72 dots per inch to save bandwidth.

Here's a default image of the Snow White Castle resized to 300 dpi, and the same shot resized to 300 dpi with additional sharpening. Sharpening should be the last step you take when post processing an image to maximize quality and unfortunately the 180 dpi output of the S100 will keep everyone busy if you're trying to produce the very best imagery for prints or send data efficient e-mails.

Canon S100 Sample Image
Original

Canon S100 Sample Image
Sharpened

Even before resizing the S100 output to 300 dpi my feeling was default images were just a tiny bit too soft for my taste. They'll probably be acceptable to a lot of folks and in fact they're quite good, but I just couldn't get over thinking they looked better with some sharpening. Here are three more Disneyland default images sized to 300 dpi in the first case (left) and again to 300 dpi with sharpening in the second (right).

Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image
Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image
Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image

You can make changes to sharpness, contrast, saturation and a number of other image color parameters in the S100, but only when shooting in custom mode. You can save these settings for the custom mode via the shooting menu; if you don't save the settings they revert to the defaults when you switch to another shooting mode.

The S100's "my colors" palette will be familiar to many Canon users - my colors is turned off by default but may be enabled to provide color options such as vivid, neutral, sepia, black and white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, green or red, as well as the custom color option that accepts changes to saturation, sharpness etc. Here's a look at the default, vivid, neutral and black-and-white examples.

Canon S100 Sample Image
Default
Canon S100 Sample Image
Vivid
Canon S100 Sample Image
Neutral
Canon S100 Sample Image
Black and White

In the manual shooting modes intelligent contrast may be enabled to permit the camera to detect areas in the scene that are too bright or too dark and automatically adjust them to optimum brightness when shooting. Dynamic range correction is used to prevent highlight blowout and offers automatic, 200% and 400% settings. Shadow correct used to bring up detail in dark areas; this feature is only offered in an automatic setting. You can enable either or both correction modes simultaneously.

Auto white balance was used for all the captures in this review and did a good job with a wide variety of lighting conditions including direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, cloudy bright and incandescent. In addition to automatic the S100 offers daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent and fluorescent H (daylight fluorescent), flash and underwater presets as well is a custom setting. Somewhat surprisingly a Kelvin temperature setting is not available.

Canon S100 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Evaluative metering was used for this review and did a good job overall, although it would on occasion clip highlights in high contrast scenes, a not uncommon performance characteristic in compact digitals. Center-weighted and spot metering options are also available.

With its larger than usual 1/1.7 inch sensor, latest generation processor and relatively modest 12.1 megapixel resolution I anticipated the S100 might provide some impressive high ISO noise performance. I couldn't tell any difference tween 80 and 100 ISO and in fact thought 100 ISO almost appeared a tiny bit sharper in a couple areas of the frame. ISO 200 was quite good as well although it began the show a few areas where fine details were softened just a bit, such as the AutoZone coin.

Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 80
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Canon S100 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 400 was fairly close to 200, again differing with just a little bit of softening in some areas of fine detail like the printing in the pen box. ISO 800 continued the general trend of S100 noise performance with differences primarily being noted in loss of fine details, however 800 shows this to a somewhat greater degree than any other step until now. There is more dramatic detail loss in the bear's nose, the writing in the pen box and the slightest of graininess beginning to show on the pen barrel.

ISO 1600 presents a more dramatic deterioration than the 400 - 800 jump; writing in the pen box that was barely legible at 800 is now smeared and illegible and graininess in the light background is becoming more defined. ISO 3200 displays the ongoing deterioration of fine detail, notably in the vodka bottle label, the AutoZone coin (which is now virtually illegible due to smearing) and increased graininess appearing on the playing cards. Finally, 6400 takes us to a place where fine details are smeared and smudged over the entire frame and larger details are impacted by graininess across the entire frame.

The S100 ISO noise performance in general reminds me very strongly of the latest generation DSLRs (Nikon D7000, Canon 60D); that is to say as ISO sensitivities increase there is a gradual progression of loss of fine detail accompanied by a graininess that reminds me most strongly of film grain rather than sensor noise. I feel pretty comfortable shooting the S100 up through 800 for relatively large prints, 1600 for smaller prints, and while 3200 and 6400 are clearly inferior to the lower sensitivities both are usable in a pinch.

Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image
Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image
Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image
Canon S100 Sample Image Canon S100 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
While the S100 supersedes the S95 in Canon's high-end digital compact lineup and bears a strong family resemblance to the earlier camera, it represents a fairly substantial upgrade rather than a more measured progression. Continuous shooting rates are faster and full 1080 HD video is on board, along with the latest generation sensor and processor. The zoom range of the lens has been expanded, as has the native ISO sensitivity range. A GPS tagging capability has been added.


The S100 powers up fairly quickly and focus acquisition in good conditions is relatively prompt; the camera predictably takes a bit longer to acquire focus in dim conditions. Shutter lag (or rather lack thereof) is good. The camera can be perfectly happy plugging along in full auto mode but also offers enthusiasts manual controls and the option to shoot RAW if they so desire. Still image and video quality is good. Battery capacity in the S100 is a modest 200 shots and the 180 dpi output of images is not optimal for either printing or e-mail.

Whether you're in the market for a shirt pocket portable compact digital that offers a RAW shooting capability and manual controls with which to express your creativity or simply a shirt pocket portable compact digital that offers ease of still and video image capture, the S100 just may be the answer in either event.

Pros:

Cons: