The Canon PowerShot S90 is as minimal as it gets. It's a single matte black slab with no protruding features - in fact, the controls on top are cut so they don't jut out from the silhouette. Except for the gentle curves on the side, there aren't any styling curves or cuts like you might see on a Canon IXUS series.
We're a big fan of minimalism as anyone else, but while handling the S90 we wonder if Canon might have gone too far with it. Nondescript might be a more apt word for the S90. Left alone, we imagine the camera would be hard pressed to draw attention to itself if nobody knew the power features it packed.
It's a fair bet that photographers are usually not the center of attention at places they shoot. While a more colorful camera might work as a conversation piece at a social event, a non-attention grabber like the S90 allows the photographer to fade into the background, and concentrate on their shoot instead of being looked at.
While slightly bigger and denser than compacts, the S90 is as comfortable to carry and handle - which is amazing considering the features it has. It has a nice balanced heft and is comfortable to hold.
Since the S90 is one monotonous rectangular slab, only the gentle curves on the sides help you grip the camera, together with a single thumb-rest on the back of the camera, below the mode-dial. This buttress, where your thumb naturally finds itself, helps to give you a firm grip, especially when shooting single-handed.
The S90's built-in flash is pretty cool. Instead of popping up, it slides upwards silently, smoothly, and slides right back down when not needed.
Like we mentioned, the controls on the S90's top cover seem to have been specifically designed not to cut the camera's silhouette. The zoom toggle, being a tiny stub, barely clears the front line, and also barely stays this side of usability.
If you don't like using the zoom toggle though, here's where the unique direct control ring comes in. A physical ring you can rotate on the lens, the direct control ring can be set to control settings like shutter/aperture, ISO sensitivity and zoom. It's not a new idea since lenses on DSLR cameras have manual zoom and focal control rings, and some consumer camcorders also have direct control rings on their lenses. But it's a first for compact cameras and being so useful, a wonder why nobody else has thought of doing it before.
Or at least, the idea sounds useful. In real life, we found that using the control ring takes some getting used to. Unlike a DSLR which has some size and weight to keep it steady when adjusting the lens' zoom or focus, the S90's small size and light weight means that when you adjust the control ring, the camera tends to jiggle about.
Is the control ring useful practically? Yes, it's a marvelous tool to get into and change settings like aperture immediately when you're in aperture mode. You can also set the control ring to control other settings (one at a time though), like ISO, zoom and exposure, so you'll always have a single, quick way to adjust those parameters on the fly.
At the same time, because the camera tends to move about while using the control ring, we found ourselves focusing, adjusting, and re-focusing again. So while the controls offer you as much power as a DSLR over settings like aperture and shutter speed, it doesn't offer you the power as conveniently as a DSLR.
Besides the direct control ring, there's also a scroll wheel on the back of the S90, surrounding the directional pad. The scroll wheel can also be preset to different settings, so when you're in manual, you can have the direct control ring set to aperture control while the scroll wheel controls shutter speed, giving you a quick, easy way to make changes while you shoot. This is great - in theory at least, just like the direct control ring. Because the scroll wheel circumvents the directional pad, we've accidentally brushed one of these when we meant to use the other. As with the direct control ring, it takes some getting used to.
The last bit you need to get used to is the difference between the On/Off and the Ring Func. buttons. To change what the control ring controls, you press the Ring Func. button on top of the S90, which brings up a menu on the LCD, we tried this quite a few times to get the feel of it.
Unfortunately, by feel alone, the On/Off and the Ring Func. button feel quite similar, and to avoid accidentally turning the camera off, we found ourselves pausing to look down on our camera before depressing, and this took a couple of precious seconds of our shooting time.
Again, this is probably something you need to get used to before it gets burned into your muscle memory. With its compact size and using of the direct control ring in conjunction with the scroll wheel, the PowerShot S90 is quite unlike any camera we've handled before, and that might account for the cognitive dissonance we've experiencing in this quick trial. Unlike something you can pick up and go with immediately, the S90 feels like a camera you need to take the time to get to know - at least, if you want to go off Auto mode.
Oh, and besides Auto mode, we'd like to mention the convenient Custom mode, represented by a 'C' on the mode dial. Custom mode saves all your settings, even when you flip away to other modes and make changes there. This is really useful for situations when you hand off your camera to someone else but don't want them to change your present settings, or when you have default settings to shoot with but want to experiment with settings in other modes.
The last handling features we want to mention are the LCD screen and the menus. The LCD is big and bright, taking up most of the real estate at the back. The menus are typical Canon, all very easy to use, with the familiar 'L' shaped quick menu giving you fast access to the most essential settings.
That's it for our quick handling preview. The Canon PowerShot S90 feels like a camera with promise, so check back soon on HardwareZone.com when we review the production model