You'll either love or hate the way the PowerShot S90 looks. It's completely utilitarian and no understatement to simply call it a black box. A single matte black slab with no protruding features, 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 wondered in our S90 preview if Canon had taken minimalism too far over the edge into plain territory here, but after using it for a while we've become quite taken with the S90's unassuming looks. The camera fades away into the background and lets what's important take the foreground: the photographic act, and we can certainly live with that.
The S90 is only slightly heftier than a compact, and considering the bigger sensor and extra controls it's packing, that's an amazing feat. Unless you own one of those super-slim compacts, we're going to go out on a limb and say that you won't really feel the difference between the S90 and any other compact when you're carrying it around.
Even though it's a simple box, little features help to make single-handed shooting comfortable. The gentle curves on the sides help you grip the camera, together with a 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. The S90 feels nicely balanced and has a good heft to it.
We're guessing what most people want to know is if the manual control ring works, and with a slight caveat, yes it does. Most marvellously. The caveat is that you need to get used to it. Details follow.
A physical ring you can rotate on the lens, the control ring surrounds the lens and gives you direct control over settings like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus, exposure and zoom depending on which mode you're in. What it controls can also be customized via the Ring Function button on top of the S90. A manual control ring isn't 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.
A scroll wheel that surrounds the directional pad on the back of the S90 works in tandem to give you control over an additional setting. For example, the control ring governs aperture in Aperture Priority, but if you customize it to take over ISO, the scroll wheel will then take over aperture control. In Auto mode, the manual control ring is set to focal length control and the scroll wheel to exposure.
This two-handed action takes a while to get used to, and it's not without its problems. Despite the nifty one-handed skills we're reading about on the Internet, we've never been able to work the manual control ring with just one hand on the S90, it has always been two for us. Also, the scroll wheel surrounds the tiny directional pad, and it's easy to move one when you mean to move the other, we learned to be extra careful around it.
But when you do get used to it, it's incredibly easy to change settings on the fly, and the amount of flexibility it affords you makes shooting on the go so much fun.
The zoom toggle, being a tiny stub, barely clears the front line, but stays this side of usability. The zoom toggle feels a little oversensitive, as if it's zooming towards presets instead of reacting to minute adjustments.
If you don't like using the zoom toggle, you can always switch to using the manual control ring to zoom. In Auto mode, the control ring is set to preset focal lengths by default. If you think about shooting in terms of lengths like 28mm or 50mm, this is an absolute joy. Shoot wide? Set to 28mm. Shooting a portrait? Go straight to 50mm.
The Mode Dial was the one control on the S90 we couldn't get used to. Mostly recessed, it's stiff and hard to move, making mode-changing one of unnecessary frustrations.
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.
The LCD deserves special mention. Large at 3-inch, the LCD is also dense at approximately 461k dots, and it shows. It's brilliant, bright with rich colors and sharp to a fault. We've never seen an LCD look so good on a compact camera before, and it even comes with brightness controls.
If there's a fault to the LCD, it's this - and this is nit-picking at its fineness here - its brilliance makes your shots look so good it's hard to see the flaws, like blurriness or noise unless you zoom in close. Yes, it's silly to mention, but we'd feel bad if we didn't admit that this is one good thing you should watch out for if you don't want surprises later in post-processing.
The menu is intuitive and easy to use. Manual aficionados will love drilling through the menus and discovering how much the S90 lets you have manual controls. Even the timer menu lets you determine exactly how many seconds it should wait and how many shots it should take after that.