As for improvements, this PowerShot S100 features GPS functionality, and in lieu of the S95's old CCD, it now sports a 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, as well.

The has a very sensible, functional design.

It would be fair to call the S100 a “safe” design.

Design departures from the S95, where they exist, aren’t too drastic. It would be fair to call the S100 a “safe” bet on Canon's part. Of course, we can hardly complain about the new 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor; it struggles a bit with color-accuracy, but it excels by way of noise reduction. We also love the new ergonomic features, which add some much-needed stability to the compact frame. For instance, a rubber strip now runs along the front and an ergonomic inlay tops the control panel. The right-hand grip is more pronounced as well, which adds some leverage.

As for navigation, a responsive dual function directional pad / control dial serves as a fast and flexible way to input commands. Most buttons have a short stroke, but with solid tactile feedback and audible clicks. Canon's painless crossroads-style quick menu is accessible with just a single press of a central Func./Set button, and it contains just about every variable you'll regularly need. The S100's menus are excellent all-around, and should suit both advanced and novice photographers.

Our one complaint is reserved for the motorized flash unit, which has a tendency to pop up at random. Given its placement—right where your finger often rests during picture-taking—this can be a real nuisance. This jumpy part is something one can acclimate to, but it's a very pesky design oversight.

No shortage of features

Canon knows how to make a fine, simple, easy-to-use compact camera, and the company sticks to that philosophy with its S-series. Where other manufacturers over-pack a host of complicated functions, Canon travels light. As such, there's not much here that you wouldn't see on any other Canon Powershot, save for some extra manual controls.

The most useful physical feature is the large control ring surrounding the lens. The ring is fully customizable, and may be assigned to variables such as ISO, optical zoom, manual focus, etc. The S100 is otherwise an appealing combination of a new 12-megapixel CMOS image sensor, an f/2.0 lens, and optical image stabilization, all in a compact, pocketable body.

As with most cameras, [GPS] is little more than a gimmick.

For creative control, users will find a full suite of manual shooting modes, including the usual PASM options. The S100 offers RAW shooting too, and Canon throws in 1080/24p video capture just for fun. For novice shooters, there are 13 typical scene modes—Beach, Snow, Foliage, and the rest of the old favorites. A high speed full resolution burst mode hides among the scene modes menu, and it's probably the most useful of the bunch. A GPS transceiver is on hand for "geo-tagging" images, and it takes about ten minutes to find a signal, but it actually works—that's sadly a step ahead of the competing majority. As with most cameras, this functionality is little more than a gimmick, and it's no surprise that Canon swapped out GPS for WiFi in the S110, the S100's replacement for 2012.

Canon made some smart trade-offs.

The Canon S100's new 12-megapixel CMOS image sensor works well with the f/2.0 lens to improve low light shooting, thus retaining some fine detail at higher ISO speeds. The sensor is by no means the best on the market, but it's an improvement, nonetheless.

Be sure to shoot in RAW if you want large prints or low light captures.

The S100's abilities held up fairly well under rigorous examination. The camera relies heavily on in-camera processing (just shoot RAW to eliminate this), but its images are generally agreeable anyway. Color fidelity is quite reliable, for a compact. The camera undersaturates by default, but users can remedy this with simple color adjustments. Images look very sharp in most cases, but obvious processing sometimes makes for ugly halos around edges. In-camera processing makes trouble at the top of the ISO scale, too, with aggressive noise handling that wipes away detail. Be sure to shoot in RAW if you want large prints or low light captures.

Otherwise, the S100 has all the typical trade-offs of a compact camera; it's small and pocketable, but it's not the fastest to focus and shoot, especially in dim light. The f/2.0 lens and 1/1.7-inch sensor offer some relief here, but you can't expect miracles from a camera like this. If you temper expectations, you'll find the S100 to be an excellent performer.

An excellent first foray for aspiring photographers

Following in the footsteps of the excellent S95, Canon once again strikes gold with the PowerShot S100. This camera fulfills the promise of every ultracompact: to cram an astounding level of performance and features into a tiny, portable body. With a slew of new high-end compact cameras hitting the market, the S100 sets the baseline for acceptable performance in a pocketable body.

The S100 sets the baseline for acceptable performance in a pocketable body.

This PowerShot shows off a few new tricks, but not all of them are especially useful. Both the motorized flash unit and the GPS are unpredictable and mildly annoying, but neither are deal-breakers. Truthfully, most of what we love about the S100 came right from the S95. An efficient menu makes shooting speedy and comfortable, the over-sized front control ring is as stylish as it is functional, and the rock-solid body construction instills a sense of confidence and pride in the hardware.

The Canon PowerShot S100 is an ideal first camera, perfect for aspiring photographers who are skilled, but not yet ready to plunge into the realm of interchangeable lenses. At the same time, this camera also makes a fine accessory for enthusiast-level shooters, for situations in which SLRs or even compact system cameras aren’t desirable. Either way, we don’t expect anyone will regret this purchase.

The S100's new 12-megapixel CMOS image sensor and f/2.0 lens, in combination with optical image stabilization and a DIGIC V processor, constitute an impressive overall package. This camera puts these features to work, too, earning great performance scores in our lab tests. Still, scores only tell part of a story.

Solid performance relative to the field, but a tad undersaturated

Color accuracy is solid, but not as impressive as expected, given the Canon name brand. In the most accurate color mode, Neutral, flesh tones are way off, though reds and magentas are pretty close. Scenes were also undersaturated by about 9%, which at least makes sense here at the "neutral" setting. Still, with skin tones inaccurate as they are, human subjects may appear unnatural and unflattering.

Great up to ISO 1600, but noise is too much beyond that

At standard studio illumination and default noise reduction settings, the S100's handling of unwanted image noise is very impressive. Artifacting rates are below 0.50% at ISO 80 or 100, and levels remain low until ISO 1600, before spiking up from there.

In low light, noise levels are even lower, and follow the exact same trend: barely any noise before ISO 1600, with a sharp spike afterward. At each light level, luminance noise makes up more of the total than chroma noise, so expect to see more grain than colored artifacts. These results point to a noise reduction system that is more aggressive at lower ISOs, but that backs off a bit once noise becomes too much. While it's possible to almost completely wipe noise out of a high ISO image, generally the penalty is extreme detail loss; Canon makes the smart choice here, keeping some grain for a more detailed picture.

Of course, as positive as these results are, your best option is to always shoot RAW and ask questions later. Processing RAW shots on a computer, even ones as high as ISO 1600, will usually allow for noise reduction and retention of a finer level of detail.

Not the worst, but not nearly the best

The S100 is capable of advanced drive mode shooting, however the fastest full resolution burst setting is hidden away as a scene mode. Continuous shooting, which is unburdened by the storage limitations of burst, is available from a setting in the quick menu. Lastly, a self-timer features 10 second and 2 second countdowns, as well as a fully customizable setting—which we love.

To be specific, the High-speed Burst HQ scene mode captures full resolution shots at just over 8.5 frames per second, but the buffer maxes out after 8 shots. Continuous shooting is unlimited, but capture speed drops to 2.18 frames per second. RAW continuous shooting is available too, but this further limits speed to just 0.95 frames per second.

The high sharpness score is largely an ill-gotten gain.

The S100's ability to resolve fine detail is excellent. In our test, the camera hit around 2200 lw/ph at MTF50 at the widest and middle focal lengths, with sharpness dropping off very slightly at 5x zoom. These results are slightly better than the Olympus XZ-1, and much better than the Canon G12 and Panasonic LX5.

An MTF50 of 2200 lw/ph is, in reality, an obscene number. The S100 won't resolve that level of detail. Like all point-and-shoots, testing with JPEG allows for a bit of edge enhancement and internal processing, and that's not always a bad thing. In small and medium-sized prints, extra enhancements can make images appear sharper, for example. The drawback is the "halo" effect around areas of contrast that so often accompanies such processing. This effect can be very ugly, especially in large prints.

Meet the testers

Christopher Snow

Christopher Snow

Managing Editor

@BlameSnow

Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.

See all of Christopher Snow's reviews

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