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By Mike Joubert 26 November 2009

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Canon’s little black number, the S90, hides some powerful innovation in a very compact body. The most import being the control ring round its lens and also some excellent low-light shooting abilities.

The control ring
The control ring situated round the lens is certainly the stand out feature of the 10 megapixel S90. This ring can be assigned to control certain functions, for example changing the ISO and exposure, selecting manual focus or auto-focus, selecting the white balance or changing the zoom. You’ll end up using these elements far more, since you don’t need to dig through a menu structure to find them anymore. The most useful of the lot is what Canon calls Step Zoom, which lets you control the 3.8x zoom in fixed steps (28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm, 105 mm). The ring helps by bypassing the tedious zooming-in motion, allowing you to quickly and easily frame your shot. We found it an absolute pleasure to use, although the 3.8x zoom doesn’t really give you a lot to work with. The lens does come with an optical stabilizer though, a good wide-angle of 28 mm for nice landscape shots and an impressive speed rating of f2 (Samsung’s recent ST500 only does f4.9).
Low-light
While the control ring adds to the camera\'s girth, the S90 is still very pocketable. Absent from the body is both an optical viewfinder and a flash. The flash only pop-ups from the body fairly infrequently thanks to the availability of the superb low-light mode. We were scared that using this setting might push up the graininess of captured images to such an extent that it would look unsightly. Not so, we were more than satisfied with the results, and it sure beat firing the life-dulling flash. By using this mode instead of flash we also got away with longer battery life. With a low frequency of flash use you’ll be able to handle a day\'s worth of sight-seeing before recharge is necessary.
The back
The 3” LCD display\'s quality was good and generally very bright, and we didn\'t once miss the optical viewfinder. Canon’s menu structure can be a bit of a pain to initially figure out, and the platoon of buttons at the back doesn’t make things any easier. Also present is a control dial which, for example, can be turned to select the shooting mode under the Scene selection. It also works in conjunction with the front control ring where it can be used to control lens speed or exposure. As much as we loved working with the front lens ring, the control dial was a pain in the backside, it\'s so sensitive that we often changed settings by accident.
No HD video
While the S90 has an HDMI port present to playback your photos on HD devices, the lack of HD video shooting capabilities was a let down. The S90 seems like a perfect candidate for HD video, seeing as it carries the very speedy DIGIC 4 processor, which by the way makes reviewing your photos a lightening quick exercise.
RAW
Canon obviously put a lot of thought into the shooting capabilities of the S90, so much so that they have included RAW capturing, usually found on their higher end models such as the G11 and dSLRs. It’s testament to the excellent functionality that the focus ring brings to the table, making a lot of features far more accessible than on regular compacts. We sure hope to see similar functionality on the upcoming G12.
The S90 is currently one of the best compact cameras available, and at R5499 you are paying a premium for it.
PROS
Control ring, low light shooting, power in a compact body, RAW
CONS
Control dial too sensitive, no HD video
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