Canon PowerShot S120 review

The Canon PowerShot S120 delivers impressive image quality in a compact package with Raw shooting capability, but it's not quite an Editors' Choice.
Photo of Canon PowerShot S120

The Canon PowerShot S120 ($449.99 direct) represents the yearly update to the company’s high-end S series, taking the place of the S110. The camera offers several improvements over the previous iteration, including faster performance and 1080p60 video capture. The aesthetics are unchanged and it still uses a 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CMOS image sensor, but the quicker shooting is noteworthy. Its image quality still can’t match the Editors’ Choice Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II, which packs a larger sensor into a similar body and adds a tilting rear LCD and support for an add-on EVF, but the Canon is a more affordable model.

Design and Features
The S120 is truly pocketable, measuring just 2.3 by 3.9 by 1.1 inches and weighing in at 7.7 ounces. It’s only available in black, a departure from previous models with silver versions as options. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, another Editors’ Choice winner with a 1-inch sensor, is very similar in size and design; it measures 2.4 by 4 by 1.4 inches and weighs 8.5 ounces. Like the original RX100, the S120 lacks a hot shoe, uses a fixed rear display, and features a control ring around its lens to adjust settings during shooting.

The lens features a 5x zoom ratio, which sounds low compared to superzoom models with smaller image sensors but is fairly standard for cameras in this class. It’s a 24-120mm f/1.8-5.7 (35mm equivalent) design that offers a fairly wide angle and a medium telephoto range. The Nikon Coolpix P330 covers a similar range, and like the S120 its maximum f/1.8 aperture narrows as you zoom. You’ll want to stick to wider angles when shooting in dim light; to get a compact camera with a wide-aperture lens throughout its zoom range you’ll want need to look at a slightly larger model like the Olympus XZ-2, which packs a 28-112mm f/1.8-2.5 zoom.

There are just a few controls on the S120′s body, but adjusting oft-used shooting settings is pretty straightforward. Up top are the standard power button, zoom rocker, shutter release, and mode dial. On the rear you’ll find a control wheel that doubles as a four-way controller: Directional presses activate macro shooting mode, adjust exposure compensation and flash output, and toggle the amount of information shown on the rear display. There’s also a movie button, and the standard playback and menu controls.

At the center of the control dial is the Function/Set button. Pressing this activates an on-screen overlay menu that provides access to the shooting settings: ISO, the metering pattern, white balance, the drive mode and self-timer, file format, and the internal neutral density filter. One other control on the rear, the Ring Function button, adjusts the behavior of the front control ring that surrounds the lens. By default it adjusts aperture or shutter speed depending on the selected mode, but it can also be configured to change the ISO, adjust the zoom or focus of the lens, apply exposure compensation, adjust white balance, or perform more esoteric adjustments. There’s a wealth of customizability there, much like the similar ring found on the Sony RX100 and RX100 II.

The rear LCD is three inches in size and packs a 922k-dot resolution. That’s double the resolution of the rear LCD that Fujifilm put in its stylish XF1. It’s extremely sharp, so you can confirm that you’ve nailed a shot right after you’ve captured it. It’s also touch-sensitive, which allows you to tap the area of the frame that you’d like to focus on. You can use the touch navigation to swipe through images in playback mode.

A few years ago Wi-Fi was a rare feature on digital cameras, but today it’s almost expected. The S120 uses the same Wi-Fi implementation that Canon puts in its other point-and-shoot cameras, with a notable refinement. Gone is the requirement to plug the S120 into a PC in order to setup web services via the Canon Image Gateway service. You’ll still need to set up an Image Gateway account via a browser, but now you can pair the camera with that account over Wi-Fi. Once it’s set up you can post images and videos to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Flickr when you’re connected to a hotspot. The Samsung EX2F lets you do the same, but it lets you configure your accounts directly from the camera itself.

You can also transfer images directly from the camera to your iOS or Android device via the free Canon CameraWindow application. It’s easy to setup: If you’re out and about you’ll be prompted to enter a password in your phone or tablet to connect to an access point that the S120 broadcasts. If you’re at home and both your device and the S120 are connected to the same network, they’ll find each other automatically. Other Wi-Fi functions are available that allow you to transfer images to your computer, print to a Canon Wi-Fi printer, or beam them wirelessly to another Canon camera.

Performance and Conclusions
The S120 can starts and capture a photo in 1.5 seconds, and records a shutter lag that’s pretty close to 0 seconds. It’s a bit faster than the Nikon P330, which requires 2.1 seconds to start and shoot and delivers a 0.2-second shutter lag. Burst shooting speed varies based on file format, but if you are a JPG shooter you’ll be able to fire away at 10 frames per second. If you opt to shoot Raw the speed is 1.9fps, and it slows to 1.6fps in Raw+JPG mode. We didn’t hit a limit to those rates in our lab tests; the S120 was able to keep up the pace for as long as the shutter button was pressed when paired with a SanDisk 95MBps memory card.

This in stark contrast to the Nikon P330; it can grab a quick burst of 10 photos at 6.8fps, but requires 25 seconds to recover from a burst of Raw or JPG images, and 105 seconds for a Raw+JPG burst. The P330 even struggles after a single photo; it requires that you wait 1.9 seconds between JPG images and 3.7 seconds between Raw captures. The S120 requires a more typical 1.1-second wait for JPGs and 1.7 seconds for Raw captures.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the S120′s lens at its widest angle, midpoint, and telephoto extreme. It bettered the 1,800 lines per picture height that we require for a sharp photo at each tested focal length. At 24mm f/1.8 it managed 1,897 lines, although edges were a little soft for our liking at 1,436 lines. Stopping down to f/2.8 increased the overall sharpness to 2,150 lines, but it doesn’t do anything to improve edge performance. There’s about 2.4 percent barrel distortion here, so straight lines appear curved outward; you’ll need to correct this with software as needed. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II delivers similar performance; it manages 2,048 lines at its widest 28mm f/1.8 setting, with edges that are just shy of 1,450 lines, but those edges improve as you stop down. The RX100 II applies in-camera correction to both Raw and JPG images, so they are free of barrel and pincushion distortion.

At the midpoint of its zoom (61mm equivalent), the aperture S120′s maximum aperture narrows to f/4. It manages 2,317 lines here, with sharp edges that approach 2,000 lines. Distortion is still noticeable at about 2 percent. At the 120mm equivalent. the maximum aperture dips to f/5.7; average sharpness clocks in at 2,151 lines, and edge sharpness is around 1,725 lines—that’s quite respectable for the edges of the frame. The RX100 II also maintains its sharpness when zoomed in, and like the S120 its aperture narrows when zoomed.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can make images appear grainy and rob them of sharpness as the ISO is increased. The S120 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 800, which is about what we expect from a camera of this type. We took a close look at images at each ISO on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display to see how well they held up. Image detail is good at ISO 800, though there is some loss when the JPG is compared side-by-side with the ISO 400 JPG. If you shoot Raw there’s no loss of detail, but there is a bit more noise. Pushing the S120 to ISO 1600 and you’ll get noticeable smudges of fine lines when shooting JPGs, but again you can get around that by shooting in Raw. Images start to get overwhelmed by noise at ISO 3200, regardless of which format you choose. The Sony RX100 II is the best compact camera we’ve seen at very high ISOs; it keeps JPG noise below 1.5 percent through its maximum ISO 12800 setting, and delivers impressive detail with minimal smudging through ISO 3200.

Video is recorded in MP4 format at 1080p60. The footage is sharp, with excellent colors and detail, and the camera is quick to adjust for changes in focus. Voices on the soundtrack are clear, and the lens is not audible as it zooms in and out. There is some evidence of the rolling shutter effect, which causes the bottom of the frame to advance more quickly than its top when performing quick pans, but it’s only slight. There are standard mini-USB and mini-HDMI ports, and Canon includes an external battery charger in the box. SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.

The Canon PowerShot S120 is an impressive pocket shooter. It brings a few much-needed upgrades to the S-series, with notably faster performance and an improved video mode. Its $450 price is a bit on the high side, but you’ll need to spend significantly more to get a significantly better camera at this size. There are other good choices available in this price range if you don’t mind a camera that’s a bit larger; the Samsung EX2F, Olympus XZ-2, and Fujifilm X20 all feature lenses that maintain a fast aperture throughout the entirety of the zoom range.

If you’re more concerned about size, you’ll have to live with a compact camera with an aperture that gets fairly narrow when zoomed in. The Sony RX100 II, our current Editors’ Choice premium compact, is one of these; that $750 camera delivers more resolution, a larger image sensor, a tilting display, and a hot shoe, all in a form factor that’s almost identical to the S120. There’s also the RX100 ($650); it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, or any of the added bells and whistles that the RX100 II gives you, but its 1-inch sensor and lens offer the same advantages in image quality as its more expensive sibling.

Not everyone is prepared to spend quite that much money on a compact camera, and the S120 is a solid choice if your budget doesn’t cross the $500 mark. It’s still by no means a budget option (another Canon compact, the Elph 330 HS is worth a look if you aren’t looking to spend a ton of money on a pocket camera). With smartphones eating away at the low end of the digital camera market, the premium compact segment is crowded. There are a wealth of models available with larger-than-average image sensors that hover around the $500 price point, and a few outliers that command as much as $750. Some place an emphasis on lens speed, others pack optical or electronic viewfinders, and a few value size above all else. The PowerShot S120 falls into the latter group; it’s a solid choice if you’re looking for a Raw-shooting compact that places an emphasis on its compactness, and don’t want to totally break the bank, it’s worth a close look.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.3 x 3.9 x 1.1 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 12 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.1 seconds
LCD dots 922000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 12800
Type Compact
GPS No
Optical Zoom 5 x
Boot time 1.5 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 24 mm
Weight 7.7 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 1897
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 120 mm
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 1/1.7" (7.6 x 5.7mm) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Canon PowerShot S120 delivers impressive image quality in a compact package with Raw shooting capability, but it's not quite an Editors' Choice.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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