Getting a compact camera noticed above the swell of $500 mid-range snappers is difficult, but the S90's aspirations towards miniature-DSLR quality are obvious. The body weighs a chunky 175g and, with the exception of the battery door, is made entirely out of metal.
A glance at the mode dial reveals another reason for the steep price. Unlike most compact cameras, the S90 has the full range of manual control modes.
There's a green square mode for those who simply want to point and shoot, but it's supplemented by program, shutter and aperture priority modes, plus a fully manual mode.
The luxuries continue with an unusual mode ring around the lens. Click it around and you can perform a number of tasks: in most modes it operates the optical zoom, although the fact that it clicks, rather than spins smoothly, underlines the drawback of not being able to make tiny changes to your shot's focal length.
The ring can also control aperture, or ISO, and it's useful to have a large control interface to avoid using the fiddly flick-wheel on the back.
Canon makes bold claims about the S90's low-light performance. Up to ISO 800, we had few complaints with only a little noise settling in. It wasn't until ISO 1600 that a few images began to show disruptive amounts of mottled colours and noisy backgrounds.
ISO 3200 produced murky images and, if you're willing to drop the resolution to 2.5-megapixels using the "expanded" ISO mode, then it goes up to ISO 12500. These are only suitable for web use, not printing.
ISO 12500 seems like a party piece, but one feature that definitely isn't is the inclusion of a RAW capture mode. Still, we were disappointed that the extra outlay on the S90 doesn't buy you much increased raw speed. Flicking it to continuous mode saw us capture shots at a rate of just one per second.
The high price means it isn't for the occasional snapper, and also note that low-end DSLRs are actually cheaper. But, if you don't want the bulk of a DSLR, the Canon PowerShot S90 offers fantastic build quality and takes great photos, while the mode ring makes it easy to quickly change settings.