The PowerShot S90 appears to have been designed as a direct response to the Panasonic's LX3. The S90 is even smaller and lighter, however, and aims to match it for all-round quality.
There's no room on the S90 to match the LX3's accessory shoe, though. It also lacks 720p video capture. But there is an HDMI output, and Canon hasn't skimped on controls. There's a full complement of manual and priority exposure modes, RAW capture, exposure bracketing, and the ability to fine-tune white balance presets. A lens ring and a dial around the navigation pad provide quick access to key settings. Manual exposure benefits from a preview image that responds accurately to adjustments - useful if you're learning advanced techniques.
The S90 doesn't get full marks for design, since there's a notable lack of anything to hold on to at the front of the camera. The shiny metal body makes one-handed shooting feel precarious. The buttons are a little small too.
Image quality is another matter. The S90's lens matches the LX3's f/2 aperture for wide-angle shots, gathering twice as much light as f/2.8 lenses. With the help of optical stabilisation and a large, modest-resolution sensor, the S90 performed superbly in low light, capturing attractive shots when most cameras this size manage only a noisy or blurry mess. The S90 outperformed the LX3 here too. The difference was marginal when comparing each camera's RAW output, but more noticeable with JPEGs.
The LX3 retained sharper details at ISO 1600, but also displayed more noise. On balance, we preferred the S90's approach.
Automatic focus and exposure, meanwhile, were unerringly excellent, and the extra zoom range compared to the LX3 gave the S90 more flexibility.
The lack of HD video capture is regrettable, but otherwise this is a superbly conceived camera that serves the needs of both casual snappers and keen photographers. It's expensive, but this is a good example of a product being greater than the sum of its parts.