Canon PowerShot G1 X review

Canon's G1 X boasts a beefy 14-megapixel resolution and a tank-load of ambition. Its mandate, no less, is to deliver the image quality and control of a DSLR inside the discreet body of a compact, aiming to attract serious photographers who want to travel light or supplement their main kit. That's why the G1 X houses a substantial 1.5-inch CMOS sensor, stretching to around 80 percent of the size of APS-C, along with an anti-minimalist array of dials, knobs and buttons to provide quick access to manual settings. It also explains why the G1 X is 30 percent heavier than both its evolutionary ancestor and some of its competitors, and why its price tag is equally hefty: $800, which is SLR-like in all the wrong ways. We've had this shooter long enough to gather our thoughts, but as to whether it deserves a smile or a snarl, you'll have to read on to find out.


So, the G1 X is technically a compact, but it's certainly not a compact compact. We admit to being slightly taken aback by this guy's size, weight and overall "blockiness" during un-boxing, even bearing in mind that the form factor hasn't changed much since the G12. The official weight including battery is 535g (19 ounces), whereas the G12 is 400g (14 ounces) and the PowerShot S100 is a mere 200g (seven ounces).

We measured the total protrusion, from the back of the closed LCD to the tip of the lens cover, at around 75mm (three inches) with the camera switched off. This is very similar to the camera's height, which helps to explain why the G1 X feels so cube-like. Powering the camera on immediately causes the lens to extend out 30mm (1.2 inches), even though that's maximum wide, while full zoom lengthens it by roughly the same amount again. Single-handed operation is easy enough, particularly when using the optical viewfinder, but the weight, long lens and 117mm (4.6-inch) width prevent this from feeling particularly natural or comfortable. In terms of pocket-ability, you'll require a deep coat pocket and even then it might look as if you're carrying a grenade.

If you take your photography seriously, then none of this size-ist talk should put you off. Neither should you be deterred by the fact that this camera demands to be stored and transported properly. Although the body and top dials are sturdy metal, the flip-out display and most of the buttons on the back are plastic, so you don't want this this thing flinging itself around in your luggage. A lighter, cheaper camera will happily be shoved into the general zip-up pocket on your rucksack, but not the G1 X.

Treat the G1 X right and its design will reward you generously. You can do things with a compact like this that would be too awkward with an SLR. Want to take some snaps of your kid in the toy store? A big, pro-looking SLR will not be your buddy in that situation, but the G1 X will barely attract a cursory glance from the guy on security.

Don't take that optical viewfinder for granted either. It's pokey, imprecise, lacking in any sort of visual aids, and at maximum wide it displays an intimate close-up of your lens barrel, but it's still handy for quick-trigger snaps when you don't want to mess with the flip-out LCD. Just bear in mind that shots through the OVF will leave you utterly reliant on auto-focus and you won't even know if it's accurate until you preview at the resultant image. Nevertheless, the grubby-faced image below was taken in this fashion, with flash too, and it turned out fine.

Directly below the OVF sits the large f/2.8-5.8 lens, which simply wouldn't fit on a smaller body. The large maximum aperture compares well with, say, the kit lens you might get with a similarly-priced DSLR or the Olympus E-P3, but the obvious flip-side to this is that you can't upgrade it. While NEX users can save up for a $1000 f/1.4 prime, and DSLR users can enjoy much cheaper and older fast lenses, the G1 X is stuck in it's birthday suit. Another bugbear: there's no in-built lens cap and we don't like lens caps that dangle off bits of string, because they get in the way.

Aside from everything else, the biggest boon offered by the G1 X's chunky design is the quantity and placement of manual controls, which put more fashion-conscious shooters to shame. You've got the wonderful stacked dials on top, giving immediate access to shooting modes and exposure compensation (to plus or minus 3EV). There's another dial on the front of the camera, just below the shutter release, which gives you SLR-style control over aperture and helps to make full manual mode feel entirely normal. The hot shoe mount is a major asset, even if it does protrude a couple of millimeters too far. The position of the flash and its switch will cause you no problems, while the power, shutter release and zoom knobs are precisely where you'd expect to find them.

Shutter speed is controlled via a scroll wheel on the rear of the camera, which also functions a D-Pad. Including this hybrid wheel and its four-way buttons, there are no fewer than thirteen separate physical controls on the back of the camera. Many of these buttons have multiple functions depending on your shooting mode and settings, which makes for a pretty intimidating array. A DSLR user will feel right at home, however, and compact users will owe it to themselves to become proficient with these controls -- after all, this is an $800 investment.

User Interface

The centerpiece of the UI is the bright and effective three-inch, 922,000-dot LCD, which displays an overlaid histogram and spirit level by default. Beyond those indicators, you get numbers and symbols for all the usual bits of information, and these can be readily understood without referring to the manual. Especially helpful are the visual indications of which dial you need to turn to change a setting -- that's a very friendly touch, especially since you can re-assign the dials to different functions and potentially lose track of what they each do. Oh, and good news for videographers and the vanity-afflicted: the LCD flips out completely allowing to check framing even when you're in front of the lens. It's an identical system to that on Nikon D5100 and you'll quickly come to rely on it.

At the top left of the LCD you'll find a shortcut button, which can be assigned to a range of controls to speed up access, such as white balance or whether you want to capture a RAW image to go along with your JPEG.

To get the most out of this camera, and despite the abundance of bells and whistles, you'll still need to enter the menu system for some crucial settings. For example, for reliable focusing you should pick the right mode -- FlexiZone lets you choose which part of the frame to focus on, while other modes prioritize faces or track moving objects. Whichever mode you choose will have a knock-on effect on what happens when you press the focus button, immediately top-left of the scroll wheel. It's a logical system, and a necessity for giving you complete control, but it's a language that can takes some hours of shooting to master -- even if you're an experienced photographer.

There's one omission that we can't gloss over: the dedicated ISO button from the G12 has evaporated. This means changing ISO is now a three-stage process, where you press 'up' on the D-pad, then 'left' or 'right' to the desired setting, then 'FUNC.SET' to accept it. There has to be a limit to how many dials you can fit on a camera this size, so we're not going to make a huge fuss. Besides, you can tell the camera your maximum acceptable ISO and let it take care of the rest. All in all, you won't find us grumbling over any aspect of this camera's UI.

Performance and battery life

Grabbing a shot in a rush was no problem with the G1 X. We could power up, frame a shot using the optical viewfinder, focus and release the shutter in 3.1 seconds. Flipping the LCD viewfinder around to use that instead of the OVF added a one-second delay due to the extra fumbling and time for framing.

Canon claims 4.5 full-res shots per second, but that's only with the Burst mode that lasts for six shots. With continuous shooting, we fired off nine shots in the space of five seconds (i.e., just under two frames per second) with fixed focus, full-res JPEG files, shutter at 1/125 and a SanDisk Extreme Pro 45MB/s SD card. With continuous AF shooting as we moved towards a stationary target, it took ten seconds to get nine shots, or less than one frame per second. Capturing RAW as well as JPEG files during continuous AF yielded six shots in ten seconds. For comparison, using a Nikon D5100 used in the same conditions, with the same SD card and the same settings (RAW+JPEG, Continuous AF) produced 17 shots in ten seconds, which means the G1 X can be up to three times slower than a similarly priced DSLR, and also slower than many other compacts on the market.

Battery life was acceptable, but not impressive. We achieved 230 shots (or 300 files, as many were RAW+JPEG), captured over the space of three hours, before the camera died. This did include an obscene number of self-timer shots, long exposures and also a few 1080p video clips totaling around two and a half minutes, and absorbing around 3.3GB of data on a single charge should be sufficient for most users. However, it has to be said that the Sony NEX-7 managed 700 stills and 45 minutes of 1920 x 1080 video on a charge. (Bear in mind, though, that various settings will have been different between our two reviews, so this can't be treated as a benchmark -- it's merely a broad-brush comparison.)

Macro mode on the G1 X leaves also much to be desired. Autofocus during macro was slow and unintelligent, and we could only achieve proper focus with the lens at full wide, which severely limited just how "macro" we go.

Image and video quality

We loved the vast majority of the stills we took with this camera, and especially those with bold colors and plenty of light. The camera itself doesn't produce particularly vibrant colors, but when we supplied the vibrancy our shots came out nicely. The contribution of the large sensor is obvious, especially in shots that benefit from shallow depth of field.

The camera made smart adjustments to white balance and it's auto-exposure was usually right on target -- although once or twice the camera showed an inclination towards over-exposure when in evaluative mode. Moreover, due to excellent image stabilization, we were just about able to scrape through with a clean-ish portrait shot of the security guard above at an eighth of a second shutter speed (with evaluative metering and everything on auto).

We generally avoided the various post-processing modes within the camera, but one shooting mode that quickly proved its usefulness was the in-camera HDR processing, which merges three different exposures into a single image give a much greater dynamic range.

Low-light performance was one area where our high expectations of the large sensor were slightly disappointed. Perhaps we've been spoiled by our experience with full-frame cameras, but it's important to acknowledge that you can't shoot ISO 1600 on this device and expect to be able to heavily crop or blow up your images.

Noise was less apparent in JPEG images, because the processing blurred out speckle with the sacrifice of detail. If you look at Cyclop's cheek below, you can see how details fade at the higher ISOs. Despite our criticisms, however, noise is very scene- and exposure-dependent and there'll be times when you can pull off a shot at maximum ISO and still feel pleased with the results, so this issue can't be considered a deal-breaker.

Video quality was par for the course for a still camera -- but that's still a rookie course. Audio was good and adjusted cleverly to extremely loud and quiet sounds, and there's a 3.5mm mic jack a cable release port and mini HDMI output to help matters further. Zoom works while recording, but it'll often highlight bad focusing. While the continuous auto-focus during video was better than some stills cameras we've seen, it still couldn't quite keep up with quick changes in distance. There wasn't much hunting, at least: the focus shifted gradually before settling on the right subject, which made for nicer viewing. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for auto-exposure, which adjusted itself far too abruptly and became a distraction. So, while this camera fared well compared to the competition, we still wouldn't use it for anything other than relatively static shots, or short and casual clips for remembering a moment in time.

The competition

For all its foibles, the G1 X still holds up well against its rivals. While the Nikon P7100 may look similar, it has a much smaller sensor and lower resolution -- as reflected by the fact that it's $300 cheaper.

At closer quarters sits the Olympus E-P3, which has similarly intuitive design and manual controls along with the added advantage of interchangeable lenses, but it has a slightly smaller sensor and it's $100 more expensive. Meanwhile, the Fujifilm X10 can be ruled out of this comparison because of its comparatively tiny sensor.

If you want interchangeable lenses and manual controls and a lovely huge sensor, then you need to seriously magnify your budget, since the Sony NEX-7 goes for $1,200, the Fujifilm X100 fetches $1,400 and the X-Pro 1 is expected to roll in with a $1,700 ransom demand. You could also check out Ricoh's GXR modular system.

Going the opposite way down budget highway brings us to the wonderful NEX-C3, which we've worshipped aplenty on this site. It's just $600 with an f/2.8 fixed lens, has a full APS-C sensor with greater resolution than the G1 X, and it has better battery life too. On the other hand, the C3 is more geared to automatic shooting and the lack of buttons and dials makes manual controls more fiddly in comparison. We actually tried switching to NEX-C3 after a day of manual shooting with the G1 X and it was an intensely frustrating experience.

One other option you have to consider is going right up to a full-blown DSLR. You may reject this notion out-of-hand if you're a seasoned shooter and the whole reason you're looking at the G1 X is because it's a compact. On the other hand, if you're just starting out with manual-mode photography and you're open to the idea of something three times bigger and heavier, then a camera like the Nikon D5100 offers a larger sensor, better controls, interchangeable lenses, the same flippable LCD, a far superior optical viewfinder, better low-light performance, and more shots per second, and all for just $900.


If you demand that an $800 camera contributes to your photography with "extras" like high ISO, interchangeable lenses or exceptional macro prowess, then the G1 X has rivals that are perhaps more worthy of your consideration. However, having used the G1 X heavily for a few days, we can look past its weaknesses -- even its underwhelming battery life and uninformative OVF -- and admit we've become quite attached to it. Our affection has everything to do with the large sensor, fast lens and the overall physicality of the camera -- its design, feel and the accessibility of its controls. If you want a tool for capturing high-impact images, and not necessarily for adding impact to your images, then the G1 X ought to suit you fine.