Camera manufacturers all seem to believe that there’s a middle ground between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR, and they’ve all tried to find it — Nikon with the 1 series, Sony with the NEX models, Olympus with the PEN line, Samsung with its NX cameras, and the like. The sell goes something like this: it’s a smaller camera, easier to use and less expensive, but still offering the same level of control (or nearly so) and the same level of image quality (or nearly so) as your DSLR. Canon’s entrant into the field is the $799.99 PowerShot G1 X, and Canon did things a little differently than its competitors: there are no interchangeable lenses to be found, and the G1 X is considerably more expensive than most of its competition. This camera is also explicitly intended to be a companion to a DSLR, not to replace one — it’s made for a 5D or D3s owner who doesn’t want to lug around a huge camera all the time, but still wants great pictures. Its specs have broader appeal, though: its 1.5-inch, 14.3-megapixel sensor is positively enormous for a camera in this range, and it offers ISO range up to 12,800, an f/2.8 lens with 4x optical zoom from 28-112mm, and 1080p video recording.
Has Canon figured out how to cram DSLR-like quality into a smaller body? And is the G1 X only a companion camera, or could it serve as your one and only shooter? Perhaps most importantly, is the G1 X a better companion to a DSLR owner than Canon’s own PowerShot S95 or S100, two pocket-sized cameras that we already know offer excellent controls and image quality? Read on to find out.
Hardware / design
It's big and bulky, but it's really well made
This is a well-built camera to be sure, with an aluminum alloy / polycarbonate body that's solid as a rock. Its black-on-black, industrial aesthetic definitely borrows from the G12, the G1 X's predecessor, and it's a decent-looking camera despite being a little clunky. Nearly every surface is covered with buttons, wheels, and triggers, which make the camera look a little busy compared to competitors like the Fujifilm X10, whose sleek minimalism is a selling point. Personally, I'll always take more controls at the expense of some attractiveness, but some might prefer the X10's looks. In addition to all the controls, the top of the camera houses a hotshoe and a pop-up flash (beware: your finger might get in the way), while Micro HDMI and Mini USB ports live on the left side beneath a plastic door. The SD card and battery slots sit on the bottom, underneath another door — most companies combine the two, and I wish they'd stop, because it means the camera turns off every time you want to change cards. It's a nitpick, to be sure, but it'd be nice (especially for DSLR owners) to be able to swap cards in and out easily.
Since there are no interchangeable lenses, the one attached to the G1 X is extremely important. It's a 28-112mm, f/2.8-f/5.8 Canon lens, and it's fine without being particularly great. I would have hoped that since it's your only lens option, Canon would try and make this one more versatile — I'd rather have an f/2.0 lens or one with a slightly wider angle or a little more zoom, and when the PowerShot S95 and S100 each offer both in smaller, less expensive bodies, it's a shame not to get even more from the more-expensive G1 X.
I asked Canon about the lens choice, and was told that it's essentially a matter of physics: larger sensors typically require larger lenses, but Canon wanted a relatively wide lens and didn't want to make the camera bigger than it needed to be, so it left the other specs as they are. That's a completely plausible explanation, but it's a bit of a disappointment nonetheless. The lens also doesn't feel particularly well-made: there's a loud grinding noise whenever it extends or retracts, which is disconcerting. It's an extremely sharp lens, and contributes a good deal to the G1 X's excellent photos — but I wish its specs were more impressive. The camera also requires a lens cap, which I'm pretty sure I already lost; I'd love to be able to do away with lens caps altogether.
The camera does still have a removable ring around the lens, which on previous models has allowed you to use an adapter to add adapter lenses (to get more zoom, or a wider angle). The G1 X doesn't have any compatible lenses for now, though you can use the adapter to mount a macro flash.
There are two displays on the back of the G1 X — a 3-inch LCD and an optical viewfinder. The LCD is super sharp, and it swings out of the camera and rotates both vertically and horizontally, which makes it easy to shoot from almost any angle. You can even point the camera and the display at yourself, and combined with the G1 X's smile detection feature, it makes for a solid way to take self-portraits. Its 922,000-dot resolution is about as high as we've seen on a compact camera — the Nikon Coolpix S9100 has a similar display, as does the Fujifilm X10. Sharp as it is, it has a tendency to slightly oversaturate some colors (blues in particular), and bright pictures can look a bit overexposed. None of the problems are hugely troubling, but it's a little bit tough to tell at points if you got exactly the shot you wanted from the LCD.
Interface and controls
You can't sell a camera to DSLR owners without equipping it with every button, dial, and option you can cram onto its body, and there's certainly not a lot of unused space on the G1 X. There's a mode dial and a concentric exposure dial on top, along with a zoom rocker, shutter button, and a scroll wheel above the grip on the front, positioned exactly where you'd place your right index finger. Since you're already using that finger to shoot, though, I'd rather have it on the back of the camera, so you could scroll with your thumb. There's a five-way directional pad on the back with a scroll wheel around it, which you use both for menu navigation and as a third scroll wheel of sorts — it's the same control you'll find on many Canon point-and-shoots, and it works fine, though a few times I pressed when I meant to scroll and vice-versa. The layout is smart, too, with every button laid out marked clearly and usually placed in an obvious spot — I especially liked the dedicated ISO button, a rare thing to find on a point-and-shoot.
A few bits of the interface give the G1 X away as a camera designed exclusively for pros: there are two custom modes on the mode dial, for instance. The flash also never raises automatically, a fact I personally love — it says "Raise the flash" when it thinks you should, but you'll never get a shot with flash unless you really want it.
It all adds up to a camera that lets you tweak and change settings almost as quickly as a DSLR, though not quite. There's no manual zoom ring, which some pros will surely miss, and you'll still need to dig into menus to control bracketing, white balance, and the like, but fortunately the menus are fairly intuitive. Most common options are on the top level of a pop-up menu that you can quickly access using the middle button in the directional pad, so you'll probably only need to dig into the main menu to change settings like time and date. The only downside is that the quick access menu displays different options depending on the mode you're in, so you could spend a few minutes looking for the bracketing setting only to find it's not available in Auto. All in all, though, DSLR owners should feel right at home using the G1 X.
It handles almost like a DSLR
As I've talked with camera manufacturers recently, I've been told consistently that photographers of all levels love art filters and crazy photo effects. That surprised me a bit, but Canon evidently knows it too, so it added a number of artistic filters to the G1 X, which are handily accessible from the top mode dial. Most will be familiar to Canon point-and-shoot owners already: there's a fish-eye effect, a Monochrome filter, a Miniature effect, and a few other simple tweaks to make your photos look more interesting.
There's also the usual list of scene modes that tweak settings for different shooting scenarios (fireworks, snow, twilight, and the like), along with a couple of basic color-shifting modes like Sepia and Black & White. The panorama mode is nifty, as is the HDR setting that takes and merges three photos into one shot with improved dynamic range. There's nothing groundbreaking that you can do with your photos on the G1 X, but the options are at least fun to play around with.
Performance and quality
Many photographers will tolerate bulky, cumbersome cameras as long as they take good pictures, because that's exactly what the G1 X does — it takes really excellent photos in almost any situation. The 1.5-inch CMOS sensor inside the G1 X gets most of the credit for that — it's sized between a typical Micro Four Thirds sensor and the APS-C sensors found in most DSLRs, and that's about where I'd place the G1 X's image quality as well. Colors are extremely crisp and accurate, and I got very sharp photos; the corners of my images were a little soft, but much less so than on a typical smaller camera. Canon's G series cameras haven't typically offered images that were substantially better than the S95 or S100 — they mostly offered more manual controls, at the expense of the S series' small size and simplicity — but the G1 X really does offer notably better image quality than either pocket camera. Its colors are slightly muted compared to images from the Sony NEX-7, which really does offer DSLR-level images, but the G1 X isn't too far behind. You'll get 4,352 x 3,264 resolution images, which weigh in at about 2.5MB for a JPG. The G1 X shoots RAW, but oddly not in Auto or scene modes (a strangely normal thing for PowerShot models), so be careful if you like to shoot in RAW.
The G1 X's low-light performance is among its best features. The camera's ISO range goes up to 12,800, and even at that highest setting, photos were completely usable at normal sizes. Photos showed next to no noise until ISO 1600, but even at 12,800 photos will still look fine on Facebook or Flickr. That means the G1 X is a useful camera even in extremely dark scenarios, which is very rare for a camera this size and in this price range. To be clear, you won't want to print or blow up photos at anything beyond about 1600, but if you're content with on-screen photos at 1,000px wide or so, crank away at the ISO.
Oddly, Canon doesn't seem to have enough faith in the G1 X's performance — if you're shooting with ISO set to Auto, the ISO will only ratchet up to 1600, which means that in really dark situations, you're still prone to blurry shots because you'll have to use lower shutter speeds. Fortunately that's not as much a problem as it could be, thanks to the G1 X's solid image stabilization even at low shutter speeds, but it's still a shame to ignore such awesome ISO performance.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows, though. The pictures you actually get will look fantastic, but there are a lot of shots you'll have trouble shooting at all with the G1 X because its focusing performance is lacking. For one, autofocus is really slow in poor lighting. It uses contrast-detect autofocus, which is a bit slow in any light, but it stumbles badly when you're not shooting in broad daylight. Every time I half-press the shutter, I could feel the camera bouncing in and out trying to find focus, and it often took a half-second or so before it locked.
As usual, big sensor means great photos
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is not a camera you should buy unless you already own a DSLR. Canon reps themselves told me that if you’re debating between the G1 X and, say, a Rebel DSLR, you should buy the latter — having more lenses and more versatility is key, and the G1 X’s sensor still isn’t DSLR-sized. But if you already own the serious equipment and just want a camera you can toss into a purse or backpack without sacrificing a lot of quality, the G1 X should suit you pretty well. The focusing experience is the one major setback for the camera, but if you can get over that (and if you’re not looking to take a lot of close-up shots) you’ll get consistently solid photos and video from the camera, almost regardless of situation or lighting. There’s a lot to get used to about the G1 X, especially with the viewfinder, but I can definitely see this camera being a travel-friendly second camera for a 5D or D4 owner. It’s also compatible with most of Canon’s EOS accessories, so Canon DSLR owners will be able to use speedlite flash attachments and the like with the G1 X.
The G1 X competes most directly with its own predecessor, the similar-looking but much less expensive G12 (it’s $499 now, and might be less with the G1 X now available), a camera you might see on the shelf next to the G1 X. There, the comparison is even more interesting: there’s a lot more camera inside the G1 X, thanks to its 6.3-times-larger sensor and the new DIGIC 5 processor, but it’s also nearly double the price. The two look nearly identical, and operate much the same, but picky photographers are going to want the imaging prowess of the G1 X.
There’s also plenty of external competition: the Fujifilm X10, Sony NEX-5N, and Olympus E-PL3 all take similarly excellent pictures and video (though I’d take the G1 X’s low-light performance over any of those), and cost as much as $200 less than the $799.99 G1 X. Even Canon’s own PowerShot S100 and S95 take stellar pictures, have slightly faster lenses than the G1 X, and both are legitimately pocketable cameras — those seem like better portable companions to a DSLR. Too many choices is never a bad thing for camera buyers, but I’m not sure the G1 X stands out enough from its competitors to be worth the premium.