When is an SLR not an SLR? When it's a Canon S5. The S5 certainly looks like one with its large lens, chunky handgrip, hotshoe for external flash and enough switches and dials to start a science experiment.
The S5 is a little smaller than an SLR, you can't change the lens and there's no through-the-lens optical viewfinder. Instead, you get a fixed 12x zoom lens, an electronic viewfinder and no option for shooting RAW files. What you do get is one hell of a compact camera.
The S5 replaces the S3 (there wasn't an S4) and uses the same 36-432mm zoom lens. The S5 has sharper corners than the S3 and the viewfinder has been placed higher to make space for a larger 2.5-inch LCD (2-inch on the S3), which all adds to its purposeful stance.
Despite the rugged, handsome looks, there are a few annoyances. To access the SD card you have to open the cumbersome, spring-loaded battery compartment - there should be a separate slot. The grip is chunky but isn't rubberised enough to inspire confidence and the lens cap falls off at any opportunity. On top of that, there's no lens hood.
Another aggravation is there's no extensive paper manual. The CD-only manual is hardly an option should you need to consult it in the field.
Within the black, plastic body, the S5 now boasts an 8MP sensor to bring it more in line with the competition.
More significant is Face Detection technology, which Canon claims, "ensures superb people shots by automatically detecting up to nine faces in a frame and selecting the optimum focus, exposure and flash setting."
It's a claim that stands up, more or less. All you have to do is point the camera somewhere near a person and you'll see a white square, which locks on to a face, wherever it's situated in the frame - even if it's quite small.
Aim it at a group of people, such as at a wedding, and it'll lock on to one of them. It has to be said, however, it isn't totally reliable, although in half-decent light it certainly works a treat.
Whether it's using the Face Detection mode or not, the Canon produces excellent images. There's something about the smoothness of the tones and bright but not overdone colours that stand out in its class.
Set the ISO to 80 or 100 and images are smooth and noise free. Turn the ISO up to 800 and there's noise but it's really not too bad unless you plan to make A3 prints. Maximum ISO 1600 should only be used in an emergency.
Image quality is further enhanced by the accuracy of the metering. In good light the S5 nails the exposures time after time. In a tricky situation, such as backlighting, the metering makes a good compromise, recording enough information in the shadows to give your editing software detail to work with.
Much of this quality is down to the lens, which is an absolute belter. Unlike some superzooms, the lens doesn't protrude like an elephant's trunk - a triumph of optical engineering.
Admittedly, the 36-432mm lens lacks a true wide angle but it scores in sharpness and autofocus accuracy. The S5 uses an ultrasonic motor (USM), as do Canon's pro optics, and that makes for focusing so fast and precise that the S5 barely misses a trick.
A viable option?
We've got a cracking zoom lens, excellent focusing and punchy, bright images. So has the S5 moved into pantheon territory by being a compact that's a true alternative to an SLR? It's very good, true, but can't quite match the image quality or sheer pleasure of using an SLR.
Other factors that prevent the S5 being a true SLR challenger are the viewfinder and the speed of use. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is no match for a through-the-lens view and although you do get used to it, it's always difficult to tell if your subject's in sharp focus.
Then there's the speed issue. Although we managed a respectable 15 frames in ten seconds, the crunch point is shutter delay. For a compact, the S5 is pretty speedy but there's still a slight pause between pressing the shutter and the image being recorded. We're talking fractions here, but fractions are all you need to miss that elusive moment.
If you're willing to put up with a slower response speed compared with an SLR, you'll need to weigh up how much you need that telephoto lens.
You can pick up the 6MP Nikon D40 for a ridiculous price at the moment, albeit with only a standard zoom lens. But add to that the cost of a 300mm lens and the Canon S5 still looks like a very good buy.