Canon SD4000 vs. S90

Canon SD4000 and S90 compared

Written by Digicamhelp Editor

The Canon SD4000 and S90 have a few things in common but, in general, they are quite different. If you’re considering both but don’t know which to buy, these insights will help.

The Canon SD4000 and S90 have a few things in common but they are quite different digital cameras. The SD4000 is slightly smaller and lighter, and much more sleek. It has less features than the S90 but is also less complicated to use.

If you’re trying to decide which of the two cameras to purchase, this practical look at the SD4000 and S90 will provide you with helpful insights.

Look and feel

Two things struck me when I first took the SD4000 out of the box: it’s sleek, minimalist design and that it was heavier than expected.

But when holding it, it feels good and solid. Unlike the slick surface of the s90, the matte black textured surface of the SD4000 gives confidence that it won’t easily slip out of your hand.

The Control Dial

I can’t discuss the s90 without warning others about the free-wheeling rear control wheel. I’ve written extensively about my displeasure with it, as many others have, so won’t repeat myself here.

Suffice it to say that by comparison, the SD4000 control wheel is a pleasure to use. It doesn’t move when you inadvertently touch it when taking photos. Thankfully, settings don’t change unless you want them to. The control wheel on the s90 is made of better material, but what’s the advantage if it doesn’t work correctly without spending money on fixes such as a custom grip and control wheel device.

Menus and buttons

The names of some functions typically engraved on the back SD and other cameras are missing from the SD4000 (eg. the trash can icon for deleting images). So you must take time to learn to navigate.

For Canon camera users, learning to access functions via the menu will be quick and easy. For those unfamiliar with the Canon interface, it will take a bit more time. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it intuitive and a pleasure.  Instructive, on-screen prompts appear when you press the rear control dial (the prompts can be shut off).

By comparison, the S90 is a much more complex and feature-rich camera, with buttons and dials to access key features without going into a menu. Photo-enthusiasts and serious photographers love these bells and whistles. But casual photographers, and enthusiasts who simply want a camera to enjoy and easily carry in a shirt or pants pocket, will appreciate the simplicity…and image quality…of the SD4000.

Feature differences

If you’re looking for a small camera with lots of sophisticated features such as full manual control, flash compensation and the ability to shoot RAW, the SD4000 is not for you. But it does have a higher degree of control than many digital cameras in its class, such as Aperture and Shutter Priority modes.

What the SD4000 has that the S90 doesn’t is a much faster continuous shooting mode at full image resolution. Parents and grandparents who want to photograph fast-moving children will find this a most welcome feature. The SD4000 also has High Definition video with stereo sound. Unlike the S90 (VGA), you can use the optical zoom while recording movies.

The S90 has about every advanced feature that is possible packed into a small camera, except a hot shoe. If you’re looking for a similarly equipped camera with a hot shoe, take a look at the Panasonic LX3 and LX5.

The SD4000 LCD

The specs for both cameras claim that the screen size is 3″ color with wide viewing angle and it’s true. The SD4000 has 230,000 dots and the S90 has 461,000 dots.

But unless you’re shooting video, the viewing area of the SD4000 LCD is actually only about 2.5.”

The right and left sides are darkened so you can frame photos in the correct aspect ratio. Subjects appear smaller than those viewed on the S90. However, the screen on the SD4000 appears brighter so it’s not difficult to see or use. Most display information, such as shooting and exposure modes and ISO, are located in the two darkened areas rather than overlaid on the image.

The built-in flash

The flash on both the SD4000 and the S90 are typical of built-in flashes on compact digital cameras: small and not very powerful. But the flash on the s90 is slightly better and the output can be adjusted (flash compensation).

The flash on the SD4000 is built-into the front, left side of the camera – easy to cover with your fingers. The s90 flash, located on the top left, pops-up automatically if not set to OFF. Initially it may startle you as your fingers are unexpectedly and abruptly knocked upward.

With both cameras, you must be aware of the flash when needing it, and adjust your camera grip accordingly.

Price: Are the SD4000 and S90 really the “same” price?!

As of this writing, the Canon S90 sells for about $100 less than when I bought it about a year ago. So currently, the S90 and SD4000 are close in price.

Keep in mind that, like many, you may end up having to spend approximately $45 (including shipping) for a custom grip or control wheel device to improve the ergonomic flaws of the S90.

Let’s hear from you

Do you own either the SD4000 or S90? Share your thoughts about them in the Comment section below.

Sample photos taken with the sd4000:

[nggallery id=74]


  • A bit late to the party, but I got one at Sears for $130 to replace a broken A1200. Picture quality and especially low light are a lot better, IS is great, though I’ll miss the OVF and AA batteries. (Also CHDK now available, provides RAW/DNG and other tweaks partly neutralizing the gap with S90/95.) I second your gripe about Canon’s usually dodgy P&S control wheels, and this model proves they can do it right when they want to.

    About the ergonomics: I attached my Gorillapod tripod mount and found that by itself it both provides a stable flat surface for setting the camera down, as well a firm extra “handle” for big hands – should work for other little Elph-type cams.

  • Thank you Random Pundit for your helpful and interesting insights about the sd4000. It is a fabulous little camera at a reasonable price.

  • I have owned an SD4000 for about 6 months now and I can tell you it’s really a solid P&S. The low light performance is simply amazing, especially when considering the price of the camera. Sometimes, the camera works against itself in the various automatic modes. Manually setting the white point is often preferable indoors.
    Only bad thing I’ve found is the horrible problem the camera has with autofocus when making Movies. The algorithm it uses is truly awful unless you’re outside in bright light. Using the barely mentioned auto lock feature is a must. ( hold the camera button in half way as you would to find focus, and then press the ring dial to the left to lock the focus. You’ll know you locked it if it says “AFL” on the screen. )
    If you use AFL, it’s a brilliant 720p little beauty.

    Oh the other downside to video, is that when you zoom while filming it is jerky and the autowhite balance seems to freak out for indoors shots while zooming ( in video mode only )
    but this is something you just have to learn to live with… it’s a better camera than a video camera, as it should be.

    TONY: It also is undocumented that the dial control has two states for its buttons… if you just rest your finger on the dial at 12,3,6,or 9 oclock on the dial it will pop up an onscreen set of icons around in a circle that tell you what they are.Pretty dang convenient … it took me months to realize this. Maybe its documented somewhere but I never daw it.

    I absolutely love the photos for the P&S that this is. I previously had gotten an SX120 and returned it becuase the pictures were so grainy. Megapixels aren’t everything to be sure!

  • Thanks Tony for your insightful assessment of the SD4000.

    You highlighted a very important issue when buying a camera: ergonomics. If it doesn’t feel right in your hands, it’s best not to buy it. It’s wise to “see the camera in person,” as you did. Yes, the screen size is not the whole 3″ in picture-taking mode and it is disappointing. In actual use, I found the screen to be quite easy to see and read. I still have a few digital cameras with 2.5″ screens so I personally didn’t find the size a problem, but others might. Checking out the quality of the LCD is another important factor before purchasing a digital camera.

  • I was ready to get the SD4000IS today to upgrade from SD600, but when I see the camera in person. I was really disappointed by the small and low resolution screen. It sure was bright and refresh quickly. However, I forgot to try to use it in 16:9 mode, which should use the whole 3″ screen.
    I also had concern in holding the camera. It’s bit too small and slippery compared to my old SD600 with silicone casing.
    The dial control on the back also double as direction buttons, but there’s no marking on the camera of what function lies beneath. I am sure you could learn it after a while, but may cause issue when you need to lend it to someone to take photo for you.
    I am out.