It's fat. It's $500. It takes fantastic photographs.
The G11 is Canon's top-of-the-line point-and-shoot. It occupies a sorta strange spot, towering over the average point-and-shoot in basically every metric—image quality, size, weight and price—but sits just below entry-level DSLRs and more recently, micro four thirds cameras.
So, there are two ways to look at the G11: It's an amazing street camera. More discreet than a DSLR, but more powerful than a run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot. You can't stuff it in your jeans pocket, but that's fine, because you want to sling it over your shoulder anyways. The other way is that you can buy a more versatile entry-level DSLR that's not much larger for around the same price, especially if you step back a generation or so.
It's all about your priorities.
Everything about this camera is just—solid. The full-metal jacket makes it feel indestructible, while the shape evokes the classic cameras you feel like you're supposed to be taking photos with. It's thick, remarkably so, in part because of the flip-out swivel LCD screen. And it's definitely more along the lines of a rangefinder-style camera than a typical point-and-shoot.
The real magic of this camera lies in the dedicated control dials. You'll fine three on top—exposure compensation, ISO speed, and shooting mode. They feel cramped and tiny, at first, but the snap they make as as you rotate them is surprisingly deep and satisfying. Having these settings at your fingers at all times is so much of why the G11 feels like a camera that's a step above point-and-shoots, a tool for creating photographs.
The back dial is the most frustrating part of controlling the camera—a ring surrounds a four-way d-pad with a button in the center. Ultimately, you wind up pressing buttons on the d-pad when you're trying to rotate the dial to adjust shutter speed or aperture, or simply pressing the wrong button because it's so small. The menu system, otherwise, is a pretty standard Canon setup, which looks a lot like the G10's—it's not dead simple, but it's not overly complicated either, and a couple minutes of fiddling will reveal all of its secrets.
The viewfinder is utterly depressing. I want to use it, badly. It just feels intrinsically wrong to hold a camera of this caliber out in front of me to shoot, not up to my eyeball. Meanwhile, the G11's viewfinder is so small, and the coverage is so bad (you can see the lens through it!), that it's nigh useless, like trying to compose through a pinhole.
One of the shooting modes, quickshot, sounds like a good idea on paper, but is ruined by this viewfinder. The camera constantly adjusts parameters while waiting for you to take the photo, so you can fire off instantly without worrying about missing the shot. Unfortunately, you have to use the minuscule viewfinder in quickshot, and I wound up botching far more photos than I did nailing them.
So, you're pretty trapped to using the decent flip-out swivel LCD display. Honestly, I probably would've preferred the static-but-larger 3-inch version on the G10, to the 2.8-inch, 461,000-dot display on the G11.
The LCD is really bright, though, and perfectly usable in direct sunlight, with a wide viewing angle to boot. But the video feed is not quite crisp enough on it to use it for manual focusing—in this mode, a zoomed in box appears in the center of the display as you spin the back dial to bring it into focus. The experience of focusing becomes a bad iPhone game.
Can we talk about the photos please?
With the G11, Canon pulled the bold maneuver of cutting megapixels—to 10, from 14 on the G10—in order to get better quality and low-light performance. It was the right move. Low-light images are definitely improved, and more detail is preserved up through ISO 800. Shots at ISO 1600 are definitely usable at web resolutions, which is pretty impressive for a compact camera. You should stay away from the special "low light" shooting mode, though, which cuts the size of pictures in half to try to extract every ounce of light possible—it produced uniformly bad pictures.
The G11 has a wide-angle zoom lens with the same basic specs as the G10, starting at 28mm and going up to 140mm, which is versatile enough to shoot just about anything you'd want. I'm not sure, however, if it corrects some of the problems at the wide-end with the macro mode, though, since I didn't have a G10 to compare it with.
The runthrough of the ISO range goes a couple ways—on programmed auto, letting the camera figure out what to make of the ISO setting I picked, and then another set where I dictated shutter speed, so you can see how much you gain (or lose, depending on your point of view) as you ratchet up the ISO setting.
Like past G series cameras, you can shoot in RAW, but if you do, you're stuck with using Canon's software to process it for the time being. In the full sample gallery above, I've marked the handful shot in RAW.
In a world where phones and gadgets the size of a jumbo pack of Juicy Fruit shoot 720p, the fact that video's limited to 640x480 resolution on such a stacked camera gets a big frowny face. But, the video the G11 produces at that resolution is generally excellent (just compare to the video-shootin' iPod nano). That's because it's packed with data—the bitrate averages around 10Mbps, which is more than the Flip Mino HD, at 9Mbps for 720p video. That's why it looks so vibrant compared to a lot of the 720p video out there. Sure, 720p out of this would be nice, but I'd take VGA video that looks great over HD video that looks like crap.
Okay, but do I buy it?
I like this camera a lot. It's what I'd reach for whenever I wouldn't feel like tugging along a honkin' DSLR, and I'd feel like I wasn't sacrificing too much. The real question, I think, it how it stacks up against Panasonic's Lumix LX3, which is in the same demographic—a lauded $500 point-and-shoot—and outgunned the G10 in many respects (though the G10 tried to cram 14 megapixels onto the same-sized sensor the G11 only squeezes 10 megapixels onto). The slightly cheaper S90 offers the same sensor as the G11 as well, and inside of a pocketable body—though you lose perks like the dedicated control dials and a viewfinder, as far as that's a perk on the G11.
If you do buy the G11, you won't regret it—you'll be too busy taking pictures.
Photographs are top-notch for a compact camera
Solid low-light performance
Built to smash into people's spaces and live to smash again
The viewfinder is basically useless