Bigger isn’t always better -- and the S01 is a case in point. In Nikon’s words, it’s smaller than a credit card, and that’s true, as long as you ignore its depth. From front to back it’s roughly as fat as an AA battery -- so still thinner than a well-stuffed wallet or purse.
Indeed, it’s small enough to keep in your pocket pocket 24/7. You could attach it to a keyring, and it comes in a range of colours. My review sample was a fetching hot pink, but it has black, red, white and silver siblings. Depending on the colour you choose, you can pick it up online for around £100.
The question, of course, is whether it’s any better than the camera on your smart phone. The S01 is clearly designed as a go-anywhere snapper, always ready for action, but most of us have one of them in the form of an Android or iOS device already. For the S01 to succeed, it needs to outclass them all, and not simply be a mobile camera without the mobile bits.
Size doesn't matter
Considering its size, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a firm grip on the S01, and even when holding it over water I wasn’t worried that I was going to slip and drop it.
It sports the absolute minimum number of buttons, and no tripod mount. The top plate is home to power, shutter and playback controls, along with the zoom rocker. On the back, beside the touch-sensitive 2.5-inch display, there’s a home button that opens the menus. These have been slimmed down so that they’re easy to navigate with a chubby finger, but I still often found myself dropping down a level when I didn’t want to by missing the back button at the top of the screen.
Unfortunately, the screen isn’t all that easy to see in bright sunlight. I was conducting my tests on a sunny day by the coast, so a lot of the time I ended up guessing at the most appropriate framing and then checking on the display during playback to see whether I needed to shoot a second version.
To attain such Lilliputian proportions, Nikon has removed as much of the regular camera baggage as it could. For starters, as with Apple’s latest laptops, the battery is captive. It can’t be swapped out when it runs out of juice, so keep an eye on the meter and charge it when you get the chance. Nikon claims a battery life of 190 shots or one hour 40 minutes of HD video recording, although your mileage may vary. In my initial tests, for example, I shot 137 frames without seeing the battery meter decline at all.
There’s no card slot, either, as Nikon has packed it with a generous 7.3GB of internal storage, which is enough for more than 3,000 shots at the full 10.1-megapixel resolution or three hours of VGA-quality video.
Also missing is any real concession to manual control. You can change the image size, activate the self timer, tweak exposure compensation two stops in either direction in 1/3 EV increments, and… well, that’s about it. You can’t set the sensitivity, which runs a rather narrow ISO 80 to ISO 1,600, squeeze or loosen the aperture (which at its widest is f/3.3 at wide angle and f/5.9 at full telephoto), or choose a specific white balance. You can, however, apply one of four special effects that cater for sepia, high contrast mono, and both high and low key.
It’s fortunate, then, that the S01 did a good job of picking the best settings fairly consistently throughout my tests.
I performed my tests on a bright, sunny day with very little in the way of clouds. As the above would suggest, the camera made all the shooting decisions itself apart from picking the subject and the point of focus. The results on which I performed my analysis were saved as in-camera JPEGs.
The first thing you notice on downloading them is just how vivid they are. What looked a little dull on the camera screen really pops on a monitor, with punchy colours and good, sharp contrasts that aren’t pushed so far they become harsh.
Primary colours, like the red and blue in the facade below, really shine, with the S01 also maintaining a good, crisp edge to the strongly geometric shapes.
This carries through to more natural tones. The tree below is positively alive with colour, with highly variegated green making the various branches and foliage easy to discern.
However, the contrast at the point where the foliage and sky meet is a little too harsh in this instance.
Close examination of the results does reveal some evidence of slightly heavy-handed compression, which explains how the S01 manages to squeeze so many images into its internal memory. At 7.8GB all told, it can give just 2.66MB to each picture.
As a result, there is a little more texture in some skies and areas of flat colour than I would have liked, and in particularly complex areas some details can end up being a bit fudged, almost as though they were rendered on a slightly coarse canvas.
The lens is good, helping the S01 to capture a high level of detail, although there is some run-off in the level of clarity as you move away from the centre of the shot.
In the image below there's some pink colour fringing on the right-most post of this groyne, which is caused by the lens not fully aligning the various colour wavelengths as the light enters the lens and is bent to reach the sensor.
I sometimes had difficulty in getting the automatic scene detection system to recognise the fact I was aiming for a macro shot. When it does, it gets you in as close as 5cm (in regular use, you’ll need to keep a foot from your subjects) to deliver a crisp point of focus, but not quite as steep a fall-off in the level of focus around it as I would have liked.
Nonetheless, shooting in this mode shows the S01 performing well, with the crocus, below, full of detail, with a cleanly exposed subject and some great colours.
Even shooting directly into the sun wasn’t enough to fox it. Despite the stark contrast and the potential for the incoming light to dull the edges of the silhouette below, it’s managed to capture a sharp, definite outline without any undesirable ingress.
Still life test
The S01 performed very well under studio lighting, with objects at the centre of the frame demonstrating excellent clarity and sharpness. Moving towards the edge of the frame though, things were less clear, with writing on a paint tube not as legible as it was on the spirit bottle at the centre of the arrangement.
It had to increase its sensitivity to ISO 400 when shooting under ambient light, and although the writing on the bottle still remained easily decipherable, there was a marked increase in the amount of grain in the image. Nonetheless, as with the studio lighting the colours in the finished picture were true to the originals.
The small on-board flash very effectively illuminated the scene when forced to fire for the third still life test. It helped the S01 halve the sensitivity rating to ISO 200 and avoided casting dark shadows behind the assembled objects for a balanced result overall.
Sadly, when it comes to shooting movies, the results weren’t quite so good. It does shoot HD, but only 720p (1,280x720) rather the 1,920x1,080. You can also choose 640x480 if you either want to maximise your memory usage or you’re just shooting for Web use.
720p would be fine if the image quality was good, but it’s not up to the standard I’d have hoped for after examining the camera's stills. Colours are a little dull and the image isn’t as crisp. The footage is also a bit rocky, even if you’re standing still.
Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the fact that the optical zoom is locked off when you’re filming, so you have to rely on the digital alternative. This zooms in and out in steps, rather than a smooth glide, and as it works by cropping and enhancing the central part of the frame, the results are degraded as you continue to zoom in. My advice would be to zoom before you start shooting so you can benefit from the optical magnification and then leave it in that position through the duration of your shot.
While Nikon has cut the S01 to the bone so that it can fit it in such a small chassis, it doesn’t feel underpowered and, video aside, there are very few areas where it feels like you’re making too great a compromise in using it.
What it’s really missing is Wi-Fi. It would make perfect sense in a device that’s both so small and so fun if you could share your shots right away on a wireless network. 3G would be even better, if Nikon could find a way to shrink down the chipset and SIM to an appropriate size. Fingers crossed for the S02.
To answer the question I posed at the outset, it is a better option than a smart phone, even with many smart phones now routinely offering sensors around 8 megapixels, which is dangerously close to the S01’s 10.1million-pixel chip. Where the smart phone still wins out, of course, is that it allows for a degree of editing and sharing once the shot has been saved.
It’s buckets of fun though, produces generally decent shots and is keenly priced. Nikon could have used its size as an excuse for asking considerably more -- and a fair few people would have paid.
I’ve seen it online for less than £90, but expect to pay around £100 from major retailers -- a price that still represents a fair bargain.