Tiny size, image quality that's acceptable but not outstanding, and a lack of manual controls make the ultracompact Nikon Coolpix S1 a good choice for snapshot photographers who want a good selection of fun features, but don't want to make many decisions on their own.
This Nikon's strong points are abundant scene modes, a 3x zoom lens that doesn't protrude during use, a postshot fix that automatically brightens dark backgrounds, and a clever Face-Priority autofocus mode that ensures that the closest human to the camera will be sharp and clear. But with its limited shutter-speed range of 2 seconds to 1/350 of a second, you won't be using it for long exposures or very fast action.
Most digital cameras the size of a deck of playing cards become lumpy when you turn them on and the lens extends -- not the Nikon Coolpix S1. Its recessed optics peep out, but don't emerge from the camera when their built-in cover opens. They then focus and zoom internally over a 35-to-105mm range (35mm-camera equivalent). The lens is even tucked far enough into the body that it largely avoids horrid fingerprints.
Unfortunately, though, the most comfortable two-handed grip makes it easy for stray left-hand fingers to curl over the top and wander into the field of view. More than half our initial shots with this camera included one or more fingers in the frame. The LCD viewfinder -- there is no optical viewfinder window -- shows just 87 per cent of the image (100 per cent on review), so the stray digits escaped our notice until it was too late.
The camera is otherwise well laid out for an ultracompact. Its 89 by 58 by 20mm aluminium-alloy body has nary a protrusion -- even the hand-strap lug is recessed -- and features the minimal number of buttons and controls needed to get the job done. We did find the labelling slightly busy and confusing. For example, the slender top surface incorporates the shutter release, the power button, a speaker, a strip engraved with the lens's full name, focal lengths and maximum apertures, and a microphone placed under an on/off label -- presumably referring to the power switch.
The right side houses a plastic door that covers the SD/MMC memory card slot, while the bottom hosts an I/O connector for the Coolstation dock, the battery compartment, and a plastic tripod socket. All the other controls are squeezed onto a back panel dominated by a 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD. These include a sliding recording/scene/movie mode switch, a four-way cursor pad with embedded OK button, a zoom rocker and separate buttons for menu, picture review and dustbin. Most of these controls do two jobs. For example, the telephoto side of the zoom rocker functions as a help key when you're navigating menus. Similarly, pressing up on the cursor pad changes flash options, down activates macro mode, left enables the self-timer and right marks pictures for transfer.
This camera's well-designed menu system is laid out in three levels: setup, recording and playback. The last two are accessible only when you're taking photos or reviewing images respectively. Menus can be displayed in the customary text/icon mode, with a helpful scroll bar showing how far down the menu list you've ventured or in an icon-based mode that we actually found more confusing to use until we'd memorised what all the icons represented.