Imagine the sleek monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey shrunk down to fit in your pocket. Squeeze in a boggling choice of features and options, and you'll understand why we were so excited to get our hands on Nikon's £250 Coolpix S100 compact camera.
Based on appearance alone, the S100 is far and away the most desirable camera we've reviewed in a very long time. The front consists of a slab of matte black metal, while the reverse is consumed entirely by a bright, vivid OLED display. Nikon has taken a leaf out of Apple's book with the screen, not only allowing you to swipe your photos back and forth as you view them, but also to zoom in and out by spreading your fingers and pinching.
Apart from the physical shutter button, which sits in its traditional spot on top of the body, all of the controls are clustered about the edges of the touchscreen, and accessed by tapping hotspots that pull up on-screen menus. Even the zoom is a virtual rocker displayed on the screen, and exposure compensation is a slider that you drag to the left and right along a black-to-white stepped scale, which is great for beginners who might otherwise be confused by talk of EV.
This touch control is implemented very effectively, with carefully thought-out menus and large on-screen buttons that are easily jabbed by even the fattest finger. The screen won't work when prodded through thick gloves, though, so, if you're looking for a camera to take skiing, this isn't it -- unless you're happy to remove your gloves every time you want to take a picture.
In its default configuration, tapping the screen outside of the menus takes a picture. This is a neat idea, but one that's poorly implemented, as we took an extra picture almost every time we slid the lens cover open. Requiring a double tap would go some way to rectifying the problem, but, as this isn't an option, we switched to the more useful tap-to-focus setting, finding the third alternative -- tapping to activate subject tracking -- only effective when we moved the camera more slowly. Moving too quickly could cause it to latch onto nearby subjects as they passed by the lens.
The lens cover doubles as the camera's power switch. When slid closed, it covers not only the lens but also the flash and stereo microphones, leaving a smart, fairly featureless body. It works well once you get used to using the Nikon logo as a grip, rather that curling your fingers around the edge.
But, with few physical features to speak of it, the camera lacks the usual bumps and notches that make other snappers easier to hold when shooting. Matters are made worse by the fact that you'll want to keep your fingers and thumbs away from all but the very top and bottom surfaces. You'll almost certainly want to make use of the bundled wrist strap.
The lens stays contained within the body at all times and doesn't protrude from the front when zooming. Despite this, its range is a very respectable 5x -- 28-140mm in 35mm terms -- and is all but silent in use. The digital zoom boosts the total 35mm equivalent to 560mm.
Throughout our tests, colours in each of our shots were well rendered and true to the originals. The aqua used on the sponsored London bicycles below is Barclays' corporate colour. Both it and the green of the trees in this shot match the originals.
This was a pleasant surprise. Throughout the time we spent shooting with the S100, we were concerned that the colours would turn out to be far too vivid. When viewed on the rear OLED display, cloud-dappled skies were electric blue, and hard-edged buildings demonstrated excessive contrast. On returning home and downloading the images, though, we found them to be far closer to reality, with just enough of a punch to brighten them up and make the day look better than it had actually been.
Zooming our bike shot to 100 per cent, we could see some dappling across the frame, and a flare effect at the edges of that aqua. We might have expected this flare from a bouncing flash, but no flash was used and, further, the camera's auto exposure selected a conservative ISO 125 for this shot. A matching shot taken with the Coolpix S6150, which selected ISO 80, produced less dappling, suggesting that the S100's higher sensitivity setting was to blame.
It should be noted that this dappling was only evident when zoomed into 100 per cent, which you're perhaps unlikely to do when examining 16-megapixel shots.
Our interior shot of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall below demonstrates considerable noise in darker areas, as the camera set its sensitivity to ISO 400 and dialled down the shutter speed to 1/25 seconds to capture detail that might otherwise be lost.
We next turned our attention to our internal test scene, where we gathered together a variety of props with different textures and reflective properties and shot them three times: under studio conditions, with the flash, and using the available ambient light.
The best result was achieved by shooting with the studio lights. The shot lacked hard shadows or burned-out highlights. Colours were neutral and realistic, and detail, such as the fine writing on a whisky bottle and the weave of a fabric door stop, was well maintained. Natural surfaces, such as wood, retained their original texture and there was no over-exposure of bright polished surfaces.
Slightly poorer performance was achieved using just the ambient light. The camera increased both the exposure time and the sensitivity. The writing was less clean cut and the white areas of our drinks label became creamy, although not to an unacceptable degree.
There are 20 preset scene modes to choose from, including the notable 'museum' and 'black and white copy' modes. They're laid out in a clear grid of icons, and holding down your finger on any one of them calls up its name at the top of the screen so that, even before you've learned what each icon represents, you'll know what you're picking.
There's a neat panorama mode that requires you merely to sweep the camera through the arc you want to capture, with the resulting images then being stitched together automatically. This mode goes one step further than Sony's similar offering in that it detects the range of motion itself, rather than demanding that you select up, down, left or right through the menus. A second panorama mode, 'assist', performs the more traditional trick of shooting aligned single frames that you can lace together in software on your computer.
The S100 shoots AVI videos at sizes between 540x480 and 1,920x1,080 pixels. We used the latter throughout our tests.
As with our photos, colours were realistic, and pans and zooms were smooth. The camera also reacted well to changes in lighting, such as that experienced when panning across a scene containing a significant amount of sky. Some scenes lacked finer detail in more distant parts of the shot, but the overall result was balanced. The footage is certainly good enough to be posted online.
The default shooting rate is 30 frames per second, but the S100 also has a clever HS mode that ups this to 60fps at a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, or a massive 240fps at a 320x240-pixel resolution, so that, when played back at regular speed, you get smooth slow-motion footage, albeit without any sound.
Bits and bobs
Beside the settings we've already discussed, the S100 offers face and smile detection to automatically take timed shots when your subjects look happy, a pet mode that recognises dog and cat faces, and both 2- and 10-second self-timers.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 125 to ISO 3,200 with +/-2EV compensation in 1/3EV steps. Shutter speeds range from 1/1500 to a fairly brief 1 second, with an additional 4-second exposure available through the firework-shooting scene mode.
The camera writes to SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, or its internal 71MB of memory, which is sufficient for 40 seconds of the highest-resolution video or nine of the best-quality stills.
The Nikon Coolpix S100 looks great and is a winner in many respects. The touch-sensitive screen is a boon, and the colours in both still and video shots are realistic and engaging. The resolution is also truly impressive for such a small device. In other respects, the S100 lets itself down, though. A lower minimum sensitivity would be welcome and we have some issues with its design, which sacrifices handling in favour of appearance.
If we judged the camera on specs and features alone, the S100 would easily justify its £250 asking price. But we don't and, when performance is factored into the equation, it starts to look overpriced.
Edited by Charles Kloet