The Nikon Coolpix S710 wants to be the camera you take with you while your digital SLR stays at home. It offers a robust set of manual controls, a high-resolution 14.5-megapixel sensor, a 28mm wideangle lens and sensitivity that goes up to ISO 3,200 at full resolution and ISO 12,800 at 3 megapixels. However, the S710, available for around £230, lacks the speed that dSLR users -- and even many snapshooters -- may be used to.
The 184g S710 is a compact 3.6 inches by 2.3 inches by 1 inch, barely sliding under the line for our definition of ultra-compact. Up front is an optically stabilised, reasonably wide 3.6x f2.8-5.6 28-101mm lens. The design is boxier than we're used to seeing from Nikon, but still very attractive, and it's available in , and .
In order to fit the 76mm (3-inch) LCD on the back, Nikon had to keep the controls and the space between them to a minimum. The buttons are raised enough to make them easy to press and there's a directional pad/scroll wheel that serves double duty. The directional pad controls flash, macro mode, timer and exposure compensation. The scroll wheel acts in conjunction with a virtual mode dial called up when you press the mode button, and lets you quickly navigate shooting and set-up menus, adjust ISO, shutter speed and aperture, and flip through photos in playback mode. The menu button below the wheel opens up mode-specific shooting options, while the set-up menu is located on the mode dial -- an old-fashioned touch for such a modern camera.
The S710 offers program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority and manual modes, which Nikon previously only included on its Coolpix P-series cameras and dSLRs. In manual mode, you can select shutter speed, aperture, and ISO on-screen, without diving into a menu system, while the menu system provides options for white balance (including a preset manual), metering, drive modes, colour options and autofocus and AF area modes. There is no manual focus, but there is a manual AF area mode.
Of course, being a snapshot camera, it has a standard auto mode in addition to its scene mode, with 11 scenes to choose from; a scene auto selector that picks the most appropriate scene mode depending on what you're shooting; high-speed continuous shooting at 3 megapixels; and a smile mode that continues shooting pictures when it detects smiles.
As a result of all these options, the camera is best suited for someone already comfortable making adjustments, beginners looking to experiment or a household with mixed user types, as the camera is flexible. Anyone looking for a simple pocket camera will probably find the array of choices confusing and unnecessary.
The S710 does take some good photos -- sharpness and detail were particularly good at ISO 100. Like many point-and-shoot cameras, however, the lens tends to be sharp in the centre and distorted around the edges, which results in softness on the sides and exacerbates the tendency for purple fringing in those areas. Auto white balance is typically warm, but is fine in general. Colour quality is fine, too, but our photos were occasionally underexposed. We were able to correct this using Nikon's D-lighting feature in the playback mode.
Softness kicks in at ISO 200, but detail remains good up to ISO 400, so, even in lower-light situations, the S710 will produce some usable shots. By ISO 800, noise gets so bad that it actually changes the colour of photos, and it gets worse as you increase sensitivity. The ISO 12,800 setting will capture an image, but there's so much noise that we're not sure you could even use the photos at a small size on the Web. You could, however, consider it an artistic effect to play around with in low-light conditions.
None of the 14-megapixel cameras we've tested have been particularly fast performers. It is, after all, a fair amount of data that has to be stored to the SD/SDHC card memory. But the Nikon is slow all around. Its shutter lag in bright conditions is 0.6 seconds and 0.8 seconds in dim lighting -- longer than we like, but not far from the competition. Its time to first shot is a lengthy 3.7 seconds, which then draws out to a full 4 seconds from shot to shot. Luckily, that's so long that adding flash only pushes the time to 4.1 seconds. At least burst speed is average, at 1.1 frames per second.