The Nikon Coolpix S800c is the first Android-based camera I've tried out in the field and it's a great use of the Google software you'd normally find powering smart phones and tablets. In this setting, it's fast and responsive and the touchscreen interface works very well.
You can consider the S800c to be a PDA with a good camera strapped to the front, rather than a phone with a mediocre camera on the back. It can run regular Android apps, so you can access your Gmail, listen to music and upload images directly through your Wi-Fi network. You can even download new apps from Google Play. But beyond all this cleverness, does it actually perform the core function of taking brilliant pictures?
Android on a camera
Naturally enough, an app controls the camera, but the controls have plenty in common with those on Nikon's regular cameras. If you've used a Coolpix before, you'll feel right at home.
There are only three buttons on the body to handle navigation, aside from power and the shutter release. Everything else is controlled by the 3.5-inch touchscreen. This is smooth and doesn't take a lot of prodding, so the overall experience is excellent.
Common shooting controls like flash, macro and timer are ranged around the side of the screen, but they disappear when you half-press the shutter release, to avoid distracting you. Those that invoke settings on a scale, such as exposure compensation (+/-2.0EV in 0.3 step increments), can be dragged directly on the screen rather than using buttons.
With such a large screen and responsive operating system at its disposal, Nikon has made the most of its graphical menus, rarely putting more than six options on any one page. So, switch to scene mode and the 17 options are each given a large icon and split across three screens that you swipe between.
It's an excellent menu design, but elsewhere it lacks flair, particularly when compared to the Samsung Galaxy Camera, which I'll review in full soon. Early builds of Samsung's Android-based interface feature luscious graphical dials that are highly reminiscent of analogue controls on old-school cameras, and you drag them to choose each setting. They exhibit the kind of panache that's lacking here.
There's no 3G connectivity, so you won't be able to upload images to social networks without first connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot. The Wi-Fi is easy to configure though, and the S800c walks you through the process step by step the first time you set up. Novice users shouldn't be put off as it's really no more complicated than setting up a regular 'smart' camera with Wi-Fi, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5 or the Samsung EX2F.
So long as the S800c is connected to a Wi-Fi network, you can share your images directly from the review screen, although in its default state the options have a distinct Google flavour, outputting to Gmail, Google+ and Picasa. If you want to share them with anything else, you'll have to download the appropriate app from the Google Play store. The same is true if you'd like to edit your images in situ.
One drawback is it runs Android 2.3.3 -- also known as Gingerbread -- which is now over 18 months old. Because of this, your choice might be limited when it comes to more recent apps, but staples like Instagram and Aviary, which both require 2.2 and above, shouldn't pose any problems.
The S800c isn't blinkered where rival OSes are concerned either. There's a free Connect to S800c download on the iOS App Store, also available for Android devices, that lets you connect it to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. From here, you can save your images to the iOS camera roll and edit or share it from there.
The battery is a little under-powered. I charged it to the brim overnight before taking it out for a day's shooting -- after firing off 49 frames and filming 27 minutes of video, it warned me that the battery was exhausted and switched itself off. Although these tests do hammer the battery a little harder than you might do in day-to-day use, with intensive shooting and frequently switching it on and off, even Nikon's specs state it will manage only 140 shots per charge, which isn't great.
You'd do well to buy a spare to keep in your camera bag, but beware of the fact that the S800c doesn't ship with a separate charger -- only a plug and USB adaptor that fits into a port on the side of the camera to charge the battery in situ. That means you can't leave one cell back at your hotel on charge while you take the camera out for a day's sightseeing.
On one occasion during my tests, the 'shooting' app, which is the one that controls the camera element, hung and wouldn't show the lens view on the screen. Despite force-quitting it twice, the only way I could get back the shooting features was to remove the battery.
The S800c has a 16-megapixel sensor delivering 4,608x3,456-pixel images when set to shoot at its highest resolution. The lens has a 10x optical zoom, which is equivalent to 25-250mm on a conventional 35mm camera. The widest aperture setting ranges from f/3.2 at wide angle to f/5.8 at full telephoto, both of which are par for the course. Minimum sensitivity in automatic mode is ISO 125 and the maximum is ISO 1,600.
In my tests, it didn't need to push up sensitivity anywhere near this level when shooting in low light. In a dimly-lit studio, it tended to switch between ISO 400 and ISO 500. Even at the higher of those two, the visible grain was light and even, so it didn't spoil the image.
Naturally enough, all images are composed on a rear LCD screen, which in this case is a larger-than-average 3.5-inch touchscreen. You can also set it to fire the shutter when you double-tap if you'd prefer not to use the shutter-release button.
Shooting speeds are a little disappointing, ranging from a respectable 1/2,000 second at the fastest to a fairly lacklustre 1 second at the slowest, which isn't really enough if you want to shoot illuminated buildings or streaking headlights. You can push it up to 4 seconds if you switch to the fireworks scene mode.
Moving outdoors for street photography on a bright, sunny day, it was a little slower to find focus than I'd hoped and occasionally exposed the frame for slightly longer than it should when set to Easy Auto Mode, which reduces the user-adjustable settings to a minimum. As such, shots of faster-moving subjects were blurred.
Some of the highlights -- particularly on skin and white clothing -- were at times bleached when they fell into direct sunlight, even when the S800c had chosen the lowest sensitivity setting.
In other respects though, the photos demonstrated accurate colour reproduction and sharp edges when there wasn't too much movement from the subjects, as demonstrated by the image below. It's full of details and punchy colours that closely recreate the originals.
The scene modes are supplemented by five special effects, including high and low key. There's a great high-contrast monochrome that really makes the results pop, with satisfying blacks and still enough differentiation between tonally similar colours to record plenty of detail.
Macro mode only gets you within 10cm of your subject at wide angle, but the results were excellent, with a shallow depth of field and razor-sharp details on the subject.
I tasked it with a regular still-life test, which involves photographing a collection of everyday objects with a range of surface colours and textures -- first under studio lighting and then using the ambient light and the onboard flash. All cameras perform best in this test under studio lights.
The S800c was no exception, accurately reproducing the original colours across each of the objects and rendering very sharp, clean results. Small writing on bottles remained easily legible and only very slight grain was evident in the darker parts of the frame.
With the studio lights switched off and only the ambient light available, it increased its sensitivity from ISO 125 to ISO 400, and upped the exposure time from 1/125 to 1/25 sec. Naturally, this resulted in higher levels of grain and it was no longer possible to read the writing on the bottles, but otherwise the result was good. When zoomed out so that the image filled the screen, the grain wasn't visible, and colours again remained accurate.
Switching on the onboard flash allowed it to drop its sensitivity back down to ISO 200, but made very little difference to the shutter speed, which stuck at 1/30 second. The shot's sharpness was comparable to what it had achieved under studio lighting and the shadows cast by the flash were very well controlled. Colours were saturated and, if anything, even more satisfying than under studio lights.
The S800c's default video setting is 1,920x1,080p resolution at 30 frames per second. If you're looking to save space on your card or you're only shooting for the purposes of sharing clips online, you can drop this right down to 640x480 pixels. It also has two high-speed shooting modes, which capture 240fps and 120fps at 320x240 and 640x480-pixel resolution respectively.
The results are very good. Sound is extremely cleanly captured, even when it's coming from a lot of sources and there's considerable background noise. Action is sharp and isn't smeared, colours are bright and detail is very well rendered.
However, the noise of the zoom is clear on the soundtrack if used when shooting, so you'd be advised to set it at the level you want before you start filming and leave it there.
The Nikon Coolpix S800c performs well overall, but there are a couple of rough edges. The camera app interface is entirely non-threatening, and the hardware is well up to the job of running a fully-fledged mobile operating system without lag or delay. However, the version of Android it's running is rather old and the battery lacks stamina.
While image quality is good, colours are excellent and pictures are generally sharp, a few too many compromises have been made for me to recommend the S800c wholeheartedly. There are better Nikon compacts in the range.
I very much hope this is only the start of Nikon's relationship with Android though. Despite the niggles, the S800c is truly innovative and I'd love to see how it scales up to use in a dSLR or professional-grade compact with greater manual controls.