DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix S1
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The Coolpix S1 ($379) is Nikon's entry into the ultra-thin camera market. The S1's specs are just like the other cameras in this class: 5 Megapixel CCD, 3X zoom lens, large LCD, and point-and-shoot operation. Nikon has a few interesting features thrown in for good measure, and I'll cover those in the review.
The Coolpix S1 is one of many cameras in this class. How does it compare? Find out now!
What's in the Box?
The Coolpix S1 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find:
With their 2005 Coolpix models, Nikon is going the route of so many other camera manufacturers by building flash memory into the camera instead of including a memory card. The Coolpix S1 includes just 12MB of internal memory so you'll want to buy a larger card right away. The cameras use Secure Digital memory cards, and I recommend a 256MB or 512MB card as a good starting point. I did not see any need for a high speed SD card on the Coolpix S1 based on my usage and also because the manual doesn't say anything about it.
The Coolpix S1 uses the EN-EL8 lithium-ion rechargeable battery for power. This compact battery has 2.7 Wh of energy, which isn't much. Despite that, the S1 does pretty well in terms of battery life when compared to the competition:
If the two Casio cameras weren't on the list the S1 would've been tops in the group. But someone the engineers at Casio have figured out how to get incredible battery life out of their cameras, blowing the competition out of the water.
All of the cameras on that list, including the Coolpix S1, use proprietary lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are on the expensive side ($26 a pop) and you can't use "off the shelf" batteries to get you through the day like you could on a camera that uses AA batteries. Unfortunately all of these cameras use them, so there's no way around it.
Front of the camera dock
Ports on the back of the dock include USB, A/V out, and DC-in (for included AC adapter)
One way to charge the battery is to use the included Cool-station camera dock. While the dock is optional for battery charging (since the AC adapter can be plugged directly into the camera), it's required for connection to a computer or television, as there are no such ports on the camera itself. The dock supports the USB 2.0 Full Speed standard -- which is just as slow as the "old" USB. The one we like to see is USB 2.0 High Speed.
The stylish design of the S1 includes a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to worry about. As you can see, this is one small camera!
Nikon offers just a few accessories for the Coolpix S1. The most interesting one is the WP-CP4 waterproof case ($240), which lets you take the cameras up to 40 meters underwater. Other accessories include a portable battery charger ($28) and a carrying case ($17).
Nikon includes their PictureProject 1.5 software with the Coolpix S1, and it's a mixed bag. The interface is reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. The default view can be seen above, and it's your standard thumbnail setup.
Double-clicking on an image enters the image edit window:
Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available.
Other features in PictureProject include the ability to e-mail or print your photos, and you can burn them to a CD as well.
The manual included with the Coolpix S1 is about average. The information you need is there, but it can take some searching through endless "notes" to find what you're looking for.
Look and Feel
The Coolpix S1 is an ultra-thin, stylish metal camera that can go anywhere. It's made very well and should take whatever you throw at it (just don't throw IT). The camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, and all the controls are in the right spots.
Here's a look at how the S1 compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:
As you can see, the Coolpix S1 is right in the middle of the pack. All of these cameras are pretty tiny, though, so the differences are minor.
Enough numbers, let's start our tour of the camera now!
The Coolpix S1 uses the same "folded optics" lens system as many other cameras in this class. What this means is that most of the lens elements travel down the length of the body rather than toward the back. Light travels through the front of the lens, hits a prism, and then goes down the body where it eventually finds the CCD sensor. This is what allows the Coolpix to be so thin.
The lens here is an F3.0-5.4, 3X optical zoom model, which is on the slow side (in terms of maximum aperture). The focal range of the lens is 5.8 - 17.4 mm which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. The S1 doesn't support conversion lenses, nor would I expect it to.
One thing you need to watch out for on cameras like this are your fingers. They can easily find their way into the picture if you're not careful!
To the left of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. If it looks pretty small that's because it is. The flash is quite weak, with a working range of 0.3 - 2.5 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 1.4 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the camera.
On the right side of the lens is the AF-assist lamp which doubles as the self-timer countdown light. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations.
As with most cameras in this class, the Coolpix S1 has a larger-than-average LCD display. The one here is 2.5 inches in size and it has a relatively low resolution of 110,000 pixels. Despite that, I didn't find the screen resolution to be a problem. Outdoor visibility was quite good, and in low light the screen "gained up" a bit, but not as much as I would've liked.
Like most of the competition the Coolpix S1 lacks an optical viewfinder. Whether this bothers you or not is sort of a personal preference. Personally I like to have them, but the majority of digital camera owners never use it anyway, from what I've heard.
At the top-right of the photo you'll find the S1's zoom controller. This moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.5 seconds. I counted seven steps throughout the 3X zoom range.
The help screen for white balance
In addition to adjusting the zoom, the controller is used for the "zoom and scroll" feature in playback mode and for activating the help system. For any menu option just press the "zoom in" button and you'll get a help screen with a brief description of the selected item.
Below the zoom controller you'll find buttons for entering the menu system, jumping to playback mode, or deleting photos. Between those is the four-way controller which is used for menu navigation and also:
The D-Lighting feature is Nikon's term for a "digital flash" flash. D-Lighting lets you brighten dark areas of your photos that could be caused by strong backlighting or insufficient flash coverage. Here's an example of how it works:
Same shot with D-Lighting applied
As you can see, D-Lighting works as advertised. The catch is that the brightened image will be noisier than the original. Still, it's a handy feature since most people are making small prints anyway (where you won't notice the increased noise).
The last thing to notice on the back of the camera is the mode switch, which moves the camera between record, scene, and movie mode. Like most of Nikon's cameras the S1 has plenty of scene modes. They include:
Portrait couple scene mode
The four "assist" scenes overlay guidelines on the LCD to help you frame your photos properly. Buried in the portrait assist option is Face Priority AF, which does as it sounds -- focuses on faces. The sports options use the S1's continuous shooting modes that I'll describe a bit later.
The voice recording mode lets you record up to five hours of audio (assuming the memory doesn't fill up first). The files are saved in WAV format.
On top of the Coolpix S1 you'll find (from left to right) the speaker, microphone, power button, and shutter release button.
Nothing to see here.
On the other side of the camera you'll find the SD/MMC card slot, which is kept behind a plastic door of average quality. Above that is where you'll attach the wrist strap, a task which was much harder than it should've been.
On the bottom of the Coolpix S1 you'll find a plastic tripod mount, the battery compartment, and the dock connector. The plastic door covering the battery slot was surprisingly sturdy. The dock connector is also where you'll plug in the included AC adapter for charging the battery without using the dock.
The included EN-EL8 battery is shown on the right.
Using the Nikon Coolpix S1
It takes the Coolpix S1 just 1.6 seconds to open up its lens cover and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. Note that you may need to turn off the startup animation in order to get the fastest startup time.
The Coolpix S1 had average autofocus speeds, typically ranging from 0.3 - 0.5 seconds. Despite having an AF-assist lamp I was little disappointed with its performance in low light situations: it was really hit-or-miss.
Shutter lag wasn't a problem at faster speeds, but it became noticeable when the shutter speed slowed down. Then again, you should probably be using the tripod in those situations.
Shot-to-shot speeds were good, with a delay of under two seconds before you can take another shot.
You can delete a photo right after you take it by pressing the "delete photo" button on the back of the camera.
Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the two cameras:
There aren't too many options to choose from, as you can see. Not surprisingly the camera does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats.
If you do the math on the number of images that can be stored in memory you'll see that a 5M/High image should be around 2.4MB in size. In reality the largest image I took was 1.6MB. I checked on the file sizes of some of the other 5 Megapixel ultra-thin cameras I've reviewed and they were all over 2MB in size. So it seems like Nikon is compressing their JPEGs more than even they thought -- and that does reduce the quality of the photos a bit. (Thanks to the various site readers who brought this to my attention.)
Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.
Now, onto the menus!
The Coolpix S1 has a small, attractive, and easy-to-use menu system. There aren't too many options to worry about and a description is available for each item by pressing the help button. The items in the record menu include:
The only real manual control on the Coolpix S1 is for white balance. That "preset" option lets you use a white or gray card as your "white point" so you can get perfect color even under the most unusual lighting.
There are two continuous shooting modes on the S1. The regular continuous mode took about 25 shots (way more than advertised) in a row at 1.8 frames/second before it started slowing down. A high speed memory card didn't seem to make a difference in the continuous shooting performance. The multi-shot 16 feature takes sixteen photos in a row at 2 frames/second and assembles them into one 2592 x 1944 collage.
The interval timer feature allows you to take up to 1800 photos at a set interval. The interval between shots ranges from 30 seconds to 30 minutes and you can choose to lock the exposure or have it reevaluated for each shot. The shooting stops when the memory card fills up, the shutter release is pressed, or when 1800 photos have been taken. The AC adapter is strongly recommended for using this feature.
Nikon's exclusive Best Shot Selector feature helps you take great shots with minimal effort. In regular BSS mode the camera will take up to ten shots in a row and the sharpest image will be saved. You can also have the camera choose the best exposure (by minimizing overexposure, underexposure, or both) using the exposure BSS mode.
The setup menu, accessed from either the recording or playback menu, has the following options:
Well that's it for menus, let's continue with the photo tests now.
The Coolpix S1 did a very nice job with our macro test subject. The colors are accurate and saturated and the subject is very sharp. You can practically count the specs of dust!
Once you find the "sweet spot" in the focus range you can get as close to your subject as 4 cm. To find that spot, put the camera into macro mode and zoom toward the middle of the range. Once the macro "flower" turns green you're set.
The night shot didn't come out quite as well, many because of the limited shutter speed range and lack of manual controls. The slowest shutter speed available on the camera is 2 seconds, and that's just not enough time to bring in enough light for this shot. To compensate for that, the camera boosts the ISO automatically (this was in night landscape mode, by the way) which adds some noise to the image. If the camera could've done, say, a 4 second exposure at ISO 50, things would've looked a lot nicer.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the S1's lens. If you take pictures of buildings or interiors you'll notice that straight lines appear curved. Also noticeable here is vignetting (dark corners) and blurry edges/corners. I noticed some slight vignetting in my real world photos but what really stood out was the blurriness around the edges and corners. This shot is a great example of this problem. All of these ultra-thin cameras have similar issues but the Coolpix S1 seems to be worse than the competition in this respect.
The Coolpix S1 has an "advanced redeye removal system" that uses both software and preflashes to reduce this annoying phenomenon. As you can see above, it didn't seem to help. In Nikon's defense, redeye is a very common problem on ultra-thin cameras like this. Do note that I did have to brighten up this image quite a bit to compensate for the camera's weak flash. You may find yourself using the D-Lighting feature a lot for fixing up flash shots like this.
(Paragraph rewritten 6/16/05)
Overall I was a bit disappointed with the images taken with the Coolpix S1. Color and exposure were consistently good, and purple fringing levels were low. What bothered me was the extensive corner and edge blurriness that appears in nearly all of the photos in the gallery. I expect some of this on a folded lens design camera like this, but it's worse than average for sure. While you may not notice this when you make smaller-sized prints, the bottom line is that other cameras do a better job in this area.
Don't just take my word for all this though. Have a look at our photo gallery and see for yourself how the S1's photo quality measures up.
The Coolpix S1's movie mode is just okay. While you can record at 640 x 480 (with sound) until the memory card is full, I don't think that's the native resolution -- I think they're using line doubling here. The frame rate is a sluggish 15 frames/second as well. Two other resolutions are available: 320 x 240 and 160 x 120.
A time lapse movie feature is also available. This is just like the still time lapse feature that I described earlier, except now the images end up as a VGA-sized silent movie.
You can choose between single and continuous autofocus while in movie mode. I would probably use single AF as the microphone may pick up the focusing sounds otherwise. You cannot use the optical zoom during filming -- the 2X digital zoom does work though.
Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the VGA setting. After watching this you'll see why I suspect that 640 x 480 is not the native resolution.
Click to play movie (6 MB, 640 x 480, QuickTime format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime.
The Coolpix S1 has a pretty normal playback mode. Basic features such as slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions (up to 20 seconds worth), thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll are all here. Both cameras support the PictBridge standard for easy printing to a compatible photo printer.
The zoom and scroll feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. This feature is pretty snappy. While zoomed in you can press the shutter release button to crop your photo.
I already mentioned the D-Lighting feature earlier in the review. To do this just press the "OK" button on the four-way controller. The camera will show you a before and after D-Lighting shot on the LCD and you can choose whether to go forward with it or not.
Other nice playback features include a "small picture" mode which can downsize your photos for e-mailing, a "copy" feature for moving images between the internal memory and a memory card, and the ability to delete a selected group of photos instead of just one or all of them.
Unfortunately the S1 doesn't really tell you anything useful about your photos (like exposure info or settings used) and there's nothing you can do about that.
The cameras move through photos at a decent clip, showing a low resolution image instantly, with the higher resolution image arriving about a second later.
How Does it Compare?
The Coolpix S1 -- Nikon's first ultra-thin camera -- is a stylish camera that ultimately fell behind the competition in several areas. The S1 has a compact, all-metal body with a 3X zoom lens (using folded optics technology like several other cameras in this class) and a 2.5" LCD display. The camera is well built and can go just about anywhere. While it's large, the LCD wasn't terribly impressive in low light, and the resolution could've been higher too. The camera has an AF-assist lamp, but I wasn't thrilled with how it performed in those situations.
The Coolpix is pretty much a point-and-shoot camera, with the only manual control being for white balance. There are numerous scene modes including several which provide framing guidelines that help you compose your shots. The only downside here is that the slowest shutter speed available is just two seconds, which may not be long enough for some night scenes.
Two handy features found on the S1 include the D-Lighting "digital flash" system described earlier as well as the Nikon exclusive Best Shot Selector, which automatically picks the sharpest or best exposed photo for you. Beginners will also appreciate the S1's in-camera help system for figuring out what those menu options mean.
Photo quality is really the S1's weak point. While photos were well-exposed with low noise and purple fringing levels and accurate colors, there was way too much blurring around the edges of the images in my opinion. While all ultra-thin cameras have some issues like this, it was noticeably worse than average on the Coolpix S1. And, as you'd expect from a compact camera, redeye was a problem. The S1's movie mode was not great, with poor quality at the highest resolution (VGA) and a sluggish frame rate. Camera performance was average in almost all areas, save for the decent continuous shooting mode.
A few other grumbles that don't fit anywhere else. The camera's flash is quite weak, so you may find yourself using that D-Lighting feature quite a bit! The included 12MB of memory is just not enough for starting out, so you must factor in the price of a memory card into the equation. The S1 doesn't support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, which helps speed up data transfer to your computer.
The Coolpix S1 has a lot of potential, but frankly there are better ultra-thin cameras on the market now. Let's hope the next iteration of the Coolpix S1 does a little better.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other ultra-thin cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SD400 and SD500, Casio Exilim EX-Z57, Fuji FinePix Z1, Kodak EasyShare V550, Olympus C-630Z and Stylus Verve S, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax Optio S5z, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T7 and DSC-T33.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix S1 and its competitors before you buy!
Photo GallerySee how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!
Want another opinion?
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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