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DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix S51  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 29, 2008
Last updated: April 21, 2008

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The Nikon Coolpix S51 ($229) is an ultra-compact camera with a 3X optical zoom lens, image stabilization, large 3-inch LCD display, an easy-to-use interface, and more. Its sibling, the S51c, adds built-in wireless connectivity for $50 more.

The Coolpix S51 finds itself amongst some tough competition in the ultra-compact arena. How does it perform? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix S51 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find:

  • The 8.1 Megapixel Coolpix S51 digital camera
  • EN-EL8 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • Dock insert
  • USB + A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Nikon Transfer and ArcSoft Panorama Maker
  • Fold-out Quick Start guide + 138 page camera manual (printed)

Like most compact cameras these days, the Coolpix S51 has built-in memory in lieu of a bundled memory card. The S51 has just 13MB of onboard memory, which holds a paltry 3 photos at the highest quality setting. Thus, you'll want to buy a memory card right away, and I'd recommend picking up a 1GB card to start with. While buying a high speed card is never a bad idea, there's no need to go overboard with the S51.

The S51 uses the very slim EN-EL8 lithium-ion battery for power. This battery packs just 2.7 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which is about as low as you'll find these days. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Canon PowerShot SD870 IS */** 270 shots
Casio Exilim EX-Z80 210 shots
Fuji FinePix Z100fd * 170 shots
HP Photosmart R847 ** 210 shots
Kodak EasyShare M893 IS * N/A
Nikon Coolpix S51 * 150 shots
Olympus Stylus 840 * 190 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 */** 280 shots
Pentax Optio A40 * 180 shots
Samsung L83t *** 200 shots
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 */** 270 shots

* Has image stabilization
** Has 3-inch LCD display
*** Number not officially calculated with CIPA standard

Battery life numbers are provided by the camera manufacturers

As you can see, the Coolpix S51 turns in the worst numbers of the bunch. If there was ever a camera where you want to buy a spare battery, this is it. Do note that like all the cameras on the list, the proprietary battery used by the S51 is on the expensive side ($20 a pop). Also, you can't use off-the-shelf batteries in emergencies, as you could on a camera that uses AAs. That said, you won't find any ultra-slim cameras that use AAs.

Nikon MH-62 battery charger

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. The charger doesn't plug directly into the wall -- you must use a power cable. You can expect to wait around two hours for the EN-EL8 to be fully charged.

Nikon Coolpix S51 in the hand

As is the case with all ultra-compact cameras, the Coolpix S51 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to worry about.

The Coolpix S51 is one of a very small group of non-Kodak cameras to support ImageLink devices. The only ImageLink device you'll probably ever see is one of Kodak's printer docks. Just be sure to attach the included adapter to the device before you put the camera on it!

The S51 is pretty light in the accessory department. In fact, the only real accessory is the EH-64 AC adapter, which is priced from $20.

Nikon Transfer in Mac OS X

Nikon doesn't include a whole lot in the way of software with the Coolpix S51. The main application is Nikon Transfer, which you can use to transfer images from the camera to your computer. Nikon Transfer gives you a thumbnail view of the photos on the camera, and there are various ways to sort through them. Once you've picked your photos, just hit "Start Transfer" and away it goes. The software not only copies the photos to the destination of your choice, but it also lets you select a second (backup) location for them. Mac users running OS X 10.5 (Leopard) should download the latest version of the software, as the one included with the camera barely runs.

And that's about all that Nikon Transfer does! If you're running Windows, you can install Kodak's EasyShare software (detailed here), which is (strangely) included on the CD. Mac users don't get that luxury, so you'll have to find something else. You can also download Nikon's ViewNX image editor for Mac and Windows at no charge (why it isn't included is beyond me). You can learn more about it by checking out the software section of my D300 review.

Panorama Maker 4.0 in Mac OS X

The only other software included with the Coolpix S51 is the latest version of ArcSoft's Panorama Maker. This lets you take photos that you've lined up side-by-side (using the camera's panorama assist feature helps with this) and stitch them together into one giant panorama. It takes very little work on your part, and the results can be impressive.

The documentation for the Coolpix S51 is divided into two parts. You'll get a fold-out quick start guide to get you up and running, plus a detailed manual for when you need more information. While not spectacular, the manuals are a little more user-friendly than most (though I could do without all the "notes" on each page).

Look and Feel

The Coolpix S51 is an ultra-compact camera made mostly of metal. The camera feels pretty solid for the most part, save for the plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment. I'm never a fan of plastic tripod mounts, either.

From an ergonomic standpoint, the S51 leaves something to be desired. The buttons on the back of the camera are tiny, there's not a lot of real estate for your fingers, and the raised power button (right next to the shutter release) is too easy to bump accidentally. The camera is also a magnet for fingerprints, with its large screen and mirrored side panels. Oh, and watch your hands -- your left one to be specific -- as it can easily end up in your photos if you're not careful.

The Coolpix S51 comes in a multitude of colors, though I think some may be exclusive to specific retailers. Colors I found include black (reviewed here), red, blue, magenta, and brown.

Now, let's take a look at how the S51 compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD870 IS 3.7 x 2.3 x 1.0 in. 8.5 cu in. 155 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z80 3.5 x 2.0 x 0.8 in. 5.6 cu in. 100 g
Fujifilm FinePix Z100fd 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 138 g
HP Photosmart R847 3.9 x 2.5 x 1.1 in. 10.7 cu in. 204 g
Kodak EasyShare M893 IS 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 7.1 cu in. 117 g
Nikon Coolpix S51 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 6.6 cu in. 125 g
Olympus Stylus 840 3.8 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 130 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 143 g
Pentax Optio A40 2.2 x 0.9 x 3.6 in. 7.1 cu in. 130 g
Samsung L83t 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.7 in. 6 cu in. 110 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 3.5 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.2 cu in. 128 g

In the ultra-compact group, the Coolpix S51 finds itself right in the middle. It's small enough to fit into any of your pockets with ease.

Enough jabbering, let's start our tour of the camera now!

Front of the Nikon Coolpix S51

The Coolpix S51 features a F3.3-4.2, 3X optical zoom lens. Since the lens has a "folded optics" design (meaning that most of the lens elements go toward the Nikon logo), nothing ever protrudes from the camera. This design also allows the S51 to stay quite slim. The focal range of the lens is 6.3 - 18.9 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. As you might imagine, the lens is not threaded, so conversion lenses are not available.

Somewhere inside the lens is Nikon's lens-shift image stabilization, which they call Vibration Reduction. Sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos. The VR system moves an element in the lens to compensate for this motion, resulting in a better chance of a sharp photo. Now, it won't stop a moving subject, nor will it work miracles (no handheld one second exposures), but it will let you take sharp photos at shutter speeds that would be otherwise unusable. Here's an example showing what the VR feature can do for you:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the photos above were taken at a shutter speed of just 1/3 second. The difference between the two shots is immediately clear -- you don't need to be an "expert" to figure out that the VR system is doing its job. The VR system is intelligent enough to tell when you're panning the camera, in which case it only stabilizes for up-and-down motion. You can also use Vibration Reduction in movie mode, as illustrated by this sample movie.

Getting back to the tour now, you'll find the S51's flash immediately to the left of the lens. While the flash may look small, it's still quite powerful. The working range is 0.3 - 6.0 m at wide-angle, and 0.3 - 4.0 m at telephoto. Keep in mind that those settings are obtained at Auto ISO (as is usually the case), which you may not want to use due to high noise levels. Not surprisingly, you cannot attach an external flash to the S51.

Below the flash is the S51's AF-assist lamp. The camera uses this as a focusing aid in low light situations. It also serves as a sort of visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Nikon Coolpix S51

You can't miss the huge 3-inch LCD on the back of the Coolpix S51: it takes up the majority of its backside. While the screen is large, the 230,000 pixel resolution isn't any higher than what you'd get on a 2.5" screen. In other words, things are larger, but they aren't any sharper. While I noticed this right away (I do look at cameras all day, though), it didn't really bother me. Outdoor visibility is about average, as is low light viewing. In low light, the screen brightens a bit, though not as much as I'd like (and the view is pretty grainy, too).

As you may have noticed, there's no optical viewfinder on the Coolpix S51. Heck, there's not even any room for one. Whether this is a bad thing is sort of up to you. Some people will miss the viewfinder, while others won't even notice.

At the top right of the photo is the zoom controller. It's quite small, especially for folks like me with big fingers. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in less than 1.7 seconds. I counted nine steps in the S51's 3X zoom range. Do note that the digital zoom is always on, though the camera pauses at the 3X mark before it becomes active.

Virtual mode dial (record mode)

Below the zoom controller is the camera's speaker, followed by two tiny buttons for Mode and Playback. Pressing the mode button opens up... get ready... the mode menu. This virtual mode dial has the following options in record mode:

  • Auto mode
  • High sensitivity mode
  • Scene mode (Portrait, landscape, sports, night portrait, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, night landscape, close up, museum, fireworks show, copy, backlight, panorama assist)
  • Voice recording mode
  • Movie mode
  • Setup mode
Scene menu Help for one of the scenes

The Coolpix S51 is a point-and-shoot camera, with no manual exposure controls. There are plenty of scene modes available, including a panorama assist mode that helps you line up photos side-by-side, for later stitching into a single image. If you don't know what a particular scene does, a help screen is just a button-press away. There's a separate high sensitivity mode available, though I don't recommend using it, as photos can be quite noisy.

The camera also offers a dedicated voice recording mode, which can save up to five hours of audio.

Continuing downward, we find the S51's four-way controller / scroll wheel combination. The scroll wheel can be used for menu navigation, quickly moving through your photos, and operating the virtual mode dial. The directional portions of the four-way controller can also do the following:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash off, fill flash, slow sync)
  • Down - Macro (on/off)
  • Left - Self-timer (Off, 3 or 10 secs)
  • Right - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)

Continuing our trip down the right side of the above photo, we find the playback and delete photo buttons. Under that is the mode switch, which moves the camera between auto record, scene mode, and movie mode.

Below the controller are two more mini-buttons, which are for opening the menu system and deleting a photo, respectively.

The first thing to see on the top of the Coolpix S51 is the One-Touch Portrait mode button. Pressing this activates the portrait scene mode, face detection AF, and in-camera redeye reduction. How does it do at finding faces? Have a look:

A rare case when the S51 found three faces

Nikon's face detection system (called Face Priority AF) has never impressed me very much. With our test scene, the camera could only find one of the six faces. I zoomed in a bit, and the camera usually found two faces, and sometimes three. When you halfway-press the shutter release, the camera locks focus on the "primary" face that it found.

Moving to the right, we find the S51's microphone. Next to that are the power and shutter release buttons. The power button is easy to bump accidentally (since it's raised), and its proximity to the shutter release makes accidentally camera shut-offs a possibility.

Side of the Nikon Coolpix S51

Nothing to see here, unless you like mirrors.

Side of the Nikon Coolpix S51

Nothing here either...

Bottom of the Nikon Coolpix S51

On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery compartment, ImageLink-compatible dock connector, and a plastic tripod mount. The dock connector is also where you'll plug in the included A/V + USB cable. Speaking of USB, the Coolpix S51 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

More than likely, you won't be able to get at the memory card while the camera is on a tripod. Also, the somewhat flimsy door over the battery/memory card compartment pops open too easily -- it could really use a lock.

Using the Nikon Coolpix S51

Record Mode

It takes the Coolpix S51 about 1.6 seconds to start up and prepare to shoot. That's about average.

No live histogram here

While autofocus speeds were decent at the wide end of the lens, telephoto and low light focus speeds were very sluggish. In those best case scenarios, you can expect to wait between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds for the camera to lock focus. Move the lens to the telephoto end and you can expect waits of one or even two seconds before focus is locked. Low light focusing is just as slow, but the camera does lock focus eventually.

While there wasn't any shutter lag to speak of at faster shutter speeds, I did notice a delay when the camera was using slower shutter speeds. Of course, you should probably be using a tripod or the flash at that point, but it's worth mentioning.

Shot-to-shot speeds hovered around two seconds, which is average. Adding the flash into the mix didn't slow things down significantly.

You can delete the photo you just took by pressing the -- get this -- delete photo button. This feature is a bit slower than I'd like (you have to wait until the photo is recorded to memory), but it's better than nothing.

There are just a few image sizes available on the Coolpix S51. They include:

Resolution Quality # images on 13MB built-in memory # images on 1GB SD card (optional)
3264 x 2448
High 3 240
Normal 5 460
3200 x 1800
Normal 8 640
2592 x 1944
Normal 9 720
2048 x 1536
Normal 14 1140
PC Screen
1024 x 768
Normal 44 3600
TV Screen
640 x 480
Normal 88 7000

That chart perfectly illustrates why you want to buy a memory card right away.

This shouldn't come as a huge surprise, but the Coolpix S51 does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats.

Images are named DSCN####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained, even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Let's talk about menus now, shall we?

The Coolpix S51 has a pretty basic menu system, though it (along with the entire user interface of the S51) felt sluggish. There are two ways to display the menu items: by text or by icon. For each of the menu items you can press the "zoom in" button to get a description of what that item does. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here is the complete record menu:

  • Image mode (see chart above)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, flash) - see below
  • Continuous (Single, continuous, multi-shot 16) - see below
  • BSS [Best Shot Selector] (on/off) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Color options (Standard, vivid, black and white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • AF area mode (Auto, manual, center) - see below

That preset white balance option is the only manual control on the camera. This lets you use a white or gray card to get accurate colors, and you may need to use this feature when shooting under unusual lighting.

The Coolpix S51 certainly won't win any awards for its continuous shooting mode. While the camera can keep shooting until you run out of memory, the frame rate is a sluggish 0.9 frames/second. Other cameras, most notably from Panasonic, do a lot better in this area. The S51 also has a Multi-shot 16 feature, which takes sixteen photos in a row, and compiles them into a single 8 Megapixel collage.

The Best Shot Selector -- a somewhat legendary Nikon feature -- takes up to ten shots in a row and then saves the sharpest one. It's worth using when camera blur may be an issue.

The manual AF area option lets you use the four-way controller to select one of ninety-nine possible focus points. This comes in handy when the camera is on a tripod. The auto mode is your standard 5-point autofocus.

Now here's what you'll find in the setup menu, which you get to from the virtual mode dial:

  • Menus (Icon, text)
  • Welcome screen (Disable, Coolpix, select an image) - the "select an image" mode lets you use your own photo
  • Date
    • Date (set)
    • Time zone - choose a home and travel time zone
  • Monitor settings
    • Photo info (Show info, auto info, hide info, framing grid) - what is displayed on the LCD
    • Brightness (1 - 5)
  • Date imprint (Off, date, date & time, date counter) - print the date/time on your photos; the date counter shows the numbers of days that have elapsed since a date you have chosen
  • Vibration reduction (on/off) - turn image stabilization on and off; you may want to do the latter when using a tripod
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • Sound settings
    • Button sound (on/off)
    • Shutter sound (on/off)
  • Record orientation (Auto, off) - whether portrait shots are automatically rotated
  • Auto off (30 sec, 1, 5, 30 mins)
  • Format memory/card
  • Language
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • Reset all
  • Firmware version

Enough about menus, let's talk photo quality now!

The Coolpix S51 did a great job with our standard macro test subject. The figurine is nice and sharp, and colors are accurate. I can spot small amounts of noise, especially around the "ears", but that's about it.

The S51 lets you be 4 cm away from your subject, which is fairly good. To do that, you need to put the lens in the right spot, using a guide on the LCD. The sweet spot is at about 1/3 of the way through the focal range.

Since there's no way to manually select the shutter speed on the Coolpix, I was forced to use the night landscape scene mode to take the photo you see above. This scene mode, unfortunately, boosted the ISO to 400, so the image is quite noisy. The camera did take in plenty of light, though, and purple fringing is at a minimum.

I was unable to do the low light ISO test due to the lack of shutter speed and ISO control. I do, however, have the studio ISO test for you in a moment.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the S51's lens. You can see a nice illustration of what this does to your photos by looking at the flagpole in this shot. A lot of ultra-compact cameras have trouble with corner blurriness, but the Coolpix S51 isn't one of them. I didn't find vignetting (dark corners) to be an issue, either.

Redeye is a big problem on compact cameras, and the Coolpix S51 takes a two prong approach to getting rid of it. The camera first uses preflashes to shrink your subject's pupils, and if it still detects redeye, the camera removes it with software. Unfortunately, this system proved ineffective, at least in my testing. There's no redeye removal tool in playback mode to get rid of "leftovers" like you see above, either.

Here's that ISO test I promised you! This one is taken in our studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras that I've reviewed in recent years. While the crops below give you a good overview of the noise levels at each ISO setting, I encourage you to look at "the whole picture" to really see the differences.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The ISO 100 is a tad soft, but overall, it's pretty clean. At ISO 200 we see a bit of noise reduction, but it's not enough to keep you from making mid-to-large print of photos taken at that setting. The scene picks up a sort of "static" noise at ISO 400, reducing your print sizes to small or midsize. While things get even noisier at ISO 800, I do think that the camera retains enough to detail to still produce a small print. You can't say that for most compact cameras, so I have to give Nikon some credit here. On the other hand, the ISO 1600 is quite noisy, so I'd avoid this one unless you're really desperate.

In the real world, I'd rate the Coolpix S51's photo quality as "good, but not great" overall. On the positive side, the S51 took well-exposed photos, with nice, saturated colors. Purple fringing levels were slow. On the not-so-positive side, I did think the images could be sharper. Also, fine details were smudged by some heavy noise reduction (this shot illustrates it best), and the sky appears mottled in some photos, as well. While these issues won't show up in smaller prints (which is what the typical S51 user will be creating), you will notice them if you make large prints, or view the images at 100% on your computer monitor.

With that in mind, I invite you to visit our photo gallery. Look at the full size images, print a few if you can, and then you should be able to decide if the Coolpix S51's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The Coolpix S51 has a nice movie mode, though it still suffers from an A/V sync bug that I identified years ago. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until you run out of memory, or hit the 2GB file size limit. You'll fill up the internal memory in just 8 seconds, so you'll want a large, high speed memory card for longer movies. A 1GB card holds around 12 minutes of VGA video.

For longer movies, you can lower the resolution to 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, though the latter has a very choppy 15 fps frame rate.

A Pictmotion movie option records at 640 x 480 (30 fps), but stops after 60 seconds. This is for use with the fancy slideshow feature that I'll tell you about in a moment. There's also a stop-motion movie feature, which lets you take up to 1800 still photos and then put them all together into a silent VGA quality movie at 5, 10, or 15 frames/second.

As you'd expect, you can use the image stabilization while recording videos. While you cannot use the optical zoom, the digital zoom is available. You can choose between single and continuous autofocus while in movie mode, though I recommend using single AF, as the microphone may pick up the focusing sounds otherwise.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. You'll see the A/V sync bug in action when the sound cuts out before the clip ends. Get with it, Nikon!

Click to play movie (14.3 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The Coolpix S51 has a fairly normal playback mode, with just a few surprises. Basic features include DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions (up to 20 seconds worth), thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge a photo by as much as ten times so you can make sure everything's in focus. When you're zoomed into a photo, you can crop it by pressing the menu button. You can also rotate and resize images, via the playback menu.

Viewing images with the scroll wheel

You can navigate through photos the old-fashioned way, but pushing the four-way controller left or right. You can also spin the scroll wheel, which lets you move through images a lot quicker.

Viewing photos by calendar Viewing photos by date

Photos can also be view by the date on which they were taken -- in two different ways, as you can see above.

A nice feature found on Nikon's cameras is called D-Lighting. Simply put, this brightens up the dark areas of your photos. The catch (and you knew that was coming) is that the brightened areas of the photo will be quite noisy. Here's an example of D-Lighting in action:

Straight out of the camera Photo after D-Lighting

That's a nice improvement! Remember, this is really for small prints only, as the lightened building is loaded with noise.

Pictmotion main menu

If you like slideshows, then you'll love the Pictmotion feature on the Coolpix S51. You can select the photos you want in it, add effects, transitions, and music, and you're ready to go. If you're using a Windows PC, the Nikon Transfer software can convert the slideshow into a standard movie format.

A copy function lets you move photos from the internal memory to a memory card and vice versa. One last feature (that I always appreciate) is the ability to delete a group of photos, instead of just one at a time (or all at once).

Unfortunately, the S51 doesn't tell you much about your photos. What you see above is all you get, and that's too bad.

The cameras move through photos at an average clip, showing a low resolution image instantly, with the higher resolution image arriving about half a second later.

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon Coolpix S51 is a fairly average ultra-compact camera that doesn't particularly stand out in any one area. The biggest thing going for it is probably in the value department. For under $200, you get an 8 Megapixel camera, 3X zoom, image stabilization, and a huge LCD. Photo quality is decent, though there's certainly room for improvement. My biggest issues with the S51 relate to performance: it's sluggish in almost every area, and battery life is the worst in its class. I'm not a huge fan of its ergonomics, either. The Coolpix S51 is worth a look, but I'd recommend spending a little more on a better performing camera instead.

The Coolpix S51 is an ultra-compact camera made mostly of metal. The camera comes in a variety of colors, though some appear to be exclusive to certain retailers (such as Ritz Camera). The S51 is generally well put together, though I'm not a fan of the memory card / battery compartment door (it's flimsy and needs a lock) or the plastic tripod mount. The Coolpix could use some work in the ergonomics department, as well. The buttons are tiny, there's not a lot of room for your fingers, and the power button's design makes it easy to press accidentally. The S51 has an all-internal 3X optical zoom lens, with a standard-issue 38 - 114 mm focal range. Inside the lens is an effective image stabilization system, which can be used for both stills and movies. On the back of the camera is a large 3-inch LCD display, with 230,000 pixels. That's not any sharper than your typical 2.5" display, but it was plenty sharp for me. Both low light and outdoor LCD viewing were about average, with room for improvement. The Coolpix S51 does not have an optical viewfinder.

If you like point-and-shoot cameras with lots of scene modes, then you'll enjoy the Coolpix S51. Two scene modes of note include a panorama assist function, and a high sensitivity mode, which is better left untouched. Nikon does a good job providing help menus for all of the menus on the camera -- they're just a button-press away. The S51 has the now requisite face detection mode, though it doesn't perform nearly as well as some other cameras I've tested. Some other nice features on the S51 include D-Lighting (which brightens up dark areas of your photo), a fancy slideshow feature, and a VGA movie mode. The movie mode, however, is marred by the same A/V sync bug that has been on Nikon cameras since 2006 (!). If you're looking for manual controls, you'll find just one, and that's for white balance.

Camera performance is definitely the Coolpix S51's weak spot. While the camera's startup and shot-to-shot times are average, almost everything else is sluggish (even the user interface). Focus times are "okay" at the wide end of the lens, but telephoto and low light focus delays can easy reach one or even two seconds. Shutter lag was slightly noticeable at slower shutter speeds, so watch out for that. The camera's continuous shooting mode was nothing to write home about (0.9 frames/second), and the 150 shot per charge battery life is the worst of any ultra-compact camera on the market. On a more positive note, the S51 does support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, so at least file transfers to your computer will be quick.

Photo quality was generally good, though Nikon needs to throttle back the noise reduction a bit. Pictures were generally well-exposed, with pleasing, vivid color. Images are on the soft side, especially fine details like grass, trees, and hair (due to noise reduction). The S51 performed better than expected at high ISOs, with the ISO 800 setting still being usable for small prints. While the camera kept purple fringing under control, it couldn't do the same for redeye -- it's pretty bad, even with Nikon's two-prong approach to eliminating it.

There are a few other things that I want to point out before I wrap things up. First, you won't be able to get at the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. Not an issue for most potential S51 owners, but worth a mention. Next, it would've been nice if Nikon let you see some exposure information for your photos while in playback mode. And finally, the 13MB of memory is hardly anything for an 8 Megapixel camera, holding just three photos at the fine quality setting.

All things considered, the Coolpix S51 is an inexpensive, but mediocre camera. It has a few nice features, and generally good image quality, but its overall sluggishness and crummy battery life left me feeling a bit cold. It's worth looking at if you're on a budget, but I'd recommend spending a bit more for something else.

What I liked:

  • Good photo quality; better-than-average at ISO 400 and 800
  • Good value for the money
  • Compact metal body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Huge, fairly sharp 3-inch LCD display
  • Plenty of scene modes to choose from
  • Handy D-Lighting and Best Shot Selector features
  • In-camera help for most functions
  • Fancy slideshow feature
  • Supports Kodak printer docks
  • USB 2.0 High Speed supported

What I didn't care for:

  • Photos tend to be soft, with too much noise reduction
  • Redeye a problem, despite countermeasures
  • Poor battery life
  • Very slow focusing speeds at telephoto end of lens, or in low light
  • Sluggish in many other areas: user interface, continuous shooting, shutter lag
  • Tiny buttons on back of camera; power button too easy to push accidentally
  • Audio/video sync problem in movie mode (still!)
  • No manual controls (save for white balance)
  • Exposure info not available in playback mode
  • Low light LCD viewing could be better
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on tripod; plastic tripod mount
  • Very little built-in memory

Some other entry-level cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS, Casio Exilim EX-Z80, Fuji FinePix Z100fd, HP Photosmart R847, Kodak EasyShare M893 IS, Olympus Stylus 840, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55, Pentax Optio A40, Samsung L83t, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix S51 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

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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 or for technical support.

Want another opinion?

You'll find another review of this camera at PC World.