DCRP Review: Nikon Coolpix SQ
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 1, 2003
Last Updated: September 9, 2003

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This review is now completed. All product photos have been re-shot where necessary, and all photos are from a production-level camera.

To call the Nikon Coolpix SQ ($499) unique would be an understatement. The SQ's design is stunning, with a square shape (hence the name) and Nikon's trademark rotating lens.

The SQ is a "boutique camera", meaning that it's uniquely designed, expensive and fairly limited in terms of features. It will also be sold only in certain stores.

If you're ready, read on to learn more about this one-of-a-kind 3 Megapixel camera.

What's in the Box?

The Coolpix SQ has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.1 Mpixel Nikon Coolpix SQ camera
  • 16MB CompactFlash card
  • EN-EL2 Li-ion battery (rechargeable)
  • Cool-Station MV-10 camera dock
  • AC adapter
  • Wrist strap
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring NikonView and drivers
  • 112 page camera manual (printed)

Inside the box, you'll find the famous (or infamous) Lexar "Starter" CompactFlash card, which only tells you its capacity (16MB) in small print on the back of the card. It's definitely a starter card -- you'll want a larger one right away. I'd recommend 128MB as a starting point.

The Coolpix SQ uses the EN-EL2 battery, also seen in Nikon's Coolpix 2500 and 3500. Don't expect to take too many pictures with the SQ, as the 3.7 Wh battery only lasts for about 65 minutes. Do note that another one of these proprietary batteries will set you back $35.

When it's time to charge, just pop the camera into the included Cool-Station camera dock. It takes about two hours to fully charge the battery. The dock can also be used for transferring photos to your Mac or PC. One bonus feature of the dock: it can charge a spare battery, even while the camera is in the dock (the camera's battery is charged first, and then the spare).

The included AC adapter can be used to power the camera, as well as the dock.

The SQ includes a rather bizarre lens cap (the strap always seems to be in the way), but it does protect the lens. Also, note just how small this camera is!

There aren't many accessories available for this Coolpix. The only ones I could dig up were an external battery charger, soft case, and LCD hood.

Nikon includes the latest versions of NikonView with the SQ (version 6). You can use the software to organize and to do basic photo editing (one of the new features in version 6 is redeye reduction). It's no Photoshop, but it's decent.

Main screen, NikonView 6 in Mac OS X

Edit screen, NikonView 6 in Windows XP

From my past experiences, the Mac OS X version of NikonView hasn't been terribly stable, though the application's performance has improved recently.

Although cluttered at times, the manual included with the Coolpix SQ is decent. An included CD-ROM will also help you become familiar with the camera.

Look and Feel

As you've seen, the Coolpix SQ is a small, square, metal camera. It has a rotating lens, though it can't turn as much as the lens on the Coolpix 4500.

Above you can see how much the lens rotates in each direction. It can face about 20 degrees downward (barely enough for those "shooting over people's heads" shots), or 90 degrees toward the back of the camera. That means that you can take a self-portrait!

As you can see above, that doesn't work very well on the Coolpix SQ, as the lens blocks half of the LCD. Nikon did try a clever solution, by shrinking the LCD image into a small square to the right of the lens (see above), but it's awfully hard to see.

The camera itself is quite easy to hold, with enough room for both hands (and you don't block anything important, either).

While closed, the dimensions of the SQ are 3.2 x 3.2 x 1.0 inches (W x H x D). With the lens pointed forward, the dimensions become a magical 3.2 x 3.2 x 3.2 inches! The camera weighs 180 grams empty.

Let's begin our tour of the camera now!

The Coolpix SQ has an F2.7-F4.8, 3X optical zoom lens. The focal range is 5.6 - 16.8 mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 111 mm. The lens is not threaded.

Directly to the left of the lens is the SQ's built-in flash. If you're thinking that this camera is going to have major redeye problems, you're probably right. The flash has a working range of 0.3 - 5.0 m at wide-angle, and 0.3 - 3.7 m at telephoto. You cannot add an external flash to the SQ, which should not be surprising.

Believe it or not, the little thing under the flash is an AF-assist lamp (and self-timer lamp). Why Nikon puts an AF illuminator on this camera, but none of their others, is beyond me. This is the first assist lamp I've seen that uses a green light. The light this thing puts out is blinding!

Here's the back of the camera now, with the lens "closed". The Coolpix SQ has a high resolution 1.5 LCD display -- and that's the only thing you can use to take pictures. Like the other small Coolpix models with the rotating lens, there is no optical viewfinder. That's a deal breaker for me if I was shopping for a camera, but some folks may not mind. Anyhow, the LCD is super bright and fluid, and you can adjust the brightness to your liking in the setup menu.

Below the LCD are three buttons, two of which have multiple functions. From the left:

  • Self-timer [3 or 10 sec] + Macro {record mode} / Delete photo {playback mode}
  • Exposure compensation [-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments] + Flash setting [Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash cancel, fill flash] {record mode}
  • Menu {record/playback mode}

To the right of those buttons is the speaker.

Above that is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation. Continuing upward, we find the zoom controller and playback mode button. It takes 2.2 seconds to zoom from wide-angle to telephoto. The lens is smooth, fairly quiet, and precise. You can hold down the playback button to enter it while the camera is off (instead of using the power switch).

Up on the top of the Coolpix SQ, you'll find the mode wheel, microphone, shutter release button, and power switch.

The items on the mode wheel include:

  • Scene Mode
    • Portrait
    • Party/Indoor
    • Night Portrait
    • Sports
    • Beach/Snow
    • Landscape
    • Sunset
    • Dusk/Dawn
    • Night Landscape
    • Close Up
    • Museum
    • Fireworks Show
    • Copy
    • Back Light
    • Panorama Assist
  • Auto Record - totally point-and-shoot
  • Manual Record - still point-and-shoot, but opens up menu options
  • Movie Mode
  • Setup Mode

Scene modes

That's an impressive set of scene modes. Just pick the situation, and the camera chooses the best settings for you.

Nothing at all to see on this side of the camera.

On the other side, under a plastic door (which seems like it could snap off if forced), you'll find the battery compartment and memory card slot. The SQ uses Type I CompactFlash cards, which means no Microdrive.

The EN-EL2 battery is shown on the left.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. Here you can see the dock connector and plastic tripod mount. There's a small plastic door that covers the dock connection when it's not in use.

Using the Nikon Coolpix SQ

Record Mode

The Coolpix SQ takes just under three seconds to "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. When you halfway press the shutter release button, the camera quickly locks focus in about 1/2 second. If light levels were lower and the AF-assist lamp is used, the wait is a more like a second. Since the camera focuses will in low light, it's worth the wait!

Shutter lag was barely noticeable.

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent. You can take another shot about a 2 second delay. When a shot is taken, the LCD displays you the image that was taken, and you have the option to delete it at that point.

The SQ has several image quality/resolution choices. They are:

Resolution Quality # Images on 16MB card
2016 x 1512
Fine 9
Normal 17
Basic 34
1600 x 1200
Fine 14
Normal 27
Basic 52
PC screen
1024 x 768
Fine 33
Normal 62
Basic 109
TV screen
640 x 480
Fine 77
Normal 131
Basic 203

The Coolpix SQ does not support TIFF or RAW file formats.

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

The Coolpix SQ has a very simple menu system, also seen on the Coolpix 2100/3100. It's easy to navigate -- great for beginners. There aren't many options either, as the SQ is a point-and-shoot camera. Some of those options are only available in manual record mode (I'll bold those items). And here they are:

  • Image quality (see chart)
  • Image size (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, preset, sunny, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, speedlight)
  • Metering (Matrix, spot, center-weighted)
  • Continuous (Single, continuous, multi-shot 16)
  • Best Shot Selector (on/off)
  • AF Area Mode (Auto, Manual, Off)
  • Autofocus Mode (Continuous AF, Single AF)

As you can see, the SQ has a manual white balance feature, which lets you get perfect white balance in any lighting. This is the only manual control on the camera.

There are two continuous modes on the SQ. Continuous will take photos at a rate of 2 frames/sec, for up to 7 shots. Multi-shot 16 takes 16 shots in a row, and assembles them into one 2048 x 1536 photo.

The Best Shot Selector (BSS) feature will let you take up to 10 shots in a row, and then the camera chooses the best of the bunch -- and that's the one that is saved to the memory card. This feature is useful in situations where "camera shake" may be an issue.

The manual AF Area mode will let you choose one of 9 areas on the LCD for the camera to focus. The auto AF Area mode will pick one of 5 areas automatically. Or you can just turn the whole thing off, and always focus on the center of the frame.

In the single AF mode, the camera only tries to focus when you halfway press the shutter release button. Continuous AF mode means that the camera is always focusing -- at the expense of battery life.

There is also a setup menu, which is accessed via the mode wheel. The interesting items found here include:

  • Welcome screen (Disable, Coolpix 1/2, custom) - the custom mode lets you pick a photo on the memory card to use
  • Language (English, German, French, Japanese, Spanish)
  • LCD brightness
  • Auto Off (30 sec. 1, 5, 30 min)
  • USB (PTP, Mass Storage)
  • Video Mode (NTSC, PAL)

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

Macro shooting has always been one of the trademarks of the Coolpix series, and the SQ continues that tradition. You can get as close as 4 cm to your subject. In order to get that close, you'll need to adjust the zoom to the middle position, at which time the macro flower on LCD will turn green.

The test shot above is pretty good, though it's on the grainy side (more on that later) and there's a noticeable red cast that shows up mostly in the background (which is a white wall). The image is quite sharp, though.

In what will be a common theme in this section of the review, the night test should would've been really nice had the noise levels been lower. The image is way too grainy. It's a shame, too, as the camera took in more than enough light. Do note that the best way to get a shot like the one above is to use the night landscape scene mode.

The distortion test shows moderate barrel distortion at wide-angle, and no vignetting or blurry corners.

Though it's not terribly clear here, you can expect to see some redeye in your flash "people pictures". The flash is right next door to the lens, which does not help matters. The image is quite noisy as well.

Lots of noise (grain), especially in the shadows and sky
View Full Size Image

I've been talking a lot about noise/grain in this section, and that's probably the biggest issue with photo quality on the Coolpix SQ. I don't know if it's the in-camera sharpening system or what (photos are quite sharp), but images are far too noisy for a camera with this price. I noticed in mostly in shadows and sky -- sometimes it even looked like it had a grid pattern. Before you say "you must have had a bad camera", I must point you to the SQ gallery over at Steve's Digicams, which has the same issue.

Dust spots and noise, oh my!
View Full Size Image

Another issue I noticed isn't exclusive to the SQ -- but the close proximity of the lens and flash may exacerbate the problem. That problem is what I'll call "dust spots". Basically these are dust particles that are reflected by the flash, which end up as big circles on your photos. I took a whole set of photos in a restaurant (not shown here, to protect the innocent) and they were full of these. When I took the SQ to my new house, almost all of the photos had these spots too.

While I don't see how Nikon could solve the dust problem, I would think a firmware upgrade could address the noise issue. If they could do that, I'd give the photo quality a higher rating. Aside from those two big issues, the Coolpix did take sharp images with accurate color, though it usually overexposed things a little.

Please, please, please, don't just take my word as gospel -- have a look at the photo gallery and see for yourself!

Movie Mode

The Coolpix SQ has a pretty basic movie mode. You can record up to 40 seconds of 320 x 240 video, with sound.

You cannot use the optical zoom during filming. Movies are saved in QuickTime format.

Here's a short sample movie for you:

Click to play movie (4.2MB, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

Just like with its movie mode, the Coolpix SQ's playback mode is basic.

The standard playback functions include slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, image protection, and zoom & scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) lets you zoom into your image as much as 6 times, and then scroll around in the enlarged photo. This feature is well-implemented on the SQ.

Another nice feature that's all too uncommon these days is the ability to delete a group of photos, rather than just one at a time or all of them.

The Coolpix also gives you the option to mark photos that you want to be automatically transferred when you connect the camera to your PC.

The SQ unfortunately doesn't give you any useful information about your photos. While I'm not asking for a histogram, a little exposure data would've been nice. The camera moves through images very quickly in playback mode. A lower resolution image is shown instantly, with the high resolution version appearing about a second later.

How Does it Compare?

Although it has an intriguing design, I did not care for the Nikon Coolpix SQ for three main reasons. The first, and perhaps most important, is photo quality. Well the color and sharpness were good, the noise levels were not. Photos are way too grainy, which is quite unusual for a Nikon cameras that are usually on the softer side. Having the flash right next to the lens caused the camera to pick up a lot of dust in the air for flash shots, which produces spots in your photos. Redeye was also an issue for the same reason. My second beef with the camera is the price. At $499 for a 3 Megapixel point-and-shoot camera, the SQ isn't a great value (though you can find it for under $400 online). That should've been apparent at the beginning of this review, where I described the SQ as a "boutique camera". The third issue is more of a personal preference: I don't like cameras that lack an optical viewfinder.

With those out of the way, I can say that the SQ is an attractive camera, with good performance overall. It's the only Nikon camera with an AF illuminator -- and a very bright one at that. The rotating lens comes in handy in situations where you can't be directly behind the camera. I also liked the extensive selection of scene modes. The playback and movie modes were both very basic, though. All-in-all, the SQ is an interesting camera that just needs work.

What I liked:

  • Very unique square metal body
  • Rotating lens
  • Robust performance
  • AF illuminator
  • Nice LCD display
  • Impressive macro ability

What I didn't care for:

  • Images too noisy/grainy
  • Close flash/lens positions means dust reflections, redeye
  • Pricey for what you get
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Aside from white balance, no manual controls
  • Average playback, movie modes
  • Limited battery life

Some other compact 3 Megapixel cameras worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot A70 and SD100, Casio Exilim EX-Z3, Fuji FinePix A210, HP Photosmart 735, Kodak EasyShare CX6330, Minolta DiMAGE E323 and Xt, Nikon Coolpix 3100 and 3500, Olympus Stylus 300, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC33, Pentax Optio S, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P72 and DSC-P8.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Coolpix SQ and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out a review of the Coolpix SQ over at Steve's Digicams. If you're still not satisfied, you'll find another at the Imaging Resource.


Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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