Why mess with a good thing? That seems to be Nikon's approach to its Wi-Fi-enabled ultracompact cameras. When they came out with the Coolpix S50c last year, I noticed that it was extremely similar to its predecessor, the S7c. Now, Nikon has made the Coolpix S51c, which is nearly identical to last year's model. The S51c moves up to an 8.1-megapixel CCD (instead of the S50c's 7.1 megapixels), but sticks with a similar optically stabilized 3x optical, 38mm-to-114mm-equivalent f/3.3-to-f.4.2 zoom lens and 3-inch LCD. While I keep telling Nikon it needs to build a basic browser into its Wi-Fi cameras, so that users can accept the terms of service of free access points, the company still hasn't built one into the S51c. That means you'll have to stick with T-Mobile or private access points. The camera comes with six months of free T-Mobile access, so you can try out the service.
Since the camera hasn't changed much, Nikon has introduced a new Web-based service called my Picturetown, which offers 2GB of free storage for your photos, so you can easily share them with family and friends. If that's not enough for you, starting next March, Nikon says you'll be able to upgrade to a premium account with 20GB of storage for about $3 a month. Given that Sony is in the process of shutting down its Image Station image-sharing site, and CNET recently sold Webshots to a greeting card company, it's interesting that Nikon is jumping in to the photo-sharing Web site game now. However, they do include a link on the site so you can quickly upload your images to Flickr if you use it to share your photos.
Nikon stuck with the same elegant, subtle-wave design that most of its ultracompacts have used in recent years. Nikon also kept the same control layout as last year's model with a nifty click wheel for menu navigation and four buttons around it to access various functions and menus. The only confusing thing I encountered was the face-detection button on the left side of the top of the camera. I was flummoxed at first when trying to activate face-detection mode, until I noticed the button, which is the only way to activate it. I would've preferred for this button to be near the click wheel, but once you find out where it is (and you just did), it's not a problem that it's on top. Plus, as explained below, the button lets you enter One Touch Portrait mode.
If you're looking for a plethora of exposure controls, you won't find them here. Like most ultracompacts, the S51c relies on scene modes to deal with out of the ordinary, or just plain tricky, shooting situations. Exposure compensation lets you tweak the camera's metering in third-stop increments up to plus or minus 2 EV, but in field tests, the 224-segment matrix metering generally did a good job of determining exposure.
In addition to the scene modes, Nikon includes features to make certain shooting situations easier. Accessible by a button on the top left of the camera, the One Touch Portrait mode sets the camera to recognize faces. In this mode, while you frame the photo, the camera puts yellow boxes around the faces in your photo. At the same time, it chooses one as the main face to use for metering and focus, and puts a bracketed yellow box around that one. The hope is that the camera won't become confused and focus on something in the background when you're trying to get a portrait instead. In my field tests it worked; friends were in focus and their faces were well-exposed. In certain situations, it did take a bit longer to detect the face than comparable systems from Canon, Fujifilm, and others. In playback mode, the One Touch Portrait button doubles as the D-Lighting button, which tweaks the brightness and contrast of an image in case an exposure doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to.
While last year's model had an Anti-Shake mode button next to the One Touch Portrait button, this year Nikon put the control for the Vibration Reduction in the setup menu. Nikon's Best Shot Selector (aka, BSS) mode shoots up to 10 photos in a single burst, using only the first to determine focus and exposure, and then analyzes the results and chooses the one it thinks has the best results. You can activate BSS in the main shooting menu.
While Nikon didn't include any complementary T-Mobile access with the S50c last year, you get six months free with the S51c. Plus, as mentioned above, you also get 2GB of free storage on the my Picturetown Web site, which can be used to share your photos with friends and family. If you have access to a private 802.11b/g network, you can use it to upload your photos and send e-mail notifications with links to your uploaded photos. The camera can even store network profiles, complete with TKIP, WEP, or AES security keys.
However, despite our ardent suggestions, Nikon hasn't seen fit to include a browser in the camera, which would let you use the camera with one of the many free Wi-Fi hot spots cropping up around the world. Since the vast majority of such connections require you to click a simple button to accept their terms of service (usually a legal disclaimer to limit the provider's liability), you end up with a network error message on the S51c if you try to access such a network. In my opinion, Nikon should really take it a step further still to include a browser that would let you enter credit card info so you can access the Wi-Fi networks offered by most hotels.