I admit to having mixed feelings about the Nikon Coolpix S600. On one hand, it's a very attractive-looking ultracompact capable of producing pretty 10-megapixel photos. But on the other, it's a tad slow and underfeatured with an occasionally annoying interface. Nor is it priced aggressively enough ($150 or less) to make some of these trade-offs more palatable.
True, it's a prettily designed camera. At 5.3 ounces with ultracompact dimensions of 2.1 inches by 3.5 inches by 0.9 inch and encased in an elegant slate-black brushed metal, it fits comfortably in a blazer or pants pocket as well as any social occasion.
Despite its attractiveness and flawed-but-usable controls, the S600's operational flow just annoys the heck out of me. It fails to observe all the generally accepted conventions that help speed shooting with heavily menu-based point-and-shoots. For instance, every menu selection requires a confirmation, rather than assuming that the option you were on when you backed out is your choice. So while on a typical competing snapshot camera it takes two button presses to switch from ISO 100 to ISO 200, with the S600 it takes five. Some competing cameras still require this, so only a partial demerit here. However, to get out of the menu, virtual mode dial, and playback, you've got to press the relevant button again; in contrast, almost every other camera quits those modes when you half-press the shutter button. In total, this just makes for a less pleasurable, occasionally frustrating user experience.
Only the macro, flash, self-timer, and exposure compensation settings have dedicated controls--as with most point and shoots, almost all shooting controls are screen- or menu-based. With a virtual mode dial, you cycle among setup, movie, audio recording, program exposure (scenes), a high-ISO auto (extends autoselection range past ISO 800), and regular autoshooting modes. A menu button pulls up your shooting options: resolution/image quality; white balance; metering (matrix and center weighted); shooting (single, continuous, Best Shot Selector); ISO sensitivity (100 to 3,200), various color options, AF area (center, manual, auto, face priority), and AF mode (single, continuous).
I suppose it doesn't matter that it takes multiple presses to access these options, since most of them are of little use. You really don't want to shoot at higher than ISO 400 with this camera, so forget the high ISO mode. I couldn't get the camera to produce different exposures with the matrix and center-weighted metering; the missing spot-meter option usually makes a handier alternative to either one of those. The BSS can be quite useful--it shoots up to 10 photos as you hold the shutter down, then saves the sharpest of the bunch--but it's also the sort of mode that you want to be able to toggle on and off more quickly than the camera allows. And the face-priority AF is too slow, as well as too erratic, to take seriously. As with most snapshot models, the auto area AF invariably picks the wrong subject; for example, in a photo of two people sitting on a bench, the camera chose to focus on the bench. As usual, I recommend that you eschew all the fancy AF modes and instead use center AF, focus, and recompose. For selecting the appropriate subject, you're still faster than the camera.
The S600 has a nice, wide, optically stabilized f/2.7-5.8 28mm-to-112mm 4x zoom lens, but while shooting you may get frustrated by the lack of the telephoto reach you get with models like Panasonic's Lumix TZ series or, to a lesser extent, some of Sony's W series models.