Tiny size, image quality that's acceptable but not outstanding, and a lack of manual controls make the ultracompact Nikon Coolpix S1 a good choice for snapshot photographers who want a good selection of fun features but don't want to make many decisions on their own.
This Nikon's strong points are abundant scene modes, a 3X zoom lens that doesn't protrude during use, a postshot fix that automatically brightens dark backgrounds, and a clever Face-Priority autofocus mode that ensures that the closest human to the camera will be sharp and clear. But with its limited shutter-speed range of 2 seconds to 1/350 second, you won't be using it for long exposures or very fast action. Most digital cameras sized like a deck of playing cards become lumpy when you turn them on and the lens extends--not the Nikon Coolpix S1. Its recessed optics peep out but don't emerge from the camera when their built-in cover opens; they then focus and zoom internally over a 35mm-to-105mm range (35mm-camera equivalent). The lens is even tucked far enough into the body that it largely avoids the bane of fingerprints.
Unfortunately, though, the most comfortable two-handed grip makes it easy for stray left-hand fingers to curl over the top and wander into the field of view; more than half of our initial shots with this camera included one or more fingers in the frame. The LCD viewfinder--there is no optical viewfinder window--shows just 87 percent of the image (100 percent on review), so the stray digits escaped our notice until it was too late.
The camera is otherwise well laid out for an ultracompact. Its 3.5-by-2.3-by-0.8-inch aluminum-alloy body has nary a protrusion--even the hand-strap lug is recessed--and features the minimal number of buttons and controls needed to get the job done. We did find the labeling a bit busy and confusing. For example, the slender top surface incorporates the shutter release; the power button; a speaker; a strip engraved with the lens's full name, focal lengths, and maximum apertures; and a microphone placed under an on/off label--presumably referring to the power switch.
The right side houses a plastic door that covers the SD/MMC memory card slot, while the bottom hosts an I/O connector for the Coolstation dock, the battery compartment, and a plastic tripod socket. All the other controls are squeezed onto a back panel dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD. These include a sliding recording/scene/movie mode switch; a four-way cursor pad with embedded OK button; a zoom rocker; and separate buttons for menu, picture review, and trash. Most of these controls pull double duty. For example, the telephoto side of the zoom rocker functions as a help key when you're navigating menus. Similarly, pressing up on the cursor pad changes flash options, down activates macro mode, left enables the self-timer, and right marks pictures for transfer.
This camera's well-designed menu system is laid out in three levels: setup, recording, and playback; the last two are accessible only when you're taking photos or reviewing images, respectively. Menus can be displayed in the customary text/icon mode, with a helpful scroll bar showing how far down the menu list you've ventured, or in an icon-based mode that we actually found more confusing to use until we'd memorized what all the icons represented. The Nikon Coolpix S1's feature set is heavily weighted in favor of the neophyte shooter who wants to take lots of different kinds of pictures but doesn't want to make many decisions. There are scene modes for every conceivable situation, including a panorama mode and an underwater setting for use with an optional underwater housing. But there are no manual focus or exposure controls other than exposure compensation. You can adjust light sensitivity from ISO 50 to ISO 400 and set the white balance manually, but that's about it. Camera-selected shutter speeds range only from 2 seconds to 1/350 second, limiting this camera's utility for long exposures and capturing very fast action.
Yet there are some very cool automatic features on this camera, most notably Face-Priority autofocus. In the Portrait scene mode, the camera looks for the human face closest to the camera and locks on that, highlighting the focus area in red on the LCD. Among the other nifty tools are the Best Shot Selector, which can take a series of pictures and save only the one that is sharpest or best exposed; the time-lapse photography feature, which you can set to record one shot every 30 seconds to 60 minutes; the effective in-camera red-eye removal; and Nikon's D-lighting option, which brightens inky shadows in extra copies of your murky or high-contrast shots.
Many of the scene selections feature assist modes. The Portrait setting provides overlays to help you place figures or couples in the frame; the Landscape assist offers guidelines for positioning the horizon and any people in the shot; and the Architecture assist supplies a grid for aligning horizontals and verticals. Macro capabilities take you as close as 1.6 inches, but for capturing farther-off subjects in the dark, the electronic flash is positively anemic. It's good only out to 8 feet at the wide-angle lens setting and just 4.7 feet in the telephoto position. You can choose from flash off, fill flash, auto, auto with red-eye reduction, and slow sync.
The Coolpix S1 doubles as a voice recorder and can also capture 640x480-pixel, 15fps video clips. Nikon includes its Coolstation dock with the camera to make connecting to a computer, a TV, or a charger more convenient. The Nikon Coolpix S1's performance was generally average, except for continuous-shooting mode, which was quite good, and shutter lag under low-contrast lighting, which was poor at 1.8 seconds, even with the focus-assist lamp operating. Under high-contrast lighting, this camera managed to focus and squeeze off shots only 0.6 second after the trigger was pulled.
Continuous shooting produced 36 full-resolution images in slightly less than 24 seconds before the camera slowed. Set to 640x480 resolution and maximum compression, the Coolpix S1 plugged away nonstop for as long as we held the shutter release down. We captured 102 shots in 60 seconds. There is also a multiexposure mode that squeezes 16 thumbnails onto a single image when you want to analyze your golf swing or your batting stance.
The large, brightness-adjustable 110,000-pixel LCD was usable outdoors under all but the brightest lighting conditions and offered an acceptable view indoors under dim illumination. Some ghosting was visible, however. Image quality from the Nikon Coolpix S1 was decent but not great for a 5-megapixel camera. The exposure system was easily misled by backlighting, prompting us to use the Backlighting scene mode and the D-lighting option more than we'd have liked. Images tended to be a little soft, and there was noticeable blooming and color bleeding from one area to another.
Colors were generally accurate, with a tendency toward yellowish skin tones, but the preflash red-eye prevention, coupled with the software red-eye-removal feature, did an excellent job of eliminating glowing pupils. Cyan fringing was rampant around backlit subjects, and noise was often visible, even at lower ISO settings. As with most digital cameras, it was fairly easy to blow out the highlights.
A little barrel distortion made our images curve out near the edges at the wide-angle setting, and some pincushioning at maximum zoom made them curve in.