Nikon Coolpix S500 review: Nikon Coolpix S500
The Nikon Coolpix S500 may look and feel pretty, but its slow performance and noisy high-ISO images hold it back.
Nikon really shows off its style with its Coolpix S500, a sleek, compact camera that feels every bit as good as it looks. This little shooter has some of the nicest design points we've seen in a small shooter, plus a few handy features normally seen on higher-end cameras. Unfortunately, looks and tricks aren't everything, and the S500 simply doesn't live up to its potential.
The 7-megapixel shooter's brushed-stainless-steel body stands out as its most notable feature. Its simple, blocky design and steel shell give the camera an elegant look and a surprisingly sturdy feel. The S500 is hardly the only metal-bodied camera out there, but it is one of the very few made of stainless steel; many Canon IXUS and Sony Cyber-shot T cameras sport aluminum shells that look quite stylish, but don't feel as durable.
Despite its steel frame, the S500 is surprisingly small and light. Its 22mm-thick frame cuts a slimmer profile than the Canon Digital IXUS 75's. It weighs just 125 grams, making it one of the lightest cameras we've picked up this year. The small size and weight let the S500 fit into almost any pocket comfortably; you won't feel bogged down when carrying around this camera.
An iPod-like click wheel controls most of the camera's commands. While derivative, the wheel is a welcome upgrade over the conventional joy pad that most cameras use. Like the iPod's click wheel, the S500's spinning wheel makes navigating menus and browsing photos in its 2.5-inch LCD screen a simple, intuitive, and speedy process. If you don't like the change, however, the wheel can also work like a regular joy pad by pressing it instead of spinning it.
Underneath the shiny steel body and behind the click wheel sits a relatively cookie-cutter camera with a few very useful features. The 35mm-to-105mm-equivalent 3x optical zoom lens has a maximum aperture range of f/2.7 to f/4.7 and uses Nikon's Vibration Reduction optical image stabilisation to help reduce blur. Face-detecting autofocus can recognise faces and automatically adjust settings when shooting people. The camera can reach up to ISO 2,000 sensitivity, a slightly higher setting than the ISO 1,600 maximum found on a lot of snapshot cameras.
A painfully slow shutter capped off the S500's consistently poor performance in our lab tests. The shutter lagged a slow 1.1 seconds with our high-contrast target and a full two seconds under low-contrast conditions. After a 2.9-second time to first shot, the camera could snap off only one shot every 2.8 seconds without flash, and once every 3.1 seconds with the flash enabled. The burst mode was quite fast at least, taking three full-resolution photos in 1.1 seconds for a rate of 2.8 frames per second. Still, it fires off only three shots at a time, so the burst mode isn't nearly as useful as some other cameras' continuous modes that can take many more pictures in one burst.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Shutter lag (low light)
|Typical shot-to-shot time
|Time to first shot
|Shutter lag (typical)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
While the S500 can reach ISO 2,000 sensitivity, we wouldn't recommend it. The ISO 1,600 and 2,000 settings produced some of the highest levels of noise we've seen in the last year; photos taken at those sensitivity levels look more as if they were painted on shag carpets than shot with a digital camera. Shots taken at lowers ISO levels don't look quite as bad, but the noise is still present. A gentle grain starts to show up in shadows at ISO 200, and becomes quite noticeable on computer monitors at ISO 400. At ISO 800, that grain becomes full-blown fuzz that dulls colours and destroys details.
If you can stay at a low ISO setting and keep your subjects well lit, the S500's photos can actually look quite good. Fine details come out crisp and sharp, remaining generally unmolested by processing artifacts. Colours appear neutral and saturated. Of course to get these results, you need to keep your ISO sensitivity low or you'll just find yourself with a noise-filled mess.
The stainless steel body and handy click wheel are two great touches we'd love to see on any camera, but they can't make up for the S500's flaws. It shoots too slowly and generates unreasonable levels of noise at ISO 400 and higher. It's a nice, if sluggish, snapshot camera in bright light, but don't expect to get any decent fast or low-light shooting done with it.