The 6.5-ounce S710 is a compact 3.6 inches wide by 2.3 inches high by 1 inch thick, barely sliding under the line for our definition of ultracompact. Up front is an optically stabilized, reasonably wide 3.6X f2.8-5.6 28-101mm lens. The design is boxier than I'm used to seeing from Nikon, but still very attractive, and it's available in the company's graphite black, deep red, and brilliant silver.
In order to fit the 3-inch LCD on the back, Nikon had to keep the controls and the space between them to a minimum. The buttons are raised enough to make them easy to press and there's a directional pad/scroll wheel serving double duty. The directional pad controls flash, macro mode, timer, and exposure compensation. The scroll wheel acts in conjunction with a virtual Mode dial called up when you press the Mode button, and lets you quickly navigate shooting and setup menus, adjust ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, and flip through photos in Playback mode. The Menu button below the wheel opens up mode-specific shooting options, while the Setup menu is located on the Mode dial--an old-fashioned touch for such a modern camera.
The S710 offers Program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and manual modes, which Nikon previously only included on its Coolpix P-series cameras and dSLRs. In manual you can select shutter speed, aperture, and ISO onscreen without diving into a menu system, while the Menu system provides options for white balance (including a preset manual), metering, drive modes, color options, and autofocus and AF area modes. There is no manual focus, but there is a manual AF area mode.
Of course, being a snapshot camera, it has a regular Auto mode in addition to its Scene mode with 11 scenes to choose from; a Scene auto selector that picks the most appropriate Scene mode depending on what you're shooting; high-speed continuous shooting at 3 megapixels; and Smile mode that continues shooting pictures when it detects smiles. Because of all these options, the camera is best suited for someone either already comfortable making adjustments, beginners looking to experiment, or a household with mixed user types, as the camera is flexible. Anyone looking for a simple pocket camera will likely find the array of choices confusing and a waste of money.
The Nikon Coolpix S710 does take some nice photos; sharpness and detail were particularly good at ISO 100. However, like many point-and-shoots, the lens tends to be sharp in the center and distorted around the edges, which results in softness on the sides and exacerbates the tendency for purple fringing in those areas. Auto white-balance was typically warm, but was fine in general. Color quality was fine, too, but photos were occasionally underexposed. (I was able to correct this using Nikon's D-Lighting feature in Playback mode.) Softness kicks in at ISO 200, but detail remains pretty good through ISO 400, so even in lower-light situations the S710 will produce some usable shots. By ISO 800, though, noise gets bad enough that it actually changes the color of photos, and it gets worse as you increase sensitivity. The ISO 12,800 setting will capture an image, but there's so much noise that I don't even know that you could use the photos at a small size on the Web. You could, however, consider it an artistic effect to play around with in low-light conditions.
None of the 14-megapixel cameras we've tested have been particularly fast performers. It is after all a fair amount of data that has to be stored to the SD/SDHC card memory. But the Nikon is slow all around. Its shutter lag in bright conditions is 0.6 and 0.8 in dim lighting--longer than we like, but not far from the competition. Its time to first shot is a lengthy 3.7 seconds, which then draws out to a full 4 seconds from shot to shot. Luckily, that's so long that adding flash onto it only pushes the time to 4.1 seconds. At least burst speed is average at 1.1 frames per second.
The S710 does have a basic movie-capture mode up to a 640x480 resolution. The quality is OK, but it's disappointing to not find a 720p HD video option and, more importantly, that the optical zoom doesn't work while recording.
If you're looking for a point-and-shoot companion to a dSLR, the Nikon Coolpix S710 is a sound choice--but you'll need to overlook its comparatively slow performance and its limited low-light performance.