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Nikon Coolpix S01 review: Nikon Coolpix S01

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The Good Extremely small; Good colour reproduction; Accurate auto settings; Inexpensive.

The Bad Disappointing video performance; No tripod mount; No removable storage.

The Bottom Line A true spy gadget, the Nikon Coolpix S01's image quality is better than its size or price might suggest. Until you get one in your hands, it's difficult to imagine quite how small it is. Think of it as a competent, carry-anywhere alternative to a smart phone's built-in camera.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.5 Overall

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Bigger isn’t always better -- and the S01 is a case in point. In Nikon’s words, it’s smaller than a credit card, and that’s true, as long as you ignore its depth. From front to back it’s roughly as fat as an AA battery -- so still thinner than a well-stuffed wallet or purse.

Indeed, it’s small enough to keep in your pocket pocket 24/7. You could attach it to a keyring, and it comes in a range of colours. My review sample was a fetching hot pink, but it has black, red, white and silver siblings. Depending on the colour you choose, you can pick it up online for around £100.

The question, of course, is whether it’s any better than the camera on your smart phone. The S01 is clearly designed as a go-anywhere snapper, always ready for action, but most of us have one of them in the form of an Android or iOS device already. For the S01 to succeed, it needs to outclass them all, and not simply be a mobile camera without the mobile bits.

Size doesn't matter

Considering its size, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a firm grip on the S01, and even when holding it over water I wasn’t worried that I was going to slip and drop it.

It sports the absolute minimum number of buttons, and no tripod mount. The top plate is home to power, shutter and playback controls, along with the zoom rocker. On the back, beside the touch-sensitive 2.5-inch display, there’s a home button that opens the menus. These have been slimmed down so that they’re easy to navigate with a chubby finger, but I still often found myself dropping down a level when I didn’t want to by missing the back button at the top of the screen.

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
Here's the Coolpix S01, along with a range of everyday objects -- a Sky remote, iPhone 5, iPod nano, and box of matches.

Unfortunately, the screen isn’t all that easy to see in bright sunlight. I was conducting my tests on a sunny day by the coast, so a lot of the time I ended up guessing at the most appropriate framing and then checking on the display during playback to see whether I needed to shoot a second version.

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
Image results were good, and packed with bright colours, although shooting in bright light made the screen difficult to see (click image to enlarge).

To attain such Lilliputian proportions, Nikon has removed as much of the regular camera baggage as it could. For starters, as with Apple’s latest laptops, the battery is captive. It can’t be swapped out when it runs out of juice, so keep an eye on the meter and charge it when you get the chance. Nikon claims a battery life of 190 shots or one hour 40 minutes of HD video recording, although your mileage may vary. In my initial tests, for example, I shot 137 frames without seeing the battery meter decline at all.

There’s no card slot, either, as Nikon has packed it with a generous 7.3GB of internal storage, which is enough for more than 3,000 shots at the full 10.1-megapixel resolution or three hours of VGA-quality video.

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
The S01 did a good job of maintaining generally clean, sharp edges throughout my tests (click image to enlarge).

Also missing is any real concession to manual control. You can change the image size, activate the self timer, tweak exposure compensation two stops in either direction in 1/3 EV increments, and… well, that’s about it. You can’t set the sensitivity, which runs a rather narrow ISO 80 to ISO 1,600, squeeze or loosen the aperture (which at its widest is f/3.3 at wide angle and f/5.9 at full telephoto), or choose a specific white balance. You can, however, apply one of four special effects that cater for sepia, high contrast mono, and both high and low key.

It’s fortunate, then, that the S01 did a good job of picking the best settings fairly consistently throughout my tests.

Stills performance

I performed my tests on a bright, sunny day with very little in the way of clouds. As the above would suggest, the camera made all the shooting decisions itself apart from picking the subject and the point of focus. The results on which I performed my analysis were saved as in-camera JPEGs.

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
You'll have to delegate all responsibility for choosing the appropriate settings to the Coolpix S01 (click image to enlarge).

The first thing you notice on downloading them is just how vivid they are. What looked a little dull on the camera screen really pops on a monitor, with punchy colours and good, sharp contrasts that aren’t pushed so far they become harsh.

Primary colours, like the red and blue in the facade below, really shine, with the S01 also maintaining a good, crisp edge to the strongly geometric shapes.

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
On a bright, sunny day, the S01 captured a great range of punchy colours (click image to enlarge).

This carries through to more natural tones. The tree below is positively alive with colour, with highly variegated green making the various branches and foliage easy to discern.

However, the contrast at the point where the foliage and sky meet is a little too harsh in this instance. 

Nikon Coolpix S01 test photo
The vivid green in this image makes it easy to see the detail in the tree (click image to enlarge).

Close examination of the results does reveal some evidence of slightly heavy-handed compression, which explains how the S01 manages to squeeze so many images into its internal memory. At 7.8GB all told, it can give just 2.66MB to each picture.

As a result, there is a little more texture in some skies and areas of flat colour than I would have liked, and in particularly complex areas some details can end up being a bit fudged, almost as though they were rendered on a slightly coarse canvas.

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