Nikon Coolpix S51 Compact Digital Camera
At a Glance
Shirt-pocket thin, covered in black and chrome, and sporting a huge 3-inch LCD on the back, the $250 (at time of review) Nikon Coolpix S51 exudes chic. This point-and-shoot model has nearly all the ingredients you're likely to look for in a quality snapshot digital camera: 8-megapixel imaging, optical image stabilization, a precise and very quiet zoom lens, and 16 scene modes for quickly configuring the unit for challenging shots.
Usability, however, is not one of this camera's better qualities. Putting a 3-inch screen on the back of a small camera always means compromises. In the case of the S51, it means a very small zoom rocker switch and tiny control buttons. I can live with the tiny buttons, but the zoom rocker is so small that it's a real pain. That's too bad, because the eight-step zoom range is more exact than what you typically find on inexpensive digital cameras. The one high point for the controls is the slick four-way thumb button/jog dial. The inner ring of the thumb button spins, making it quick to scroll through menu selections.
Changing settings was confusing, at first. Instead of the typical mode dial, the S51 has a tiny Mode button. Pressing it pops up a virtual mode dial on the LCD screen. Options include Setup, Shooting, Hi ISO, Scene, Voice recording, and Movie. You set specific camera controls by pressing the equally tiny Menu button. It's in using this combination where things can get somewhat complicated. For example, to select a Scene mode, you press the Mode button and spin the jog dial to Scene; then you must press the OK button. Next, press the Menus button to pop up the list of scenes to choose from; finally, spin the jog dial to the type of scene you're shooting, and press the OK button again.
Other controls are equally odd. Turning the LCD's framing (grid) lines on or off requires going into the Mode screen, selecting Setup, and entering the Monitor settings screen. Once set, you cannot bail out by simply half-pressing the shutter button, as is typical in most of today's cameras. You have to press the Mode button again and spin the dial to your desired shooting mode. Another small irritation: In low light, the camera seems unusually slow to obtain focus lock.
Compared with competing 8-megapixel cameras evaluated in the PC World Test Center for a roundup of compact cameras, the S51's photos had average sharpness. Color and exposure accuracy, however, were a bit below average. Scenic shots taken in bright sunlight looked nicely exposed with well-saturated colors. Telephoto shots, as is common with cameras of this size, were a little low in their contrast. Overall, the shots were a bit on the cool side.
The software package bundled with this Coolpix is also odd. You get ArcSoft's Panorama Maker, a fine stitching application, to go along with the Coolpix's superior panorama mode; a somewhat spare file transfer application; and Kodak's EasyShare photo management and editing package. It all works well enough, but the packages we've seen with Nikon's earlier cameras were better integrated and seemed more tuned for the Coolpix line.
At first glance, the Coolpix S51 looks like an appealing package--especially at $280. But based mostly on its overall usability, I'd give it a pass.
For other, similar models, see our chart of Top 10 Compact Cameras.