With the Coolpix S1, Nikon finally adds the missing link from its compact digital camera range, a truly compact digital camera. Once again Nikon has proved being last to market, can be an advantageous, learning from competitors' expensive mistakes. The slim-line body places the S1 in direct competition with ultra-compact 5 Megapixel modes such as the Canon Ixus i5, the Pentax Optio WP, the Casio ExSlim EX-257 and the Olympus Mju-mini, all of whom boast similar dimension and weights. The S1 has opted for a non-protruding zoom lens like models from Pentax, letting the optics work internally to operate the 3x optical Nikkor ED lens, although an improved feature is the ‘flick-over' lens cover that protects the front element when the camera is not in use, a feature the Pentax sadly lacks.
Like the Canon, Pentax and Olympus, the S1 is available in multiple body colours, with a white, silver and black option available. Again Nikon seem to have learned that the consumer market probably doesn't need the veritable kaleidoscope of shades that the Olympus Mju is available in, to sell the product to the majority of people.
The S1's body design is simple and effective. The exterior dimensions are 89.9mm wide by 57.5 high by 19.7mm deep, making it the thinnest after the Ixus, and weighting only 118 g. The front panel has a relatively small aperture for the 5.8mm to 17.4mm lens (35-105mm, 35 mm camera equivalent) optical zooms lens, with a 4 x digital booster, and next to it are the compact flash and the AF assist LED. The rear panel houses a 2.5in TFT LCD viewing screen with the 5-way control pad to it's right. The zoom rocker is situated above this pad and the shooting option sliding switch is located below.
When the shot selector-switch is in the left hand position the standard still-image mode is activated, equating on most cameras to the ‘program' (P) setting. In this mode the camera will activate standard auto-exposure and auto focus, although refinements can be selected in the shooting set-up menus. Move the slider into the central position and you access the pre-set shooting modes, a number of calibrated functions designed to give you the best settings, depending on your situation. There are 16 standard modes, some of which have a number of sub-settings, aimed then to help you further refine your shooting situation.
The portrait and landscape settings, for example, both offer a number of different ‘framing assist' options, which place gridlines, or outlines of characters, onto the viewing screen to help you compose better shots. Ideal for the amateur who wants to avoid cropping heads. One of Nikon's highlighted enhancements is their new ‘face-portrait AF', which tries to locate a face in the image being composed, identifying it via a red box, and make sure that section of the image is given focus priority.
The right hand setting on the slider is the movie option. This offers the fairly standard Quicktime recording option with images and sound being recorded at up to 15fps (640x480pixels). One new feature is the capacity to record time-lapse films. These can be set at one of 6 times intervals ranging from 30seconds to 60minutes and, once going, will continue to shoot still images until the card is full, the battery runs out or the operation is cancelled. Once completed the images are all sandwiched together to make a completed movie, which means you can make you own poor man's version of Peter Gabriel's ‘Sledgehammer' video, without really trying.
The S1 works with both Mac and PC and the supplied image suite software, PictureProject 1.5 will load on either platform so long as a relatively new OS is being used. When the camera is connected, via USB COOL STATION, and accessed directly through the computers, it appears as a standard USB external device.
Stored JPEG images, Quicktime movies and associated WAV sound files are held on SD removable media cards, although the S1 does come with an internal memory of 12Mb, meaning, on the lowest resolution, you can squeeze on 17 more 640x480pixel images. Getting the images off again is a little more complicated.
In an attempt to save space, and presumably reduce the number of ports in the S1 underside, Nikon have combined the charger socket with the USB, which is smart.
Supplied with the camera is a COOL STATION, Nikon's answer to Kodak's easy-share docking station, which the camera sits in, to charge and transfer images, and although the charger can be plugged directly into the base of the camera, the USB can't, as the socket is non-standard. This means either you have to take the COOL STATION with you or you have to wait until your back at your computer to download the images, which could be frustrating.
Other points of interest are the ‘D-lighting' effect which is included as part of the image playback suite of tools. This cunning digital enhancement rebalances the dark and light areas of any image (see sample images), better exposing the subject matter, with impressive results on both people and landscape pictures. Nikon have also increased the S1's reach but offering a completely waterproof housing (WP-CP5) allows the camera's range to be extend from the socialite's handbag to the ocean's depths, offering protection to a depth of 40m.
Gripes, well not many really, the shutter release is a little on the small side and could make better use of the top edge of the body. The auto focus is good although if you are shooting quickly you can end up with some blurred shots. In picture playback mode there seems to only be one option to have the picture info ‘on' or ‘off' when taking a picture and when that picture is being viewed. Some sort of mid-ground would be useful in this situation as data when shooting is helpful but the quantity of data on playback virtually obscures the image. The coloured plastic front plate could also do with being made slightly tougher.
Overall, a nicely designed, nicely engineered and nicely priced camera. It's clear to see Nikon have been studying the compact market carefully before launching the S1 and the features developed have been well thought out. The balance of aesthetics and the practical photographical functions will attract audiences from both ends of the market and at £230 it may not be ‘stocking-filler' cheap but this would be an ideal ‘starter camera' thanks to the ease of operations, the ‘plug n' play' charge and share, and the framing assist modes.