It’s been but a few sparse months since the Coolpix S600 passed through the test bay doors but when it did, it was the top-most camera in the Nikon Style range of compacts. Enter stage left the latest range of Style cameras from Nikon, the S610 forming one part of a new quartet of cameras that provide a big boost to the range.
The S610 looks superficially the same as the other cameras in the range and the peas from a pod approach means it’s the internal workings that differentiate the models. The 610 has a 10-megapixel sensor sat behind an aluminium, all-metal façade and a neat wide angle, 4x optical zoom lens. The lens is a cracker and provides more than enough in terms of sharpness to define those pixels sat behind it.
The zoom range on offer - a respectable 28-112mm - is more than enough to get good vistas and close ups and thanks to the camera’s lens shift Vibration Reduction system (or VR), you can do it without overstretching the sensitivity settings at longer focal lengths or in low light.
You’re provided with quartet of anti-shake tools: the aforementioned VR; a high sensitivity, ISO 3200, mode; motion detection, which can effectively compensate for subject movement (at least up to a point on my tests at any rate); and Nikon’s ubiquitous Best Shot Selector (BSS), where the camera selects the sharpest of ten rapidly shot images. Be warned though, they might all be blurred and it will pick the "best" of the bunch, so BSS not always foolproof in that respect.
The square cut jaw of this camera is a little larger than you might expect, but that’s thanks to the camera-back-dominating, 3-inch, 230,000-dot colour screen which takes up a lot of room and, before we look into some of the camera’s other clever bits, it brings to the fore the camera’s handling.
A sparsely populated top plate features an LED illuminated on/off button and the shutter release, plus three small holes that represent the camera’s speaker; three similar holes on the camera’s front hide the microphone. This relative simplicity is reflected on the camera’s back plate. You get the relatively huge screen and a vertical strip of metal real estate to house the other controls.
At the top the lens zoom lever is too small, a little fiddly, but it fires the lens in and out very quickly so zooming from one end to the other of the zoom range is fast, around a second to go from 28mm to the 112mm end.
Four small buttons surround the rotating multi-selector, which can also be used in four-way jog button style. Rotating it breezes quickly through animated menu options for various camera functions while tilting it can also scroll menus or images in playback, pick functions such as the self-timer, macro or flash settings.
A central OK button activates modes or as you’ve guessed, starts features such as the Active Child tracking mode, where the camera’s AF will follow a child (it works on adults too) allowing you to fire the shutter at the appropriate point. However, it’s efficiency remains somewhat doubtful since there’s a distinct shutter lag when you finally press the shutter button.
Ditto the lag with the AF system, which was a real disappointment given the promise offered by the speed of the camera’s start up, around 0.7 seconds. Fly out of the blocks it certainly does, but then you’re left with fairly average performance, certainly no better than that of the S600 tested but a few months ago.
The controls are fairly easy to use although they seem cramped due to the screen’s size and my biggest "screen" gripe is that such a large screen gets grubby very quickly and there’s nowt you can do about it. A lens cleaning cloth deals with greasy finger marks and grime, but the screen is vulnerable to scratching; a camera case is pretty much essential.
The screen’s wide viewing angle is, however excellent, but an issue remains … the 230,000-dot resolution. When spread across the relatively large 3 inches of space, this resolution starts to look very course indeed and with other makers compacts’ being introduced with superb, 460,000-dot LCDs, such as Panasonic’s LX3, this is certainly an area that will need looking at for the next iteration "S" series Nikon models.
And so onto that hidden complexity. The S610’s relatively benign surface disguises a set of clever features that run alongside that Active Child mode. The Scene Auto Selector is a first for Nikon compacts and when selected (using the circular menu system, activated by pressing the Mode button) the camera will quickly "look" at the scene before it and pick an appropriate scene mode. It works well and refreshingly quickly to boot, the 610 claws back marks here.
The same circular menu also allows selection of the Smile shooting mode. Here the camera automatically monitors faces within the frame, a framing box appears on the screen and when the person smiles, the camera fires the shutter: you have to do nothing but ensure the framing is correct. It even works with multiple faces and it’s reasonably fast too. The camera’s self timer lamp blinks indicating a face has been detected and that it’s lurking in wait for the elusive smile. And if the subject blinks, the camera detects that too to give you another chance of re-shooting that picture.
There are 17 "normal" scene modes to choose between as well and these run the usual gamut of landscape and portrait modes (and from which the Scene Auto Selector chooses) so the usual array. Other controls such as white balance and ISO are within the otherwise excellent-to-use menu system, so this is slow and again goes against the otherwise speedy ethos of the camera.
But the camera can be frustratingly slow in other areas. Changing from shooting playback or switching from one menu to another seems sluggish as you end up pressing buttons multiple times waiting for the camera to catch up.
Ditto using the multi selector to scroll: images go too fast or nothing happens and it’ll jump four or five snaps rather than scrolling quickly through them. The same applies when writing images even to the internal memory, it’s just frustratingly slow. Another frustration is when in menus, a press of the shutter button does not cancel them bringing you back into shooting mode. You must press the menu button again to cancel them and this rather rankles and seems a real oversight.
In terms of image quality things are much better. Focusing is effective, even for complex, potentially AF crushing scenes, but it’s disappointingly sluggish though the (today essential for the market place) Face AF works well enough. The white balance (WB) control is very good though, with auto WB setting dealing extremely well with mixed lighting and a stunningly simple to use WB pre-set control is nicely intuitive, but buried within menus again.
In terms of image noise, low ISO image quality is superb, but as you’d expect, as you move up through the ISO settings things deteriorate but not to any degree you’d expect. High ISO noise is well controlled and detail is well retained too. ISO 800 looks as good as ISO 200 in lesser cameras and ISO 1600 is more than usable, just not for big enlargements. ISO 3200 has lots of shadow noise but is not a disgrace, so overall superb stuff from Nikon’s imaging engine.
Overall then, the Coolpix S610 is a mixed bag, superb image quality and clever kit disguised by a deceptively simple design, but the whole in this case is not quite the sum of its parts.
Just like the S600 before it, The Nikon Coolpix S610’s lightening fast start-up belies an otherwise very average overall performance, and so it remains a bit of a mixed bag despite the enhancements. The decent design and build are pluses and so is the image quality which is a big step-up over the S600 but it is not as complete a camera as it should be.