Nikon Coolpix S640 compact camera

The Coolpix S640 provides a simple to use, high-resolution snapper for the masses with focusing and start-up performance as claimed benefits, among other cool features.

It is a slim, stylish-looking compact digital camera from Nikon that has a high-resolution 12.3-megapixel sensor and a quartet of image stabilisation tools to help keep everything nice and steady in low light or at longer focal lengths of the camera’s excellent 5x zoom lens, which provides a good focal range from 28 to 140mm with a fast maximum aperture of F/2.8.

The quartet of stabilising features includes lens shift (optical) Vibration Reduction (VR), whilst a top sensitivity setting of ISO 6400 allows for faster shutter speeds in low light, say, or helps prevent subject blur for faster moving subjects. Motion detection mode automatically adjusts ISO and shutter speed for you, to help deal with subject movement and camera shake, removing that headache from your snapping equation. Finally, Nikon’s BSS (Best Shot Selector) automatically shoots a series of images in sequence saving the frame that’s sharpest.

Now, all that is great, but at higher ISOs particularly above ISO 1600, image noise, as you might expect, becomes a serious issue. Yes it allows you to get the shot, but is it usable at ISO 6400? If it lacks detail, clarity or colour fidelity it isn’t.

However, ISO 1600 is actually very good in this regard, well at least for compacts such as this, so that’s a bonus in terms of images shot at that setting. Below ISO 800 and things are much improved and you can limit the ISO range used (in auto settings) between ISO 100 to 400 and ISO 100 to 800, which helps mitigate noise in all-auto shooting modes, while the auto ISO range spreads things further still, ranging as it does between ISO 100 and 1600.

Handling is very nice for such a slim camera, particularly with the 5x zoom lens which is a real cracker; sharp, fast (both in terms aperture and its speed when zooming in and out) and covers a great focal range making it a very accomplished piece of glass.

Controls are simple, there’s a zoom control surrounding the shutter release on the top, alongside the on/off button. The camera starts quickly, as Nikon claims, but if you want to access a menu to make an alteration, you still have to wait around 2 and a half seconds for the systems to “boot” up before menus become active.

On the back plate, a single button accesses the shooting modes: auto (program) and 17 scene modes that cover all the usual suspects, including panorama assist and close up and backlit option among others.

A neat Smart Portrait mode (this is over and above the Scene mode’s Portrait setting) uses face detection technology alongside a special algorithm to help produce enhanced skin tones and smoothness in a shot as well as being able to recognise up to 12 faces in your photos. The Face priority AF also helps as it targets the metering and focusing points to create better people pictures.

Throw in the uncanny Smile Timer, where you can select a key subject and when they smile the camera fires and it's eerie how well that works. The Blink Proof function does not prevent everyone in front of the camera from blinking, oh no, it fires two frames in quick succession and keeps the image where everyone’s eyes are open. Both are very handy features, and fun to use or try to foil!

Playback, menus and delete are all on the back plate on satellite buttons around the jog/dial selector and “OK” button used to navigate menus, options, images and select the option of choice.

The 2.7-inch colour screen is very nice to use, which it has to be as there’s no optical viewfinder, it has an anti-reflective coating; it’s water repellent and has a brightness boost too, for shooting in very bright conditions, but in direct sunlight it still becomes a challenge to use without shading.

The focusing performance is something Nikon has made big strides forward on in this camera; general subjects can be locked onto very fast indeed and this is great for reducing the lag between pressing the shutter button and getting an image. However, the AF fails to lock onto low contrast subjects and this happened too often for our liking.

Subject tracking, which locks onto a person's face and keeps it in focus helps keep fast moving people pictures sharply rendered and it’s great for shooting your children at a party, say, even in low light when the faster ISO settings can be utilised if needed. One thing worth mentioning is the flash, which is tiny and underpowered for almost everything, higher ISOs push the performance a bit further but expect an effective flash range of only around 3 to 5 feet at ISO 100 to 400.

Images are stored on SD/SDHC storage but you get 45MBs of internal storage to tinker with as well, which is nice and dual movie modes for TV (640 x 480-pixels) or web use (320 x 240-pixels) if you're into your YouTube.

Overall, the S640 is very encouraging in terms of image quality. The combination of good lens, optical VR and low ISO image quality combine well here to produce great images. Colour and white balance (WB) are very good though the auto WB settings suffer from (the usual) slight orange colour cast under mixed lighting conditions.

The detail captured is quite superb below ISO 400, good at ISO 800 and okay at ISO 1600. Above this setting the detail is compromised by noise reduction processing and the sheer volume of image noise makes images rather murky. Metering is good for general scenes but as expected, the snowy shots have slight under exposure, so selecting the Snow scene mode helped out here.

Verdict

The Nikon Coolpix S640 is everything the recently tested S570 is not, particularly in terms of speed. However, its price may raise some eyebrows. But when you bear in mind the clever automated features and technology that are ensconced within the S640’s svelte frame, and then perhaps the price is a little more understandable.

High ISO image noise is perhaps the perennial problem here, but at least you can mitigate its vagaries by limiting the highest ISO range used and the fact the noise does not intrude until higher up the sensitivity scale.

The speediness of the S640 is nice to have but it’s not as fast as Nikon make out when you factor in the slow menu usage, the fact the AF is not always on target and the slow write speeds of those large 12.2-megapixel files.