It used to be that if you wanted a non-interchangeable lens camera with a big zoom, it was the size of a brick. Not any more. Nikon's Coolpix S8000 offering marries a 10x optical zoom to a 14.2-megapixel resolution (from a 14.5MP 1/2.3-type CCD) within a body 27.3mm thin.
An attribute its manufacturer is claiming as a world first. It's a neater, more stylish and more solid solution when gripped in the palm than recently reviewed Canon competitor the SX210 IS. Though it doesn't offer quite as broad a focal range at 30-300mm equivalent in 35mm terms. Other small camera, big zoom rivals include the TZ series from Panasonic (TZ8 and TZ10), Kodak's EasyShare Z950 plus Samsung's WB range (WB500/550 and WB650).
What is impressive here - and helping score points over its competitors - is some semi pro spec for a consumer level price. This includes a very high 920k-dot resolution LCD, and the kind of lightning fast auto focus response we'd usually only expect from Nikon's DSLRs.
Outwardly the camera also looks more sophisticated than the competing point and shoots that usually fall in this price range (a reasonable sounding £250 in the UK) - especially with regard to the all-black version (brown and "champagne silver" also available).
The construction is solid without being weighty at 183g with battery (good for a so-so 210 frames) and SD card inserted, plus there's a decent amount of metal augmenting the plastic in the build, which again gives the S8000 a high quality feel.
Now seemingly demanded even at snapshot level, high-definition video capture also features, at 1280 x 720 pixels and 30 frames per second, with mini HDMI port incorporated at the side for hooking the camera up to a flat panel TV. Like the SX210 IS the necessary cable costs extra, but more remarkable still perhaps, given the overall diminutive dimensions and its mostly "auto everything" operational nature, is that this comes with stereo sound and a dedicated one-touch video record button.
We'd have preferred this button to have been made larger and rounded for more comfortable operation, but its inclusion is again an unexpected extra. Shame the optical zoom is disabled in this mode, though there's a digital version to fall back on. In regular stills shooting mode the zoom also takes a brief moment to respond when the zoom lever that handily encircles the shutter release button is pressed, so operation isn't quite seamless.
Nikon has also taken an idea from the latest raft of pocket-sized camcorders and multimedia devices in that its battery can be recharged with the aid of your laptop via USB, as well as mains power as usual. Add to this list of specification not just a built-in flash but one of the pop-up variety – just providing that little extra bit of distance from the lens to help avoid red eye - and the Nikon S8000 adds up to one very tidy package for photographers content with pointing and shooting in the main.
That said, though, this is very much a beginner-friendly device, there is a limited degree of manual adjustment available. Press the right-hand side of the scroll wheel on the rear plate marked with an exposure compensation icon, and, via an on-screen slider not only can this feature be adjusted from light to dark, but additionally colour tone can be nudged from cool to warm plus saturation boosted to vivid levels. This reminded us very much of the user-friendly Live Guide on the Olympus E-PL1. It seems manufacturers' new aim is to make going further than mere snapshot photography easier than ever; perhaps to make eventually stepping up to a digital SLR seem less daunting.
Not uncommon, but disappointing none the less, is that the Nikon displays some loss of focus towards the edges of the frame when shooting at maximum wide angle - something the Canon SX210 IS rival handles better. And despite its speed displayed elsewhere, the writing of images proved sluggish at times, with a message prompt appearing a number of times if we tried to turn the camera off before it had finished. At one point the S8000 also obstinately froze on us, prompting the non-scientific failsafe of the removal and re-insertion of the battery to get it going again.
Built-in Vibration Reduction (anti shake of the lens shift variety) aids photography at maximum telephoto setting as well as in low light, so does, theoretically, a sensitivity range running from ISO 100 to ISO 3200 equivalent - images being usable up to and including ISO 1600. In common with most point and shoots, colours can appear a tad under-saturated if shooting on a cloudy day, the S8000 choosing to over expose in such circumstances and lose more subtle detail in the process.
Re-framing your shot and metering off the sky rather than foreground helps produce more even results, which can be then tweaked further in Photoshop. Used as a general-purpose tool the lens acquits itself well, though we did notice some loss of focus towards the corners of the frame particularly when taking photographs at maximum wide angle setting, which again isn't uncommon. Purple pixel fringing similarly showed up between areas of high contrast on very close inspection.
The Nikon Coolpix S8000 looks the part for anyone wanting a pocket camera with a broader than average focal range that will therefore afford a greater wealth of photo taking opportunities, from wide angle landscapes and group portraits to intimate candids (and close ups down to 1cm) - all while staying rooted to the same spot.
It seems to have something of an identity crisis though, in that it's a fully auto point and shoot with technology that has trickled down from more complex DSLRs. You get the sense, therefore, that Nikon is holding back with this camera and that, if the proverbial gloves were taken off, the S8000 could be capable of so much more than it actually is.
Still, for the less demanding user this well-priced camera is top flight in terms of build and performance - only let down by a sluggish write speed at maximum resolution, something most will probably feel they can live with in return for 14-megapixel images, that zoom range and a very stylish pocketable design.