Nikon Coolpix S80

The Nikon Coolpix S80 is Nikon’s latest touchscreen controlled digital compact that features a 14-megapixel CCD sensor, a large, high-resolution (819,000 dots) 3.5-inch OLED touch sensitive screen and a 720p HD movie mode with stereo sound.

The first impression the S80 conveys is one of attractive minimalism, the ultra-compact styling looks very nice indeed and yet, as we’ll see, it is not without flaws. The S80 also gives a strong impression of being born of a smartphone, such as the ubiquitous iPhone, thanks to both its shape and the large OLED touchscreen. This screen is the key component to, well, just about everything on the new camera, as it is both the viewing and composing tool as well as the user’s main interface; the touchscreen drives everything.

On the camera’s front there’s a slide away panel that has been given a clever, smooth-yet-grippy surface to help use it; the Nikon logo is also slightly raised to help you grip when you pull it aside to power the camera and reveal the lens, a tiny (it must be said, underpowered) flash, the stereo microphones and a small AF assist lamp.

The problem with the sliding panel became apparent within minutes. Pulling the camera from a camera bag for the first time, a tiny bit of dirt had lodged under the panel and this dirt proceeded to scratch its way across the face of the camera every time we used it. Despite efforts to minimise the problem - and ages trying to clean under the front sliding panel - the face of the camera is now scratched. No matter what we did, we could not stop dust and dirt from collecting under the panel, so beware.

The camera’s rear is totally dominated by the high-resolution OLED touchscreen. However, the touch screen’s sensitivity is not on a par with, well, the aforementioned iPhone for a start and like the scratched face of the camera, it too gets scratched easily.

The sensitivity issue (or rather the lack thereof) meant we needed to use either multiple presses to activate the mode or feature of choice or it would register the presses slowly, not relaying the information to the camera’s brain fast enough, so you’d end up going into the wrong mode by mistake.

The biggest problem with the S80 in terms of control is that all “hard” controls have been subjugated entirely, the one “hard” button on this camera is the shutter release, and as we’ll see, even this is redundant in certain modes. The shutter release is however large and nice to use, if you do use it that is.

We write that because all the shooting options and shooting controls are (or can be) displayed on the screen, where the 4:3 ratio of the sensor displays the scene to be shot very crisply and it’s easy to see even in bright conditions too, which is actually a big plus of the OLED technology.

Soft buttons feature on both sides and the bottom of the screen as well, and if you want to shoot at 16:9 aspect ratio (the same ratio as the screen) the resolution drops to 10-megapixels in doing so. 

As discussed, power up comes from the sliding cover, but the lack of a hard playback button means in order to look at images on the camera you must slide the cover over to turn the camera on to get at those images, which are stored on the SD/SDHC external storage or the S80’s 79MB of in-built storage, the latter only good for 11-top resolution images.

Said storage is slotted under a flap on the side of the camera alongside the rechargeable battery that must be charged (by PC or by charger) within the camera via the supplied USB cable and akin to a mobile phone.

Disappointingly, the 35-175mm 5x zoom lens, which has one element using Nikon’s premium ED (Extra Dispersion) glass, is nowhere near as flexible as that used on the S80’s forbear, the S70. That camera had a more flexible 28-140mm zoom. The S80’s lens is vertically stacked inside the camera body so does not protrude on power up, helping keep things compact and helps improve the camera start up time too.

However the maximum aperture range of F/3.6 to F/4.8 is not particularly bright, and while a built-in neutral density filter helps avoid overexposure (and as with most small digital compacts) there’s no actual physical aperture to control depth of field, so control of depth of field is out.

Although, you do get Nikon’s excellent image stabilisation system, or Vibration Reduction (VR), that uses a sensor shift system that is very effective and helps you get hand held shots in low light or longer zoom ratios without needing to bump up the ISO to levels that would affect image quality due to noise, which we’ll discuss shortly.

The lens is zoomed using two soft buttons on the lower right side of the screen, which is both slow and needs you to use a rather contorted finger position; you cannot zoom and have your index finger on the shutter release! Another problem here was to safely grasp the camera while zooming; the fingers of the left hand kept straying in front of the lens, even though the lens is positioned away from the left extremity (from the front) of the camera’s face. We had to reshoot several shots that featured one of our fat digits. 

A soft button at the bottom of the screen activates a pop-up menu of options including self-timer, resolution settings and the neat Touch Shutter system. When active you can touch the screen at any point and the camera will focus at that point and fire the shutter immediately. This is fast and great for getting things snapped quickly, depending, however, on the screen’s variability in terms of its touch sensitivity.

A very useful subject tracking AF mode where you touch something within the scene you’re shooting and the camera will lock the focus to it, joins the Touch Shutter. Once locked on, if the subject moves, so does the focus point tracking it unerringly across the frame.

A final focus mode is a simple Touch AF/AE set up, which, in other words is an AF point selection by touch mode - the shutter does not fire. It must be said however, that the focus system does not like low contrast scenes, any bright light or glare as again, the focusing system is challenged. Backlit subjects and the focusing is challenged and anything moves too quickly in the frame, even when tracking AF is used the focusing system is challenged. Use of the shutter release instead of these touchscreen AF modes to set the focus point, and things are both slower and not much better! 

ISO, drive mode and white balance are also adjusted from the bottom pop-up menu, as well as the exposure compensation control. However, accurate use of this tool is very difficult indeed as sliding the compensation slider that appears (you get +/-2EV) is frustratingly inaccurate. The slider needs to be bigger to make it easier to use for both those with fat fingers and due to the vagaries of the screen’s sensitivity.

To the left side of the screen you get a flash mode soft button with options that include night portrait with flash, to forced and auto flash. Flash is joined by a macro mode soft button and this is a disappointment as the closest focus point is a measly 7cms and zooming does not help as the reduced aperture as you zoom in means slower shutter speeds, and an increased likelihood of camera shake even with VR switched on.

At the top left of the touchscreen are the playback and camera shooting mode soft buttons. The former we dealt with earlier, but a couple of extra tools appear in playback. You can quickly assign a score to your images (zero to five stars) from a pop-out on the right or you can tinker with the image via a pop-up menu from the bottom.

Here you can add images to folders, delete, use a slide show, lock, print and edit your shots, all are possible. The edit option provides a series of quite powerful options from saturation and exposure control to cloning, adding frames or removing elements, all in camera. You also get Nikon’s excellent D-Lighting and Quick Retouch modes to help too. In playback, cleverly, the screen allows you to use “gestures”, where sweeping your fingers across images will scroll through them while “pinching” the screen to enlarge or reduce a section of the displayed image.

The shooting mode soft button activates yet another menu - providing access to the auto, easy auto and scene mode selector. In the latter you get 17-scene modes filled with the usual choices from portrait and landscape on to food, panoramic (disappointingly without auto stitching) and firework modes, among others.

Smart portrait is yet another shooting option (but it’s actually a real boon) within the shooting mode menu and is akin to Face AF. It recognises faces and when they’re focused, it takes a picture for you immediately, which is fast and very useful as it also senses the camera’s orientation and so can optimise the shot for either landscape or portrait format pictures.

The S80’s main set-up options can all be reached in both playback and shooting modes by hitting a small spanner icon. Therein you find the extra choices for date and time set up, storage formatting, VR settings (on, Hybrid - a combination of sensor shift and high sensitivity are combined - and off), TV settings such as automatic, auto HDMI detection and HDMI device control options and PAL movie output too. There’s a blink warning tool as well, which can help reduce shots taken with people with their eyes shut, as the camera will alert you if anyone in a shot has their eyes closed, so you can quickly re-shoot the image.

And so, the Coolpix S80 combines a host of neat functions and features within a software controlled interface making the camera’s ethos of point and shooting a reality for subjects with people to the fore. But what are the images and the video quality actually like?

In terms of still image quality, the S80 performs best in bright conditions and on more general snaps or those where people are in the frame. This is partly down to the camera’s light measuring tools - of which more shortly - and the way the camera has plenty of snapping features designed to help take people pictures, such as the Smart Portrait and the Touch Shutter modes.

Colour capture is good, though on some shots of autumn leaves the colour seemed to be boosted beyond the natural, which was a little odd as we’d not changed anything in order to do that, so that’s still a mystery. The white balance is good and provides good control to shots under the correct WB settings for the type of ambient light. Mixed lighting is less accurate, but not bad overall.

Sharpness is rather inconsistent, and we’re not sure if it’s a combination of the lens or the focusing being slightly off, but either way, it’s at its best when snapping general scenes. It’s when we get to the sensitivity and ISO control that things get more worrying. If you don’t control the ISO, leaving the ISO Auto mode to its devices, it will use whatever sensitivity it can to get a properly exposed, shake free shot, which in the face of it is good. But if ISO Auto is given its head, noise can become an issue and detail drops dramatically as higher sensitivities are used, as we’ll see.

The S80 houses an RGB CCD sensor and can achieve ISOs of up to 6400, but disappointingly, noise is evident in all shots above ISO 200 but above ISO 800, noise gets worse and ISOs higher than that and the word we’d use is “bad”, at best. Set to ISO 1600 and 3200, then the word is “rubbish” while for ISO 6400, images are basically unusable. Given Nikon’s pedigree in limiting noise issues on its DSLRs, the S80 could really do with some of that techno trickery here, or it should be provided with a CMOS sensor, whose noise characteristics are less problematic.

Unfortunately, the metering system employed by the S80 is rather hit and miss too. We believe it’s marred partly by the Neutral density filter that’s automatically employed on bright scenes to prevent overexposure and by the fact the area being metered is either too central or very small; only slight movements of the camera around a bright light source (when composing) can make dramatic differences to your shot, which becomes either wildly under or overexposed.

It is underexposure that seems the norm however and we had to dial in 1/3rd of exposure compensation in order to get a chance of a properly exposed shot for most scenes. The noise problems and metering foibles really take the gloss of the S80’s image performance.

HD movies fair better with detail being very good and noise issues not so intrusive overall, but the stereo speakers pick up mechanical noises from the lens focusing and from your fingers moving over the camera as you shoot, while the metering seems to have similar problems to stills shooting it’s not as dramatic.

Verdict

The Nikon Coolpix S80 is stylish and simple to use but looks pricey, yet it’s as close to a point and shoot camera as you’re likely to get given the lack of hard or “proper” buttons and its auto snapping features. You really can switch it on and start snapping.

Handling issues such as fingers intruding over the lens and the scratched finish and screen are problematic, and the fact the image noise intrudes from ISO 200 and above is a disappointment. The lens focal length is not particularly flexible either, and the touchscreen interface while clever has foibles to iron out.

Here we believe software has gone a little too far and the lack of a “proper” playback button and “hard” lens zoom controls would really have improved things, as would proper control over the metering system, of which you have none. And so, we can’t help feeling the overall effect here is that the Nikon Coolpix S80 is a classic case of style over substance.



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