Nikon Coolpix S800c review

As mobile phones begin to penetrate what once was “camera-only” ground, the proliferation of such smartphones is said to be the demise of compact camera sales. The solution? Camera inoculation. At least that’s where the Nikon Coolpix S800c has gone - this “smartcamera” is powered by Android Gingerbread 2.3 and offers something that no phone has: a 10x optical zoom

There’s all the Wi-Fi-based browsing, sharing and app-based fun that comes with Gingerbread, only wrapped around a camera rather than a phone. Is the S800c the solution to the compact camera world’s woes, or does it further confuse the market?

Gingerbread, not Jelly Bean

For those unaware or just carefree about mobile phone operating systems, here’s the bulk of what you need to know.

Google’s Android system is the base for a significant portion of current mobile phones, but as the system has progressed through various iterations it’s become more advanced, as have the devices that it runs on.

The current Android version is Jelly Bean, which is version 4.1, so for the Nikon S800c to use Gingerbread, which is version 2.3, might sound a little bit backwards. It sort of is and sort of isn’t. Nikon argues that it’s for stability, plus this is a camera, so it doesn’t have and doesn’t need all the soft keys, voice-activation control and processor-intensive capabilities, nice though those might be – and something that Samsung’s Galaxy camera does makes use of.

READ: Samsung Galaxy camera pictures and hands-on

Why use a mobile phone operating system on a camera then? There are lots of good answers for this.

The software, combined with the S800c’s 3.5-inch OLED touchscreen, is wonderfully easy to use and the screen is as responsive as a current smartphone.

Connectivity also comes high up the list. Although there’s no SIM card - so no contract and, therefore, no mobile data network such as 3G, LTE or 4G - the S800c does make good use of Wi-Fi. This means sharing to smartphones or the wider web is possible directly from the camera, or you can send emails, browse, watch YouTube videos and so on.

Of course it’s the extensive list of apps that separates an Android-based camera from the competition. We’ve used the S800c to successfully make Skype calls, play Angry Birds and an assortment of other games like Jetpack Joyride, all without so much as a glitch.

The S800c even has built-in GPS so it can work to not only geotag images’ locations, but also on functions with GPS-based apps too.

With more than 2GB of internal space, the camera allots 1.7 GB of that to your photos and 680MB for applications. We think that all that space should have been earmarked for applications though, as the SD card slot means an ample card will provide bags of extra space for your own pictures.

Design: A tarted-up S6300

Scrub the Android OS from your mind for a moment and the core make-up of the S800c is a lot like that of the Coolpix S6300. Both share the same 10x optical zoom lens that offers a 25mm wide-angle through to 250mm telephoto setting and, again, both utilise the same 16-megapixel back-lit CMOS sensor.

READ: Nikon Coolpix S6300 review

On the one hand there’s no mobile phone that has anything like that kind of focal range nor optical quality, not to mention that the S800c also has a lens-based stabilisation system, although it’s not the best system we’ve used by a long shot. On the other hand, the S800c is a camera, irrelevant of its operating system, and one that is perhaps a bit too much like the S6300 with a price almost three times as much. It’s pricey.

Of course there are high points. We’ve already mentioned the OLED screen which, with its 819k-dot resolution, is excellent - it outperforms OLED panels on any other stills camera that we can name.

There are plenty of shooting modes too: auto, easy auto, scene and special effects are met with a movie mode. But that's it. That might fit the target user well, but we’d liked the option of some more-complex manual settings to open up this camera’s full potential.

It is possible to adjust ISO sensitivity, white balance and exposure compensation however, so there is some degree of programmable control. However, the auto ISO setting gives preference to slower shutter speeds rather than a higher ISO sensitivity, which is just wrong. A 1/13th sec shot indoors in the middle of the day isn't fast enough for blur-free shots, especially if you don't have an extra steady hold.

Camera performance

In use there’s a fair amount of lens in-and-outing as you click between different settings and, in a bid to save battery life, the camera will also go to sleep. But waking it from that sleep is like getting a 17-year-old out of bed. It can take ages, though not always, as its wake time is unpredictable too.

The autofocus is swift enough throughout the zoom range but, again, it lacks the more sophisticated features that some high-end compacts - a fair comparison at this price point - offer. There’s no edge-to-edge focus across the screen and a half press of the shutter button will auto select the focus area rather than offering a single point.

The only way to override the auto area focus is with the power of touch. The ability to press a finger on the screen to focus and fire the shutter, track a subject or lock the exposure is certainly useful.

Close-up focus is also fairly hit and miss. The camera will often focus beyond the desired area or not focus at all, even though in doing so it's clearly apparent that a closer focal distance would be possible, but is unobtainable because of lack of manual focus control. When it works the results are fine, but it's that getting it to work part that's a problem.

Image Quality

Nikon compact cameras have been slowly improving over the years and the back-lit CMOS sensor in the S800c does a pretty good job. We have no issues with the colour palette, and exposure, while a little eager to lean on the side of overexposure, does a pretty decent all round job too.

So expect better-than-smartphone images, but for the cash there are other compact cameras out there that will see the S800c pale by comparison.

The ISO 125-3200 range means its possible to shoot in bright or dim conditions without flash. The lower sensitivities from ISO 125-400 produced decent enough results with some visible image processing that, although it doesn't soften the image too much, adds a slight grainy texture to subjects' edges.

Crank up the sensitivity and image noise does begin to perforate image quality though. The highest ISO 1600-3200 settings are less useful for most work, but may still have their uses at smaller scales or if you want to make good use of the in-camera effects such as black and white. Look at this window sill-mounted shot taken at night, using ISO 3200, and the noise in the dark areas is clear to see.

In short the overall quality is reasonable to good; better than smartphone good by a long stretch, partly thanks to the extensive zoom. But for a similar price point there are other higher-spec cameras out there that will walk all over the S800c. It’s a case of paying for the Android feature rather than ultimate image quality, it seems.

Verdict

Conceptually courageous, the Android OS feels like it’s forged rather than forced into this camera concept. Android - even version 2.3 - works as a great base to run apps, share images and much more.

But the S800c has two main problems: it’s far too expensive for what is essentially an Android version of the point-and-shoot Coolpix S6300 at almost three times the cost, and battery life really isn’t up to scratch.

The point-and-shoot functionality is fine enough, but it's not as finely tuned as we'd like and the lack of user control in some areas is a frustration. For £375 we'd have expected everything and the kitchen sink, as well as Android.

The camera world now has its proverbial toe dipped into Android waters and, from this initial insight, it should make for a great partnership in the future. These first steps are big ones, but this concept will work only when battery life and price turn good. For now, the S800c falls short of the mark because of these two points.