(Pocket-lint) - Nikon’s travel zoom range was late to the fold compared to the competition and it has been a slower upturn for the company’s S9000-series. Yet the latest Coolpix S9300 has a specification that more closely resembles much of the competition.
But with only an 18x zoom rather than the now more common 20x zoom and no touchscreen technology, is the S9300 still a whisker behind the likes of the Panasonic Lumix TZ30 and other travel zoom models?
Big zoom, compact size
The S9300’s 18x optical zoom ranges from 25mm through to a 450mm equivalent. Despite this sizeable range the camera is none too large; though it’s no smaller than its 20x optical zoom competitors either.
The camera’s design is simple yet effective. There are no surprises to be found here, just a decent, sensible layout that makes for overall ease of use. On the camera’s top is a mode dial that, despite no manual modes, offers a variety of specific scene and auto modes. ISO control is available from within the main menus. The rear D-pad doubles up as a rotational dial that acts as a two-fold control for making adjustments, while the zoom is controlled via a toggle around the shutter button.
The model comes dressed in one of four colours: perhaps the more standard black or silver options will take your fancy, otherwise there’s a bright cherry red or striking blue.
Each model is well-built, feels sturdy in the hand and we have few complaints, except that the small single strip of grip to the front has little to no use due to its size and positioning.
Performance: up to scratch?
Keeping that lens steady at longer focal lengths is tricky, but thanks to optical image stabilisation technology it's made all the easier. As this tech is built into the lens you’ll get the benefit of not only sharper shots but also a steadied preview composition - an essential when shooting at 450mm and similar focal lengths.
The maximum aperture of f/3.5-5.9 is standard fare, yet the lack of any manual modes will mean most point-and-shoot users need not think about controlling light by such means. Which is another point in itself: the very absence of manual modes would suggest that the S9300, unlike its competitors, isn’t aimed at higher level users.
There’s also no touchscreen technology, a feature that the Panasonic TZ30 includes despite little to no price difference. Without such a feature the Nikon isn't difficult to use by any means, but it's yet another "big feature" missing from the specification.
The 3-inch LCD screen itself, however, is a decent 921k-dot resolution - far more resolute than the previous S9100’s 230k-dot version. For this price point that’s as good as it gets. Except that, bizarrely, the preview image is only 98 per cent of the final image that is captured, ie, you won’t see the outermost two per cent of the image. Not necessarily a big deal, and something that will go all but unnoticed by most, but another spec that sits a shade behind its nearest competitors.
The S9300’s autofocus system is similar to that of the Coolpix P310 model. So it’s fair to say that we’re fairly impressed with it: AF area options include auto, face priority, manual placement, centre only and a subject tracking mode. That’s pretty much every base covered. Autofocus speed, too, is decent, though not quite as turbocharged as its speedier competitors.
Continuous shooting, or burst mode, can be accessed via the camera’s top dial and can whirr off a batch of shots at 6.9 frames a second (6.9fps). Although autofocus is fixed during the burst, as is the case with all cameras at this price point, that’s an impressive speed.
The S9300 model comes loaded with GPS to geotag your stills. The data can be used for accurate cataloguing or is useful when uploading images to websites that can interact with the position data. If this isn’t your cup of tea then the S9200 model - which is slightly cheaper - ditches the GPS in favour of cost and battery life effectiveness.
Battery life is another area of contention. With an expected lifespan of just 200 shots per charge you’ll want to be conservative with shooting, particularly if GPS is activated. In our tests the battery indicator dipped from full to half and then dropped off a cliff into "battery exhausted" with no word of warning, so the indicator isn't an accurate display by any means.
16MP: a step too far?
The S9300’s 16.1-megapixel sensor contains a third more megapixels than its predecessor. But as the sensor is the very same size it means each one of these "pixels" is smaller than before and, as a result, image quality suffers.
We’re aware that big numbers might help to sell a product, but in the case of the S9300 it’s to the detriment of the camera’s image quality. Sometimes less is more, a lesson that the S9300’s future successor will hopefully take note of.
The ISO 125-3200 range is conservative as it is, but that’s for a reason: throughout the range softness is apparent even at the base ISO setting, and this worsens as the ISO sensitivity increases.
The processing is accurate at extracting colour noise from the right areas, and yet the overall granular-like texture and lack of punchy colour at the higher ISO settings are an issue.
But there is fun to be had. The lower ISO settings are usable for smaller scale or online work, plus the mode dial’s inclusion of both Effects and Scene modes offers up a variety of modes such as soft, selective color, portrait and so forth.
At a sports day we attempted to pre-focus the camera to grab some action shots, but the sports mode failed to capture a fast-moving subject without blur. Furthermore the shutter lag meant framing for such fast action scenes and getting the subject in the right place within the shot was problematic.
Movie mode can capture 1080p files, and while it is possible to use the zoom in real time the slow autofocus is limiting and, again, outclassed by its competitors.
The Nikon S9300 is a serviceable camera, in that there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it’s just not able to keep up with the steep curve of the competition.
The camera’s image quality isn’t as good as its S9100 predecessor due to the unnecessary megapixel increase; the zoom isn’t as wide-ranging as its competitors; there are no manual controls and the battery life is limited.
The combination of these points, and the fact that the model is no cheaper than its strongest competitor, the Panasonic TZ30, leaves the S9300 exposed to the elements: it’s just not quite there.