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Review: Nikon S4

Nikon adds an old twist to a new camera that’s packed with practical features.

InformationWeek Staff

November 17, 2005

5 Min Read

The 6.0 MP Nikon S4, which lists for $399.99, revives a clever twist of the lens compartment used in Nikon’s very first digital cameras. Rather than the popular pop-out lens most cameras (including Nikon’s) have, the lens sits in a housing on the side of the camera, which lets it be longer, better protected, and faster to start up. It also makes it look a bit odd to anyone who has a preconceived notion about what a camera should look like.

I took the S4 with me on a recent trip to Canada, and was very pleased with the picture quality, ease of use, and some practical considerations like the choice of AA batteries rather than a proprietary design. For all the pros like size, the ability to use the body as its own tripod, practical battery choice and big 2.5 inch LCD, there were some cons that I didn’t care for all that much. Specifically, the lack of an optical viewfinder, which would have been a non-issue if the LCD was readable in moderate sunlight, as well as the lack of shutter and aperture priority or the ability to add lens accessories (there are no threads on the lens).

Using the camera is quite pleasant, unless you’re in bright sunlight, where you’ll find yourself shading the LCD to see what’s going on, even with its brightness turned up full. The camera fits comfortably in your hands, with just enough heft to feel steady. One of my favorite features of this design is that you can use the camera as its own tripod, simply by setting it down and angling the lens. This feature is also handy in low light situations. I shot the interiors of restaurants without using the flash and got some very good results.

Turn on time is nearly instant, though you have to hold down the on switch for about half a second before the camera decides you’re serious and powers up. Since the lens doesn’t extend, there’s no noise, and it’s ready to go as soon as you are.

I really liked the camera’s use of two AA batteries for power, though I could tell that I was going through them faster than the single high capacity batteries other cameras employ. Still, I was using 1600 mAh batteries and there are much higher capacity ones out there. Also, since chargers tend to take batteries in groups of four, it’s easy to have a second set handy, and of course, you can actually buy regular AAs almost anywhere.

Connecting the camera to a computer is simple, using the USB port, but I was annoyed that they didn’t use a standard USB mini plug, but one I’ve never seen before, which means that it’s one more cable in my travel kit. Alternatively you can just pop out the SD card and take the data off that way, but a standard cable would have been a nice touch. One nice touch they did include is the onboard 13.5MB of memory, good for a few shots (four in 6M mode, more in lower resolution modes) right out of the box.

There are many really useful automatic features built into the camera that would make up for the lack of more manual control if I wasn’t such a die hard do-it yourselfer. Even so I took advantage of options like the Scene Assist shooting modes which provide outlines of where to put people in the picture, and even (in Portrait) look for a face to focus on. If you’re like me, you’ll think “assists” are for amateurs, and they are…but they work just as well for pros on the go.

For some reason Nikon chose to make “Vibration Reduction” available only in “Movie Mode,” which captures 15 fps at resolutions from 640 to 160, rather than all the time. If they’re going to put a 10x zoom on the camera, an anti-shake feature is more than a luxury. On the other hand, red-eye reduction is on all the time, though you may not always like the way it leaves people with grayed out pupils, rather than black ones. Another feature that gave me more pleasant results was the "D-Lighting" mode, which brightens up shadow areas during playback and allows you to store a modified coy on the camera. The 10X zoom lens works nicely, especially for a smaller lens. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll get the same image quality as you will in a 6 MP DSLR with an equivalent zoom lens, but you will have to look for the difference to find it. The optics are still Nikkor, even if they’re not big. Once again, the body as tripod comes in handy for shooting at maximum telephoto, which is equivalent to a 380mm 35mm camera lens. I missed the option of adding a wide angle attachment to the camera, as I often want more than the 38mm (equiv) wide angle it offers, but one could resort to the panorama feature and get good results.

All in all, I give the S4 good marks, though its major flaw, the inability to see your image clearly in bright light, could be fatal if you’re doing most of your shooting at high noon. Other annoyances are the lack of full manual control and the inability to add onto the lens, both features that the crowd naturally drawn to this design would probably like to see.

Otherwise, I really liked its solid feel, quick response and iconoclastic body style. Someone recently asked me what small camera they should take around the world if they were visiting places with questionable power and I wish I’d known about the S4, which would have been just about perfect.

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