01 May 2009

Nikon Coolpix S230 Review

Assume these things when considering the quality of the Nikon Coolpix S230: the potential buyers for this camera are not looking for a high-end, near DSLR quality compact. They are looking for a camera with a little flair, but they don't want to sacrifice decent image quality. They want a nice set of specs, like the S230's 10 megapixel CCD sensor and 3x Nikkor zoom lens.

Assuming the above, we'll judge the S230 on its ability to deliver adequate image quality and offer a little fun without losing functionality. After spending a few weeks' worth of quality time with the S230, I can say it measured up to these basic criteria.

Physically, the most notable feature on the S230 is the 230,000 dot, 3.0 inch touch screen on the back panel. You won't find an optical viewfinder back here, or much else for that matter.

Two buttons – photo review and shooting mode – plus the shutter release itself are the only ones you'll find on the S230. This means that the user is dependant on the touch screen for all other functions.

The camera itself is available in a few sleek shades, and our particular model is plum. Though the look is finished with a brushed metal design, the camera body is definitely plastic. Not exactly drop-proof, but it does make the whole package relatively light.

Ergonomics and Controls
The S230 measures a trim 0.8 inches wide, making it easy to carry in a coat pocket. The Nikkor lens dominates the front panel, and the LCD occupies most of the back panel. Again, most control is handled through the touch screen. Unlike the S60, the camera you saw Ashton Kutcher wielding in a recent ad campaign, zoom is not handled through touch interface. Instead, a good, old-fashioned zoom toggle is positioned on top of the camera with the shutter button.

Slim cameras are stylish, but an ultra-thin camera can be an ergonomic nightmare. The S230 isn't. A small indentation on the back panel provides a nice thumb grip, making it easy to hold the camera in one hand and operate the touch screen with the other hand. And though the S230 is certainly pocketable, it's not quite as slim as the likes of a Sony T-Series Cyber-shot. Still, this is a modern look and a cool color.

Menus and Modes
Menus are simple, straight-forward, and have slightly enlarged icons for easier use with the touch screen. Pressing the menu icon in the bottom corner of the screen calls up two menus. One offers access to shooting settings, including ISO and white balance, and the other adjusts camera settings. Display, macro, self-timer and flash settings are all at your fingertips on the camera's default display. Menus are, for the most part, straightforward and intuitive.

Shooting modes are accessed through one of the buttons on the back panel. Here's a rundown of the features and shooting modes on board the Coolpix S230:

* Auto: Camera controls most settings, though the user is able to adjust white balance and use the touch screen to lock in an autofocus target.
* Scene: Choose from sixteen different scene modes with pre-set shooting settings, including food and fireworks. Control over functions like white balance and ISO are not available in scene modes.
* Scene Auto Selector: The camera automatically chooses a scene mode based on the shooting situation and adjusts settings accordingly.
* Video Recording: The S230 records video with sound in either TV movie (640x480) or small size (320x240).

Utilizing touch screen interface, the S230 is equipped with a "draw" function, allowing you to embellish photos by adding stamps or doodles to photos. Not a feature for everyone, but the set that's attracted to Nikon point-and-shoots by the Ashton Kutcher campaign might be interested. Other in-camera retouching features include D-Lighting and manupaltions by stretching/skewing images.

A 3.0 inch display is fairly sizable, but touch interface demands a lot of space. Thankfully, the LCD on board the S230 doesn't feel cramped. As we've noted before, a touch screen is sort of a love-it-or-hate-it feature. Smaller hands are friendlier to touch screens, and those with bigger hands tend to fight with the interface. The S230's touch screen won't be attractive to everyone, but as a person who doesn't mind the touch interface, I found it very responsive.

The screen has a matte finish, which helps cut down on glare, but I wouldn't count on using it in intense sunlight. In low light conditions, the image on the display becomes very noisy.

The S230 isn't going to compete with high-end compacts, but it does provide reasonably fast performance and nice image quality for casual shooting. In good light conditions, auto focus is quick and consistent. As you'd expect, performance declines when light conditions fade.

Shooting Performance
The S230 showed some marked improvements over previous Coolpix cameras in the speed department, turning in low shutter lag numbers and better than average auto focus speed as well.

Focus options include center, face priority, and auto. Shooting in auto mode, you'll be able to use the touch screen to override auto focus and lock in a target by tapping the LCD. An icon appears on the right side of the screen, and the focus is removed by touching the icon.

In good light, the auto focus was snappy. It picked out objects more consistently in shots with higher contrast. Under darker conditions, or a scene with little contrast, the S230 often failed to lock in focus on a target. The focus mechanism is also somewhat noisy. As we expected the S230 focused best in center mode or in scenes with good lighting and contrast.

Selecting Face Priority auto focus mode enables face detection. A small yellow box outlines the faces it identifies and selects one as a focus target. In my experience, it was reliable and consistent. The Smile shooting mode uses face detection and takes this technology one step further by automatically snapping a picture when it detects a smile on the subject's face. Like face detection, the smile shooting mode was fast and reliable.

I encountered some funny problems in the auto scene selector mode. Though the mechanism of switching between scene modes is streamlined, and an icon appears to indicate which scene is being used, it struggled on several occasions to identify the right scene. It would often find something in my shots that looked like a face, such as a configuration of keys on my keyboard, and flip into portrait mode. It usually selected macro mode correctly, and could switch into night mode for a dim shot, but it was wrong often enough to make this a clumsy feature. Manually choosing a scene mode is easy enough, so I'd advise someone with this camera to skip the auto scene selector completely.

Nikon employs their "4-Way Vibration Reduction" system as a form of image stabilization in the S230. It's a combination of automatic ISO and shutter speed adjustments coupled with motion detection technology that aims to reduce blurring in images. Without any form of lens or sensor stabilization, the vibration reduction system only goes so far. I didn't see any noticeable difference in shots using the VR setting – except for some evidence of noise and noise reduction when the camera boosts ISO, of course.

The CIPA standard for this lithium-ion battery is listed as 160 shots. My experience with the S230 confirmed this spec, giving me a couple days' worth of moderate use before it needed to be re-charged.

Lens Performance
The f/3.1-f/5.9 3x Nikkor lens, with a 35mm equivalent of 35-105mm, doesn't pack much zoom power – just enough to bring an object across a room closer. Nikon reserves higher zoom capability for higher-spec S cameras and the Coolpix P series. I also had some difficulty using the S230 for very close macro shots, so it would seem that the ideal focus range for this camera is within a few feet of the shooter. It's also worth noting that operating the lens is a little sluggish and a little noisy, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it unacceptable.

Though the lens carries the Nikon name, it's not immune to same issues that plague most budget compacts. Barrel distortion is pretty obvious in close-range wide-angle shots. The further I moved back from my subject, the less apparent it was. I also saw some pin-cushion distortion at telephoto. To remedy this common symptom, Nikon has included a user-selectable distortion control system. Sure enough, it straightened out some of the nasty distortion we saw, especially barrel distortion at wide angle.

Did the S230 deliver the basic image quality and fun-factor we were looking for? With a few reservations, I'd say it did. In good light, it captured some nice images. Colors are slightly saturated, but not to an extreme.

When the sun goes down, though image quality declines and the flash becomes a necessity. Aside from that, the 3.0 inch display brought some flair to an otherwise basic point-and-shoot.


* Warm, generally neutral colors
* Flashy 3.0 inch touch screen
* Attractive build and design
* Reliably speedy performance


* Images are noisy from low ISOs on up
* Some corner softness and fringing in shots
* Only packs a 3x zoom
* Some weirdness with the Scene Auto Selector

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