Let's turn back the clock for a minute here. The new millennium has been, gone and didn't destroy human civilisation, and digital cameras are blinking in the bright light of a new dawn in photography. From the maelstrom of the pixel revolution, a shiny, sleek metal-bodied beauty emerges, drawing gasps from digital advocates and neanderthal film-lovers alike. This is Canon's Digital Ixus range, and behold, they are articles of desire amidst a plethora of unwashed, ugly cameras. Turn the clock forwards to the current day and someone in the Nikon design factory has obviously hankered for the good old days, because here's the brushed-metal, lozenge-shaped CoolPix S500 that's a homage to that earlier, ground-breaking, design.
- Sensor: CCD - 7.1 Million pixels
- Image Size: 3072 x 2304 Pixels
- Lens: 35-105mm f/2.8-4.7 (3x zoom)
- Macro: 15cm
- ISO range: ISO50-2000
- Flash range: 7.5m
- Exposure: Auto, Scene modes (11)
- Monitor: 2.5 " TFT LCD
- Other Features: Vibration Reduction and D-Lighting
- Movie Mode: Yes
- Storage: 26Mb of internal, plus SD Cards
- Batteries: Li-ion rechargeable
- Video Output: Yes
- Size/Weight: 88x51x22mm - 135g
With a 7.1Mp resolution and 3x zoom you might think the S500 would be cheaper than it is, but it has a couple of features that push the price up - very fast startup time, finely engineered metal body, optical vibration reduction, a 2.5in. LCD and ISO2000. With a price of around £229 that pitches it in against the Canon Digital Ixus 70 at a cheaper £189, or the more stylish Ixus 75 at £209.
Modes and features
As befits a member of the Nikon style range, there are few controls on the back of the S500, but unexpectedly, there are an extra couple on the top. This being a small camera, they are of course, all tiny. Except for the fire button which thankfully is a decent size. Also up on the top are icons depicting a smiling face and a wobbling hand. The former is for the face detection mode, that prompts a happy, smiley face graphic to appear on the LCD screen. This is supposed to lock on to faces and tinker with the program algorithms to optimise the picture for portraits. The wobbling hand turns on the Best Shot Selector feature, which snatches a handful of images and keeps the one that's most in focus. In tricky handling or low light situations this is handy to have.
To the back of the camera and there is the smallest zoom rocker, where the telephoto end is so flush to the surface it's hard to feel if it has been pressed hard enough, until the zoom rushes out. The joypad has a novel feature in that as well as having four directions to press in, it rotates making progress through menus quite quick. The central button in the joypad acts as a confirmation button, while surround it are ones for Mode, Playback, Menu and Delete. The mode button sets the mode of operation, from program shooting, to video to scene modes, of which the latter has 11 unique photographic ones. These are all the usual suspects, with nothing special or unexpected in the list that covers fireworks, beaches, portraits, landscapes, kids etc. Once in a particular mode, the Menu button then brings up options relating to that mode.
Build and handling
The build quality is very good generally, with a brushed metal front facia, that's available in either silver or black. The black one looks considerably better. It really isn't that stylish though, as it is just a bland square design, like the old Ixus's used to be. It has the benefit of being quite small, though it is a little chubby. The lens whips out of the body, but makes an alarming creaking noise when it goes back in. The buttons are all tiny as mentioned, and that zoom rocker feels flimsy as does the battery compartment flap which is plastic.
Handling isn't great because all the buttons are so small, but the four on the back are all too close to the joypad as well, which makes using them tricky.
Flash can be turned off, use red eye reduction, be forced on or set on auto, or most creatively, used with long exposures for night portraits. What's slightly irritating is that the flash menu goes off screen too quickly, but on the plus side, it has a range of... 7.5m. That puts it out in front of any compact we've reviewed since Christmas. The usual range is 3-5m, so to whack it out to 7.5m is some going.
There's a headline feature here, just waiting to be written. Startup time is just under a second which is phenomenally fast for a compact camera. This speediness continues when we turn to the burst mode which can capture eight images in the 10 second test, at roughly one per second, being ready to fire again after about 16 seconds. Now that's also an impressive performance as other compacts can get anything from three to five shots.
The focussing can be set to auto, centre or manual within a large square where the joypad dial is used to move the point of focus around the screen. In the Auto setting, the camera uses the entire screen to look for something to focus on. Strangely it does this by unfocussing slightly, then refocussing on whatever takes its fancy. This looks odd, but it's quick, and it's also quite tenacious, picking out points in both cluttered and very plain areas. Again, this is impressive, which is more than can be said for the face recognition mode, which is capable of focussing on anything at all in a scene, regardless of the presence of a face.
Also on the minus side is the macro mode, which is rated at 15cm, and if you get it to focus around that distance then it's a job well done. This is very poor compared to almost any other decent compact on the market.
Fortunately, the level of detail in most shots is very good and noise is well controlled with images looking clean and crisp. There's some colour fringing when shooting against white skies, but not a lot. There's more evidence of colour bleeding when shooting bluebells and batches of small, coloured flowers, and here the firmware has difficulty telling where one flower ends and the background begins.
Colours in general are quite flat, with blues being slightly lighter, green is pretty accurate, and reds are a little dull. Of the mixtures, the oranges are quite weak and cyan is a shade lighter. The blue-green combo is cyan like the output from pretty much every camera, but it's the right kind of brightness. The skin tone looks a little weak though. Overall, green and blues should render pleasingly, while people will need the portrait mode in order to ensure they are given healthy complexions.
The colour chart shows good greens and reds, but blues are quite bright and this affects any mixtures featuring blue.
There's some tonal variation in the shadow areas but otherwise this looks good with soft features and plenty of hair detail.
The metering has done a decent job here, between the dark shadows and the bright sky. There is plenty of detail, though the foreground and the background aren't sharp due to limited depth-of-field.
The 3x optical zoom doesn't reach far, but at least it's sharp. Colour fringing against a bright white sky could have been awful, but it is kept under reasonable control with some fringing on the left side.
While this scene looks fine at a distance, when zoomed in to 100% lots of colour spill can be seen from the flowers in the foreground.
The ISO1600 and ISO2000 modes aren't really suitable for colour but they do lend themselves to images that are going to be converted to mono.
The best shot selector mode has picked this one out where the surrounding greenery is a little sharper than the flower, but at least it isn't blurred.
Surprising to see ISO50 showing colour variation in the shadow areas, but this is borne out in the ISO100 test which shows noise all across the grey card. For such a low setting this is not very good. The ISO200 setting shows more noise and is slightly softer, though ISO400 isn't much worse and at least is usable. Moving up to ISO800 the picture becomes quite noisy throughout, while at ISO1600 the picture is basically unusable in colour with both intense noise, loss of detail and a colour shift. It's easy to see why a halt was then called at ISO2000 instead of going for an ISO3200 mode - it's only usable for black and white.
You'll either love the design of the S500, thinking it's neat and shiny, or think, didn't the Ixus look like that five years ago? Either way, it's a very small and tidy camera, though thicker than it initially looks. The small package ensures that the buttons are equally tiny, and these are a little too small, though this does leave plenty of room for a decent size LCD. Performance is excellent in a number of areas, which is very surprising for such a small camera, and while there is a little colour fringing in shots, noise is a problem unless the light levels are quite high. The S500 has a lot going for it with class-leading features, that make it a great purchase if those features match your requirements, but it does have a few flaws as well.
Super-fast startup time
Lens vibration reduction
High quality, metal body
Up to ISO2000
Tiny, fiddly buttons
Nice, but dated look
Poor macro mode
The Nikon CoolPix S500 costs around £229 and can be bought from the ePHOTOzine shop here.