Nikon Coolpix S5 Overview
by Dan Havlik
Review date: 06/22/2006
Based on looks alone, the new Nikon Coolpix S5 has it all -- sleek, sexy and ultra-slim. In case you didn't notice these traits at first glance, the marketing folks at Nikon have paired the S5's Wi-Fi enabled sibling the S6 (which looks nearly identical to the S5) with supermodel Kate Moss in a series of television commercials. But there's more to the 6-megapixel S5 (and the 6-megapixel S6, for that matter) than just appearance. To fit a larger Nikkor ED Glass 3x zoom lens into the camera so it doesn't protrude, Nikon's designers have transformed that flat rectangle design, so common to slim cams a few years ago, into a flowing all-metal wave-like chassis with a slight ripple on the left side to accommodate the lens. The features packed into the Nikon S5's skinny body are also pretty decent -- a 2.5-inch LCD with 170-degree viewing angle, a fun new slideshow called Pictmotion, an easy-to-use new jog dial selector, a new One-Touch Portrait button, and Nikon's Feature System which includes In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF, and D-Lighting. Sound like a nice package? Read on and I'll tell you whether Nikon delivers the goods.
Nikon Coolpix S5 User Report
The venerable Coolpix line has gone through many iterations, and the new S5 is Nikon's latest spin on a very popular product line. Just 0.8-inch at its slimmest point, the S5 is designed to be slipped into your pocket and trotted out to a restaurant, bar, party, or other special event. Naturally, the market for this camera -- as evidenced by the ads featuring Kate Moss -- are the young, hip and trendy "club kids" that camera manufacturers have been targeting for years with these increasingly diminutive pocket cameras. The biggest gripe against these ultraslim models, though, has been that picture-taking has suffered as cameras have gotten more svelte. With the Nikon S5 (and the S6), Nikon has aimed to confront that problem. For one, despite its small size, the camera has a 3x optical zoom Nikkor ED Glass lens (which stands for Extra-low Dispersion, describing the special glass used in Nikon's finer lens elements to improve optical performance), equivalent to 35-105mm in 35mm format. The nice lens is joined by a very good 6 megapixel sensor which produces crisp accurate color in daylight, Nikon's Feature System, and 15 Scene Modes combine to produce solid imaging results.
What you give up with this slender camera is agility and speed. Despite the presence of a glorious new jog dial -- which positively blazes through pictures and menus -- getting the hang of where all the settings are can be a bit tricky. And though the Nikon S5 is relatively quick shot to shot, unless you're consciously holding the camera steady in non-daylight settings, images tended to be slightly blurry. With just a maximum ISO sensitivity of 400, low-light shots are going to require that you engage the camera's flash which will slow down picture-taking and subtract from the atmosphere of your pictures.
Ride the Wave
While, in all honesty, I had been getting a bit bored with the recent crop of slim cameras, the wave design of the new Nikon S5 and S6, made me sit up and take notice. With dimensions of approximately 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches, a weight of 5.3 ounces (with battery and SD card), and a smooth metallic surface that's cool to the touch, the S5 is a camera you can put in your pocket and truly forget about until you're ready to shoot.
One of the reasons I've never been particularly fond of slim cameras is that I couldn't figure out the best place to put my fingers. The Nikon S5 has partially solved that problem by having the grip-end of the camera be slightly curved inward thanks to the wave design. Nikon has also placed a wedge-shaped thumb-grip in the right-hand corner of the rear of the camera which helps to stabilize it. But let's face it, holding one of these models is never going to give you the comfort and security of holding, say, an ergonomically designed digital SLR. So make sure you have a good grip on this slick camera or it will slip out of your hand. To that end, it's also advisable to attach the strap and keep it looped around your wrist when shooting.
Another tricky aspect of holding the Nikon S5 is making sure your forefinger is not in the shot. The lens is placed precariously close to the right front-side of the camera so --- especially when engaging the One-Touch Portrait button -- make sure you're not blocking the lens. I've played with a lot of small digital cameras in my day, but this one seemed to cause me the most problems in this area. Again, this is not a serious issue but definitely the trade-off of having such a small camera, and something to keep in mind when using an S5.
Another downside of ultra-slims is control size and placement. The Nikon S5 has solved some of those problems by introducing a new rotary dial, which, while not quite on par with the celebrated scroll wheel on Apple's iPod, comes pretty darn close. The dial is great for scrolling through images -- up to ten per second -- or menus; or for just absently spinning around and around when you're getting ready to take your next picture. On the downside, the on/off button is so small you almost need a safety pin or the end of a paper clip to trigger it. While it's great for pocket purposes, since you don't want your S5 turning on accidentally in your jeans, it's frustrating if you're in a hurry and want to quickly turn the camera on to get a spontaneous moment. The miniature zoom rocker, while obviously placed inconspicuously for style reasons, is also an unfortunate choice. Having to squeeze your fingers into the little hole to adjust the zoom causes a slight shake, which can increase blur. But, as I mentioned before, this is the choice you make if you pick a stylish small camera. While form might not always follow function on the Nikon S5, style counts, and this model has it in spades.
Sweet Screen, Cool Slideshow
With 230,000 pixels of resolution on its 2.5-inch screen, the Nikon S5 is great for reviewing images and framing shots during the live preview. The large screen means, of course, that there's no optical viewfinder, which I'm getting less and less nostalgic for on these types of cameras. I know I may be in the minority on this, but a tiny optical viewfinder on a camera this small is not going to do anyone much good since it can only cover a portion of the image you're shooting. To combat glare, the Nikon S5's screen has a brightness adjustment and a nice wide viewing angle rated at 170 degrees. Though the Nikon S6 increases the screen size to 3 inches, the resolution is the same, so the S5 will actually give you the impression of a sharper picture.
The only gripe I had about playback is that the camera defaults to a setting that will show the picture only with the photo info, i.e. the time and date it was shot, the size of the image, etc. To change the image review setting to hide the text, you have to go through several menus until you find Monitor Settings where you can adjust Photo info on playback. Confusing.
When using the new Pictmotion "In-Camera Creative Slideshow Entertainment," as Nikon calls this technology for playing back images, the screen's strengths are clearly apparent, making the camera a great way to share photos with friends. Pictmotion is a feature I first saw on an S6 demo unit at the PMA show in Orlando last February. I was impressed with it back then and am still impressed with it now, though it is slightly more difficult to use than I had first thought. While it's basically just a glorified slide show, it's a good one. The function allows the user to select image files and then pick a style (Motion, Moody, Classic etc.) for displaying them in slideshow playback, which will then vary the way the images cross fade and pan across the screen. The user can choose from either five pre-installed music files (Pachelbel's Kanon and Turkish March are two that I tried) or, ostensibly, load an MP3 music file of their choice to match the images. While I was never able to figure out how to fully customize my Pictmotion slideshows on the Nikon S5 -- such as adding my own music files -- the feature was fun to use overall. Also, it took me a long time to realize that the camera automatically picks the last ten images you shot, not everything on the card, for the slideshow, which seems like a strange limitation.
Nikon makes the right choice in having the S5 default to Quick Startup, which forgoes the requisite Coolpix animation screen so the camera powers on quickly and you're ready to shoot in about a second. Though the tiny zoom lever takes some getting used to -- and it helps if you have long fingernails -- the camera reaches full 3x optical zoom (105mm in 35mm format) in a matter of seconds.
The camera also defaults to a Blur Warning setting which, while useful, will slow you down if you're trying to snap pictures quickly. With Blur Warning on, a prompt on the screen will inform you if a picture you have taken is blurry and will then ask you if you want to save it. Unless you have a very small memory card in the camera, I'd advise turning that setting off immediately since many images taken in low-light without a flash will trigger the blur warning. With Blur Warning off, the camera is relatively fast shot to shot, though it typically took half a second or so to write an image to the card, during which a spinning hour glass would appear on the screen. Not exactly a speed demon of a camera -- 2.2 frames per second in Continuous mode -- the Nikon S5 does fairly well for its class. It's certainly not the camera you would take to photograph a sporting event, though.
Night and Day
As for image quality, the Nikon S5's probably not going to win any head-to-head shootouts with more advanced, bulkier models, but it did produce pretty crisp images with good color in standard daylight conditions. I also shot with it on a couple of hazy days in New York City, and the camera did a fine job getting accurate color under muted sunlight. The camera's Back Light setting helped me capture a very usable image of the Manhattan Bridge under less than opportune circumstances. Images also had good sharpness -- thanks, no doubt, to the Nikkor ED glass -- even toward the corners, and there was a low incidence of purple fringing and flare. Aperture on the lens ranges from f/3.0 to f/5.4. Under lower lighting indoors without flash, the Nikon S5 was less consistent, producing images that were often blurry. With a maximum ISO of just 400 (some competitors are offering up to ISO 1,600), you'll probably want to use a flash indoors with the S5.
A strong selling point for the Coolpix line is Nikon's Feature System which includes In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF, and D-Lighting. In-Camera Red-Eye Fix combines a pre-flash with in-camera procecessing to reduce red-eye in portraits. In Face Priority AF, which is the real gem of the system, a yellow smiley face appears on the screen and then locks a box over any face it detects. This has the obvious advantage of locking focus on the faces looking into the camera, rather than on the background, a common problem with AF cameras. The only apparent blip in the technology is that since it detects the presence of two eyes, it cannot lock in a facial profile, only a face that is looking straight at the camera. D-Lighting works in Playback mode to increase brightness and clarity in underexposed areas of a picture by automatically adding light and detail where needed. Also part of the Nikon system is a new One-Touch Portrait button on top of the camera which combines Face Priority AF with In-Camera Red-Eye Fix to help users improve their portraits. Aside from the One-Touch Portrait button (which also lets you access D-Lighting), it takes a little while to figure out how to access all these features -- especially on a menu-driven camera like the Nikon S5 -- but they really do give you some great basic tools for improving your images.
Speaking of menus, the Nikon S5 and S6 feature a revamped GUI (Graphic User Interface) that's an improvement on the previous version and features a circular mode menu. The GUI is pleasing to look at with black and gray selections highlighted yellow as your scroll through using the jog dial. Though some of the iconography is difficult to understand (why does a flag mean Languages and a "C" denote Reset All?) there are descriptions at the top of the screen in fonts that are easy to read. There's also a setting to make the menus text-driven rather than icon-driven, depending on the user's preference.
The Nikon S5 has ample scene modes for such a petite camera including four with Scene Assist -- Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait. Scene Assist is a selection option that helps the user compose pictures with the help of framing guides displayed on the monitor. There are also 11 advanced Scene Modes -- Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night landscape, Close up, Museum, Firework show, Copy, Back light and Panorama assist. There's also a Voice Recording mode, BSS (Best Shot Selector), and Exposure BSS.
The Nikon S5 charges its proprietary lithium ion battery via a Nikon Coolstation Dock. The Coolstation MV-14 for the S5 includes USB and Audio Video connectivity for transferring images to a computer. While the dock is, well, pretty cool, a smaller dedicated battery charger would have been a plus for a camera so portable. Based on CIPA standards, the S5 can capture about 210 shots on a full-charged battery.
Though it's probably not the camera you want to use to enter any photography contests, the Nikon Coolpix S5 is definitely a very appealing choice for anyone looking for a small, svelte, and yes, sexy camera they can take anywhere. While image quality was inconsistent in low-light and the camera was a bit sluggish for quick shooting purposes, in standard daylight and even cloudy conditions, the Nikon S5's 6 megapixel sensor combined with its Nikkor ED glass lens captured generally sharp images with surprisingly accurate color. And you don't need to be Kate Moss to appreciate that.
- 6.0-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,816 x 2,112 pixels
- 2.5-inch color LCD display with 230,000 pixels of resolution and 170-degree viewing angle
- 3x, 5.8-17.4mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- Maximum aperture f/3.0-f/5.4, depending on lens zoom position
- Shutter speeds from 1/500 to two seconds
- 4x Digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control
- Built-in flash with five modes
- Built-in mic and speaker for recording and playback of sound in videos, plus voice recording
- 21MB internal memory
- SD memory card storage
- Power supplied by lithium ion rechargeable battery, or optional AC adapter
- USB cable for quick connection to a computer
- Video cable for connection to a television set
- Nikon Picture Project software for both Mac and Windows
- Nikkor ED Glass lens
- Nikon Feature System includes In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF and D-Lighting
- One-Touch Portrait button combines Face Priority AF and In-Camera Red-Eye Fix
- Auto Image Rotation in playback
- Rotary jog dial for swift scrolling
- Pictmotion slideshow feature
- Adjustable graphic user interface allows icon view or traditional text menus
- Voice recording mode
- QuickTime movies (with sound)
- Continuous Shooting, Multi-Shot, Multi-Shot 16, and Interval Timer mode.
- 11 preset Scene modes, plus four Scene Assist modes.
- Self-timer for delayed shutter release
- Best Shot Selector mode
- Macro (close-up) lens adjustment
- White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes, including a manual setting.
- 256-Segment Matrix metering
- ISO equivalent sensitivity range of 50 to 400
- PictBridge compatibility
In the Box
The Nikon Coolpix S5 ships with the following items in the box:
- Coolpix S5 digital camera
- Wrist strap
- Cool-Station MV-14 Cradle
- Power adapter
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- Li-ion rechargeable battery EN-EL8
- PictureProject installer CD
- PictureProject reference manual CD
- Instruction manuals and registration kit
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, 128 to 256 MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection.
Though it might not lead the pack based on image quality alone, the Nikon Coolpix S5 has a lot going for it in a camera this small. For starters, the Nikon S5's svelte metallic chassis is one of the thinnest I've used, making it the perfect camera to slip into your pocket and forget about until you're ready to take pictures. Along with being thin, the camera boasts a distinctive wave-like design that's less than a inch thick on the right side, providing a convenient handgrip. The left half of the camera has a slight ripple to house the impressive 3x optical Nikkor ED glass lens which does not protrude from the body even at full zoom. The majority of the rear of the Nikon S5 is taken up by the camera's nice 2.5-inch LCD which produces great playback and live preview thanks to the screen's 230,000 pixels.
Other standout features on the Nikon S5 included the new creative Pictmotion slideshow which through various audio and visual settings allows you to manipulate playback to make it more personal. While it's a little more tricky to customize than it first seems, Pictmotion is a great way to share photos with friends while showing off the Nikon S5's crisp screen. Another feature I loved on this camera was the new jog dial rotary selector that lets you speed through images during playback as well as quickly navigate the occasionally complex menu system.
While the Nikon S5 produced very good images in standard daylight and cloudy conditions, it stumbled a bit in darker indoor settings, with the maximum ISO of 400 not able to reduce blur, in most cases, when shooting without a flash. What the Nikon S5 might give up in tricky lighting conditions, it makes up for in its dynamic feature set including Nikon's In-Camera Red-Eye Fix, Face Priority AF, and D-Lighting. Combine that with other great features including a new One-Touch Portrait Button, Blur Warning and a redesigned Graphic User Interface and the Nikon S5 becomes very worthy of a Dave's Pick.