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Nikon Coolpix S50 Overview

by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 9/12/07

The Nikon Coolpix S50 features a 7.2 megapixel CCD image sensor coupled to prism-folded Nikkor 3x optical zoom lenses. The S50 also includes an impressively large 3.0 inch LCD screen, and offers true optical vibration reduction -- a useful addition that helps steady shots in low light situations. What makes the Nikon Coolpix S50 different from its higher-cost S50c sibling is the absence of wireless connectivity. But since the Nikon S50c's WiFi doesn't actually allow image transfer directly to a local PC -- instead requiring you to upload all your images to a Nikon server -- it's not something we really missed on the Nikon S50.

Nikon is also known for a few special features that are included in the Nikon S50, including D-Lighting, which enhances darker images to improve shadow detail; Best Shot Selector mode, which takes a series of shots, letting the camera automatically pick the sharpest shot and discard the others; Red-Eye Fix, which automatically finds red-eye in your images and eliminates it; and finally Face-Priority AF. This last feature will initially keep you and your friends dancing around in front of the S50 to watch it put a "focus box" around your faces, but once you get used to the mode, you'll find it very reassuring to know that your loved-one's faces will indeed be in focus, before you take the shot.

The Nikon Coolpix S50 offers 13MB of built-in memory, Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard slots, and both USB computer connectivity plus NTSC/PAL video output. The S50 draws its power from a proprietary lithium-ion battery.

Note: If you've already read the Nikon S50c review, this is an edited repeat of that review, since the cameras are identical except for the absence of WiFi on the Nikon S50. The test results and test images found in the Optics, Exposure and Performance tabs are also repeated from the S50c, however the Gallery shots in the Samples tab were taken with the S50.

 

Nikon Coolpix S50
User Report

by Mike Pasini

Intro. The S series in the Coolpix line has stood for Style, according to Nikon, which launched the attractive little digicam's wave design with ads featuring model Kate Moss. But now in its third generation, the S series makes me think more of Clara Peller than Kate Moss.

Clara was the geriatric star of the Wendy's TV commercial who, upon discovering a small hamburger patty in a very large bun, complained, "Where's the beef?" Since then the question has been applied to many products that deliver less-than-expected performance. And I'm sad to say, the Nikon S50 series is one of them.

It remains a very attractive camera with a lot going for it. Nearly all our previous praise for the S-series is still valid; but not all of it.

Which is a lot like a hamburger without the patty.

Front. Lens cover open.

Design. The Nikon S50 is supposed to be the stylish model in the Coolpix line, and it certainly is a pleasure to look at. That's often enough incentive to whip out the credit card.

The grip is on the thin side of the Nikon S50, not the bulge, so the camera feels like it's pulling away from you as you hold it. That almost makes this a two-hander for me. I'm more comfortable with the bulk of the weight in my grip, not the other way around. The Nikon S50's tiny controls just serve to reinforce that approach. They have no touch whatsoever. You have to impress the Zoom lever like a would-be father-in-law with your real intentions before it grudgingly accepts your decision. And the tiny Mode, Playback, Menu and Erase buttons are almost rivets rather than interface objects. The problem is only exacerbated by the Nikon S50's rather slow response.

Controls. Ugh. Kudos for the Zoom lever (moved from the top panel) but the Flash indicator (right of the Nikon S50's speaker grill) is always covered by your thumb. Note the EV icon on the side of the Multi Selector.

So do I still like the Nikon S50's Multi Selector and OK button? Well, honestly, it was not only a little too fast for my taste, but it was confusing. You can dial it left or right it to move up or down the menu list. Or you can just use the arrow keys. So being able (usually) to do either, I never knew which to use. It was a failure of trust, engendered by the other interface issues.

Like the Flash Lamp Indicator to the right of the speaker grill on the back panel. To hold the camera properly, your right thumb sits on top of the speaker grill (not a big deal since you don't listen to it when you are shooting). Unfortunately that position obscures the Nikon S50's flash indicator lamp. With that big LCD, there isn't a lot of room back there, but that's the one place it should not be.

Top. New design on top, too. Improved Power button with Anti-Shake button on the far end next to the Portrait button that automatically activates Face Detection and In-Camera Red-Eye Fix.

Nikon has earned peculiar distinction for its design of battery compartment doors and latches. The Nikon Coolpix 990 is famous for its easily breakable door latches. The Nikon D200 digital SLR's vertical grips have a similar problem. And even the Nikon SB-800 flash unit has a difficult-to-close battery door. So I'm not surprised to find these Nikon S50 models have retained the sliding mechanism on the short side, making them just as precarious as the worst of Nikon's designs. More than once I latched them only to find I hadn't sufficiently closed them first.

Nikon also manages to design the clunkiest battery chargers in the business. There are two in the S series. The Nikon S50c has a little brick that connects to the bottom of the camera (and for some reason always starts it up looking for a WiFi connection). The Nikon S50 has a battery charger. But both can only be connected to an outlet with a power cord. I much prefer the more compact solution of a small charger with prongs that fold into its back, especially for travel. How tough can it be?

Bottom. I often didn't properly latch the card/battery compartment door.

And don't even talk to me about the cables. Even the USB cable seems like something the telephone guy left behind because he couldn't fit it back in the truck.

The Nikon S50 body is a beauty, no question. But the rest of the package leaves a lot to be desired.

USB Cable. USB and AV in one cable but with a big connector.

Display/Viewfinder. It is a pretty screen, credit where credit due. A big 3.0-inch LCD with a healthy 230,000 pixels and five brightness settings. It's a glossy screen, though, that picks up fingerprints easily, so have a microcloth around to keep the Nikon S50 polished.

I managed fine in sunlight even with the reflections, so I really didn't miss having an optical viewfinder on the Coolpix S50.

Performance. On the whole, the Nikon S50 is an average performer. Our Test Results startup time is a bit misleading. I didn't find it quite that slow, but I always enable Nikon's Quick Startup option in the Setup menu to skip the razzmatazz. I'd classify both startup and shutdown times as bordering on average: certainly fast enough. You won't feel inconvenienced if you shut it off to preserve battery power.

Zoom isn't smooth, jumping in small but discrete steps through the optical range and more slowly through digital zoom. I found myself pressing the Nikon S50's Zoom lever harder and harder to speed it up, but it isn't an accelerator. It's even worse in Movie mode, stuttering through the zoom in jarring steps.

Grip. Incredible hand strength keeps the heavy end up simply by grasping the thin end.

Don't be alarmed, by the way, if you hear a little rattle when you move the Nikon S50 around. That's the VR lens and it's perfectly normal.

Shot-to-shot times were pretty good, but you have no idea what the Nikon S50 is capturing. The shutter fires quickly, but you see the live scene through the LCD rather than what you just captured. That makes sense to me, although it's a bit unnerving. No feedback, just a view of the target.

Nikon claims you can get 130 shots out of one charge of the Nikon S50's EN-EL8 lithium-ion battery (based on the CIPA standard). That's not much. In real world terms, I found the charging procedure so cumbersome, I didn't bother to charge much. I was still able to shoot movies and stills without getting a low battery warning.

I find Nikon's large-type menus a blessing; and the simple organization is a blessing, too. Navigation with the Nikon S50's Multi Selector scroll wheel confuses me, though. I prefer simple up/down scrolling to left/right rotation (which is up, which down?).

The Multi Selector barely fits on the back panel, leaving no room on the right for an icon to tell you the Right arrow activates EV compensation. There is an icon (on the side of the Nikon S50's Multi Selector) but that's not where you'd look for it, is it? Nikon really should revise the layout of that back panel so you can see the flash indicator and EV icon.

Despite our autofocus numbers, which aren't bad, I find the Nikon Coolpix S50 to have a much more sluggish shutter than I like. This is always true using Face Detection, which takes some time, but it's also true generally with this camera. The usual cure for this is half-pressing the shutter button to set focus. But even then, the Nikon S50 is not very quick. Same with Sports Scene mode.

Zoom Range. 38mm to 114mm to 4x digital zoom. This set has VR off.

Shooting. I took a variety of shots with the Nikon S50, ranging from the typical tourist pictures from Twin Peaks to those dolls in the dark to test high ISO. And I didn't skip my favorite Coolpix shots: macro. The Zoom display actually changes color (to green) when you're in the optimum focal length range for macro shooting.

In the gallery, you'll see a number of duplicate images but look at the critical exposure data below each. Note that I shot at ISO 1,600 and ISO 400, check the shutter speeds, compare the full resolution images to see how each approach held up. Vibration Reduction was almost always on.

Detail. Disappointing detail in this sunlit shot taken at ISO 100 and 1/400 second.

Macro. Great color but again, the detail isn't sharp.

What I conclude from my review of those images is that the high ISO shots, while noisy, hold more detail than the low shutter speed shots at more modest ISO settings -- even with VR on. Both the doll and the clown show that.

The trouble with the ISO 1,600 images is their noise. At thumbnail sizes you can't see that (it's been averaged away, much like the detail).

Nothing new about that. More disturbing, however, is the rather poor quality of the detail in the Nikon S50's landscape shots. I don't expect much of the digital zoom shots, but they're really not comparable to the competition. I do expect more detail in middle distance shots like the curved road or the carousel.

Color, however, is pleasing in all these shots. I particularly liked the fire hydrant shot where the highlights were well contained.

Movie Mode. As our sample movie demonstrates rather dramatically, using zoom in a Nikon S50 movie is a bad idea. The zoom isn't smooth but abruptly jumps in discreet but large steps.

Click to download movie. QuickTime player required.

Broadcast Quality Movie. A 15.5MB file lasting 12 seconds. Zoom was too jerky to use. (Click to download MOV file.)

There are quite a few options in the Nikon S50's Movie mode, however. They start with broadcast quality 640 x 480 pixel image size at 30 frames per second. A Pictmotion option automatically stops at 60 seconds (as much as Pictmotion can swallow) at 640 x 480 but only 10 fps. A smaller movie size of 320 x 240 and 30 fps comes next, followed by a 160 x 120 and 15 fps size. The Nikon S50 also includes a time-lapse option and a stop-motion option.

Pictmotion. The Nikon S50 has a Pictmotion option in its Playback mode. Pictmotion can create some slick presentations, but it isn't instant. It takes long enough for the program to assemble each show that the Nikon S50 displays a progress bar while the program assembles the presentation.

But you do get some sophisticated effects, panning and zooming your images to either the built-in music or tunes you add, all arranged in styles to make it easy to match the mood of your event. Only a few seconds of any movie is used, however (and repetitively, in my case).

You can still only transfer Pictmotion shows to a computer using the Windows version of PictureProject. But it's a fun way to show off what you've got in your camera.

Printing. The Nikon S50 can be docked to an ImageLink printer like the Kodak printer dock plus series 3 pictured here. A clear plastic dock insert is included with the S50 to attach to the printer.

Make sure you change the USB option in the Setup menu to PTP rather than Mass Storage. I used a SanDisk Ultra II SD/USB card so I can leave the USB setting to PTP, and just pop the card into a USB port rather than change the USB setting to Mass Storage, and connect the Nikon S50 to a USB cable.

With the Nikon S50 off, you attach it to the dock insert, which has a small USB connector to connect to the camera. The camera will initialize the printer (as its LCD will explain), and then display the first stored image. Use the arrow keys on the camera to scroll through your images, select them for printing, and set the print options.

Appraisal. The Nikon S50 was, in a word, disappointing. Image quality, performance, movie mode, all left me looking for more, overshadowing the familiar Nikon strengths of a VR lens, D-Lighting, and In-Camera Red-Eye Fix automatically activated with Face Priority autofocus in Portrait mode.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Coolpix S50 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Stylish Wave design
  • 3.0 inch LCD with 230,00 pixels and wide viewing angle
  • Rotary Multi-Selector
  • Pictmotion presentations
  • Nikon Feature system offers helpful basic tools for improving your pictures
  • One-Touch Portrait Button activates Face Priority autofocus and In-Camera Red-Eye Fix
  • D-Lighting
  • Hi Sensitivity mode for low light shooting
  • 15 Scene modes
  • Non-extruding 3x 38-114mm zoom lens with ED glass
  • Cool Station dock with ImageLink insert
  • 7.1 megapixel sensor for 16 x 20 prints
  • Accurate color
  • Excellent Macro mode, capturing a small minimum area with excellent detail
  • Good print quality at lower ISOs
    • Sluggish zoom
    • Low-quality buttons
    • Poor labeling of EV control
    • Lens placement gets fingers in the shot
    • Strong blurring in corners, especially at telephoto
    • Noticeable chromatic aberration at wide and telephoto
    • Significant barrel distortion at wide angle
    • Vignetting in corners (much darker)
    • Printed results are quite oversaturated
    • Slightly reddish skin tones
    • Poor Auto White balance performance in incandescent light
    • High contrast outdoors
    • Detail is blurred, especially in shadows due to noise suppression
    • High chroma noise at ISO 1,600
    • Poor low light performance for its class
    • Uneven flash coverage
    • Flash insufficient for telephoto lens setting
    • Poor battery life, only 130 shots
    • Very small built-in storage of 13MB, holds only 3 Large/Fine JPEGs

 

Like its brother, the Nikon S50c, the Nikon S50 was disappointing. Its great looks and slim form made me want to like it, but too many other factors got in the way. The slow, sluggish zoom combined with a very small zoom rocker made basic framing a frustrating chore. The Nikon S50's big, beautiful LCD pushes the Multi-controller so far right that they had to put the EV icon on the right panel; and the sad part is, though it sounds like a joke, it isn't! Optical quality suffers at both wide and tele, with significant softening and chromatic aberration, and the pronounced barrel distortion curves straight lines way too much at wide angle. Focus speed and image detail were also disappointing, as were battery life and lens performance. On the bright side, the Nikon S50 has a VR lens, D-Lighting, and In-Camera Red-Eye Fix: all automatically activated with Face Priority autofocus in Portrait mode. Unfortunately, these items don't make up for slow performance and reduced image quality. The Nikon Coolpix S50 will serve as a decent digital camera, given its relatively good printed results, but there are better cameras to slip into your pocket, ones that won't keep you waiting.