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Nikon Coolpix 4600 Digital Camera

Nikon 4600 Camera QuickLook
Review Date
5/26/2005
User Level
Novice - Amateur
Product Uses
Family / Travel
Digicam Design
Point and Shoot
Picture Quality
Very Good, 4.0-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
11x14s, or 8x10s with some cropping
Availability
Now
Suggested Retail Price
(At time of introduction)
$199.95



Introduction

Review Links
Overview
Specifications
Design
Recommended Accessories
Operation
Sample Pictures
Conclusion
The Nikon Coolpix 4600 is the latest in a long line of Coolpix digital cameras whose popularity stretches back to the original Coolpix 900, Nikon's first "breakthrough" digicam. From a feature standpoint, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 is similar to previous models such as the Coolpix 5200, with all automatic controls and an extremely small form factor. The 4600's 4.0 megapixel CCD captures high-resolution images, with a 3x optical zoom lens and wide range of preset Scene modes and unique "framing assist" options. The Nikon 4600 is super compact, very light weight, and is perfectly suited for shirt pockets. And with its excellent range of user-friendly, almost fail-proof point & shoot exposure modes, the Nikon 4600 can handle just about any shooting situation you care to throw at it.

Note: The Nikon Coolpix 4600 is virtually identical to the Nikon 5600, which we've also reviewed. About the only difference is the 5600's 5-megapixel CCD sensor, vs the 4600's 4-megapixel one. If you've read our review of the 5600 already, you can save yourself a lot of verbiage here by just skipping down to the Test Results section below, to see how the Nikon 4600 stacked up.

 

Nikon Coolpix 4600 Camera Overview

Super-tiny and compact, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 is easily among the smallest digital cameras currently on the market (as are its sister models the Coolpix 5600 and 7600). Not much larger than a credit card, the Coolpix 4600 is designed to fit nicely into shirt pockets and small purses, perfect for travelers. It's so tiny (weighing just 6.7 ounces or 189 grams with the battery and memory card loaded), I'd highly recommend keeping the included wrist strap securely around your wrist when shooting. The automatic lens cover makes it quick on the draw, and eliminates any worry about keeping track of a lens cap. The camera's matte silver body is fashionable, and features shiny silver highlights for a little glitz. Built into the Nikon 4600 is a 3x optical zoom lens and a 4.0-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images, a macro mode capable of focusing as close 1.6 inches, and no fewer than 16 preset shooting modes. Well-suited to novice photographers, the camera operates largely under automatic control, and its control layout and menu display are very user friendly.

The Nikon Coolpix 4600 features both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch color LCD monitor. Though the LCD monitor provides significantly more accurate framing, it also decreases battery life. You can turn it on or off via the Monitor option on the Setup menu. The camera's 3x, 5.7-17.1mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera, a moderate wide angle to medium telephoto) offers maximum apertures from f/2.9 to f/4.9, depending on the zoom setting. The camera uses contrast-detection autofocus in normal mode, which ranges from 1.0 feet (30 centimeters) to infinity. In Macro mode, the camera focuses as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters), and automatically switches to continuous AF mode, focusing constantly when the Shutter button is not half-pressed. (Note that closest focusing is possible only when the lens is set to a fairly narrow range of focal lengths towards the wide-angle end of its range. The zoom indicator that appears at the top of the LCD when zooming and the "tulip" macro icon both turn green when the zoom is set within the optimal range in Macro mode.) Turning on the camera triggers the shutter-like lens cover to open, and the lens to extend forward. In addition to its 3x optical zoom, the Coolpix 4600 offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer (equivalent to a 420mm lens on 35mm camera). As always though, keep in mind that the digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD, resulting in lower image quality. The 4.0-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for making sharp prints as large 11x14 inches, or as large as 8x10 inches with some cropping. The camera also offers lower-resolution images for sending via email or printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

In keeping with the tradition of the entry-level Coolpix line, the Nikon Coolpix 4600's exposure control is straightforward. Operating mainly under automatic control, the Nikon 4600's user interface is easy to learn. Most of the exposure options are controlled through the multi-page LCD menu system, although a handful of external controls access basic features. A Mode dial on the rear panel controls the operating mode, with four preset modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait), a Scene mode for selecting from among a range of 12 other specific shooting situations, an Auto setting, and Movie and Setup modes. The Framing Assist modes are optional in Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait modes, each offering a range of framing scenarios. For example, under Portrait mode, you can set up the framing for a centered single subject, a single subject off to the right or left, a close-up portrait, two subjects positioned side-by-side, and a figure shot with the camera held in portrait (tall) rather than landscape (wide) orientation. Once a specific setup is chosen, light yellow subject outlines (more bold than on some recent Coolpix models) appear in the LCD monitor to help you line up the shot for the best focus and exposure. Sports mode offers enhanced options for capturing fast-paced action, such as a rapid fire mode that captures 16 tiny images in two seconds that form a single 4x4 image mosaic.

The Scene position of the Mode dial provides access to 12 preset "scenes," which optimize the camera for what would normally be more difficult shooting situations. Available Scenes are Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Panorama Assist, Back Light, and Underwater. Each scene mode sets multiple camera options (shutter and aperture settings, white balance, ISO light sensitivity, etc) to configure it for the specific type of subject and shooting condition chosen. These tools make the Nikon 4600 extremely flexible in a variety of conditions, providing almost worry-free operation even for inexperienced users.

Depending on the exposure mode, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 offers a moderate range of exposure options. Though no mode allows the user to control the aperture or shutter speed directly, the exposure compensation adjustment can be set in Auto mode to deal with subjects that are light or dark overall, which tend to fool automatic exposure systems. The Exposure Compensation adjustment optionally increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. It isn't reported on the LCD display, but the Coolpix 4600's shutter speeds range from 1/3,000 to four seconds. A White Balance adjustment offers five preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. (The Custom setting is less common on entry-level digital cameras, but extremely handy when dealing with difficult light sources. Just point the camera at a white object and use the "PRE" white balance option to tell the camera what "white" looks like under your lighting. The result will be beautiful, natural color, even under lighting that would normally give the camera fits.)

The Nikon Coolpix 4600 uses a 256-Segment Matrix metering system to determine exposure, evaluating the contrast and brightness across the frame to determine the best exposure. ISO light sensitivity is rated at 50 during normal shooting, but the Nikon 4600 automatically raises it when conditions require it. (The ISO equivalence also is not reported on the LCD monitor, though "ISO" appears when the camera raises the sensitivity.) You can also access Nikon's Best Shot Selector mode, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series shot while the Shutter button was held down. (The Best Shot Selector feature is one of my all-time favorite digital camera features, as it makes it possible to hand hold even very long exposures by playing the odds that during one of those moments you're going to be still enough to get a sharp image.)

The Nikon Coolpix 4600's built-in flash is rated as effective to approximately one to 10.8 feet (0.3 to 3.3 meters) depending on the lens zoom setting. In our own testing, we found that subjects as far away as 12-14 feet were acceptably bright, but the 4600 "cheats" a little bit to get that range, boosting its ISO and as a result producing rather noisy images at distances beyond 8 feet or so. The 4600's flash operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime (Fill) Flash, Flash Cancel, and Slow Sync (night) modes. An option in many modes, Slow Sync combines the flash with slower shutter speeds, letting more of the ambient light into the exposure, making for brighter, more natural-looking night shots. In some Assist and Scene modes though, the flash mode is automatically set for you. Portrait Assist, for example, defaults to Red-Eye Reduction mode but can be overridden, while in Night Portrait Assist the default Red-Eye Reduction cannot be overridden. Night Portrait Assist and the Scene modes Night Landscape and Dusk/Dawn also enable an automatic Noise Reduction feature to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposure. Flash is also not available in Sports or Landscape modes. While this panoply of default flash modes and constrained options may sound complicated, the net result is that the camera's scene modes let average users bring back good-looking photos from tricky shooting conditions, while enjoying point & shoot simplicity.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer mode, which provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and when the image is actually captured. A Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid series of images while the Shutter button is held down, with the actual number of images dependent on the size and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space. (The Nikon 4600 can capture up to 8 large/fine JPEG images in succession, one every 0.7 second, before having to wait for the memory card to catch up.) There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four within a full-sized image. The Coolpix 4600's Movie mode offers three options: TV Movie (640 x 480, 15frames/second, 7 minutes 23 seconds max on a 256MB card), Small size 320 (320 x 240 pixels, 15fps, 14:47 max on a 256MB card), and Smaller Size 160 (160 x 120, 15fps, 1:6:34 max on a 256MB card). The actual length of recording time depends only on the amount of available SD card space, as there is no arbitrary limit set by buffer capacity. The available recording time is displayed on the LCD monitor.

The Nikon Coolpix 4600 stores images on SD memory cards, but the standard retail package in the US includes no memory card. There is enough onboard memory, however, to hold up to five pictures at maximum image size and quality. Files saved to internal memory can be easily copied to an SD card, and vice versa. Given the camera's 2,288 x 1,712-pixel maximum image size, I recommend picking up at least a 128MB memory card so you don't miss any important shots. Images are saved in JPEG format, with three compression levels available. A CD-ROM loaded with Nikon's PictureProject software accompanies the camera, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon PictureProject provides organization and image editing tools for enhancing images. Also on the software CD is a suite from ArcSoft, including PanoramaMaker, PhotoBase, and VideoImpression. PanoramaMaker does exactly what it says, turning series of shots captured with the 4600's Panorama Assist mode into big panoramic images. PhotoBase is a photo organizing/printing/sharing program similar to Nikon's own PictureProject. VideoImpression lets you combined images and video clips into multimedia presentations, with overlaid music or other soundtrack.

The Nikon 4600 comes with two AA alkaline batteries, but I highly recommend picking up a set of rechargeable batteries and a charger. Read my NiMH battery shootout page to see which batteries currently on the market are the best, and see my review of the Maha C-204W NiMH battery charger, my current favorite. The optional AC adapter uses a "dummy battery" that slides into the battery compartment. This could be useful for offloading pictures after a long day of shooting, but really shouldn't be necessary for the vast majority of users. Also included with the Coolpix 4600 is a video cable for connecting to a television set for slide shows, and a USB cable for downloading images to a computer.

Basic Features

  • 4.0-megapixel (effective) CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,288 x 1,712 pixels.
  • 1.8-inch color LCD display.
  • Real-image optical viewfinder.
  • 3x, 5.7-17.1mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Maximum aperture f/2.9-f/4.9, depending on lens zoom position.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/3,000 to four seconds.
  • 4x Digital zoom.
  • Automatic exposure control.
  • Built-in flash with five modes.
  • Built-in mic and speaker for including sound in videos and playback from the camera.
  • 14MB internal memory.
  • SD memory card storage.
  • Power supplied by two AA type batteries, or optional AC adapter.
  • Nikon Picture Project and ArcSoft software suite for both Mac and Windows.

 

Special Features

  • Frame assist modes offer bias toward off-center AF points.
  • QuickTime movies (without sound).
  • Continuous Shooting and Multi-Shot 16 modes.
  • Twelve preset Scene modes, plus four Scene Assist modes.
  • Red-Eye Fix automatic red-eye correction.
  • 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.
  • PictBridge compatibility.
  • USB cable for quick connection to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.

 

Recommendation
As one of the smallest Coolpix models in the line (and one of the smaller digicams on the market), the Nikon 4600 combines a fine Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens, a 4.0-megapixel CCD, and a range of automatic, preset shooting modes in a very consumer-friendly digicam. Automatic exposure control lets the camera take charge of all the picky details, although a handful of exposure options provides some measure of creative control. With its diminutive dimensions, the Coolpix 4600 is great for travel, and the range of preset shooting and framing modes anticipates most common shooting conditions. The 2,592 x 2,944-pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making sharp 11x17-inch photographic prints (or sharp 8x10 prints with fairly heavy cropping), while the 640 x 480-pixel resolution setting is perfect for sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Perfect for novice users or anyone looking for a point-and-shoot camera with a slick look, great ease of use, and sharp, colorful photos, the Coolpix 4600 could also serve as a great take-anywhere snapshot camera for more advanced shooters.

 

Design

Slim, trim, and super-tiny, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 is among the smaller Coolpix models available (it's not much taller than a credit card). Though the camera body has a few protrusions, they're slight enough to avoid catching on pockets, especially when combined with the smooth contours that define the camera. Though the camera actually fit my hand surprisingly well given its tiny dimensions, I highly recommend making use of the included wrist strap. The Nikon 4600's matte-silver body glimmers with shiny silver highlights for a fun look. High quality Nikkor optics and a 4.0-megapixel CCD give the Coolpix 4600 great image quality, and a broad selection of Scene Assist modes makes operation a breeze, even for novice users. The Coolpix 4600 measures 3.3 x 2.4 x 1.3 inches (85 x 60 x 35 millimeters), and weighs 6.8 ounces (192 grams) with the battery and memory card.

The camera's front panel contains the 3x zoom lens, built-in flash, optical viewfinder window, and the self-timer lamp that ticks off the seconds as the self-timer counts down. A shutter-like lens cover protects the lens when not in use, and automatically slides out of the way when the camera is powered on (eliminating the hassle of keeping track of a lens cap). When powered on, the lens telescopes out into its operating position. A slight bulge beneath the Shutter button (courtesy of the battery compartment) comfortably aligns your fingers as they wrap around the camera, with a sharper ridge just beyond it to act as a grip, catching your fingers.

On the right side of the camera is the Secure Digital (SD) memory card compartment and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. The hinged SD card compartment door opens with a pull toward the back of the camera, and opens wide enough to grasp the card. The card releases with an initial inward press. Also visible from this side is the tiny plastic door that slides up out of the way to make room for the cord when using the optional AC adapter pack.

On the opposite side of the camera is the connector compartment, protected by a rubbery cover that remains attached to the camera. Inside is the Video Out / USB jack. Just above the compartment are seven holes for the camera's speaker.

The Shutter button, Power button, and power LED are on the top panel. The three holes that are for the microphone on the Coolpix 5600 are without purpose on the 4600, due to its lack of audio recording capability.

The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 1.8-inch, TFT color LCD monitor and optical viewfinder. Two LEDs next to the optical viewfinder light or flash to indicate camera status, such as when focus is set, the flash is charging, or the camera is accessing the memory card. To the right of the optical viewfinder is the Mode dial, which sets the main operating mode. A Zoom rocker button is just to the right of that, and controls optical and digital zoom, as well as some Playback viewing options. In the center of the back panel is a five-way disk-shaped controller, which accesses Flash, Macro, and Self-Timer options, in addition to navigating menu screens. The nav disk has a separate button in the middle for accepting selections, a solution that is easier than trying to press in the entire disk as we've seen on other cameras. This button can also be pressed to initiate picture transfer when the camera is connected to a computer that has the Nikon software loaded onto it. Just below the nav disk are the Playback and Erase buttons, and the Menu button is just above it.

The Nikon Coolpix 4600 has a flat bottom panel. The battery compartment door and plastic tripod mount line up side-by-side, making quick battery changes while mounted to a tripod impossible. This won't likely be a problem for most Nikon 4600 users, though, given the point-and-shoot orientation of the camera. A hinged, plastic door covers the battery compartment, releasing with a slide to the front. The batteries fall free when the door is opened, so keep a hand ready.

 

Camera Operation

Despite the Nikon Coolpix 4600's limited exposure control, the camera offers a nice selection of external control buttons, making for a very easy-to-navigate user interface. Flash mode, Self-Timer mode, Macro mode, zoom, record mode, and an Erase function are all accessible via external controls. The Mode dial on the rear panel selects the main operating mode, and a multi-directional Arrow pad navigates through on-screen menus, in addition to accessing camera features directly. The LCD menu system is fairly short, with user-friendly icons in the Scene Assist modes. Operating this camera is so straightforward I doubt you'll need the manual for much more than reference, although it's definitely worth reading about how to use the Best Shot Selector function for low-light photos, and learning to use the Preset White Balance option. These are both features that many users miss or gloss over, and they can make a big difference in the quality of your shots. Advanced features aside though, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get the basics and be shooting pictures.

Record Mode LCD Display: In Record mode, the Coolpix 4600's LCD reports limited status information, including camera modes, the resolution/quality setting, number of available images, etc. Half-pressing the Shutter button displays a green circle when focus is achieved (if focus is not achieved, the dot shows red). The camera doesn't show aperture or shutter speed information as some do. It does tell you when it thinks the image might become blurred by camera shake when it's forced to use a slow shutter speed. The display mode can be changed from the Setup Menu, letting you choose between a viewfinder display of the subject by itself, with overlaid status information, or disabling the LCD viewfinder altogether.


Playback Mode LCD Display: In Playback mode, the LCD reports the image series number, resolution/quality setting, file name and folder it's stored in on the memory card, and the date and time of image capture. It also displays an icon if the image is one that's been selected for quick download with Nikon's host software, as well as an icon indicating that you can record an audio note to accompany the image. The information overlay can be disabled via the Setup menu Monitor option, the same as in record mode. Pressing the zoom lever toward the wide-angle end zooms out to a four-image thumbnail view of photos stored on the card. Pressing it in the wide-angle direction a second time shows a nine-image thumbnail display. Pressing the zoom control in the telephoto direction zooms in as much as 10x on the subject, handy for checking image details and focus.

External Controls


Shutter Button
: Sitting forward on the camera's top panel, the Shutter button sets the camera's exposure when halfway pressed, and releases the shutter when fully pressed. In Playback mode, pressing this button lets you record a short sound clip to accompany the captured image.


Power Switch
: Behind and to the left of the Shutter button, the power switch turns the camera on and off with a push.


Mode Dial
: Next to the optical viewfinder on the rear panel, this ribbed dial selects the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Setup, Movie, Auto, Scene, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and Night Portrait.


Zoom (W and T) Rocker Button
: Located in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, this two-way rocker button controls the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any record mode. In Playback mode, the "W" button activates the index image display mode, while the "T" button controls digital enlargement of the captured image.


Menu Button
: Below the Mode dial, this button displays the settings menu in any camera mode. It also dismisses the menu display.


Multi-Directional Five-Way Navigator (Flash, Self-Timer, Exposure Compensation, and Macro Buttons)
: Just right of the LCD, this button features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. In any settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections, and the center button selects.

In Record mode, the arrow keys control specific exposure features. The up arrow controls the camera's flash mode, producing a popup menu of options (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime Flash, and Flash Cancel). The left arrow activates the camera's Self-Timer mode, while the bottom arrow activates the Macro focus mode. All of these settings are confirmed by pressing the central button once the selection has been made.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images.

When connected to a computer with Nikon's software loaded, pressing the center button triggers a "one touch" upload of selected images to the computer.


Playback Button
: Below and to the left of the Multi-Directional button, this button accesses the camera's Playback mode. A second press returns to record mode.


Erase Button
: Directly right of the Playback button, this button pulls up the Erase menu while in Playback or Record mode.

 

Camera Modes and Menus

Auto Record Mode: Activated by turning the Mode dial to the Auto position (green camera icon), this mode places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, as well as most other exposure features. Pressing the Menu button displays a limited Shooting menu.

  • Image Mode: Sets the image resolution and compression. Choices are 4M High (2,288 x 1,712 pixels), 4M Normal (2,288 x 1,712 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC Screen (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).
  • White Balance: Chooses from Auto White Balance, PRE for custom presetting of white balance, Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Speedlight.
  • Exposure Compensation: Adjusts the exposure from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3-step increments.
  • Continuous: Chooses from Single, Continuous, and Multi-Shot 16 capture modes.
  • BSS: Best Shot Selector shoots up to 10 shots and picks the one with the best focus. Flash is automatically turned off in this mode, since it is intended for capture of photos in low light, using just the natural light that is present.
  • Color Options: Sets the color mode to Standard, Vivid, Black and White, Sepia, or Cyanotype.

Movie Mode: This mode is denoted by a movie camera icon on the Mode dial. Movie mode captures moving images at 30 frames per second for as long as the memory card has available space. No audio is recorded. Pressing the Menu button pulls up the following options:

  • Movie Options: Sets the movie resolution. Choices are TV Movie (640 x 480 pixels), Small size (320 x 240 pixels), and Smaller size (160 x 120).
  • Auto Focus Mode: Selects Continuous AF (camera is always focusing--this setting uses more battery and makes some audible repetitive sounds - this is normal) or Single AF (focuses only when shutter button is pressed).

Scene Exposure Mode: The word "Scene" indicates this mode on the Mode dial. Twelve preset scene modes are available, by pressing the Menu button:

  • Party/Indoor: Use to capture background details in situations that require flash. Also good for preserving the look of candlelight or other indoor lighting.
  • Beach/Snow: Boosts the exposure to compensate for subjects that are very bright overall.
  • Sunset: Preserves the deep colors of sunsets and sunrises. (Likely sets white balance to "daylight" rather than auto, and dials in some negative exposure compensation to get a good exposure on the sky.)
  • Dusk/Dawn: Preserves the colors seen in weak natural light seen before dawn or after sunset. The flash is disabled, noise reduction is automatically enabled at slow shutter speeds, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Night Landscape: Combines longer exposures with the "Landscape" mode. Focus is fixed at infinity, and the flash is disabled in this mode. Noise reduction is enabled for long exposures, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Close Up: Adjusts the lens for close-focusing on small objects, apparently also increases color saturation slightly. Autofocus operates continuously until you half-press the shutter button, helpful in focusing on very close subjects. AF-area mode is set to "manual", so you can select what part of the frame you want to focus on by pressing the center button of the multi-controller and moving the focus cursor around the image with the arrow keys. Press the center button again to save the new AF area selection.
  • Museum: Enables longer exposure times and higher sensitivity, for indoor situations where you can't use flash. Automatically turns on the Best Shot Selector to help get a sharp image. The autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Fireworks Show: Sets a long exposure and small aperture so you can catch the colored trails of fireworks. Exposure compensation is disabled, and the autofocus-assist illuminator is disabled, even in dim lighting.
  • Copy: Sets the color mode to black and white, boosts contrast, and adjusts exposure to produce sharp images of black text (or line drawings) on white backgrounds.
  • Backlight: For difficult lighting conditions, when the main light is behind your subject, casting their features into shadow. The flash is set to fire even in bright conditions, to throw light onto the shadowed subject.
  • Panorama Assist: Lets you capture a series of images to be stitched together later on a computer as one panoramic image. Flash, macro, and zoom setting are all fixed at their values for the first shot in the series. Likewise, exposure and white balance values are determined by the first shot in the series, to help avoid visible boundaries between the component images in the final panorama, after they've been stitched together. After each shot, a ghostly copy of roughly 1/3 of it remains on-screen, as an aid to aligning the next shot in the series. You can change the direction of the sequence (left, right, up, or down) via the arrow keys on the multi-controller. The ArcSoft PanoramaMaker software included with the 4600 can be used to stitch series of images like these into large panoramic photos.
  • Underwater: For use with the marine housing accessory, this mode optimizes images taken underwater.
  • Image Mode: Sets the image resolution and compression. Choices are 4M High (2,288 x 1,712 pixels), 4M Normal (2,288 x 1,712 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC Screen (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).

Portrait Assist Mode: Labeled on the Mode dial with a woman in a hat, this mode is best for portraits, and is the first of the camera's "Assist" modes. In Portrait mode, the camera uses a larger lens aperture to decrease the depth of field, producing a sharply focused subject in front of a slightly blurred background. Pressing the Menu button calls up the Scene Assistance menu, which lets you choose from a range of portrait setups, including basic Portrait, Portrait Left, Portrait Right, Portrait Close-up, Portrait Couple, and Portrait Figure. In each of these modes (except basic Portrait), an outline appears on the LCD display to help you align the subject, and the camera adjusts its exposure and focus settings to match the indicated framing.

Landscape Assist Mode: A mountain scene distinguishes Landscape mode on the Mode dial. Here, the camera employs a smaller aperture setting to produce sharp detail in both foreground and background objects. As with Portrait mode, the Scene Assistance menu offers a handful of options (accessed as in Portrait mode). Framing options are Landscape (no guidelines), Scenic View (mountain outline), Architecture (grid), Group Right (outlines of people with lines for buildings in the background), and Group Left (also outlines of people with building and horizon lines).

Sports Assist Mode: A figure in action is the icon for Sports mode, which uses faster shutter speeds to freeze action. The Menu button accesses the Scene Assistance menu, with options for Sports, Sport Spectator, and Sport Composite modes. Sport Spectator enables the user to instantly press down on the Shutter button without pausing halfway to focus, and works best with unpredictable subjects within a range of 9.8 feet (3.0 meters). Sport Composite mode takes 16 images in two seconds, each time the Shutter button is pressed, and arranges them in a four-by-four array, much like Multi-Shot 16 mode.

Night Portrait Assist Mode: Indicated by an icon of a person in front of a star, this mode is for twilight and dusk portraits. The flash is automatically set to Auto Red-Eye Reduction mode, a slower shutter speed is used, to allow more ambient light in to balance color and shadows. The camera's ISO setting automatically adjusts as high as ISO 200, depending on the light level (not reported on the LCD screen). And Noise Reduction is turned on. The Scene Assistance menu offers the same framing outlines as in Portrait mode, minus the Portrait Figure option.


Playback Mode: Pressing the Playback button on the camera's back panel instantly enters Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images and movies, erase, enlarge, copy, and protect images, and also set them up for printing. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:

  • Print Set: Sets the DPOF settings for captured images. The "Print Selected" option pulls up an index display, letting you mark individual images for printing. Once images are marked, you can establish whether any text is overlaid on the image (such as image information or the date and time). You can also cancel print settings here with the "Delete Print Set" button.
  • Slide Show: Automates a slide show of all still images on the memory card with three seconds between shots. You can also enable a looped playback that will play for 30 minutes before the camera goes into standby mode.
  • Delete: Erases selected images from the memory card, or all images (except for write-protected ones).
  • Protect: Write-protects individual images from accidental erasure or manipulation. An special display of the images on the card appears, with a three image filmstrip across the top and a larger image preview on the bottom, which you scroll through and select images to be "locked." Protected images are only deleted through card formatting.
  • Transfer Marking: Marks all images or allows user to select specific images for auto transfer instantly when connected to a computer.
  • Small Picture: Creates a lower resolution version of an image with this tool, choosing from 640 x 480, 320 x 240, or 160 x 120. Great for pictures you know you'll want to email.
  • Copy: Quickly copy images from internal to external memory or vise versa. Great for images you want to bring along or keep in memory for the startup screen.


Setup Mode: The following Setup menu automatically appears whenever the Mode dial is turned to the "Setup" position:

  • Welcome Screen: Chooses the welcome screen that appears at startup, either none, static, or animated, or lets you designate a previously-shot image as the welcome screen.
  • Date: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar. A Time Zone option lets you set the time for another city.
  • Monitor Settings:
    • Photo info: Sets the monitor to Show info, Hide info, or Monitor off.
    • Brightness: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD display.
  • Date imprint: Includes the date, or date and time as part of the image.
  • Sound settings: Can turn on or off the button sound, select or turn off the shutter sound, and turn on or off the startup sound, as well as control the volume.
  • Blur Warning: Turns the camera's Blur Warning on and off. (If off, the "camera shake" shaking-hand icon will not appear on the LCD monitor.)
  • Auto Off: Enables the Auto Off feature, which automatically shuts down the camera after a period of inactivity, to save battery life. Times are 30 seconds, or 1, 5, or 30 minutes. Sleep mode will put the camera in standby mode after 30 seconds regardless of auto off setting if no change in scene brightness occurs; a press on the power button returns the camera to full readiness.
  • Format Memory / Card: Formats the SD card or internal memory, erasing all files (even protected ones).
  • Language: Changes the menu language to German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, or Korean.
  • Interface:
    • USB: Sets the USB protocol to Mass Storage or PTP. The PTP option is best for Windows XP and Mac OS X systems (unless you want to mount the camera on the desktop), while Mass Storage is best for older operating systems. Mass storage makes the camera appear as a hard drive to the operating system when plugged in via the USB cable, while PTP mode enables some automatic operating system features for importing digital camera photos. PTP mode is also used for direct-from-camera printing to PictBridge-compatible printers.
    • Video Mode: Sets the video output to NTSC or PAL timing.
  • Auto Transfer: Turns the Auto Transfer feature on and off.
  • Reset All: Resets all camera settings to their defaults.
  • Battery Type: Lets you designate what type of battery is in use, either Alkaline, Coolpix NiMH, or Lithium.
  • Menus: Sets the menu display mode to Text or Icons.
  • Firmware version: Reports version number of firmware (the operating software) running on device.

 

Specifications

See camera specifications here.

 

Picky Details

Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.

 

In the Box

The Coolpix 4600 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Coolpix 4600 digital camera.
  • Wrist strap.
  • Video cable.
  • USB cable.
  • Two AA alkaline batteries.
  • CD-ROM loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and drivers.
  • Quick Start Guide.
  • Instruction manuals and registration kit.

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 128 - 256 MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)
  • Rechargeable batteries and charger.
  • AC Adapter.
  • Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection.

 

Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 

Sample Pictures

See the full set of my sample pictures and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of my test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

"Sunlit"
Indoor Flash
Indoor
 

 

 

House
Musicians
Macro
 

 

 

Davebox
Resolution
Viewfinder Accuracy

 

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For full details on each of the test images, see the Nikon Coolpix 4600's "pictures" page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon Coolpix 4600 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

  • Color: Appealing color, but bright colors are quite oversaturated. The Nikon Coolpix 4600 tended toward slightly warm color casts, but the bias is slight enough that most users probably won't notice it. Like most consumer cameras (and its higher-resolution sibling the Coolpix 5600 in particular), the Nikon 4600 tends to oversaturate bright colors, but more so than most. Fortunately though, it only seems to do this with colors that are rather bright to begin with, so more subtle colors like skin tones end up looking about right. Also, while it oversaturates the bright colors, it does at least get the hue correct, so the images look accurate, just more vibrant than you might recall the original being. The camera's Manual white balance setting typically did the best job, and handled the difficult household incandescent lighting of my "Indoor Portrait" test very well, but the auto setting produced an image that, while more reddish than I'd personally prefer, would probably be acceptable to many users. While not strictly accurate, I think that most consumers will find the Coolpix 4600's color quite pleasing.

  • Exposure: Generally accurate exposure, but high contrast. The Coolpix 4600 handled my test lighting well, though the camera produced rather high contrast under the deliberately harsh lighting of the "Sunlit" Portrait and the outdoor house shot (as well as in some of the studio shots). Dynamic range was a little limited, with some detail lost in both highlights and shadows, and slightly dark midtones. Indoors, the camera also required roughly average positive exposure compensation, but the standard flash exposure was a bit dim. (Note too, that like many compact consumer cameras, the 4600 "cheats" a little on its flash exposures, boosting the ISO at longer ranges. This makes for rather noisy flash images of subjects more than about 8 feet from the camera.)

  • Resolution/Sharpness: Good resolution, 1,100 - 1,150 lines of "strong detail." The Coolpix 4600 performed about average on the "laboratory" resolution test chart with its 4.0-megapixel CCD. It didn't start showing artifacts in the test patterns until resolutions as low as 700, maybe 800, lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,100 lines/picture height vertically, 1,150 lines horizontally. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 1,350 lines.

  • Image Noise: Low image noise in good lighting, really only becomes a problem with flash exposures at long range. While some image noise is present even in daylight shots, it's only visible if you make a point of looking for it, scrutinizing the blue channel with Photoshop or another imaging program. Even night shots showed less noise than I'd have expected. The one place where noise did appear though, was in flash exposures at subject distances of more than 8 feet or so. Like many compact digital cameras, the Nikon 4600 "cheats" a little to get better range from its flash system, boosting ISO on the sly at subject distances of more than 7-8 feet. This results in rather high noise levels in shots captured at distances of more than 8-9 feet. Other than this particular situation though, the Coolpix 4600's image noise levels are quite good.

  • Closeups: A small macro area with good detail. Flash throttles down well, but with a small shadow from the lens. True to Nikon form, the Coolpix 4600 captured a very small macro area, measuring 1.69 x 1.27 inches (43 x 32 millimeters). Resolution was high with a lot of fine detail and good definition. The 4600's flash throttled down well for the macro area, but the lens created a small shadow in the lower left corner. (Use external lighting for your very closest shots, but ones at slightly greater distances should be fine with the onboard flash.)

  • Night Shots: Limited low-light performance, sensitive enough for average city street lighting, but nothing darker Very limited low-light autofocus capability. The Coolpix 4600 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux) light level. Noise was moderate and color balance slightly warm. The biggest limitation of the Nikon 4600 was its autofocus system, which was only able to focus down to a bit over one foot-candle. Since city street-lighting at night generally corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, the Coolpix 4600 should handle bright city lighting well (although its autofocus may be a little marginal), but you'll need the flash for anything darker.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: An accurate LCD monitor, but tight optical viewfinder. The Coolpix 4600's LCD monitor proved very accurate, showing about 97 percent of the frame at wide angle, and about 99 percent at telephoto. The optical viewfinder, however, was rather tight, showing only 82 percent accuracy at wide angle and 88 percent at telephoto.

  • Optical Distortion: Very high barrel distortion at wide angle, though almost no distortion at telephoto. Moderate to high chromatic aberration, slightly soft corners (but better than average). Barrel distortion was quite high, as I measured approximately 1.4 percent barrel distortion at the wide angle end. The telephoto end fared much better, as I measured approximately 0.08 percent barrel distortion. Chromatic aberration was high at wide angle, moderate at telephoto. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) The corners of the Nikon 4600's images were a little soft, but on the whole better than average in that regard.

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Times: Faster than average shutter response, average shot to shot cycle times, *very* slow flash recycling. In full-autofocus mode, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 responds to the shutter a bit more quickly than most competing cameras, with typical shutter delays ranging from 0.58 - 0.60 second. When you "prefocus" it by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself, the shutter delay drops to an amazing 0.078 second. Cycle times are about average, at roughly 1.9 seconds/frame, and continuous-mode speed is pretty good for an entry-level camera, at 1.49 frames/second. The big limitation is its flash recharge time, taking about 12 seconds to get ready for the next shot after a full-power flash pulse. (This is longer than it sounds, the flash recharge seems interminable when you're waiting to take the next shot of your subject.)

  • Battery Life: Good battery life for a camera running from two AA cells. The Nikon Coolpix 4600 uses two AA batteries for power, but its lack of a standard external power terminal prevented me from conducting my standard power measurements. It does seem to have pretty good battery life, particularly if you run it from high-capacity rechargeable NiMH cells. Not being able to measure the battery life directly, we have to rely upon Nikon's stated battery life specs, based on the CIPA standard. Under CIPA conditions (zoom adjusted on each shot, flash used in approximately 1/2 of the shots), Nikon reports battery life as 230 shots with alkaline batteries, 360 shots with their own EN-MH1 NiMH batteries, or 630 frames with lithium cells. Although we don't know what capacity Nikon's NiMH cells have, 360 shots per charge is a very respectable number. As always though, I strongly recommend picking up a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH cells and a good-quality NiMH battery charger. (Don't skimp on the charger, a poor one won't give you the maximum capacity your batteries are capable of, could even shorten battery life considerably.)

  • Print Quality: Soft but probably acceptable 11x14 inch prints, decent at 8x10. Flash photos at more than 8 feet quite soft and noisy at any size above 4x6. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) The Nikon Coolpix 4600's prints were on the soft side at 11x14 inches (but probably still suitable for wall display), but should be acceptable for most users at 8x10. Shots taken under low light conditions and flash shots at ranges greater than about 9 feet or so looked rough even at 5x7 inches, were marginal at 4x6.

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • High saturation on bright colors, but good handling of skin tones. Pleasing color overall
  • Excellent macro capability, flash works well up close too
  • Manual white balance option handles a very wide range of lighting conditions
  • Better than average shutter lag
  • Rich assortment of scene modes and unique "Framing Assist" makes camera easier than most for novice users
  • Unique D-Lighting and Best Shot Selector functions can make big improvements in your photos
  • Better than average battery life
  • Limited low-light exposure capability
  • Poor low-light autofocus performance, no AF-assist lamp
  • Auto white balance leaves too much color cast in shots under household incandescent lighting
  • Ships with only 14MB internal memory, definitely need to buy a large SD memory card
  • Camera "cheats" by boosting ISO on flash shots, increasing noise. Usable flash range only about 8 feet as a result.
  • Highly saturated handling of bright colors may be too bright for some users
  • So-so "VGA" movie mode, interlacing reduces image quality
  • Audio recording has been omitted
  • Flash recharges very slowly
  • Body has a slightly cheap, "plasticky" fee

 

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Nikon's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, appreciated for their image quality and ease of use. The Coolpix 4600 continues that trend, offering a 4.0-megapixel CCD and nice range of preset scene modes. The Nikon Coolpix 4600 would be a good choice for anyone who wants an easy to use camera that delivers good-looking pictures with pleasing color and plenty of resolution. For those willing to delve just slightly deeper than "just pushing the button," its extensive scene modes and unique framing-assist options greatly extend the camera's capabilities, making it easy to bring back good-looking shots of what might otherwise be difficult subjects. All in all, a good choice for the point & shoot user looking for an easy to use, compact digicam with a surprising range of capabilities. I would liked to have seen much better low-light focusing and exposure capability, less-noisy flash shots at distances greater than 8 feet, and less color left in images shot under incandescent lighting, but the bottom line is that I think a lot of consumers will be very pleased by the Coolpix 4600's photos, and it clearly goes the extra mile with its scene modes and framing assist options to help novice users bring home good-looking photos. The Nikon 4600's "big brother" the Coolpix 5600 just missed being named as a "Dave's Pick," as I felt that the 5900 was a much better deal for a 5-megapixel camera, at only ~$50 more. With street prices well under $200 though, the Coolpix 4600 is such a bargain considering all its features, that I can forgive its low-light limitations and award it Dave's Pick status. If you're looking for a very functional, easy-to-use little camera at a real bargain price, the Nikon Coolpix 4600 could be for you.


 

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