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Nikon Coolpix SQ Digital Camera

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Review Date
04/09/03
Update Date 04/22/03
User Level
Novice - Amateur
Product Uses
Family / Travel
Digicam Design
Point and Shoot
Picture Quality
Very good, 3.1-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes
4x6, 5x7, 8x10
Availability
Now
Suggested Retail Price
$499



NOTE: This review was written based on a late-model prototype camera. Nikon initially asked me not to share test photos from it. Subsequently though, they determined that the camera's images were indeed representative of those from final production models, and so told me it would be OK to show sample photos here. I'm just finishing shooting my standard set of test images with the SQ, so it'll be a bit longer until I can have them online. In the meantime, I didn't want to further delay posting this review, as I've had a number of queries from readers about this camera. (The test shots I've taken so far look pretty good, by the way. Not quite as sharp as other 3 megapixel Coolpix models I've tested, and a tad contrasty, but with good color, and excellent white balance flexibility, thanks to the manual white balance option.) Stand by for another week or so for a full set of my standardized test photos from the SQ.


Introduction

Review Links
Overview
Specifications
Design
Recommended Accessories
Operation
Test Images
Conclusion

As I've often said when introducing my reviews of Nikon cameras, Nikon truly needs no introduction. Their name has been identified with professional and high-end amateur photography for a good five decades now, and they've successfully translated that long history of expertise into the digital arena. Their 2.1-megapixel Coolpix 950 and 3.3-megapixel Coolpix 990 and 995 digicams led the popularity charts at the high end of the "prosumer" market segment since their respective introductions, and the models they announced in 2002 continued that tradition. The key has been excellent picture quality combined with an amazing range of features, all calculated to give the photographer maximum control over the picture-taking process.

Nikon's attention to the digital picture-taking needs of "ordinary" people inspired the incorporation in several models of "Scene" modes that set up the camera for specific picture-taking situations (such as "party," "beach," "fireworks," etc.). These special modes make it easy for novice you to get usable photos in tricky situations, without having to take an advanced course in photography first.

One of the newest members of the Coolpix line, the SQ (short for "square") represents a new direction in digital camera design. Shaped more like a portable MP3 player or mini-disc player, the SQ's square shape is super portable and compact, with a swiveling lens that's a throwback to previous Coolpix models. The SQ offers a 3.1-megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom, and 15 Scene modes.


Camera Overview
Stirring things up from a design aspect, Nikon has introduced the square but fashionable Coolpix SQ. Not much larger than a compact makeup case, the ingenious design includes Nikon's trademark swivel lens, which rotates approximately 225 degrees to face just about any viewing angle from front to back. (The SQ is somewhat reminiscent of Minolta's Dimage Xi, but with a somewhat thicker body, and of course the swiveling lens.) The SQ's sleek, silver body also features smooth contours that won't snag on pockets. Although quite small, the SQ offers a nice range of features, including no less than 15 preset Scene modes, a 3x optical zoom lens, and a 3.1-megapixel CCD for capturing high quality images. The SQ's point-and-shoot design has an uncomplicated user interface that's quick to learn.

For image composition, the Coolpix SQ features a 1.5-inch color LCD monitor, with approximately 117,600 pixels. While there's no optical viewfinder, the LCD on the SQ almost entirely avoids the visibility problems LCDs usually have in bright sunlight. - This is easily the most visible LCD I've yet used under full-sunlight conditions. A limited information display reports basic camera settings, such as mode, flash setting, and the number of images that can be stored in the remaining space available on the memory card. The camera's 3x, 5.6-16.8mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 37-111mm lens on a 35mm camera) offers maximum apertures from f/2.7 to f/4.8, depending on the zoom setting, and is made up of seven elements in six groups. The camera uses contrast-detection autofocus, and a bright green AF assist lamp next to the lens helps focus in low light. (I may have missed it, but it doesn't appear that you can disable the AF assist light for candid shooting, although the Night Landscape option does leave it turned off, since focus is fixed at infinity in that mode.) Normal focus ranges from 11.8 inches (30 centimeters) to infinity, with a Macro setting focusing as close as 1.6 inches (4.0 centimeters) at a middle zoom position. You can manually adjust the AF area to one of nine positions around the center of the frame, or let the camera choose from among the nine areas automatically. (There's also an option for Spot AF.) A Continuous AF mode adjusts focus constantly, without requiring you to press the Shutter button halfway. In addition to 3x optical zoom, the Coolpix SQ offers a maximum 4x digital zoom, which lets you "zoom" in even closer, although digital zoom simply enlarges the center pixels of the CCD and thus results in lower image quality. The 3.1-megapixel CCD produces high-resolution images, good enough for printing to 8x10 inches with good detail, as well as lower-resolution images for sending via email or for printing as 4x6-inch snapshots.

Like the rest of the Coolpix line, the SQ offers straightforward exposure control, with an uncomplicated LCD menu system and a handful of external controls. A Mode dial on top of the camera selects the operating mode from among Scene, Auto, Manual, Movie, and Setup options. In this case, Auto and Manual exposure modes refer to the number of exposure options available, since aperture and shutter speed are set by the camera in both modes. Scene mode offers 15 preset "scenes" for special situations. Available scenes are Portrait, Party/Indoor, Night Portrait, Sports, Beach/Snow, Landscape, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy (for capturing text), Back Light, and Panorama Assist. Most of the scenes are fairly self-explanatory, optimizing the camera for specific shooting situations. In addition to adjusting the aperture to capture sharply-focused subjects in front of slightly blurred backgrounds, Portrait mode also lets you move the autofocus and exposure brackets to one of the nine AF areas, depending on the placement of your subject. Panorama Assist mode captures a series of images, with an alignment screen that helps you line up successive shots in the LCD monitor. The series of images can later be "stitched" together on a computer with Nikon View or other image editing software.

Despite its point-and-shoot nature, the SQ has a nice range of exposure features. As noted, the Auto and Manual designations on the Mode dial refer to the amount of manual exposure control available, excluding aperture and shutter speed, but there are plenty of other controls available. Although not reported on the LCD display, the SQ's shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to two seconds. Exposure Compensation increases or decreases overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. A White Balance adjustment offers five preset modes, an Auto setting, and a Custom setting for manually determining the color balance. The Coolpix SQ uses a 256-Segment Matrix metering system to determine exposure, but also offers Spot and Center-Weighted options. Nikon included the Best Shot Selector mode as well, which automatically chooses the least blurry image in a series. The SQ's built-in flash is effective to approximately 16.4 feet (5.0 meters), and operates in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Anytime Flash, and Flash Cancel modes. In Night Portrait mode, a slower shutter speed is used in conjunction with the flash, much like a standard "slow-sync" flash mode on other digicams. Night Portrait mode also enables an automatic Noise Reduction feature to eliminate excess image noise resulting from the higher ISO sensitivity and longer exposures used in that mode.

Other camera features include a Self-Timer, which provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and 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 you've selected, as well as the amount of memory card space. There's also a Multi-Shot 16 mode, which captures 16 thumbnail images in sequence, arranged in rows of four in the final image. The SQ's Movie mode captures moving images with sound, at approximately 15 frames per second for a maximum of 40 seconds (320 x 240-pixel resolution). The actual length of recording time depends on the amount of available CompactFlash card space, and appears in the LCD monitor.

The Coolpix SQ stores images on CompactFlash (Type I) memory cards. (My evaluation unit did not come with a memory card, but I assume that Nikon will at least provide a 16MB memory card, based on previous Coolpix models.) Given the SQ's 2,016 x 1,512-pixel maximum resolution, I'd recommend picking up a large-capacity 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 View software accompanies the camera, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms (including Windows XP and Mac OS X). Nikon View provides minor image editing and organization tools. Packaged with the SQ is the Cool-Station camera dock, which connects to a computer via USB cable. Similar to docks that connect PDAs, the Cool-Station may remain connected to the computer like a card reader, so you can just drop the camera in the dock to download images. A Transfer button on the dock starts the download process. The camera dock charges the battery whenever the camera is plugged into it, and also has a slot in its side to let it charge a spare battery when the camera is in use. The camera comes with a single lithium-ion battery pack, as well as an AC adapter, which powers the Cool-Station charger, but which also can power the camera and charge its battery separately. Since the SQ doesn't accommodate AA-type batteries, I strongly recommend picking up an extra battery pack and keeping it freshly charged at all times. Also included with the Coolpix SQ is a video cable for connecting to a television set (NTSC and PAL video settings available through the camera's Setup menu).


Basic Features

  • 3.1-megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as high as 2,016 x 1,512 pixels.
  • 1.5-inch color LCD display. (With excellent visibility, even in full sun.)
  • 3x, 5.6-16.8mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 37-111mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Maximum aperture f/2.7-f/4.8, depending on lens zoom position.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to two seconds.
  • 4x digital zoom.
  • Automatic exposure control.
  • Built-in flash with four operating modes.
  • CompactFlash memory storage.
  • Power supplied by one lithium-ion battery pack or AC adapter (both included).
  • Nikon View software for both Mac and Windows.

Special Features

  • QuickTime movies (with sound).
  • Continuous Shooting and Multi-Shot 16 modes.
  • Continuous AF mode and adjustable AF area.
  • Built-in autofocus assist light for low-light focusing.
  • Fifteen preset Scene 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, Spot, and Center-Weighted metering modes.
  • Sensitivity equivalent to ISO 70.
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) compatibility.
  • Nikon Cool-Station camera dock and USB cable for connecting to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.


Recommendation
Small, sleek, and very compact, the new Coolpix SQ is a refreshing new digicam design. Its small size ensures you won't leave it behind, while the plentiful features provide flexible control. A Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens, 3.1-megapixel CCD, and the range of automatic and preset shooting modes are enough to handle most average shooting situations, plus a few difficult scenarios like nighttime light displays or bright beach exposures. The 2,016 x 1,512-pixel maximum resolution is high enough for making sharp 8x10-inch photographic prints, while lower resolution settings are perfect for conserving memory card space if you don't need large prints, or sending email attachments over the Internet. The uncomplicated user interface means you won't spend much time learning the camera. Plus, the included camera dock makes downloading images and recharging batteries a snap. With its point-and-shoot simplicity, the SQ is an excellent option for novices. However, its fashionable design may tempt more experienced pros looking for a fun snapshot camera. The high-end all-metal body with swivel lens and included "Cool Dock" make it relatively expensive for a 3 megapixel model, but if your budget will accommodate it, it's a very appealing little camera.


Design
Breaking away from most standard digicam designs, the Coolpix SQ's square body resembles an MP3 player more than a camera. Despite the square, compact size, Nikon managed to retain the popular swiveling lens design, making the camera more flexible for shooting at odd angles. The lens rotates approximate 225 degrees, facing down in the front and rotating all the way to face behind the camera (a unique self-portrait tool cleverly remaps the image in the LCD so it isn't blocked by the lens housing as it swings in front of half the screen). The two-tone silver body is sleek and attractive, easily earning the "cool" of the Coolpix name. Although tiny, the SQ actually fit my hand quite well, with no sense of my fingers being cramped when accessing the controls. I also found that I could operate the camera fairly well one-handed. A spring-like wrist strap comes with the camera, which I'd recommend keeping securely fastened given the lack of handgrip. Measuring just 3.2 x 3.2 x 1.0 inches (82 x 82 x 25.5 millimeters), the SQ should fit into most average pockets and small purses. (It's literally not much bigger than a makeup compact.) The SQ is also lightweight, at just 6.3 ounces (180 grams) without memory card or battery.

 

 

Given both cameras' square body shape, it's natural that many people will compare the Coolpix SQ with Minolta's Dimage Xi model. There is indeed quite a similarity between the two designs, although the SQ is about 30% larger, and has the swivel lens. Features are somewhat of a toss up: The SQ has a rich array of scene modes, the unique swivel lens, and the best LCD I've yet seen on a digicam, while the Xi offers more manual control of exposure parameters, and fits pockets a bit better.

The rear views above show the SQ with its lens stowed, and with its lens open, to give you an idea of how the lens swivel works.

With the lens stowed, the SQ's front panel features only the Nikon and Coolpix logos. The slightly curved edge of the panel and the inset logo square make up the only finger grip on the camera, although I found that it worked fairly well, providing purchase for the fingernail of my middle finger. (Surprisingly, not as precarious as it sounds.) Twisting the lens forward, you can also see the flash and AF assist lamp. A small lens cap protects the lens when not in use, and tethers to the camera body to prevent it from being accidentally lost. (The wrist strap actually has a loop at each end, one for attaching to the camera and the other for the lens cap.) A clear plastic, non removable shield also protects the actual lens surface from fingerprints and smudges.

The right side of the SQ holds the memory card and battery compartment, as well as the connector jack compartment. The battery compartment door opens by sliding out toward the back of the camera before popping open. (The little arrow in the center of the door looks like a lock button, but actually isn't: The door uses just a snap-latch action.) Inside the compartment, the battery and CompactFlash slots line up side by side. A flexible, slightly resilient flap protects the A/V Out and DC In connector jacks just above the battery compartment.

The opposite side of the camera is featureless, with just a small ridge decorating the side of the lens barrel.

The Shutter button, Mode dial, tiny microphone, and Power switch are the only features on the SQ's top panel when the lens is facing forward. (This shot shows the lens stowed, so you can also see lens, flash, and AF illuminator windows.)

The remaining external controls are all located on the camera's rear panel, along with the 1.5-inch, TFT color LCD monitor. Above the LCD monitor are the Playback and Zoom buttons, as well as a small Flash LED that lights to indicate the status of the flash. In the center right of the rear panel is a multidirectional controller. Lining the bottom of the LCD monitor are the Macro/Self-Timer, Exposure Compensation/Flash, and Menu buttons, with the camera's speaker in the lower right corner.

The SQ's bottom panel is ridged with small protrusions which serve as feet to stand the camera upright with the lens in any position. It also features the tripod mount, Cool-Station connection terminal, and an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap. I was pleased to see side access to both the memory card and battery, making it quick and easy to change out both without dismounting the camera from a tripod.

The Cool-Station camera dock connects to a computer via a USB port on the rear. The cradle fits the SQ snugly, and a Transfer button on the front side enables instant image downloading. A battery slot on the side panel lets you charge an additional battery pack whose charging status is indicated by a small LED on the front.

 

 

 

Camera Operation
Although the SQ offers limited exposure control, it does have a good selection of external control buttons. Flash, Self-Timer, Macro, Exposure Compensation, Zoom, Record mode, and an Erase function all have external controls. The Mode dial on top of the camera accesses the main operating modes, and the multi-directional Arrow pad on the back panel navigates through on-screen menus. The LCD menu system is fairly short, with user-friendly icons in the Scene modes. This camera is so straightforward in operation that I doubt you'll need the manual for much more than reference. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get comfortable and start shooting.


Shutter Button
: Resting slightly above the Power switch, the Shutter button sits on the right edge of the top panel. This button sets the camera's exposure when halfway pressed, and opens the shutter when fully pressed.

Power Switch: Encircling the Shutter button on the top panel, this rotating switch turns the camera on and off.


Mode Dial
: The only other control on the top panel, this notched dial controls the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Setup, Movie, Manual, Auto, and Scene.


Zoom (W and T) Buttons
: Located in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, these buttons control the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any record mode. In Playback mode, the "W" button activates the index image display mode. One press displays four thumbnails at a time, and a second press displays a nine-image display. The "T" button controls digital enlargement of the captured image.


Playback Button
: To the left of the Zoom buttons, this button accesses the camera's Playback mode.


Multi-Directional Arrow Pad
: Centered vertically on the far right side of the rear panel, this button features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. In any settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections. In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images, while the down arrow enables audio clip recording. Once the image information display disappears in Playback mode, pressing the up arrow recalls the display.


Macro / Self-Timer / Erase Button
: The first button in a series lining the bottom of the LCD monitor, this button accesses Macro and Self-Timer modes in any record mode. In Playback mode, this button pulls up the Erase menu, with options to erase the sound clip or the current image.


Exposure Compensation / Flash / Transfer Button
: To the right of the Macro / Self-Timer / Erase button, this button lets you adjust the exposure from -2 to +2 in one-third-step EV increments. Holding down the button and pressing the up and down arrow keys makes the adjustment. Pressing the button quickly and letting go displays the flash mode options, which are also navigated with the up and down arrow keys. In Playback mode, pressing this button marks or unmarks images for transfer to a computer.


Menu Button
: Directly to the left of the Exposure Compensation / Flash / Transfer button, this button displays the Shooting menu for Auto, Manual and Scene modes. It also dismisses the menu display. In Playback mode, pressing this button displays the Playback menu.

Camera Modes and Menus

A great LCD!
As mentioned earlier, the Coolpix SQ has one of the best LCD screens I've yet seen on a digicam. Actually, resolution, color, and tonal range are good if not extraordinary - What sets this display apart is how remarkably well it works in very bright surroundings. Even in full sunlight, I had no trouble framing my shots or reading the menu displays. (I'd really like to see this same LCD on other Nikon camera models in the future. It would be worth a few dollars extra in the selling price of a camera to have an LCD that's truly usable in bright conditions.)

Capture-mode display

The screenshot above shows the SQ's capture-mode display screens. Normally, in capture mode, the display shows basic status information in a gray bar along the bottom of the screen, with additional information as appropriate to the camera's current configuration up the right hand side of the screen. When you activate the zoom control, a thermometer-bar display appears at the top of the screen, showing the current zoom position. A vertical line across the thermometer bar shows the point at which digital zoom cuts in. When the shutter button is half-pressed, if you're in automatic area autofocus mode (the default), a set of green brackets appears in the display, to show the area of the subject that the camera's AF system has locked on to for determining focus. Finally, if you've selected manual autofocus area selection, a grid of 9 possible AF area locations is overlaid on the screen, with the currently selected one appearing as a set of larger brackets. In this mode, you can move the active AF area around the screen by using the arrow keys on the multi-direction arrow pad. (In the screenshots here, the red hand icon that's flashing indicates that the camera is using a slow shutter speed, and is warning me to be careful to hold it steady.)

Playback-mode display

In playback mode, pressing the W or T zoom buttons zooms in or out on the image. Pressing W when an image is displayed full-frame takes you to a four-image index display, and pressing it again displays a nine-image set of thumbnails. Pressing the T button takes you in the opposite direction, eventually zooming in up to 6x on the image. The arrow keys let you navigate rapidly through the thumbnails when you're viewing one of the index displays, or scroll around within the enlarged image during "zoomed" playback. During normal full-frame viewing, the left and right arrow keys let you scroll through the previously captured images, while the down-arrow controls audio recording or playback. In full-frame display mode, whenever you switch to a new image, an information overlay appears briefly, showing the date and time that the image was captured, its file number and the folder it's stored in. After a few seconds, this overlay disappears, leaving only a set of arrow-key icons and a microphone/music note icon indicating whether the current image has a sound annotation recorded for it or not.

Scene Mode Menu: Designated by the word "Scene" on the Mode dial, this mode offers 15 preset shooting modes for specific shooting situations. Pressing the Menu button pulls up the Scene selection menu, with the following options:

  • Portrait: Uses a larger aperture to decrease the depth of field, capturing the subject in sharp focus in front of a slightly-blurred background. The Multicontroller lets you select one of nine AF/AE areas to target focus.
  • Party/Indoor: Captures dimly-lit scenes with sharp details in the foreground and background. The Flash is set to Red-Eye Reduction, but can be changed to another mode.
  • Night Portrait: This mode combines the Red-Eye Reduction flash with a slower exposure to capture portraits in dark settings, preserving background color and detail. Noise reduction is automatically enabled.
  • Sports: Automatically switches to Continuous Shooting mode, and uses faster shutter speeds to freeze action. Focus is adjusted continuously, and the maximum frame rate is approximately two frames per second (depending on resolution and quality settings). Flash is disabled.
  • Beach/Snow: Optimizes the camera for bright shooting conditions and prevents color from washing out.
  • Landscape: This mode enhances outlines, contrast, and color for vivid shots of scenery. Focus is fixed at infinity and the AF assist light is disabled.
  • Sunset: Preserves color in sunsets and sunrises, and sets focus to the center of the frame.
  • Dusk/Dawn: Like Sunset mode, preserves color in low natural light. Noise Reduction is automatically enabled, focus is fixed at infinity, and the AF assist lamp is disabled.
  • Night Landscape: Uses slower shutter speeds for night landscape shots. The camera automatically enables Noise Reduction, disables the AF assist light, and sets focus at infinity.
  • Close Up: Produces vivid colors in close-up shots, while blurring the background slightly. Zoom is set mid-range, for a minimum focus distance of 1.6 inches (4 centimeters), and the camera focuses continuously, whether the shutter button is pressed or not.
  • Museum: Captures bright indoor images without the flash. The camera enables Best Shot Selector mode and sets the AF area to the center of the frame. The AF assist lamp is disabled as well.
  • Fireworks Show: Uses slower shutter speeds to capture fireworks as they display. The camera sets focus to infinity. Exposure compensation is not available.
  • Copy: This mode is best for capturing black text or drawings on white backgrounds.
  • Back Light: Best for pictures of people in front of bright backgrounds, this mode sets the flash to Fill mode and the AF area to its center position.
  • Panorama Assist: This mode lets you capture a series of images to be stitched together on a computer later. After the first image is captured, an alignment screen helps you line up the next shot.

Auto Record Mode Menu: 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 Quality: Sets the image quality to Fine, Normal, or Basic.
  • Image Size: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 3M (2,016 x 1,512 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).


Manual Record Mode Menu: This mode is marked on the Mode dial with a black camera icon and the letter "M." Aperture and shutter speed remain under automatic control here, but the Shooting menu offers expanded options:

  • Image Quality: Sets the image quality to Fine, Normal, or Basic.
  • Image Size: Sets the image resolution. Choices are 3M (2,016 x 1,512 pixels), 2M (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), PC (1,024 x 768 pixels), and TV (640 x 480 pixels).
  • White Balance: Adjusts the overall color balance of the image. Options are Auto, Preset (manual adjustment), Sunny, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Speedlight.
  • Metering: Sets the metering mode to 256-Segment Matrix, Spot, or Center-Weighted.
  • Continuous: Accesses the camera's drive modes, which include Single, Continuous, and Multi-Shot 16.
  • Best Shot Selector: Turns the Best Shot Selector mode on or off. When enabled, the camera takes up to 10  pictures while the shutter button is held down, then saves the sharpest image to the memory card. This is helpful when you have to hand-hold the camera in low light situations where you can't use flash.
  • AF Area Mode: Puts AF area mode selection under auto or manual control. The "Off" option sets the AF area to the center position.
  • Autofocus Mode: Activates Single or Continuous AF modes.

Movie Mode: This mode is denoted by a movie camera icon on the Mode dial. Movie mode captures moving images with sound for up to 40 seconds, assuming that the memory card has enough space available. Resolution is set to 320 x 240 pixels. You can adjust the optical zoom before the recording starts, but once the recording has begun, only the digital zoom is available. (This is often how zoom works on digicams that record sound with their movies - The sound of the zoom mechanism would be too prominent on a movie's sound track, so the manufacturer disables it while recording.)

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

  • Welcome Screen: Disables the welcome screen that appears at startup, or lets you designate a saved image as the welcome screen. You can also disable or select from two startup sounds.
  • Language: Changes the menu language to German, English, French, Japanese, or Spanish.
  • Date: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar.
  • Brightness: Adjusts the brightness of the LCD display.
  • Volume: Disables or sets the volume of the camera's beep sounds and audio playback.
  • Auto Off: Sets the Auto Off timeout, which automatically shuts down the camera after a period of inactivity. Times are 30 seconds, or 1, 5, or 30 minutes.
  • CF Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash card, erasing all files (even protected ones).
  • USB: Sets the USB protocol to Mass Storage or PTP. The PTP option is best for Windows XP and Mac OS X systems, while Mass Storage is best for older operating systems.
  • Video Mode: Sets the video mode to NTSC or PAL.
  • Reset All: Resets all camera settings to their defaults.

Playback Mode Menu: Pressing the Playback button on the camera's back panel instantly enters Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images and movies. You can also erase, enlarge, copy, and protect images, as well as 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 calls 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.
  • Slide Show: Automates a slide show of all still images on the memory card.
  • 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 index display of the images on the card appears, letting you scroll through and select images to be "locked." Protected images are only deleted through card formatting.
  • Small Pic.: Creates a 1,600 x 1,200-, 1,024 x 768-, 640 x 480-, or 320 x 240-pixel copy of the currently displayed image.
  • Auto Transfer: Turns transfer marking on or off for all images on the memory card.
  • CF Card Format: Formats the CompactFlash card, erasing all files (even protected ones).

Test Images
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. (NOTE that these photos were shot with a late-model prototype camera, final production models may show some differences in color, tone, or noise levels.)

Outdoor
Indoor Flash
Indoor

House
Musicians
Macro

Davebox
Resolution
Viewfinder Accuracy

 


Specifications

See camera specifications here.


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


User Reviews

 

Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Coolpix SQ's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how SQ's images compare to other cameras you may be considering. (NOTE that, as mentioned above, these photos were shot with a late-model prototype camera, so final production models may show some differences in color, tone, or noise levels.)

  • Color: The Coolpix SQ delivered good-looking color throughout my testing, although I don't know that most consumers will view it as being up to the same level of quality as other Coolpix models that I've tested. - Comparing its images to those of the similar-vintage Coolpix 3100, for instance, the 3100's images consistently looked brighter and more vibrant. That's not by a long shot to say that the Coolpix SQ's color is bad though. Its white balance was very good under a variety of light sources, and its slightly lower saturation levels in fact may be more accurately representative of the original subjects. (Consumer-level cameras tend to slightly oversaturate colors, as most consumers prefer that look. I'd judge the SQ's lower-saturation images as a more accurate reproduction of reality.

  • Exposure: Exposure with the SQ was a bit variable. It metered the difficult Outdoor Portrait test more accurately than most cameras I've tested (cameras generally underexpose that shot pretty significantly), but it required more positive exposure compensation than average on the Indoor Portrait test, under artificial lighting. In contrasty lighting, it seems to expose for the midtones more than the highlights. This will match most consumer-level users' preferences, but does tend to blow out strong highlights. I'd rate overall exposure performance as "good" though. The camera's tone curve isn't quite as contrasty as many consumer cameras, which will helps offest the exposure bias in favor of the midtones.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: The SQ performed moderately well on our "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 600 lines per picture height, in both horizontal and vertical directions, but I found "strong detail" out to 1,200 lines, a very good level for a 3 megapixel camera. However, while the camera did a good job of capturing detail, it rendered it rather softly: While its images in fact contain a lot of detail, they tend to have a somewhat soft appearance, and would benefit from sharpening in an imaging application.

    While not properly related to resolution, I don't have a standard category for image noise in these test results summaries. I mention it here though, because I did find the SQ's images to be noticeably more noisy than other 3-megapixel models I've tested. People tend to react very differently to image noise, so I encourge you to look at the samples of the SQ's images and compare them to those of other cameras you're considering purchasing. (Try our Comparometer(tm) for this!) Better yet, try downloading and printing out the images on your photo printer, to see what you think. - Image noise is generally less noticeable on printed photos than when viewed on-screen. In mentioning the SQ's image noise, I don't want to draw undue attention it and create a problem in people's minds where none would exist otherwise, but knowing that some readers react strongly to image noise, I thought it worth pointing out.

    NOTE: This review was based on a late-model prototype camera, so it's possible that resolution, image noise, and color could all improve on final production models.

  • Closeups: As is typical with Nikon digicams, the SQ performed very well in the macro category, capturing a tiny minimum area of only 1.11 x 0.83 inches (28 x 21 millimeters). Resolution is very high, with strong detail in the dollar bill. The brooch is soft due to the very short shooting distance. Despite the very close shooting distance, the SQ's flash throttles down pretty well for the macro area. The flash exposure is just a little bright, but still good. The SQ would be an excellent choice if you needed to do a lot of closeup photography.

  • Night Shots: The SQ operates under automatic exposure control at all times, and has a maximum shutter speed of two seconds. This limits the camera's low-light shooting abilities somewhat, although the camera apparently does boost its ISO to 200 when shooting in dark conditions. In my testing, the SQ produced usable images only down to the one foot-candle (11 lux) light level, roughly equivalent to typical city street lighting at night. Even at that level, the image was a bit underexposed, but color was pretty good. Doubtless due to the ISO boost, noise here was even higher than in the SQ's daylight pictures.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: The SQ's LCD monitor is just a little tight, showing 96 percent frame accuracy at wide angle, and about 93 percent at telephoto. Given that I like LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the SQ has a little room for improvement, but should be plenty accurate for all but the most exacting use.

  • Optical Distortion: Trying to measure the SQ's geometric distortion was confusing. The res-target image showed pretty extreme barrel distortion in the wide angle shot, on the order of 1.5%. On the other hand, lines on the viewfinder accuracy test showed only 0.6% barrel distortion, somewhat lower than average. - All I can figure is that the barrel distortion could be a fairly strong function of how close the camera is to the subject: The res target is shot quite a bit closer to the camera than is the viewfinder accuracy. The telephoto end of the lens' focal length range fared much better, as I measured only 0.15 percent pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration is pretty low, as there's very little color around the target lines in the corners of the image, but there seems to be quite a bit of "coma," as there's a lot of smearing of the target element edges in the corners, particularly at wide angle. (As noted in my comments about the the far-field test on the pictures page though, this effect seems to disappear for more distant subjects.)

  • Battery Life: Like many subcompact cameras, the Nikon SQ has only fair battery life. Lacking an optical viewfinder, you're totally dependent on its (excellent) LCD for framing your shots, which means there's no option to conserve battery power by relying on an optical viewfinder. I always recommend purchasing a second battery along with any digicam, but that advice goes double for the Coolpix SQ. With only 74 minutes of run time in capture mode, you'll definitely want to have a spare battery along on any extended outings.




In the Box
The Coolpix SQ will ship with the following items

  • Lens cap and wrist/lens cap strap.
  • Small capacity CompactFlash card.
  • Video cable.
  • USB cable.
  • Cool-Station camera dock.
  • AC adapter.
  • Lithium-ion battery pack.
  • CD-ROM loaded with Nikon View software and drivers.
  • Instruction manual and registration kit.

Recommended Accessories

  • Larger capacity CompactFlash card (at least 64MB).
  • Additional battery pack.
  • Small camera case for outdoor protection.

 

Recommended Software: Rescue your images!
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. I 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 surprising number 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 digicam 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...

 

Conclusion

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Nikon's dedication to quality has earned the company an enviable reputation in both the film and digital photography realms, and the company's Coolpix line of consumer digicams has always been well-received, given their good image quality and ease of use. From the Nikon optics to the full range of exposure controls, the Coolpix series has proven to be a reliable choice for a wide range of users. Entering the scene with a completely new design, the Coolpix SQ continues the excellent quality associated with the Coolpix name. Its compact, square shape doesn't skimp on features, offering a 3x Nikkor lens (with great macro capabilities), 3.1-megapixel CCD, and wide range of preset shooting modes. The unit I tested for this review was a prototype model, so it's possible that some of my objections to it will be worked out by the time final production models hit the stores. Specifically, I felt that its sharpness and image noise levels weren't up to the standard of other 3 megapixel Coolpix models, and its color was a little undersaturated (although possibly more accurate as a result) than that of the similar-vintage Coolpix 3100. I'll withhold final judgement until I can test a production unit, hopefully in the not too distant future. The Coolpix SQ does break important new ground with its LCD design: I've previously steadfastly opposed the idea of LCD-only cameras, as the LCDs are simply too hard to see in bright outdoor lighting. By contrast, the LCD on the SQ is by far the best I've seen on any camera to date in this regard, easily visible in full sun, dim room lighting, and anything in between. Big kudos to Nikon for this LCD, I hope we'll see it on other Coolpix models in the future. Overall, the SQ could be a good choice for style-conscious users looking for good features in a very attractive package. Stay tuned, I don't yet have an ETA from Nikon for when to expect a production sample, but I'll update this review whenever one arrives.

 

Related Links

More Information on this camera from Megapixel.net:
Nikon Coolpix SQ, Nikon Digital Cameras, Digital Cameras


 

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