BUILD AND DESIGN
On the surface, the auto-exposure only S9100 looks very much like every other compact point-and-shoot out there, but on closer inspection, this little camera seems rather elegant in an understated way. The S9100 is unobtrusive (at least the black version - the camera is also available in red or silver for all the fashion mavens out there) and small enough to drop in a shirt pocket. The robustly constructed metal-alloy/polycarbonate body has good dust/weather/moisture seals and feels comfortingly solid in use.
At first glance, the S9100 is identical to its predecessor. Nikon didn't stray far from the original design with the third generation S9100. The S9100's zoom lens has been shifted slightly to the left (the S8000 and S8100 had their zooms centered) and there's a new quick-release button for the popup flash. Nikon also switched the positions of the Mode Dial and Shutter button, slightly improving ergonomics.
The Coolpix S9100 not only looks like the S8100, it features the same 1/2.3-inch 12 megapixel back illuminated CMOS sensor, the same processor, and the same 3.0-inch (921k-dot) LCD screen as the S8100. So what's different? The S8100 featured a 10x (30-300mm equivalent) zoom, but the S9100 features a new 18x (25-450mm equivalent) zoom - which not only increases coverage at the wide-angle end of the zoom - it also substantially extends the camera's reach at the telephoto end of the zoom. That's a lot of zoom capability for a pocketable (2.5 x 4.2 x 1.4 inch) little digicam that weights in at 7.6 oz/214gr.
Ergonomics and Controls
The S9100's user interface is very basic and the control layout is straightforward. Buttons come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but (with the exception of the shutter button and one-touch video button) they are all rather small and the super tiny on/off button sometimes requires an extra push to power the camera up or down. All controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. Operation is dead simple and all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme.
The mode dial is in the standard position, but any similarity to a traditional mode dial ends there. The S9100's mode dial doesn't provide a program mode option or any manual exposure options. There is an auto mode, a Scene auto selector mode, several popular scene mode settings, the continuous shooting mode and the special effects mode.
The S9100's traditional compass switch is surrounded by what is essentially a rotary jog dial (Nikon calls this the rotary multi-controller) for super fast menu scrolling and easy back-and-forth saved image comparison. The central portion of the rotary multi-controller functions in the familiar compass switch configuration - up/down (flash/macro), left/right (self timer/exposure compensation) and center "OK" button. Unfortunately there is no direct access method, like Canon's "func" button for adjusting ISO and White Balance or other often changed settings.
The S9100's large oval one-touch video Record/Stop button affords users not only a bigger control button (meaning the shooter doesn't have to look away from the LCD screen when composing video clips), but it also seems quicker and more responsive when compared to the small round one-touch video Record/Stop buttons of most of the S9100's competition.
Menus and Modes
The S9100's three tab (Image mode, Movie Options and Set-up) menu system is dependably logical, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The large 3.0-inch 920k LCD and reasonable font size make reading the menus easy.
Unlike some of its competition (Canon SX230 HS and Panasonic ZS10) the S9100 completely eschews manual exposure options, relying instead on a tweakable Auto mode (which is really more like Program mode), a Scene "auto-selector" mode (which is really more like a "smart auto" mode), and several mode dial (Portrait, Night Landscape, Night Portrait and HDR Backlighting) scene modes.
The S9100 also features a new Panorama mode - shooters can pan through 360 degrees (horizontal) or 180 degrees (vertical) as the S9100 captures and then automatically stitches together multiple images - allowing tourists to stand on the skywalk at the Grand Canyon, in the center of Piazza San Marco, or beneath the soaring roof of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris and create amazing 360 (or 180) degree panoramas. The Nikon Coolpix S9100 does provide the ability to incrementally make subtle exposure adjustments via the exposure compensation mode (which has a dedicated position on the compass switch), but this is an auto exposure only digicam - consequently user input into the exposure process is very limited.
Here's a breakdown of the S9100's shooting modes:
There is no dedicated movie/video setting on the mode dial - simply press the S9100's large oval movie start/stop button at any time to shoot video.
Like most currently available digicams, the S9100 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the LCD screen must be used for all framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. The S9100 may lack an optical viewfinder, but makes up for this omission by featuring a large 3.0-inch LCD screen with four times the 230k-dot resolution that was the industry standard just a couple of years ago. The S9100's wide-viewing angle TFT LCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate, and fluid and the info display provides all the information the camera's target audience is likely to need.
The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooters preferences. Some earlier "S" models featured LCDs that were so shiny that they behaved almost like mirrors, making them basically useless in bright outdoor lighting. The S9100 shows marked improvement over its predecessors in this area - the anti-glare/anti-reflection coating (applied to both sides of the LCD's protective cover) is noticeably better than average for digicams in this class. In our lab test, the S9100's LCD produced a relatively low peak brightness rating of 383, but a remarkable 0.38 black luminance rating, making for an overall contrast ratio of 1007:1.
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