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Nikon Coolpix S51c Review
by Adam Gabbard -  11/14/2007

Nikon’s latest addition to their line of WiFi-enabled cameras comes in a familiar package: the Nikon Coolpix S51c is nearly identical to its predecessor, the S50c, offering the same 3-inch LCD display, a slight resolution bump (8.1 versus 7.2 megapixels), and some minor changes to the control layout. While the S51c offers the same ease of use and image quality found in previous cameras in this series, continuing changes to Nikon’s on-board WiFi system have yet to unleash the full potential of S51c’s most distinguishing feature – its wireless transfer capability.


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NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The S51c’s large 3-inch, high resolution (230,000 pixels) LCD makes for great image viewing. The screen has an anti-reflective coating that aids in composing images in bright sunlight, and the display gains up automatically in low-light situations. Screen refresh is reasonably fluid as well. All of these positive feelings toward the display are a good thing, given that the S51c, like most newer compacts, has completely done away with an optical viewfinder.

Lens/Zoom

The S51c features a 3x optical zoom (35mm equivalent of 38-114mm) with a non-protruding “periscope” design – the same lens seen in the S50/S50c. A sliding lens cover moves into place when the camera is powered off to protect the glass against scratches.

The focus range for the S51c remains the same as the older version, with an advertised normal range of one foot to infinity, and a macro range of 4 cm to infinity. Macro testing this time around, however, reveals that the advertised 4 cm marco focusing distance is a bit optimistic – in several evaluations, 4 inches is probably closer to the truth.

The S51c also retains the S50 focusing system. Choices include 5-area auto focus, center point auto focus, and 99-point manually selectable focus.

Vibration Reduction

The S51c includes optical Vibration Reduction (Nikon's name for image stabilization), which helps counteract camera shake when shooting in low light without a flash. Image stabilization combined with high ISO sensitivity and BSS (Nikon’s Best Shot Selector that takes a series of photos and only saves the best one) help you achieve sharp images without using a tripod.

As in the past, Nikon’s VR system remains one of the best image stabilization technologies currently available on a compact device, especially one in this price range. Nikon’s optical stabilization far outperforms digital “anti-shake” technologies found in many competitive devices, further extending the S51c’s capabilities as a flash-less indoor picture taker.

Wireless

Nikon has earned praise in the past for its implementation of onboard WiFi in digital cameras, providing a level of function that potentially moved camera-based WiFi beyond pure novelty. The S51c retains the previous generation’s 802.11b/g WiFi connectivity but, unfortunately, still lacks a basic browser system. This means that connecting to many public WiFi networks (which often require assent to some kind of “Terms of Service” agreement) still isn’t possible with the S51c. Thus the S51c can only reliably connect to private WiFi, or to T-Mobile’s HotSpot access (T-Mobile charges a monthly usage fee, though the S51c comes with six months of free “test drive” service).

The lack of a browser also limits transfer options once the camera is connected to the internet. The S51c can only upload images to either Flickr or Nikon’s “my Picturetown” online storage, or email them to family and friends (or yourself) if the device is registered with my Picturetown. The email and transfer processes are streamlined – arguably, they’re easier to use than ever – but without open internet/FTP access, the S51c still doesn’t take full advantage of its onboard technology.

On the plus side, as with the S50c, network connections can be configured directly through the setup menus using the scroll wheel on the back of the camera. And with a dedicated “Email” button, sending pictures once you’ve found a network is easy. The WiFi system does take a serious toll on the battery, though, which means waiting to transfer images through Wi-Fi until the camera is plugged up for charging is strongly recommended.

Memory Media

The S51c comes with 13 MB of internal memory and will accept SD and SDHC memory cards.

Image/Movie/Audio File Formats

Images are stored as JPEG, with standard options for image size/quality. Movie files are created in MPEG format, and audio tags are saved as WAV files.

Connectivity

In addition to Wi-Fi transfer capabilities mentioned above, the S51c supports full-speed USB 2.0 transfers via the supplied cable.

Power

The S51c is powered by they EN-EL8 lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack. The included power adapter charges a completely drained battery in about 2 hours. Charging is done in-camera, unless you buy Nikon’s accessory battery charger as well.

Estimated use time per charge is about 150 shots, but constant reviewing and movie mode will take a large bite out of this number. I only got about 80 shots off a charge with approximately 5 minutes of video shooting.

What’s in the box?

EN-EL8 rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, EH-64 AC Adapter, UC-E12 AV/USB cable, wrist strap, Printer Dock Accessory: Dock Insert PV-12, and Software Suite CD-Rom.

EXPOSURE

Like the S50/S50c, the S51c preferences style and ease of use over advanced control. The default auto mode provides typical “program auto” features, with user-controlled ISO sensitivity, white balance, and exposure compensation.

Beyond the auto mode, there are scene modes designed to produce optimal exposures in their specified environment or situation. Users can choose from: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist.

A third shooting mode, Hi ISO or high ISO sensitivity, extends the automatically selected ISO range to the camera’s maximum of 1600, providing a setting for shooting in low-light conditions where flash is not an option. (The Auto ISO setting in auto mode limits the high ISO range to 800 in order to maximize image quality.)

A button-selected One-Touch Portrait mode uses face recognition technology to maintain focus when taking pictures of people. Red-eye reduction is also automatically enabled in this mode. Though multiple subjects confused the AF system more than once, One-Touch Portrait mode effectively prevented back-focused photos in every test situation.

Movie Mode

Video can be captured at several different sizes/frame-rates, up to a maximum size of 640x480 at 30 fps. The S51c also features a stop-motion movie mode (at 5, 10, or 15 fps), which composes movies from a series of individual shots. A “ghost image” of the previous shot is overlaid on the display while shooting in stop-motion mode, allowing you to compose the next frame in the sequence. The results from stop-motion mode can be interesting, if pretty useless on the whole.

Note that movie shooting on the S51c eats battery life – already a little slim on this model – with reckless abandon, and those interested in shooting lots of video with the Nikon should consider the optional external charger and a spare battery bare necessities.

Metering

Metering is handled through a 224-segment matrix (smaller than the S50c’s 256-segment unit). Exposure compensation, accessed through the integrated scroll wheel/directional pad in auto mode, provides adjustment of +/- 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments.

White Balance

There are several selections for white balance on the S51c, including Automatic, Preset Manual (user-set by shooting shooting a test photo of a white or grey reference object), Daylight, Incandescent, Florescent, Cloudy, and Flash.

Automatic white balance provides acceptable results in most situations, but does seem to contribute to the washed out look of some outdoor shots. Otherwise, white balance settings and results are just what’s expected in this class of camera.

Sensitivity

The S51c has an ISO range of 100-1600. A series of 100% crops show the noise progression:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600


Noise gain increases considerably above ISO 200, but in our sample shots, even ISO 800 produced acceptable images for printing up to 5x7. As is usually the case, ISO 1600 is best reserved as a last-resort option for situations where flash isn't allowed.

Flash

The S51c’s flash unit provides the standard range of options including a full auto mode, red-eye reduction mode, and a slow sync mode for night shooting. The only caveat with the flash concerns its positioning on the camera body, as it can be easily covered by a finger in normal holding position.

As noted, the flash offers a red-eye reduction mode (automatically activated in portrait scene and One-Touch modes). In reviewing the test shots, however, red-eye is still often a significant problem with the S51c, so be prepared to do a little follow-up work on flash portraits. Beyond this, the flash fills in nicely with just a bit of underexposure, providing a pleasing overall look for flash portraits.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The S51c carries over the same slim, slightly curved design of the S50c with few changes. The camera is still nice and compact at a mere 0.8 inches thick, meaning that it fits easily into a pocket. While the zoom toggle switch is simply too small for most users, and the control wheel can be challenging (see below), the overall ergonomic experience isn’t as bad as many ultra-compacts.

On the front of the camera, you’ll find the lens in the upper right-hand corner (as with the flash, accidentally covering the lens is easy to do), the flash, and auto focus assist lamp.


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On the top from left to right are the button for One-Touch Portrait mode, the dedicated email button, the on/off switch, and the shutter release botton.


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As with the S50c, the left side of the camera sports a blue WiFi light, indicating if a wireless connection has been established. A wrist-strap loop is on the opposite side.

The back of the camera is dominated by the LCD display. Controls, from top to bottom, include a too-tiny zoom toggle switch, mode and playback buttons, an integrated scroll wheel/directional pad, and the menu and delete buttons. Though an interesting design idea in the name of saving space, the scroll wheel/d-pad feels flimsy, at best. I often found it difficult to make delicate adjustments, as the wheel seemed to skip forward more quickly than expected.


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The bottom of the camera has the tripod mount, multi-connector jack, and battery/ memory card compartment. The door is a challenge to open, requiring more force than feels appropriate or advisable, and the thin metal hinges look like they might be easily broken.


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In terms of general build quality, the Coolpix is stylish and well put-together for the most part. As in our test of the S50c, the S51c exhibited some frightening rattle when handled; on further examination, not all of it can be attributed to the retractable lens cover. The overall feel of the device, however, is acceptably solid.

PERFORMANCE

Usage

In use, the primary strike against the S51c is the same complaint that has been made about previous generations of this device: the camera feels slow and clunky in many real-life shooting situations. Surprisingly, actual hard-number shooting times were not as slow as the device felt. This is, in part, the result of a longer-than-average blackout between shots, especially with the flash activated. Continuous shooting mode (which also disables the flash) clears up this issue, but continues to preview photos on-screen between shots. In practice, this makes tracking a moving subject across multiple shots with the S51c nearly impossible.

With prefocus, measured shutter lag was consistently around .3 seconds. Unfocused, the camera often took a second or more to grab focus and fire. While focus hunt slowed often slowed things down considerably, the camera was able to find the correct lock, even under difficult conditions.

In spite of mixed feelings about the scroll wheel/directional pad, the icon-based shooting menu is intuitively laid out, allowing quick access to parameters like ISO and white balance.

Wireless connectivity is more streamlined than ever, with the caveats about limited functionality mentioned previously in mind.

Image Quality

Overall image quality with the S51c was more than adequate for a compact camera. In comparing shots from the latest camera to those from its 7.2 megapixel predecessor, the S51c’s extra megapixel of sensor capability doesn’t provide a substantive increase in perceived image detail. As before, images from the Coolpix are slightly soft across the board. Outdoor shots tend to be slightly overexposed, imparting a slightly washed out look in direct sunlight.

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The flip side of this is that, on the whole, the S51c offers significantly less heavy saturation than some of its competition. The one exception to this natural processing tone seems to be red channel saturation levels: the pink flowers in the following shot have an overbearing, almost electric look.

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Otherwise, images from the S51c were generally nice enough, if unremarkable. The small lens and sensor do a better job at controlling chromatic aberration (“purple fringing”) in high contrast shots than most compacts, even in overexposed areas. The cropped shot below shows only minor fringing.

As with the S50c, barrel and pincushion distortion are both somewhat pronounced with this model.

Additional Sample Images

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nikon coolpix s51c sample image
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nikon coolpix s51c sample image
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nikon coolpix s51c sample image
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Conclusions

While there aren’t many serious concerns with the S51c, it’s hard to say that it offers significant improvements – in terms of image and build quality, usability, or style – over the S50/S50c. Obviously, one of the big selling points here from a tech perspective is WiFi capability, but given the limitations of the system, Nikon still hasn’t created a device that will have broad usability and appeal on this front. If the S51c appeals to you, the standard S51 (sans WiFi) or even the S50 may be better choices. The bottom line, then, is that with lots of serious competitors in the compact market, it’s hard to strongly recommend the S51c.

Pros

Cons