This month's "Head to Head" installment offers yet another take on the age-old Nikon versus Canon rivalry, pitting the popular Canon PowerShot SD870 IS against the much less well-represented Nikon Coolpix S700. In testing the S700 recently, we were curious about how it would stack up against its most obvious competition – the Canon SD cameras – given Canon's dominance in the ultracompact arena of late. Based on information and test shots gleaned from our reviews and notes (plus a quick refresher with a borrowed SD870 IS), what follows are some general thoughts, opinions, and impressions as to how these two cams compare.
Sophistication and Style
The styling of Canon's ELPH cameras has remained relatively conservative and consistent throughout this line's long run, and the SD870 is no exception. There's a lot to like about the basic package from a design standpoint, with the PowerShot easily meeting the most important standard for any ultracompact: pocketability.
Old-school shooters may lament the loss of an optical viewfinder on the SD870, but the camera's bright 3-inch LCD will more than make up for the loss for most users. Button arrangement takes a slightly different take on the traditional Canon approach, moving everything to a single right-hand column. The around-the-shutter zoom toggle common to most every recent Canon compact is also ergonomically excellent and generally much more comfortable to operate than panel-mounted rocker switches.
So what's not to like about the SD's layout? For a sleek ultracompact, the SD870 packs in a lot of controls into a space small enough to not always be friendly to larger fingers. Overall, while the layout functions just fine in terms of access, it certainly doesn't look as stylish as it could, and the case has been made that the number of icons – on the compass pad/touch wheel, especially – could be intimidating for users looking for a basic point-and-shoot experience.
Similarly, the touch wheel capability of the d-pad (use a light touch and a rotating motion to scroll through options) is a popular and increasingly familiar interface concept for users of other personal electronics devices, but it tends to be slightly sensitive and jumpy in use on the SD.
As a styling exercise, the Nikon is a little more aggressive all around. Its brushed metal finish and cleaner lines add a touch of elegance that the SD870 IS just doesn't quite convey (admittedly, a more fair comparison in this regard might be made between the S700 and the Canon SD950 IS).
Even more to my liking is the design and layout of Nikon's rear panel. Some screen size is sacrificed compared to the SD870, but the user-friendly wheel-focused control system (using a conventional scroll wheel) is dead simple to navigate.
Overall, both cameras embody the kind of high-style approach that we've come to expect in high-end ultracompacts, but I personally feel that the S700 provides a total package that's a little more sophisticated and streamlined.
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix S700
Features and Specs
At the top level, the SD870 IS and S700 are on relatively even playing field in terms of specs, with a few key advantages in each direction. The SD870 IS comes with a 3.8x optical zoom (with an equivalent wide-angle range out to 28mm) and the aforementioned 3-inch LCD. The Nikon's notchy 3x zoom (with a comparative narrow wide end, at 37mm) and 2.7-inch LCD are offset, however, by the S700's 12 megapixels of resolution – fully a third more than the SD870's 8 megapixels of capture. Both devices sport optical image stabilization.
Sensitivity range is broader (and arguably more useable) on the S700, extending all the way to an interpolated ISO 3200, and the S700's ability to take very nice flash shots can be a real asset indoors. For the target market for this camera, however, the SD's larger, more fluid screen, lighter weight and better feel in-pocket, and especially, its wide-angle lens should have at least as much appeal.
While the specs sheet comparison is, in many ways, a tie, the slightly more flexible Canon edges the slightly more powerful Nikon on this one in my book.
Advantage: Canon PowerShot SD870 IS
Ease of Use
Many of the same considerations invoked in the previous categories apply here as well. The S700 has an icon-based interfaced that makes quick navigation a snap. Conversely, difficulty in ever finding the right touch for the SD870's touch wheel certainly plays a role in making the Nikon seem a little easier to use for casual shooting. The observation that there's nowhere to anchor your thumb on the Canon for one-handed shooting without accidentally pressing buttons – versus the S700's wide-open contoured thumb space – also makes the S700 feel better all around in my hands, at least. In short, while both cameras are certainly capable of "point-and-shoot" simplicity, the S700 does a little more "hand holding" all around, from its simplified menus to its more lucid interface, which scores accessibility points with casual shooters.
But whatever slight advantage the S700 may have over the SD870 in interface usability, it gives up a lot of functionality – especially if the lighting is less than perfect – to a relatively slow and unresponsive AF system. When prefocused, both cameras feel snappy, but the S700's well-documented slow focus times make it no match for the predictably quick Canon in lots of candid shooting situations. Moreover, while the Nikon may provide a more refined experience all around, poor auto focus performance alone is frustrating enough to tip the balance in favor of the Canon.
Advantage: Canon PowerShot SD870 IS
In general, the feeling around here and elsewhere is that the resolution jump from 8 to 12 megapixels has often done more harm than good in terms of overall image quality, with many 12 megapixel compacts producing shots that are disappointingly noisy at higher ISOs and grainy across the board. That said, while both of these cameras are capable of taking very good pictures, I was more impressed on the whole with the quality of the shots coming out of the 12 megapixel S700.
Both cameras take nicely balanced, contrasty shots with good color reproduction, but the SD870's slight tendency to overexpose can make outdoor shooting a little more of a chore in difficult metering situations. Colors tend to be slightly more vibrant out of the box from the SD870 IS, with a slightly more subdued look coming from the S700's default shots. Switch the S700 over to Vivid mode and the images take on a very similar look and feel from both cameras.
Pics from the S700 were consistently sharp and impressively smooth at lower ISOs; at higher sensitivities, both noise and noise reduction were apparent, but the camera seems to do a better job than many in this class of balancing visible noise and detail loss. The SD870 IS, by contrast, seems to favor intrusive noise reduction a tad too much, really becoming noticeable at ISO 800 and beyond.
For sample images and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, check out our full reviews:
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix S700
Price and Value
Pulling together a quick survey of pricing for these cameras, both devices seem to average out at right around $300. A little more searching, however, reveals that you can consistently pick up the S700 for less than $270 from reputable sellers – making the Nikon the price winner by a small but clear margin.
You do pay a premium for style and compactness in these cameras, but on the flip side, both of these models are unquestionably hard to beat for portability.
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix S700
If you take mostly outdoor shots and getting very good images from a very small camera is your primary interest, the Nikon may well prove to be the better choice. Given the relatively low levels of graininess for a camera with a sensor of this size and resolution, making large prints from the S700 that are both smooth and sharp is a real possibility. In fact, the only thing I really don't like about the S700 (but I really don't like it) is the AF speed issue.
Essentially free from any shadow-casting blemishes of this kind, the SD870 IS is competent, reliable, portable, and fun. It's an excellent choice for a surprisingly wide range of photographic tasks, and offers image quality that is very good for this class of camera. With speed and usability to match, take a look at what the SD870 IS does well and it's easy enough to figure out why this camera has sold as well as it has. While it didn't take as many categories in this informal evaluation, I would rate the Canon SD870 IS as the more balanced, more polished camera all around, with image quality and ease of use that are unquestionably competitive with the S700.
If put to the question, the PowerShot earns my vote, then, but the strong performance in every category of the Nikon Coolpix S700 (its one looming issue excepted) also highlights the fact that if you're shopping for a camera in this segment, it would be wise not to leave Nikon out of the mix when considering your options.
"Head to Head" is a monthly camera overview and comparison column here on DigitalCameraReview.com aimed at showcasing competitive cameras and discussing their relative strengths and weaknesses. If there are two or more cameras that you'd like to see compared in a future story, send us an email at email@example.com.