When the weather starts turning nice, the sales pitches begin. Cameras are very popular gifts for Graduation, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the summer travel/vacation season. Every winter, major camera manufacturers (and most of the minor leaguers) attend trade shows to tout their new products. Nikon introduced eight new Coolpix P&S digicams this past winter; one of the most interesting of those eight new digicams is the compact Coolpix S9100, which updates last year's popular Coolpix S8100.
At first glance, Nikon's newest "S" model doesn't seem much different from its predecessor, but on closer inspection, the S9100 ups the ante dramatically in the travel zoom digicam class. The Coolpix S9100 looks a lot like the S8100 and features the same 1/2.3-inch 12 megapixel backside illuminated CMOS sensor, the same Expeed 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. That's really a lot of zoom capability for such an easily pocketable little digicam that weights in at only 7.6 oz.
Unlike some of its competition (Canon's SX230 HS and Panasonic's 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, Backlighting, Continuous Shooting and Special Effects) scene modes. 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; user input into the exposure process is severely limited.
In addition to the S9100's dearth of manual control options, it also lacks the GPS capabilities of the SX230 HS and ZS10. The very latest crop of pocket-friendly travel zooms have all offered long zooms, HD video, and GPS capabilities - evidently somebody at Nikon didn't get that memo.
Stylewise, the S9100 is an attractively understated digicam available in black, red or silver. The S9100's user interface is uncomplicated and fairly straightforward. The control layout is relatively basic and sufficiently similar to other current digicams in the compact travel zoom class to provide most users with a comforting sense of déjà vu. Buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but are all rather small.
Consumers have been demanding better low light performance from point-and-shoots for years and camera manufacturers are finally listening. The megapixel wars have resulted only in generating lots of little cameras that are capable of generating huge image files, and bigger is not always better. Crowding more pixels onto tiny 1/2.3-inch sensors dependably results only in hefty increases in image degrading noise. Consumers and most serious photographers don't really need 14 or 16 megapixel digicams - 10 megapixels is an adequate resolution for more than ninety per cent of the photographers out there.
Hopefully, OEMs will realize that the cheapest and most effective method for improving low light performance is the installation of larger 1/1.6-inch sensors. Everything else being equal, larger pixels have better light gathering capability than smaller pixels and better night-time pictures seems to be the new mantra of most of the major camera manufacturers. Nikon claims the new S9100 makes "...handheld night-time shooting as easy as taking daytime pictures". This seems to be a very bold assertion and one that we'll address in DCR's full review of the S9100. Users can also enable the S9100's new Night Portrait mode via its dedicated position on the mode dial, and the camera will capture several consecutive shots with one push of the shutter button, with and without flash (which illuminates the subject and the background separately) and then combine those shots into one image.
Nikon claims the S9100 can counter blurred images in seven different ways including Hybrid VR (Sensor-shift IS and Electronic Vibration Reduction combine to reduce the effects of camera shake), High Sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) reduces the risk of blurred images with faster shutter speeds, Motion detection compensates for subject movement, Best Shot Selector (BSS mode) automatically selects the sharpest of up to 10 sequential shots, Night Portrait Mode, Night Landscape mode, and HDR (high dynamic range) backlight mode all decrease image blur by improving low light performance.
The S9100 captures HD video at 1920 x 1080p at 30fps and the massive 18x zoom can be used during filming. The S9100 provides an HDMI out connection so that you can easily watch your HD videos on your widescreen HDTV. 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 the Piazza San Marco or beneath the soaring roof of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris and create amazing 360 (or 180) degree panoramas.
I've only had the S9100 for a few days, but I've had enough time with the camera to form some initial impressions. Outdoors, the Nikon S9100 captures very good to excellent images consistently with almost no effort on the part of the photographer. Indoors, the S9100 performs on reasonably equal terms with the Panasonic ZS10 and almost as well as the Canon SX230 HS. If you like fully automatic cameras and don't want to be bothered with exposure concerns - you'll probably like the Nikon Coolpix S9100.
Check back soon for our full review of the Nikon Coolpix S9100.