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Testing / Performance
*The Nikon Coolpix S500 flaunts 7.1 megapixels on its 1/2.5-inch CCD. To see how effective it is at capturing details, we photographed an industry standard resolution chart and uploaded the images to Imatest software. We photographed the pictures at various exposure settings to make sure we got the sharpest shot possible. Imatest sorted through and analyzed all the images; we are reporting the sharpest of the batch. That image is pictured below and was taken using the lowest ISO setting of 50 with an aperture of f/3.7 and a focal length of 11mm.
The edges of the image are soft, especially in the corners, and they are a bit discolored too; what should be black fades to gray on the outskirts of the picture. Imatest output numerical resolution results in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), which describes the number of alternating black and white lines of equal thickness that can fit across a frame without blurring.
The Nikon Coolpix S500 performed very poorly and resolved only 1367 lw/ph horizontally with 3.2 percent oversharpening and 1385 lw/ph vertically with 3.6 percent oversharpening. These numbers are disappointing especially when compared with those from the 6-megapixel Nikon S5 and S6 digital cameras. The S5 resolved 1497 lw/ph horizontally and 1493 lw/ph vertically. The S6 read 1491 lw/ph horizontally and 1390 lw/ph vertically. The 7.1-megapixel Nikon S500 doesn’t have what it takes to make enormous prints, so use caution when enlarging!
To see how accurately the Nikon Coolpix S500 depicts colorful subjects we photographed an industry standard color chart made by GretagMacbeth. The chart shows 24 colors from all parts of the spectrum in a tile-like format. After photographing the color chart using the Nikon S500, we uploaded the images to Imatest imaging software and it analyzed the colors. It compared the S500’s colors to those of the original chart and output the following modified chart that shows a comparison. The outer frame of each tile shows the S500’s perceived color. The inner vertical rectangle shows the ideal color from the original chart. The inner square shows the ideal color corrected for luminance.
From this view the colors look decent. For a more precise measure, Imatest output the following color error chart. It shows the Nikon Coolpix S500’s colors as circles and the colors from the original chart as squares.
The yellows and blues have the most error with color #16’s pastel green-yellow turning into a school bus-type yellow. Most other colors aren’t that far off though with a mean color error of 8.53. The saturation is nearly perfect at 101.6 percent. The Nikon S500’s overall color score of 7.03 is an improvement on previous S-series digital cameras that we’ve tested. For instance, the Nikon S5 has a 6.07 color score and oversaturates by 28.3 percent.
**White Balance ***(4.96)*
The automatic setting was the most accurate when the flash was fired, but is otherwise to be avoided.
The preset white balance modes were much more reliable than the automatic setting with the exception of the flash preset. The rule of thumb with this camera is to avoid the automatic setting and either set it to the presets or use the manual white balance.
***Click on the images below to view the full-resolution images.*
Noise – Auto ISO*(1.59)*
With our studio lights turned up to 3000 lux, we set the camera to automatically choose an ISO setting. It selected an odd ISO 247 which produced way too much noise for such nicely lit conditions.
Noise – Manual ISO*(5.63)*
Keeping the studio lights bright, we photographed the resolution chart at each of the camera’s manual ISO settings from 50 to 2000. The chart below shows the results. On the horizontal axis are the manual ISO settings and on the vertical axis is the percentage of the image that succumbed to noise.
Noise is nice and low at the ISO 50 setting, but it quickly jumps at the next ISO 100 setting. There is a steady climb to ISO 200 and then a slight drop at ISO 400, indicating an automatic high sensitivity noise reduction system that kicks in around there. From ISO 400, the noise increases dramatically until images are thick with noise. At ISO 2000, about 5 percent of the image is speckled with noise. Overall, the Nikon S500 does well below ISO 400, but the higher ISO sensitivities should be avoided when possible.
We dimmed the lights and put the camera through our low light tests. The first test was done at 60 lux, which is about the amount of light from two soft lamps in an otherwise darkened room; there’s still enough light to read comfortably. At 30 lux, you’d probably start squinting: that is about the amount of light from a single 40-watt bulb. The final 15 and 5 lux tests are very dark and simply show any limitations the image sensor may have in very harsh conditions.
The main issue seen in the images above is noise. They were taken using an ISO 1600 setting and no flash, of course, so speckled noise appeared. Colors also suffered in accuracy and saturation: the saturation reached only 65 percent, which makes for very dull speckled pictures in low light.
Trying to avoid high sensitivity and opt for longer exposures is tough with this skinny camera. It can shoot as long as four seconds, but only in the scene modes. And when it shoots longer than one second, it does so at ISO 50. At and below a one-second shutter speed, the camera can use ISO 400. To get to the point: you can either have long exposures or high ISO sensitivity, but you can’t have both.
We photographed a backlit Stouffer test film designed to show the dynamic range of digital cameras. The strip of film shows a row of rectangles ranging from very bright/transparent to very dark/opaque. This test shows how many exposure values the camera can capture at each of its ISO settings because there is a strong correlation between the two parameters.
The chart below shows the Nikon S500’s manual ISO settings on the horizontal axis and the number of exposure values it captured on the vertical axis.
At the lowest ISO setting, the camera captured nearly eight exposure values, which is quite good for a slim digital camera. The dynamic range drops quickly with each subsequent ISO setting though, with the biggest drop between ISO 400 and 800. The higher ISO sensitivities are laughable; they are completely unusable. At ISO 2000, there is only one exposure value captured – and that’s in an optimal testing environment! If you’re going to photograph anything with ISO 800 and beyond, expect bland pictures without much dynamic range.
Startup to First Shot (7.5)
It took the s500 2.5 seconds to extend its lens and take a shot. This isn’t fantastic, but isn’t too bad either.
The burst mode won’t blow anyone away. The awesome sound of a 10 fps camera won’t be heard on this model. In the continuous mode, the S500 shoots only one picture every second. Its somewhat redeeming quality is that it can do this until the card fills to capacity. In the 16-shot burst mode, it snaps 2 fps but the images are at a tiny resolution and they are stitched together into a single 7.1-megapixel image that looks something like a quilt.
Be ready long before the shot. That’s the key with this camera. It takes 0.6 seconds for it to focus. When the focus is locked though, its shutter lag is hardly measurable.
*The Nikon S500 takes its good sweet time to process images; it takes 2.1 seconds to process a single full-resolution shot.
**Video Performance ***(2.76)*
Bright Indoor Light - 3000 lux
With the lights just as bright as during the color and noise testing, we tested the S500’s movie mode. It is not nearly as good at replicating colors accurately. The mean color error jumped to 22.2, as opposed to the still images’ 8.53 mark. The nearly perfect saturation of the still pictures rocketed in the movie mode: videos showed an average saturation of 127.8 percent. The amount of noise was not impressive either at 0.6 percent of the image. This camera won’t replace your camcorder.
Low Light - 30 lux*
*With the lights turned low, we recorded a test chart and had Imatest analyze it. The mean color wasn’t nearly as bad as in bright light, but not nearly as good as in still images. The mean color error was 17.8 and saturation was pitiful at 71 percent, similar to results with the still pictures in low light. The amount of noise jumped to 1.76 percent too, a trend also seen in still pictures.
The Nikon Coolpix S500 has a top resolution of 640 x 480 pixels with a 30 fps frame rate. This is what most digital cameras offer. Imatest analyzed lots of footage from the camera and determined the resolution in much the same way it does still images. The units of measurement are the same line widths per picture height (lw/ph). The S500 resolved 244 lw/ph horizontally with 22.8 percent undersharpening and 364 lw/ph vertically with 4.1 percent undersharpening. These poor results are unfortunately typical of compact digital cameras. The Pentax Optio W30 read 272 lw/ph horizontally and 358 lw/ph vertically with its identical advertised video resolution.
When taken out of the enclosed testing lab into the real world, the S500 didn’t look that great. We shot cars and people moving along and the camera had trouble with this. Metering would flicker and change for no apparent reason at all. The focus would shift and attempt to refocus on moving objects, but usually the subjects were faster than the focus - it all proved quite distracting. There was a jerky motion when subjects moved out of the frame. This is another unfortunate commonality in most compact digital cameras’ movie modes. Colors looked decent in the sunny outdoors, but there was lots of noise and there really shouldn’t be much in this setting.
There isn’t room for an optical viewfinder on the Nikon S500, so it uses the live view on the LCD screen instead. The LCD is nicely sized at 2.5 inches and has great resolution. The great resolution, coupled with a 60 fps live feed, make viewing even the fastest moving subjects a beautiful sight. Most digital cameras have a 30 fps feed that is fine until subjects move, and then they look jittery. Thus, the live preview looks great except for the inaccuracy of what it shows. The live preview only shows 96 percent of what is recorded in both the horizontal and vertical directions. If you need to tightly frame subjects – or in our case, test charts – you’ll have to rub a rabbit’s foot and dance to the god of cropped images and hope that it comes out right.
The Nikon Coolpix S500’s 2.5-inch LCD screen provides live preview and reviewing capabilities. The screen has 230,000 pixels, so subjects look nice and smooth. The contrast and colors look good on the screen. The S500’s LCD is outfitted with an anti-reflection coating but is still tough to view outdoors, partially because of the limited viewing angle. This is one of those cameras that has to be held straight in front of the eyes to see anything.
The LCD has a great 60 fps live feed for previewing and snapping pictures, but it isn’t perfectly accurate. Reviewing images has 100 percent accuracy though. This drives people like us crazy. In many of the tests we run the camera through, we have to line up charts perfectly in the frame. When the picture is taken, the recorded image appears and it has more than what we framed in the picture! This is frustrating for us, but shouldn’t be a problem for most casual users.
The LCD screen can be modified in the setup menu to show different types of information. Show Info, Auto Info, Hide Info, and Framing Grid are available. There is also a brightness adjustment with +/- 2 options in whole steps. Users can see the effect of the brightness adjustment on a picture of a woman in a yellow hat shown in this menu. This brightness adjustment helped viewing outdoors, but it was hard to find it when the lighting was so harsh.
Overall, the LCD screen is nicely sized, has great resolution, a fabulous 60 fps live feed, and great contrast and color. However, the limited viewing angle is a throwback to cameras from three years ago.
The Nikon Coolpix S500’s flash is just above the lens and shifted slightly right. The specs indicate that the flash reaches 1 foot 8 inches to 24 feet 7 inches when the lens is zoomed out and 1 foot 8 inches to 13 feet 1 inch when zoomed in. These specs are impressive for a slim digital camera’s flash, but the flash appears spotty. The corners of the frame are very dark and the bottom fourth of the image is darker than the rest. All of the edges are a little dank, but the bottom is definitely the darkest.
The S500 has a sensor flash system that moves slowly especially when the red-eye reduction or slow sync modes are selected. The flash modes are auto, auto with red-eye reduction, off, on, and auto with slow sync. The last option’s icon looks like the flash should be forced on with the slow sync option, but it didn’t fire all the time so it must be an automatic feature that fires only when the camera thinks it’s necessary.
Red eyes still appeared in a few pictures – probably because the flash and the lens are only a hair or two apart. Nikon boasts an in-camera red-eye fix, but it didn’t work all the time. Some digital cameras have red-eye fix features in the playback mode but Nikon’s works immediately after the image is taken and only if the camera detects the red-eye. It must not have detected it in all of my pictures.
Overall, the flash has a powerful range but only in spots. Realistically, the flash just doesn’t look good. It blows out subjects in the foreground and eliminates any details in the background. Picture this: bright, blown out and sweaty-looking subjects with black backgrounds. No thanks.
The S500 has a 3x optical zoom lens. It is optically stabilized so that its elements are positioned to float and move when the camera is shaken, thereby compensating for shaking hands. The optical image stabilization system is one of the differences between the S500 and S200, and can be found on the S500 in the setup menu. The cheaper S200 has a less effective digital image stabilization system on a narrower 38-114mm lens. The Nikon Coolpix S500’s Zoom-Nikkor lens measures 5.7-17.1mm, equivalent to 35-105mm in the 35mm format. The 3x lens extends from the camera in three segments, which is different from other S-series models that have internal lenses. The S500’s lens has 5 elements in 5 groups and a two-step aperture that opens to f/2.8 when the lens is zoomed out and f/4.7 when zoomed in.
The lens is controlled by a skinny horizontal button in the upper right corner of the S500’s back. When pushed one way or another, a horizontal bar appears across the top of the screen that shows approximately where in the range it is. There is a line between "W" (wide) and "T" (telephoto) that separates the optical from the digital zoom. The camera offers 4x digital zoom, but it degrades the image quality quickly and isn’t recommended for use. So users won’t accidentally use it, the line is there and users have to push the "T" down again to jump the line. Once this is done, the bar turns yellow – maybe as a caution that image quality is going downhill? The optical zoom cannot be used in the movie mode and only 2x digital zoom is available.
The zoom control isn’t the most sensitive as it only stops at nine focal lengths. Zooming in is very smooth but zooming out will give you whiplash.
The lens doesn’t appear to be very high quality. When shooting a movie, I panned past a television screen and saw the screen’s reflection colored purple in two places around the frame. Overall, the lens isn’t a very high-quality component but they rarely are on such small cameras.
Design / Layout
Model Design / Appearance*(7.0)*
The Nikon Coolpix S500’s design is trendy in the same way pop songs attempt to be; it's the cool camera of the hour, but has the same design as many cameras present and past. It has a flat stainless steel body that departs from the wave-design of its S-series relatives. Its front has a cool brushed steel look and embossed logos that look classier than the typical printed logos. It also has an extending lens as opposed to the tiny internal lenses on many other Coolpix digital cameras. The lower-priced S200 looks very similar to the S500 but its body is constructed from cheaper aluminum. Overall, the Nikon Coolpix S500 is a slick digital camera with a tried and true design that looks like a lot of other models.
Size / Portability*(7.75)*
The S500 is very small and flat so it can be easily slipped into pants or jacket pockets. Convenience is one of this model’s best aspects as it can go anywhere in a small space. It comes with a cheap wrist strap that attaches to the right side, but there aren’t many other handling features to keep this camera from hitting the cement. Still, it’s very portable at 3.5 x 2.0 x 0.9 inches and with a weight of 4.4 ounces without the battery and SD card. The S200 is a little skinnier, but weighs the same as the S500.
This digital camera is about the size of a bar of soap and handles like one too. Perhaps not as slippery when wet, but I didn’t try getting it wet. I don’t recommend getting it wet either: the seams didn’t appear tightly sealed enough for even a foggy day. The Nikon S200 is flat on all sides except for a very subtle dip on the right edge of the back. To the right of the LCD screen and below the zoom control is a shallow divot large enough for a thumb but not deep enough to really hang onto the camera if palms are truly sweaty. On the right edge of the divot are five plastic bumps meant to keep the thumb from slipping - they aren’t entirely necessary. While all cameras are designed with two hands in mind, the Nikon S500 can be held with one hand. Its weight is balanced and the overall small size of the camera makes it easy to snap shots with one hand.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(6.75)*
In general, the S500’s controls are very similar to those on competing digital cameras. The only exception to that is the rotary dial that also functions as a multi-selector. This control on the back of the camera has tiny grooves and protrusions so it can be easily rotated to navigate through menus and images. It can also be pushed in the four directions like a traditional multi-selector – and it has icons by each direction to show what features it accesses when pushed in the shooting mode. The only problem is that the right side of the rotary dial is so far on the right edge that its coinciding icon is pushed around the corner onto the right side of the camera body – where it can’t be seen from the back.
There are two buttons above and two below the rotary dial for various functions like Menu and Mode. The Mode button replaces the more traditional mode dial, which there isn’t any room for on this digital camera. In the upper right corner of the back is a skinny zoom control that rocks right and left to control the lens. It is unnecessarily skinny as there is some space below it and its thinness doesn’t make for great handling. Atop the camera is the large shutter release button that is rectangular in shape but puffs up a bit so it isn’t flush with the camera body. The power button next to it, however, is flush with the camera body. There are two more buttons on the top for shake reduction and the one-touch portrait features. The left fingers will have to access these as they are far from all the other controls. Overall, the buttons are properly labeled and spaced. They are a bit on the small side, but that’s because the camera body itself is on the small side.
Some previous S-series cameras had big, readable fonts but the new Nikon S500 takes it to a whole new level. Menus have a white background and gray lettering except for the selected item that has a yellow background and black lettering. There are live views in some of the submenus such as white balance and color options. The menus can be displayed in text or icons, although the icon layout is a bit too much for the eyes – I recommend the text. There is a Menu button, which makes it easy to find. The following is the shooting menu.
The menus aren’t divided into pages or tabs or anything; it’s simply one list that scrolls down and down and down. To find the setup menu, users have to push the mode button. When that is done, a screen appears with a ring on it and icons around the ring. Users must turn the rotary dial to scroll around the ring: there is a wrench icon that represents the setup menu, which is as follows.
The rotary dial is used to navigate through the lengthy list of items. Once the desired item is selected, users must push the right side of the dial like a multi-selector to access the submenu. Going back a menu is just as intuitive: all users need to do is push the left side of the dial. Simple. Just as it should be.
Ease of Use*(6.25)*
For those who have used digital cameras before, the Nikon S500 isn’t tough to figure out. It has labeled buttons and simple on-screen directions along with live views in some of the menus. Those who are making the transition from film to digital will wonder where the mode dial disappeared to. The Mode button and graphic dial takes some getting used to. It isn’t the easiest layout to access things like scene modes, but that’s the sacrifice that was made to fit all the features on such a tiny camera. Another hindrance to overall ease-of-use is the lack of a fully automatic mode. There is a generic "shooting mode" that allows access to all the features on the camera and is more of a program mode. It remembers features, so if you set it to the interval timer and turn off the camera, then turn it on again, you’ll be stuck in a rut of timed photos again. You’ll be wondering where that auto mode is. Not on the S500. In general the S500 is easy to use but if you’re not so sure about how you’d handle it, check it out at a camera store before purchasing it.
There isn’t a real true auto mode. There is only a sort of all-purpose "shooting mode," as Nikon calls it. It allows access to all the options on the camera and is more like a program mode. The camera remembers the settings too. For example, if you set the exposure compensation to -0.7 in the shooting mode and then switch to the movie mode and back again, the exposure compensation will still be set to -0.7. If you’re looking for a simplified auto mode that truly automates everything, this isn’t the camera for you.
**Movie Mode ***(6.75)*
The Nikon Coolpix S500’s movie mode is accessed by the mode dial. The menu includes resolution and auto focus options only. The resolution choices are 640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps, 320 x 240 at 30 or 15 fps, and 160 x 120 at 15 fps. There are single and full-time auto focus options, although neither one works that well. The single auto focus mode is only somewhat reliable as oftentimes the subject has moved from its original point by the time the movie begins. The full-time auto focus option works well in terms of focus, but the system makes a bunch of tiny clicking noises that are picked up on the audio. Not flattering. The audio is decent and is recorded as WAV files, while the movie files are AVI. Up to 2GB of video can be recorded.
The optical zoom is disabled while recording video, but 2x digital zoom is available. It makes subjects a little furry but doesn’t completely obliterate them like it does at 4x. The digital zoom should be used with caution.
Moving subjects look like a flip book when set to 15 fps and are smoother at 30 fps, although they are still a bit jittery. The optical vibration reduction system, turned on in the setup menu, works well in keeping the image straight and steady but doesn’t help the subject too much. The jittery motion is common on digital cameras’ movie modes. That’s why there’s still a market for camcorders!
The Nikon S500 should give consumers one more reason to buy a separate camcorder. The camera often overexposed video and there was purple fringing that appeared in a few videos too – even when not pointing anywhere near the sun. The auto focus was either unreliable or noisy and optical zoom isn’t available.
Drive / Burst Mode*(6.5)*
The burst mode is found in the shooting mode’s menu under the Continuous heading. The options are Single, Continuous, Multi-shot 16, and Interval Timer Shooting. The Single drive snaps a picture about every three seconds.
In the Continuous mode, it varies. The user manual claims the camera can snap away at 2.5 fps, but we couldn’t get it to go this fast. In the shooting mode, it took one picture every second for six shots and then stuttered a few more every few seconds. The burst got some help from increased shutter speeds, clocking slightly faster times in the high sensitivity mode, even though full resolution is maintained. It still wasn’t as quick as 2.5 fps, but was decent nonetheless.
The Multi-Shot mode snaps 16 tiny pictures at a relatively pedestrian 1.8 fps and stitches them together into a single 7-megapixel image. This isn’t for everyday shooting but is for those photographers who like to analyze their tennis serve and the like.
The Interval Timer Shooting is fairly unique and allows users to take a picture every 30 seconds or every 1, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes. The camera goes into a power saving mode where the LCD screen is black in between shots and automatically snaps them at the selected interval. This mode is useful for watching slow moving subjects like construction sites, hatching birds, spiders spinning webs, etc. It’s a niche feature but one that has the potential to produce really interesting results. Once you are finished snapping pictures with that mode though, the only way to stop the camera is to turn it off and on again.
There is a self-timer mode activated by pushing the left side of the multi-selector. It can be set to take a picture after 3 or 10 seconds. There isn’t anything unique here: a few orange flashes from the light on the front of the camera and then the picture is automatically taken.
The S500’s drive and burst mode has some hits and misses. The burst mode is unpredictable and often slow, but the interval timer is interesting.
**Playback Mode ***(7.25)*
The playback mode is entered through the designated playback button on the back of the camera. This is helpful: I’m glad it’s not grouped with the recording modes under the generically labeled "Mode" button. The playback mode is generally pleasant. The big LCD screen with its great resolution makes for easy viewing. Images appear one at a time or in screens of multiple images: 4, 9, or 16 at a time. Viewing multiple images can be done by pushing the "W" end of the zoom control. Pushing the "T" end magnifies individual images up to 10x. Scrolling through lots of images can be done by viewing multiple images at once or moving through individual pictures. Either way is simple. The rotary dial can scroll through up to 10 images per second, although it takes a second for images to look totally clear. Another viewing option is found when the Mode button is pushed. A virtual dial appears with a calendar view among the options. Other positions on the dial include setup, audio playback, and list by date.
The playback menu isn’t very elaborate.
The editing options are scant, although there is a nice D-lighting compensation feature available by pushing the one-touch portrait button atop the camera. This works remarkably well and saves pictures as separate files so you can always go back to the original file if needed. If you’re looking for the highly publicized in-camera red-eye fix feature, don’t bother. It isn’t a selectable feature, but is something that is activated automatically immediately after the image is taken. I looked all over in the playback mode for it and only found that out after consulting the user manual.
Pictures can be deleted from the menu or with the designated Delete button on the camera body, which is handy. The Nikon S500’s slide shows are plain - there are no fancy transitions or effects or music. This is different from other Coolpix S-series digital cameras that come equipped with Pictmotion slide shows.
Overall, the playback mode doesn’t have really sparkly features, but its basics are among the best: high-resolution nicely sized LCD, fabulous rotary dial to ease navigation, and intuitive menu.
**Custom Image Presets ***(7.75)*
The S500 doesn’t have a physical mode dial to easily access the scene modes, but there is a "SCN" spot on the virtual dial that appears when the Mode button is pushed. To access the list of presets, users need to push the Menu button. The following scene modes appear: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist. The only other option available in the menu is to change the image size. Options on the multi-selector can also be accessed most of the time: exposure compensation, macro, self-timer, and flash. In general, the modes worked pretty well in their specific situations. Many of them automatically employ the flash though, which makes almost all subjects look awful.
There are two presets that aren’t listed with the others, but have their own real estate elsewhere. The High ISO mode is located on the graphic mode dial and uses ISO settings up to 1600, but does not automatically disable the flash, so users have to be mindful of this when snapping pictures of sleeping babies or other sensitive subjects. There is also a shake reduction mode, accessed by pushing the designed button atop the camera. This mode would be more intuitively placed in the menu and the button can be confused for the camera’s optical image stabilization system. Overall, the Nikon Coolpix S500 has a healthy selection of scene modes.
Manual Control Options
This digital camera has an all-purpose "shooting mode" that acts as auto and manual, or perhaps it should be called program. It allows access to the entire recording menu: exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, color options, auto focus areas, etc. The Nikon Coolpix S500 doesn’t have manual exposure controls like shutter speed and aperture, so if you like control, then this mainly automated camera probably won’t interest you.
The Nikon S500 has a 9-point auto focus system that works fairly well. It can be set to Auto, Manual, or Center. The auto mode selects the point of focus, the manual mode allows users to manually select the auto focus point with the multi-selector from 99 points around the LCD screen, and the center choice keeps the focal point fixed to the center.
The focus options aren’t available in the movie mode. Users can instead choose from single and full-time auto focus modes. Single isn’t as reliable as it should be: subjects often move from the point when recording started and then they are out of focus. It is, after all, a movie. Full-time isn’t a great option either. It focuses well, but the video’s audio picks up all the tiny clicking noises that the full-time auto focus system makes.
The camera’s contrast detection auto focus system functions as close as 5.9 inches in the macro mode. Normally, the camera can focus from 1 feet 8 inches to as far as the eye can see. The S500 needs help focusing in low light, so it shoots out an orange LED beam that outputs a maximum of 1450 µW to slightly illuminate subjects.
Nikon fathered face priority auto focus a few years ago, but since competitors followed suit with superior technology. Nikon’s technology remains mostly unchanged. It is activated with a push of the one-touch portrait button atop the camera. A blinking smiley face appears while the camera searches for faces. It takes the S500 about 1.5 seconds to focus when the face is static and properly framed - the camera replaces the blinking smiley with a box over the face. Moving faces are nearly impossible to capture with this technology though. Competitors’ technology tracks faces, finds them faster, and does so quieter. The S500 uses full-time auto focus in its face priority auto focus mode and makes a bunch of clicking noises.
Overall, the auto focus system functions about 80 percent of the time, although a little slower than it should. The other 20 percent of the time the pictures are blurry.
The mainly automatic Nikon Coolpix S500 does not have a manual focus mode. The closest it gets is the option to choose the auto focus area from 99 points around the frame. Technically, the camera is still employing its auto focus system though.
The S500 and S200 have differing ISO ranges. The pricier Nikon Coolpix S500 has an ISO range that extends from 50-2000, whereas the S200 tops off at 1000. The ISO settings are available in the shooting menu and there isn’t a live view. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have a truncated automatic ISO range but the S500’s is still a wide 50-1000. The ISO sensitivity usually corresponds to the amount of noise in images: check the Testing/Performance section of this review to see how much noise the S500 produced in each of its ISO settings. This Coolpix includes a High ISO scene mode, although it is positioned separately from the other scene modes on the graphic mode dial. The High ISO mode doesn’t automatically disable the flash: you have to do that on your own. I found out the hard way. I went to snap a picture of my sleeping toddler with this mode and the camera shot out an orange beam, then a series of flashes, which woke him up.
The white balance settings are available in the recording menu of the shooting mode only. The choices are: Auto, Preset (manual), Daylight, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Flash. The S500 lacks multiple fluorescent settings, which many digital cameras now offer because fluorescent bulbs vary so much.
In the menu, the background shows a live view of the white balance options. This is helpful. The most useful white balance option is probably the manual setting. To set it, you focus the camera on a white card and press the selection button in the center of the rotary dial. It's easy and accurate.
The shutter speeds and apertures can’t be manually adjusted, but the exposure can be compensated on a +/- 2 EV scale in steps of 1/3. Exposure compensation is available in almost every mode from the right side of the multi-selector. Because the selector control is placed on the far right edge of the back, the exposure compensation icon is forced around the corner to the right side of the camera body where it can’t be seen at all. There is a live view when the exposure is adjusted. However, there isn’t a histogram to view.
The 256-zone metering system syncs with the auto focus point but there are no metering options available. This is a downer as almost all other digital cameras offer this as a standard feature.
**Shutter Speed ***(0.0)*
With its mechanical and charge-coupled electronic shutter, the Nikon S500 can snap pictures at speeds of 4-1/1500th of a second. There is a bit of shutter lag, which is pronounced when the flash is activated. To lessen the shutter lag, Nikon included a "response priority mode," grouped with the vibration reduction options in the setup menu. Shutter speeds cannot be manually chosen on this digital camera; instead, they are automatically selected according to the current lighting and the selected exposure mode.
Aperture can’t be manually controlled. There isn’t much to control anyway. The Nikon Coolpix S500 has a two-step aperture that opens to f/2.8 and f/5.6 when zoomed out and f/4.7 and f/9.4 when zoomed in. Not many choices here.
**Picture Quality / Size Options ***(7.0)*
With 7.1 megapixels on its 1/2.5-inch CCD, the Nikon Coolpix S500 has plenty of resolution to safely print 8 x 10-inch pictures and perhaps even a bit larger. The camera offers the following image sizes in its shooting menu: 3072 x 2304, 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480, and 3072 x 1728 (16:9). The latter option shoots widescreen images, a popular choice for users who like to display their slide shows on the big screen. In the playback mode, images can be duplicated and downsized to 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 pixels. This makes it easier to transfer images straight to a blog or email.
**Picture Effects Mode ***(6.25)*
There are five color modes in the shooting mode menu: Standard, Vivid, Black-and-white, Sepia, and Cyanotype. Each comes with a live view in the background of the menu. These options aren’t anything special or elaborate, and are on the skimpy end of picture effects offered on recent digital cameras, but are better than nothing.
Connectivity / Extras
The Nikon Coolpix S500 comes with a CD-ROM that includes a USB driver, QuickTime, ArcSoft PanoramaMaker, and PictureProject 1.7 software. The PictureProject software has all the bells and whistles of typical software included with digital cameras and even throws in a few interesting features. Like other programs, pictures and videos can be browsed in folders or as thumbnails, previews, or lists. There is a search filter that allows users to find images based on date, file name, keyword, and tag. The search filter is located on the right side of the screen along with the file information, properties, and space for users to type in keywords.
Options along the top of the window provide easy access to lots of tools: transfer, import, print, mail, share, slide show, Pictmotion, burn, auto enhance, auto red-eye, and help. There are also buttons to Organize, Edit, and Design. The editing features include brightness, D-lighting (like exposure compensation), color booster, photo effects, sharpening, and straighten. Images can be cropped from here too. The Design tab is disabled and probably requires an upgrade before it functions. With the Pictmotion option, users can create and make slide shows DVDs, which is not often included with digital camera software.
The included software is above average compared to what is often included with point-and-shoot digital cameras, but still won’t replace Photoshop on most computers.
Jacks, ports, plugs (6.25)
The Nikon Coolpix S500 has a single jack that connects to the included AV and USB cables. The AV function can be set to NTSC or PAL standards and the USB can be set to PTP or Mass Storage. In the setup menu, users can also choose whether images should automatically transfer to the printer or computer when the camera is on and connected to the USB cable.
*Direct Print Options (5.5)
*The Nikon S500 makes printing simple by allowing users to create print orders before hooking up to the actual device. In the playback menu, there is a Print Set option that allows users to select images and how many prints from 0-9 copies. The print set is saved and transferred when the camera is hooked up to a PictBridge compatible printer with the included USB cable.
Buried in the box with the camera is a tiny EN-EL10 lithium-ion battery. It is small and thin and doesn’t last very long. It gets about 180 shots per charge, which is quite awful. Even the cheaper S200 gets 230 shots with the same battery. The unimpressive battery can be supplemented by an extra battery or an optional AC adapter EH-62D. The battery is cheap – it sells for about $25. Also in the camera box is a charger. It isn’t a wall-mount type, which is disappointing as those are the most travel-friendly and space-efficient. The MH-63 battery charger consists of a base and a cord that connects it to the wall.
*The Nikon Coolpix S500 comes with 26 MB of internal memory and no other media. Users can purchase or use SD, SDHC, or MMC memory cards. In the playback mode there is an option that allows images to be copied from the internal memory to the memory card and vice versa.
Voice Memo – Users can attach up to 20 seconds of audio to each image in the playback mode by pushing the central button in the rotary dial.
Voice Recording Mode – This feature is becoming more and more common on digital cameras. The Nikon S500’s voice recording mode can be found in the playback mode when the mode button is pushed; it appears on the virtual dial. It can record up to 5 hours of audio at a time and more than 40 minutes just on the internal memory.
Best Shot Selector – When this is selected in the recording menu, the camera will select and save one picture out of a string of up to 10 images as long as the shutter release button is held down. For example, if your finger holds the button down for only three shots, it will choose one of the three. If your finger holds for nine shots, still only one is chosen. The camera doesn’t display the images side by side or let users in on the selection process; it automatically selects the picture with the best focus and exposure. This seems a little risky to me, but people who find themselves hitting the delete button all too often anyway may appreciate this.
The Nikon Coolpix S500 retails for $299 which is right in the range of where it should be as a slim and sturdy point-and-shoot digital camera. This model was released alongside the Nikon S200, which was targeted to be the more budget-oriented camera. It costs $50 less and its features are worth at least that much less. Between the two cameras, I’d still go for the S500 mostly because of the optical image stabilization and much better LCD resolution. However, don't expect too much in terms of image quality from the S500; noise levels up to ISO 800 are acceptable, but the S500's dynamic range, color accuracy, and video performance are disappointing.
Nikon Coolpix S200 – This digital camera was released alongside the S500 as the more budget-oriented choice. The Nikon Coolpix S200 costs $249 but has the same 7.1 megapixels and 3x optical zoom. The lens is slightly different though: it has a narrower 38-114mm lens and doesn’t have optical image stabilization. The body is constructed from aluminum rather than stainless steel like the S500, and is smaller at 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.7 inches. The Nikon S200 has the same size LCD screen at 2.5 inches, but the resolution is sub-par at 153,000 pixels. The cameras have the same exposure modes and many of the same features, but the S200’s ISO range extends only to 1000. The camera has 20MB of internal memory and gets more juice out of its battery with 230 shots per charge.
Canon PowerShot SD750 – This 7.1-megapixel digital camera has a similar flat design with an extending 3x optical zoom lens. The camera has a face detection auto focus system, but no optical image stabilization. The body is taller and longer, but skinnier at 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 inches. It has automatic exposure modes including 10 scene modes and a stitch assist mode that helps users line up photos for a panoramic shot. The Canon SD750 has a similar ISO range up to 1600 and a longer shutter speed range from 15-1/1500th of a second. It has more picture effects in its My Colors mode that can do things like tweak skin color and adjust saturation. The 3-inch LCD screen has 230,000 pixels and the flash reaches to 11 feet. The battery isn’t much better at 210 shots per charge. It retails for $349.
Casio Exilim EX-S770 – This 7.2-megapixel digital camera also has a flat metal body and extending 3x optical zoom lens. Its profile is skinnier at 0.7 inches and its LCD screen is bigger at 2.8 inches, but the screen resolution is the same at 230k. The Casio S770 has a thin flash that shoots 12.8 feet at best and doesn’t keep subjects illuminated in low light. Another hindrance to low light photography is the 50-400 ISO range. This digital camera can snap 2 fps and has 34 scene modes. Its movie mode shoots standard 640 x 480-pixel video as well as 704 x 384-pixel widescreen movies, both at 30 fps. The Casio S770 ships with a camera dock and a battery that charges up after 200 shots. It has 6 MB of internal memory and is compatible with SD, SDHC, MMC, and MMCplus cards. One of the camera’s coolest features is its Data Transport function that allows users to upload documents and images such as train maps and menus for reference later. The Casio S770 retails for $299.
Kodak EasyShare V603 – This model isn’t exactly a high-performance digital camera but it has the same portable convenience that the Nikon touts. The Kodak V603 has 6.1 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom lens packed in a flat metal body that comes in shimmery red and black colors. The camera has 22 scene modes including a panorama mode that stitches three images together in the camera and Kodak Perfect Touch technology that automatically fixes exposure in the playback mode. The flash is weak and only reaches 8.5 feet and the LCD screen measures the same 2.5 inches and has 230k pixels of resolution. The EasyShare digital camera can snap 3 fps once its burst gets going, but it takes a full third-of-a-second to take a single picture – enough for everyone to blink and look away. The camera is more rectangular at 3.6 x 2.0 x 0.9 inches. It is compatible with PictBridge and ImageLink printers. The Kodak EasyShare V603 retails for $299 but can be easily found for $50 less.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W100 – These cameras could be twins. The W100 also has a brushed steely look that is flat and has an extending 3x optical zoom lens. It fits nicely in the pocket with its 3.7 x 2.4 x 1-inch body. It has an optical viewfinder along with a 2.5-inch LCD screen that has only 115,000 pixels on it. Its ISO range extends from 64-1250 and it can record videos at a standard 640 x 480 resolution at 30 fps, but only with Memory Stick Duo Pro media. The 8.1-megapixel Sony W100 has a flash that can reach 24 feet and a lens that is compatible with attachable conversion lenses. The camera body has a mode dial that is a little more intuitive, but its menus aren’t as flashy. Other nice features include a 360-shot battery and 64MB of internal memory. The W100 originally retailed for $349 but sells for under $200 now.
Who It’s For
Point-and-Shooters – Yes, this is designed for point-and-shooters. It has automated modes, a simple layout, and a conveniently compact body.
Budget Consumers – With a retail of $299, this is a pretty good deal. Want an even better deal? The Nikon S200 sells for $50 less and has many of the same features.
Gadget Freaks – The menus are flashy, but hardcore gadget freaks won’t be overly impressed by the Nikon Coolpix S500.
Manual Control Freaks – There are few manual controls to please this group of consumers.
Pros/ Serious Hobbyists – Not a chance.
**The Nikon Coolpix S500 introduces a new design into the already scattered S-series. Most of the lineup has a slim aesthetic with an internal lens. A few models have split bodies that twist to offer more optical zoom. The 7.1-megapixel Nikon Coolpix S500 instead goes back to basics by offering a flat metal camera body with an extending 3x optical zoom lens. Its features cover the basics too: automated exposure modes and simple slide shows that don’t have music and funky transitions like many of its S-series siblings. It also has a more basic $299 price point. There are a few flourishes like optical image stabilization and a 60 fps live preview on a high-resolution LCD screen. Shutter lag is probably the camera’s biggest drawback with the weak 180-shot battery coming in a close second, although the latter can be remedied by simply carrying around an extra battery. In terms of image quality, the S500 struggles with color and white balance accuracy, but shows average noise characteristics at its lower ISO settings (ISO 400 and below). Dynamic range and video performance are also below our expectations. However, the Coolpix S500's intuitive interface and automated feature options are its saving grace, providing one of the stronger point-and-shoot designs Nikon has put out in recent years. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, the S500 offers casual snapshooters a basic, stylish alternative at a competitive price.
**Click on the thumbnails to see the high-resolution images.
Specs / Ratings
**Specs Table **