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*All cameras reproduce colors slightly differently, which is why we test color accuracy. Some cameras oversaturate colors, making them vibrant but unnatural, while others can undersaturate colors, making them subtle but dull. We test color accuracy by photographing an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker test chart, and then compare the colors the camera reproduces with the known colors of the test chart. The ColorChecker chart is made of 24 different color tiles that represent various colors from around the color spectrum. The image below shows how the Nikon S51c’s colors match up the ideal colors of the ColorChecker. The outside squares show the colors the camera reproduces, the inner squares show the ideal colors of the ColorChecker corrected for exposure, and the small inner rectangles show the ideal ColorChecker colors under a perfectly even exposure. The S51c’s colors are most accurate when slightly underexposed.
Several of the color tiles match up very well with their ideal counterparts, but several of them do not. This is most apparent in the yellows and blues, where the yellows look rather greenish and the blues tend toward purple. This information is shown in a more quantitative way in the color space graph below. The squares represent the ideal color tile colors, while the circles show the corresponding colors the S51c reproduces. The lines connecting the squares and circles show the amount of color error for each color tile.
As you can see from the graph, a number of the yellows, greens, and blues are shifted away from their ideal values. Some of this may have been done on purpose; purple blues can make blue skies prettier, and greener yellows can make foliage look especially lush. However, these colors are shifted too much for our liking. Everyone likes pretty blue skies, but unless you’re Prince, you probably don’t want your photos to look like they were taken on a planet with purple skies. Also, there is a strong trend in all the colors to be undersaturated. This means the colors in your photos won’t be as vibrant as they could be, and will look rather dull. Overall, the S51c scores slightly below average in color accuracy.
*We test resolution by photographing an evenly-lit industry-standard resolution test chart at varied focal lengths and exposure settings. We measure the resolution with Imatest, a powerful imaging analysis program that determines resolution in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph). These units represent the number of equally-spaced, alternating black-and-white lines that can fit across the frame before becoming blurred.
The 8-megapixel S51c shows its best resolution at ISO 100, f/3.7, and a focal length of 11mm. The camera resolves 1412 lw/ph horizontally with 1.6 percent oversharpening, and 1480 lw/ph vertically with 2.8 percent oversharpening. While it's good the camera doesn't drastically oversharpen photos, these numbers are unimpressive. Not only is the resolution poor, but the images show color fringing (even at the centers), lens vignetting (darkening) on the corners, white "ghosting" lines next to edges of high contrast, some blurriness at the edges, and evidence of noise, even at ISO 100. All in all, the S51c is not the sharpest camera you’ll find on the market today, though similarly-priced Nikon point-and-shoots, such as the Coolpix S510, don’t perform much better.
Noise – Manual ISO*(3.07)*
Digital images are always subject to image "noise,' the grainy or splotchy effect that can be seen in photos, especially at higher ISO speeds. We test noise levels by photographing our test chart under bright, even studio lights at every ISO speed available. Imatest measures noise by the percentage of image detail it drowns out.
The S51c is a noisy camera at all ISO speeds. Noise is apparent even at ISO 100, especially if the photos are viewed or printed large. The noise itself is scattered with colored splotches, which you can see up close by clicking on the still life images farther down the page. The blue noise is especially strong and gives photos a blue tint, especially at higher ISO speeds. At ISO 800 and 1600, it is apparent the photos have been "smoothed," meaning information is smoothed over to lessen the impact of the noise. Yet noise levels are still high, yielding images with nasty noise as well as less detail. This is one of the noisiest cameras we have seen this year.
Noise – Auto ISO*(1.20)*
We also set the camera to Auto ISO and photograph the test chart under the same conditions as above. The S51c chooses ISO 200 under the bright studio lights. This is normally a reasonable choice for this light level, but the S51c is quite noisy at ISO 200, yielding a poor Auto ISO score.
**Still Life Sequences
***Click to view the high resolution images*
Good white balance accuracy is essential to producing attractive and accurate colors. Each type of light source has a different color cast, and cameras must be able to adjust accordingly. We test white balance by photographing the ColorChecker chart under four types of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor shade, and tungsten. We test the Auto white balance setting, as well as the appropriate white balance presets found in the Shooting menu.
*Set to Auto white balance, the S51c’s accuracy is poor under all four types of light. Usually we would suggest just using the presets instead, but they hardly fare any better.
Using the white balance presets, the camera is fairly accurate under tungsten lights, but poor with the flash, in fluorescent light, and in outdoor shade. Depending on the subject you are shooting, you may very well notice odd color casts to your photos with this camera. The only way to really make this go away is by manually white balancing with a white card.
Not all your shooting will be done in brightly lit conditions, which is why we also test camera performance in low light. We dim the studio lights to 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux to test the limits of camera sensors. Sixty lux corresponds to the amount of light in a room lit softly by two table lamps, 30 lux is about as bright as a room lit solely by a 40-watt bulb, and 15 and 5 lux are very low light that test the limits of a sensor. All shots are taken at ISO 1600.
The S51c cannot quite expose properly at 5 lux, showing that the camera has its limits, even at such a high ISO speed. Noise levels are very high in low light, though color accuracy stays quite even.
We also test performance at long shutter speeds, but only at ISO 400. The slowest shutter speed we could get the S51c to use at ISO 400 was 1 second, where it showed significant noise and poor color accuracy. It can also be difficult to expose properly in dimly lit situations because the S51c has no options for metering. This camera can capture non-blurry photos in low light, but they aren’t going to look great.
*Dynamic range is a measure of a camera’s tonal range, i.e. the range of gray tones it can discern. High dynamic range is especially important in scenes with high contrast, such as a photo of a building in bright sunlight that has both bright highlights and dark shadows. A camera with poor dynamic range blows out the highlights and fails to show any detail in the shadows. We measure dynamic range by photographing a backlit Stouffer step chart at all ISO speeds. The Stouffer chart is made up of a long row of gray rectangles, varying in tone from brightest white to darkest black. The more rectangles a camera can detect, the better its dynamic range.
The S51c has decent dynamic range at ISO 100, but then drops steadily at higher ISO speeds. As is the case with most cameras, keeping the S51c at ISO 100 whenever possible produces the nicest looking photos. Dynamic range is linked closely with noise levels because noise hides subtle tonal variations, hurting dynamic range. Many point-and-shoot cameras have trouble with dynamic range, and the S51 performs slightly below average for the year.
Speed/Timing – All speed tests were conducted using a Kingston Ultimate 120X 2GB SD Card, with the camera set to highest resolution and best quality, unless otherwise noted.
Startup to First Shot (3.0)
Not only does the small size of the S51c's on/off button make it quite hard to turn on, but there is a lengthy delay before you can take a photo. We measured at least 7 seconds from the time the button was pressed until the photo was taken photo, though it is quite inconsistent.
The S51c has two continuous shooting modes, Continuous and Multi-Shot 16. In Continuous mode, the camera takes photos every 1.2 seconds for more than100 shots. It is nice that the length isn’t limited, but 1.2 seconds between shots won’t allow you to capture much dramatic action, especially if it happens quickly – like a baseball swing.
*The S51c has a 0.1-second delay, even when prefocused, and a 0.7-second delay when not prefocused.
*The camera takes 2.3 seconds to process on 3.2 MB photo taken at ISO 125.
Video Performance*(3.94) *
Bright Indoor Light – 3000 lux
We capture footage of our color charts with studio lights adjusted to 3000 lux. The S51c has tremendous color error, and there is no way to adjust white balance in Movie mode. Noise levels, however, are quite low.
Low Light – 30 lux
In low light, color error is also extremely high. Noise levels are quite high, as well, partly due to the fact the camera has trouble exposing properly in low light.
We also capture footage of the resolution test chart. In highest quality video mode, the S51c records 147 lw/ph horizontally with 24 percent undersharpening, and 487 lw/ph vertically with 11 percent undersharpening. Such a large disparity between horizontal and vertical sharpness is quite unusual, and you can see its effect in the two crops below.
We take cameras outside to see how they capture moving cars and pedestrians. The S51c has nice color and exposure, but suffers from a soft focus, motion moiré, blue shadows, some evident noise, and some jerkiness to objects moving off the frame. This camera is further evidence that digital camera video is still nowhere near camcorder quality.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c doesn’t have room for an optical viewfinder because of its enormous 3-inch LCD screen. The big LCD makes a decent viewfinder, though. It has good resolution and a decent refresh rate, although moving subjects look a little choppy as they traverse across the screen. The S51c’s LCD has a 100 percent accurate view of the recorded frame, whether in Shooting or Playback mode. This is an upgrade over Nikon’s current P-series offerings, the P50 and P5100, which have only 97 percent accuracy.
Live viewing is great indoors, but a little tougher under harsher lighting; the screen seems to wash out when under the sun. It’s hard to tell whether the screen is washed out or the images are overexposed; it seemed the problem was the LCD, but then when images were loaded to the computer we realized many of them were overexposed.
We like to view file information when shooting, but hide it when playing the images back on the LCD screen. That’s a tough order for the Nikon Coolpix S51c. Users have to enter the Setup menu to change any of the information shown on the LCD screen. This is done through the mode button, which isn’t very intuitive because many cameras access the setup options through the menu button instead. The S51c’s display options are in a "monitor settings" menu that contains photo info and brightness submenus. The photo info can be shown, hidden, or automated (this is the default; it shows the info for five seconds and then hides it). A framing grid can also be added to the full file info already shown.
Viewing images isn’t a problem on the large LCD, but switching the amount of information shown is a pain because of its placement in the hidden Setup menu.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c is equipped with a 3-inch LCD screen that has 230,000 pixels. These are excellent specs, putting the S51c near the top of the line in this department. This used to be the high standard, but the Sony G1 stole that designation when it came out with its 3.5-inch, 921,000-pixel LCD screen. The G1 is a direct competitor of the S51c with its wireless technology, but costs a whopping $599.
The S51c’s LCD is very similar to its predecessor’s LCD, which measures 3 inches and has the same resolution. The only difference is that the older S50c has a wider viewing angle of 170 degrees rather than the S51c’s 160 degrees. The new S51c’s viewing angle still looks excellent; the image on the screen can be seen from above, below, and to the sides of the photographer’s face.
There is an anti-reflection coating on the Coolpix S51c’s LCD screen. It doesn’t seem to do much in the sunlight, where the screen looks washed out. The bigger problem is the amount of grease that collects on the LCD; fingerprints are reflected in the sunlight, making it hard to see the image beneath.
The brightness of the LCD can be adjusted on a five-step scale to combat the problem in the sunlight. Good luck finding it when out in the sun, though. The brightness option is buried. Most digital cameras have a display button on the camera body, but the Nikon Coolpix S51c hides its brightness options in the Setup menu, accessible through the mode button – none of this is very intuitive.
The built-in flash is located directly to the left of the lens when viewing from the front. It has powerful specs that state it can reach from 1 foot to 19 feet, 8 inches when the lens is zoomed out and 13 feet, 1.5 inches with the lens zoomed in. These specs are more impressive than the flash really is, though.
The flash on the Nikon Coolpix S51c caused the most red eyes we’ve seen on any digital camera in 2007. About 70 percent of images taken with people in them and using the Auto Flash mode came out with red eyes.
Nikon advertises an in-camera red-eye fix, but it is nowhere to be found on the camera. I searched through menus and pushed buttons, but the red eyes wouldn’t disappear. There is an automatic exposure fix in the Playback mode, but it did nothing for the red eyes in images.
The Flash modes are found by pushing the top of the rotary dial. A small submenu appears with Auto, On with Red-Eye, Off, On, and Slow Sync options. The flash seems too powerful for subjects closer than five feet and too weak for subjects more than 12 feet away. The coverage isn’t very even, either: the central third of the image is very bright, while both edges are significantly darker.
Overall, the flash isn’t as powerful as its specs indicate, and its uneven coverage and unavoidable red eyes are not flattering.
**Zoom Lens (6.5)
**There aren’t many changes in the set of components: the LCD and flash are nearly the same as those on the S50c. The 3x optical zoom lens is the same story. It comes with the same lens-shift optical vibration reduction system. The optical image stabilization can’t be used in the Movie mode, and neither can the optical zoom for that matter, but it is effective in minimizing blur in still images.
The Zoom-Nikkor lens measures 6.3-18.9mm, which is equivalent to 38-114mm. This isn’t a very wide angle, so users will have trouble shooting landscapes and big group portraits. The Sony G1 has the same equivalent 38-114mm range, so this is certainly a common problem for tiny internal lenses. Users who want a wider and longer lens should go for the compact Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 with its extending 10x, 28-280mm lens that is also equipped with optical image stabilization.
The S51c’s lens seems to cause problems for its images. There were all kinds of undesirable lens phenomena: color fringing, lens vignetting, white ghosting, and blurry edges.
The zoom is controlled by an undersized sliver of chrome that is placed in the upper right corner of the back and rocks to the right and left. When touched, a horizontal bar graphic appears across the top of the LCD screen. The control allows the lens to stop at eight focal lengths within the 3x range and access the available 4x digital zoom.
There are 12 elements in nine groups that make up the 3x lens, and they must shift quietly because the lens doesn’t make a peep. The lens operates with an electronically controlled aperture that opens to f/3.3 when zoomed out and f/4.2 when zoomed in; this doesn’t let much light pass through to the image sensor, but is common on tiny lenses.
The placement of the Coolpix S51c’s lens can be troublesome. It is positioned in the upper right corner of the camera when viewing from the front; this is where the left fingers curl around and grip. I snapped several pictures of my left index finger.
The lens is poorly placed in the way of the left fingers. That combined with its narrow 38-114mm range and the abundance of lens distortion and phenomena make it another low quality component on the list.
Design / Layout
Model Design / Appearance(7.75)
The Nikon Coolpix S51c is one of the most stylish digital cameras on the market. It combines a silvery front plate with a glossy black back plate, and melds it together with chrome highlights and sides. The S51c’s surface is smooth – almost greasy – and looks good. The metal body makes it feel sturdy, although shaking the S51c when turned off will make users think otherwise. It sounds like something is too loose when turned off; it’s like shaking a Christmas present that hasn’t been wrapped well. This problem only occurs when turned off, though. As for its appearance, the Nikon S51c looks great and fits well into the "Style" lineup of Coolpix digital cameras.
**Size / Portability (7.75)
**One of the best characteristics of this digital camera is its tiny size. Its body is fairly flat, and the wavy contour makes it even easier to slide into a pocket. The greasy smooth surface helps, too. The Nikon Coolpix S51c measures 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches and weighs a mere 4.4 ounces without the battery and SD memory card. This makes it a great camera for consumers on the go. The camera comes with a thin fabric wrist strap that attaches to an eyelet on the right side.
Portability is a strong point, but it comes at the expense of comfortable handling. The greasy smooth surface is great for sliding into a pocket, but not so great for holding in place and snapping a picture. There isn’t a hand or finger grip. There isn’t a thumb rest on the back. And when you hold it with both hands, you have to be careful not to block the lens with the left fingers. It can be handled with only one hand, but it’s tougher because of the slick surface.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size(5.5)
The control buttons on the Nikon Coolpix S51c are tiny. If you have large fingers, don’t bother with this slim model. Its buttons are for those who trim their fingernails to points. The only button that is adequately sized is the shutter release button atop the camera.
For the most part, the buttons are labeled intuitively. On the top of the camera are two round buttons labeled with icons not seen often. These buttons are for the automatic fix/face detection and picture mail functions.
The S51c has a neato rotary dial that also acts like a standard multi-selector. It can navigate through menus and modes by pushing on the sides or by rotating either way. Rotation is much easier on the fingers than the constant pushing a traditional multi-selector requires. This interesting control doesn’t make up for the overall miniscule size of the buttons, though; whatever positive step was made in handling because of the rotary dial is lost with the other tiny buttons.
The Shooting menu is easy to find, as there is a designated menu button on the camera. The S51c’s menu is similar to those on other Coolpix digital cameras. It has a light gray background with black text on it showing the options. The selected option appears with a yellow background. If you are confused about any particular option, you can push the telephoto end of the zoom control and a help guide appears with a brief explanation of what the option does. For instance, the ISO sensitivity is explained as "Control the camera’s sensitivity to light. Displayed in ISO equivalent settings." The following is the Shooting menu.
The Setup menu isn’t as easily accessible. Most digital cameras offer a portal of some form from the Shooting menu, but the Nikon S51c hides the Setup menu among the exposure modes. Instead of pushing the menu button to access the Setup menu (that would make sense, wouldn’t it?), users have to push the mode button and scroll along the virtual mode dial with the rotary control to the setup icon. This positioning takes some getting used to.
The Setup menu has an option to select text or icon displays of the menus. The icon display is awful, though. The icons aren’t very intuitive and they are all so crunched together that it makes them difficult to see.
Overall, the Shooting menu is very intuitive, but the Setup menu makes it difficult to find and adjust settings, like LCD brightness, and tough to perform functions, like formatting the memory card.
Ease of Use(6.0)
Could an average person pick up this camera and take a picture? Definitely. The Nikon Coolpix S51c is a classic point-and-shoot that can snap pictures with the push of the shutter release button. It automates just about everything. But there are a lot of cameras that can do that. The S51c’s cool features are also its most difficult to figure out. Take the wireless transfer technology, for instance. Only users who know what a WEP is should attempt this. The camera can automatically find a hot spot, but it needs the password. This is only half the battle. Uploading images to Nikon’s photo sharing site, My Picturetown, isn’t flawless. You have to register with the site first, which requires you get some key information off the camera, which must be dug from the Setup menu. Granted, all of this is possible when reading through the user manual or hacking through the age-old process of trial-and-error. But is the S51c’s wireless easy to use? I don’t think so.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c is a little automatic beast, although it doesn’t have a true Auto mode. It has a camera icon on its virtual mode dial, but it acts as more of a Program mode because it allows you to adjust parameters like ISO, exposure compensation, and white balance. This mode remembers its settings, so the camera turns on and uses the same settings as it did when it was on last time (this can be good or bad). Sure, the settings can be individually set to "auto," but a true Auto mode doesn’t even bother to extend that option. The S51c’s pseudo-Auto mode is also the mode with the most manual controls. There’s just something odd about that.
**Move Mode (6.75)
**The Nikon Coolpix S51c has a horrible Movie mode. This is an unfortunate trend among newer Coolpix digital cameras, particularly the P50 and P5100 that we’ve recently reviewed. The Nikon S51c’s Movie mode has the same resolution options: 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 pixels. It has different frame rates than the previously mentioned Coolpix models.
Its top resolution records 30 frames per second (fps), and there’s also a 640 x 480-pixel option labeled "Pictmotion 60" in the menu. This doesn’t mean 60 fps. This means 60 seconds. This mode records 10 fps for up to one minute and is specifically designed to fit into Pictmotion video shows.
The 320 x 240-pixel resolution records 30 fps, while the low-resolution 160 x 120-pixel videos capture only 15 fps. There is also a stop-motion movie option that records 640 x 480 pixels for up to 1,800 images. These can be played back at 5, 10, or 15 fps. This is a fun feature for teens: they can make inanimate objects "move" in these videos and perhaps be the next YouTube stars.
The Movie mode’s performance isn’t as glamorous, though. There are some serious limitations. The optical zoom cannot be used, and the 2x digital zoom that is available degrades the already poor image quality. Shooting in low light is nearly impossible: noise is ridiculously high and speckles the image with purple and blue dots. The colors are horrid in most lighting because there isn’t any manual white balance control. The focus is soft, there are moiré and other issues from the lens, and the audio makes subjects sound like they’re drowning in pudding.
Video can be played back on the camera with sound, but it cannot be edited. Another boon to the S51c.
The Nikon S51c limits video recording to 2 GB, and we don’t recommend that you shoot even that much. Don’t buy this camera for its Movie mode, and avoid using the Movie mode altogether.
Drive / Burst Mode (5.0)
The Nikon Coolpix S51c won’t be known for its speed. Its default is set to single and its other options include Continuous and Multi-Shot 16. When the single drive is activated, it takes the camera about 4 seconds between shots (with the flash turned off). The Continuous burst mode quickens that pace to a shot every 1.2 seconds and can do so for up to 100 shots. This is slower than the Nikon S6, another Wi-Fi-enabled Coolpix in the "style" series, which can shoot 2.2 fps. The Multi-Shot 16 mode snaps 16 images and stitches them into a single 3200 x 2400-pixel image that looks like a quilt when all is said and done. The camera’s self-timer is activated from the left side of the multi-selector and delays picture-taking by 3 or 10 seconds. It flashes a bright orange beam to indicate when the picture will be taken.
The Playback mode can be viewed even when the camera is turned off; the playback button on the back acts as another sort of power button. It turns the camera on directly in the Playback mode. You can also go the traditional route by pushing the playback button from the Shooting mode; either way works. Users can scroll through images by pushing on the right and left sides of the multi-selector. It is faster and more comfortable on the thumb to rotate the dial. This action makes half a virtual dial appear with thumbnails on it. One image is always selected and enlarged. Pushing the OK button returns you to the original view.
The view is nice and large with the S51c’s 3-inch LCD screen and 230,000-pixel resolution. This digital camera offers a lot of perks in the Playback mode. Users can create Pictmotion slide shows by selecting up to 200 images from the Pictmotion position on the virtual Playback mode dial. Background music can be added, too; there are preloaded tracks and you can add more with the included software. More details on this are available in the Pictmotion Playback menu.
The Pictmotion feature is interesting, but it takes the camera a few minutes to create even a simple one. Be sure the battery is charged up and there is space on the memory card for a show.
The playback options are a bit scant, and are found in another menu.
Images can be viewed on a calendar or listed by the date from the Playback mode’s virtual dial. It is from this dial that users can send photos to Nikon’s online photo sharing website, my Picturetown. You can scroll through and select images to send, then push down the shutter release button. The camera then searches for a hot spot, displays SSID options, and allows you to input the WEP so it can transfer images.
This is where the camera actually connects to Wi-Fi. This can be a bit confusing because there is a button atop the camera, the "picture mail button," that sounds similar. This only marks pictures for e-mailing; it doesn’t actually e-mail them. Next to that button is another button that functions in the Playback mode: the perfect fix button, which applies an automatic exposure fix to brighten underexposed images and supposedly eliminate red-eye. It brightened images wonderfully, but red eyes did not disappear.
Overall, the Playback mode is great. The large high-resolution LCD screen paired with the fancy, musical Pictmotion shows makes it fun. The rotary dial is a nice control to have for navigating quickly through lots of images, too.
Custom Image Presets(8.0)
The Nikon S51c has a nice set of Scene modes that include High ISO directly on the virtual mode dial. This mode keeps the image size at full-resolution, unlike some digital cameras that reduce the image size. However, this mode is still not something you want to use often. It increases the ISO to 1600, which makes it easier to photograph subjects without the flash. It may stop the action, but it will also introduce so much noise that it will make your subjects look like they’ve been attacked by a swarm of locusts.
The other Scene modes are located in a position on the mode dial. Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close Up, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist are in the menu, along with the image size option. No other settings, such as white balance, can be changed in the Shooting menu. The exposure compensation, available from the multi-selector, can be accessed, though.
Oddly, the Portrait mode doesn’t automatically activate the face detection system. Users still have to push the button atop the camera. This seems like a basic logical move; most digital cameras equipped with face detection now link the technology with the Portrait mode. It makes sense. It is like linking the Continuous burst mode with the Sports mode: thank goodness the S51c got that one right.
Manual Control Options
The Coolpix S51c isn’t built for manual control enthusiasts. It is made for consumers who want to conveniently take pictures on the fly without having to fuss about which shutter speed is appropriate for the current lighting situation. The S51c has automated modes and only a few manual controls, such as white balance and ISO.
This is one of the most important areas in which a camera should perform well. The Nikon Coolpix S51c’s specs indicate it can focus from 1 foot (30 centimeters) to infinity normally and from 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) in the Macro focus mode. The normal focus mode’s specs are believable, as the contrast detection system seemed to work at that distance. The camera has trouble with macro subjects, though. It seems to achieve the proper focus, only to breathe out of focus before snapping the picture. The Macro focus mode is finicky and rarely produces focused results.
The focus area can be changed from the default 5-area Auto mode to Center or Manual. The Manual focus area mode allows you to scroll to 99 different points around the frame and choose one to focus on. This takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for the S51c, which doesn’t have a speedy system.
When the camera’s focus is locked, it takes it a tenth of a second to take a picture. That may not seem like much, but almost all digital cameras don’t have a measurable lag in this situation. This isn’t the fault of the autofocus system, but it only gets worse. When the camera is not prefocused and has a static subject in front of it, it takes the autofocus system and other processes 0.7 seconds to snap a picture. This is long enough that babies will stop smiling, grandparents will turn their heads, teens will start texting on their cell phones, and there will be plenty of blinked eyes along with the red eyes. Not pretty.
When the camera thinks the lighting is too low and its autofocus system needs some help (which is quite often), it shoots out an autofocus assist beam. The beam is bright orange and so piercing that several family members joked they were being wounded by a light saber (Star Wars fans abound).
Nikon digital cameras have included face priority autofocus technology for a few years, but only in 2007 did they upgrade the technology to reasonable standards. It is fast and up to par with other manufacturers in terms of speed, although it recognizes up to five faces when other manufacturers are detecting eight (Sony), 15 (Panasonic), and 35 (Canon). The big problem with the S51c’s face priority system is its accessibility. You have to remember to push the button on top of the camera. The feature isn’t automatically activated in the Portrait mode, like it is on most other digital cameras.
Overall, the autofocus system is slow and unreliable. It is very soft in the Movie mode, and not much better in most still images, even when shooting in perfect lighting.
Manual Focus (0.0)
There is no such feature on the Nikon Coolpix S51c.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c has a fairly common ISO range, with an automatic setting that boosts up to ISO 800 and the following manual settings: 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600. Most digital cameras have one more option below 100 – 50, 64, or 80 are the common choices – but the S51c opts to forgo those. This is an unfortunate move for consumers because of the ridiculous noise levels that occur all across the ISO sensitivity range. Even at ISO 100, noise is high. And it only goes up.
More details are available in the Testing/Performance section, but the Coolpix S51c’s images are speckled with noise and are smoothed over at ISO 800 and 1600. The dynamic range, or range of tones that can be captured at once, is acceptable at ISO 100 but drops off after that. Don’t get excited about the 100-1600 ISO range, because the higher sensitivities ruin the image quality.
The camera’s white balance settings are tucked into the Shooting menu, where they show up with a live preview for a background. The preview makes choosing a setting easier because you can see the effects of each option immediately. There is an automatic white balance setting that performs similarly to daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, and flash settings. Usually, we recommend the auto over the presets or vice versa, but nothing performed particularly well. More on that in the Testing/Performance section. The saving grace is the presence of the Manual white balance, which is easy to set and allows users to capture much more accurate colors.
The shutter speed and aperture cannot be manually selected, but the exposure compensation can be adjusted – if you can find it. It is located on the right side of the rotary dial, but the icon that indicates its presence is wrapped around to the right side where no one can see it from the back.
The exposure compensation has the typical +/- 2 range in steps of a third and can be adjusted on a scale with a large live preview. Images are often slightly overexposed when the exposure is left up to the camera.
There is a D-lighting feature in the Playback mode that acts as an automatic exposure fix, but it works better on dark images than on overexposed images. It can fix contrast problems in overexposed images, but it can’t retrieve information that isn’t there.
The S51c doesn’t have a metering choice in its Shooting menu; the exposure metering is all dependent upon a center-weighted 224-segment matrix system. This is a big problem with this camera, and causes many outdoor images to look overexposed. There is a Backlight scene mode that uses spot metering and does a little better of a job in that area, but other options like the white balance and ISO can’t be accessed.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c has a shutter speed range that stays within 1-1/2000 of a second, except in the Fireworks scene mode, where it slows to 4 seconds. This is typical of a compact digital camera. The S51c is equipped with a mechanical and charge-coupled electronic shutter that flips after the shutter release button is pushed to capture the shot. Unfortunately, there is a little lag time; see the Testing/Performance section.
The Zoom-Nikkor 3x optical zoom lens has an f/3.3 max aperture that isn’t exceptionally wide but is typical of tiny internal lenses. The Sony G1’s internal lens opens to an even smaller f/3.5, as does the 3x internal lens on the Olympus 790SW. The Casio V8’s 7x optical zoom lens opens to f/3.4. The Nikon S51c’s f/3.3 max comes when zoomed out; the max shrinks to f/4.2 when zoomed in. The smallest the aperture can go is f/6.6. Many extending lenses have wider apertures, though. The Panasonic TZ3’s 10x optical zoom lens opens to f/2.8.
**Picture Quality / Size Options (8.0)
**The S51c’s predecessor, the S50c, has only 7.2 megapixels. The Nikon S51c upgrades to 8.1 megapixels on the same 1/2.5-inch CCD. The following image sizes are available: 3264 x 2448, 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480, and 3200 x 1800 (16:9). You can resize images in the Playback menu to 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 pixels.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c not only upgrades its image sensor, but its processor too. It comes with a new Expeed image processor that is also included on other Coolpix cameras, including the "performance series" P5100 and P50 models.
**Picture Effects Mode (6.25)
**The Nikon S51c has only a few color options when the camera is set to Auto mode. The color options in the menu include standard color, vivid color, black-and-white, sepia, and cyanotype. There is a live preview of the selected item in the menu, which is a nice feature for beginners who can’t quite picture what images will look like in cyanotype without actually scrolling onto it. These color effects are only available in the Shooting mode, not the Playback mode like on some other digital cameras, such as the Canon A720IS.
Connectivity / Extras
The S51c comes with a Nikon Coolpix software suite CD-ROM that includes Nikon Transfer software, QuickTime, ArcSoft PanoramaMaker 4, and Kodak EasyShare Software. Yes, you read that right. Apparently Kodak’s software is now coming with Nikon’s digital cameras. We can’t offer any explanation for that move. We’re baffled, too.
The transfer software isn’t very exciting and is made for computers that come with absolutely nothing on them. Most computers come preinstalled with some form of image-fetching program that grabs pictures off digital cameras. In case yours doesn’t, Nikon included this extremely basic program for you. It uploads images only: no viewing, browsing, editing, etc. Save that for Kodak.
The Kodak EasyShare Software doesn’t automatically load images every time the camera is connected to the computer. Images and folders must be loaded manually. Once there, images can be viewed as thumbnails or as lists of details. The size of the thumbnails can be adjusted and all of the images can be selected to create albums, slide shows, CDs, or DVDs.
There are easily-accessible buttons for these functions across the top of the window. There are also easy buttons to add pictures and edit them. Editing features include cropping, rotating, eliminating red eyes, enhancing, color balancing, and a few other effects. There is an option called "scene balance" that is similar to color balance but has simpler preset terms. Scene effects and fun effects are also available.
There are links from the software to print at home, e-mail, make creative projects (mugs and such – a direct marketing ploy to use Kodak’s online services), and order prints online. Overall, the Kodak EasyShare Software is good for casual photographers but won’t suffice for anyone who wants to do more than crop pictures.
Jacks, ports, plugs(4.0)
The Nikon Coolpix S51c has a single port on its bottom that connects to just about everything. The camera comes with an octopus-like cable that has AV-out and USB jacks on it. The AV-out function can be set to NTSC or PAL standards. The USB can be set to MTP or PTP. The high-speed USB transfer is – in my opinion – preferable to the slow wireless transfer. The Wi-Fi might be good to transfer one or two images to a Smartphone every once in awhile, but the USB cable will be handy for large batches of images and videos. The port on the bottom of the camera has a flaw: its placement makes it necessary to place it on its side to be hooked up. This leaves the LCD and metal sheen vulnerable to scratching. The multi-connector port on the bottom is there for a reason, though: the camera can connect directly to ImageLink printers. The camera even comes with a plastic insert that sits atop ImageLink printers so the S51c fits just right.
Direct Print Options(8.0)
Images can be printed directly from the camera via the USB cable. The Nikon S51c is PictBridge and ImageLink compatible, and it comes with a plastic insert and a port on its bottom to hook directly to an ImageLink printer. DPOF print orders can be created in the Playback menu. The date and time can be imprinted onto images, as selected in the Setup menu. The Wi-Fi feature can print images indirectly. You can load images to my Picturetown, Nikon’s photo sharing website, and then print the pictures with an online service.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c comes with an EN-EL8 rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It is incredibly thin and its size is telling of its battery life: weak. It can only snap about 150 shots before needing a charge. This is not impressive. The wireless-enabled Canon SD430 also has a disappointing 150-shot lithium-ion battery, but the li-ion battery in the Panasonic TZ3 gets 270 shots per charge.
The S51c’s battery takes two hours to charge. It charges while in the camera body; the camera comes with a power adapter that plugs into the bottom. This can be a problem because the camera has to rest on its side, which leaves the smooth front or the glassy back vulnerable to scratching.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c comes with 13 MB of internal memory, enough to hold only four full-resolution images. This seems skimpy when compared to other Nikon digital cameras such as the Coolpix P50 and P5100: they have 52 MB of internal memory. All of these are dwarfed by the wireless-enabled Sony G1, which has a whopping 2 GB of internal memory. The Nikon S51c has a slot in its battery compartment that accepts SD and/or SDHC memory cards. This is the most common and most inexpensive form of memory. In the Playback menu, users can move files from the internal memory to the memory card and vice versa.
Built-in Wi-Fi – This is the feature that distinguishes the S51c from its sister model, the S51. Nikon placed a flashing blue LED on the camera’s left side to make it a more visible feature; the LED lights up when the Wi-Fi is being accessed. Nikon also includes a "picture mail" button on the top that resizes images to 1600 x 1200 pixels and saves them to Nikon’s my Picturetown online sharing site. It also sends out an e-mail to specified recipients with a link to the album. The resizing is unfortunate, as users will have to transfer the full-resolution images for printing anyway. Users can transfer images to smartphones, e-mail albums to family members, and send images directly to Flickr accounts straight from the camera. Early adopters also have an advantage: they can store up to 20 GB of images until March 2, 2008 with a Gold Account. After March, up to 2 GB of storage space is free on Nikon’s servers for your images. Every Nikon S51c comes with a complimentary six-month subscription to T-Mobile HotSpot Wi-Fi service, something the older S50c didn’t come with. The Nikon S51c uses an IEEE 802.11b/g connection to transfer images without lugging out the wires. This isn’t flawless technology, though: it takes almost a minute for each image to transfer. It is good for a small handful of images, but is still so much faster when wired. There isn’t much setup involved in the Wi-Fi feature – although users do need to know their WEP key – but users must register with Nikon’s new photo sharing site, my Picturetown, to e-mail albums and store images.
Best Shot Selector – The shooting menu has a BSS item with on and off options. This feature snaps a string of up to 10 photos, but only saves one. The camera automatically chooses the sharpest shot and deletes the rest. This feature is automatically activated in the Museum scene mode, so watch out for disappearing pictures.
The Nikon Coolpix S51c is one of the least expensive wireless-enabled digital cameras on the market. It originally retailed for $329 when it was announced in August 2007, but Nikon bumped the price down to $299 in time for the holiday shopping season. The S51c has a much more attractive price tag when compared to the wireless Sony G1, which retails for $599. However, the wireless feature shouldn’t be the main draw: imaging capabilities should have something to do with the value. When those are considered, the Nikon S51c loses value. It performs horribly in almost every way (see Testing/Performance), making the $299 tag look overpriced.
Nikon Coolpix S51 – This digital camera is almost exactly the same as the S51c with the exception of the Wi-Fi. The S51 has 8.1 megapixels, an internal 3x optical zoom lens, image stabilization, and a 3-inch LCD screen. It has the same palette of exposure modes and features and comes with the same Pictmotion video slide shows. It retails for $279.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-G1 – The G1 is Sony’s first wireless digital camera and can transfer images to Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) products, including computers and other cameras. The 6-megapixel camera has a similar compact body with a 3x internal lens. It also has a sliding cover to protect the glass on the front. On the back of the camera is a 3.5-inch LCD screen with an incredible 921,000 pixels. The Sony G1 comes with 2 GB of internal memory – enough to hold 600 full-resolution pictures – and an album organization system that allows users to search images by keyword, face, color, or composition. The new technology comes at a high price though: $599.
Canon PowerShot SD430 – This 5-megapixel digital camera was announced in October 2005 but is still on the product lineup two years later. It retails for $499 and comes with Wi-Fi technology. It has a 3x optical zoom lens with a wider 35-105mm range and a wider f/2.8 aperture. Its shutter speeds are geared for longer exposures with the 15-1/1500 of a second range, although its ISO range is relatively scant at 50-400. The Canon SD430 adds an optical viewfinder, but has a small 2-inch LCD screen with 118,000 pixels. It has a healthy set of Scene modes and plenty of color effects, along with a faster 2.1 fps Burst mode. It has a similar skinny 150-shot battery.
Kodak EasyShare V610 – The V610 uses Bluetooth wireless technology that can receive and send files from other Bluetooth-enabled devices within 40 feet. There isn’t much setup and transfer speeds are faster. This EasyShare has a slim 0.9-inch body and two internal lenses that add up to 10x optical zoom. The 6.1-megapixel digital camera has a 2.5-inch LCD screen with the same 230,000-pixel resolution. It sells for $349.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 – This compact digital camera isn’t as flat but still has pocketable measurements of 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.5 inches. It doesn’t have wireless transfer, but has higher quality components and takes much better pictures. The 7.2-megapixel TZ3 has a 10x optical zoom lens with a wider 28mm angle and an optical image stabilization system. It also has a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels. Despite advertising less resolution, the TZ3’s 7.2 megapixels are more effective than the 8.1 megapixels on the Nikon S51c. The Panasonic TZ3 also has very accurate colors, less noise, more speed, and better dynamic range and low light performance. It retails for $349 and sells for about $300 online.
Who It’s For**
Point-and-Shooters – This slim digital camera can fit in a pocket and is easy to use: that’s all this audience could ask for.
Budget Consumers – This crowd won’t like the $299 price tag on the S51c, but may check out the less expensive Nikon S51.
Gadget Freaks – The S51c will satisfy their craving to sync digital cameras with smartphones, laptops, and computers.
Manual Control Freaks – The S51c is all about style and not so much about manual controls, so these users won’t even give this camera a thought.
Pros/ Serious Hobbyists – Simply put: not a chance.
The S51c looks very neat,
But its performance was a bust.
It seems this release is incomplete;
Future improvements are a must.
Resolution is poor.
The colors aren’t true.
Starting up is a chore.
The noise levels grew.
Bad pics from this camera abound;
Cheap components are partly to blame.
The only good quality to be found
Is the big LCD – what a shame!
The $299 price is a temptation
But the poor-quality images are more than a few.
The slow Wi-Fi causes aggravation.
In the end, the Coolpix S51c won’t please you.
**Click on the thumbnails to view full resolution images
Specs / Ratings