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Product: Coolpix S2 camera

Manufacturer: Nikon

Relevance: The Nikon Coolpix S2 is a five megapixel point-and-shoot, suitable for high-end prosumers and low-end professional work. While it is not an SLR, it does possess many high-end features that busy pros will love – including easy operation, a very low profile, fast set-up and cycle time and a long battery life.

Review: We were quite impressed with Nikon's new Coolpix S2. Rather than just another digital camera trying to squeeze its way into the crowded marketplace, the S2 sports a compact size, high resolution capture for its class, a powerful feature set and well, just cool good looks.

The Coolpix S2 is a surprisingly powerful, truly pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera with a maximum resolution of 5.1 megapixels. Unlike lower end cameras on the market today designed to hit a particular consumer price point, the Coolpix S2 is extremely well made, feature-packed and very portable. As we said, it really does fit into a pocket. And we're talking here about a shirt pocket!

Installing the S2 is a simple matter. The camera comes with Nikon's MV-12 Cool Station, a dark gray docking station that doubles as both a power adapter connector and a file transfer enabler. A dock metaphor is familiar to those who love PDAs and other small digital appliances, but is a bit of an anomaly in the camera world. No matter, it's easy.

To prepare the camera for first-time use, you insert Nikon's EN-EL8 lithium-ion battery into the S2, as well as its memory card using the hinged access door. You then plug in two cables (power and USB), swing the S2's rubberized plastic stopper out of the way and place the camera in its dock.

We liked the feedback we received while charging the battery: the blinking green light means the battery is charging; solid green means the Coolpix S2 is fully charged. We found that the our first-time charging took less than the two hours promised by the manual.

Unfortunately for field or combat reporters, the S2 cannot use more ubiquitous AA batteries. Although we found the EN-EL8 battery was very quick and easy to charge, it could conceivably present problems for some photographers when power runs low – and you don't have the MV-12 Cool Station (i.e., the charging dock) handy. This said, in the month we had the camera, we never ran out of power – nor did we get close. So perhaps we're just being overly cautious.

One strange thing we did discover, however, is that the camera doesn't charge when the device is turned on. This situation could occur, for example, after you're done transferring files (more about file transfers in a few moments). You need to have the camera in the dock and the power on to transfer files; but if you want to charge the camera as well, you have to remember to turn off the camera manually. This was no big deal, we just thought it was strange the camera needed to be powered off for the juice to be flowing into the camera.

Like all digital cameras, the Coolpix S2 also requires a memory card. Three manufacturers have been approved by Nikon for this camera including SanDisk, Panasonic and Toshiba. We were happy to see that all three manufacturers produced so-called "high-speed" cards. These faster than standard cards help photographers store images a lot faster in breaking situations where quick shooting is required. According to Nikon, the maximum storage capacity for each card is currently set at 1 GB.

Taking pictures
After a few moments spent configuring the camera's language (besides English, the S2 is able to display messages in 11 other languages), date and time, we were off taking pictures. We were surprised how well the S2 fit into our hands with our small-handed reviewer taking a special liking to the camera. To power on the camera, you simply slide the lens cover straight down about one centimeter (roughly one-half inch).

There is a very small "beep" when turning on the S2 but it is almost imperceptible, making this a reasonable choice for low profile photography (although the S2's beautiful shiny nickel colored lens cover might attract a few looks). If the camera goes into its power-save mode, you can easily reset it by half-pressing the shutter release button. A small beep is then produced. Photographers wishing to avoid the beep can slide the lens cover back up and down again.

You can optically zoom up to 3x and digitally zoom up to 4x, for a theoretical maximum zoom of 12x. Photographers will likely stick to the optical zoom and curtail the use of the digital zoom unless it is absolutely necessary, due to the common pixelation effect of digital effects. Zooming is accomplished with Nikon's standard "W-T" rocker switch, which we found a fair bit less twitchy than other digital cameras we've tested. We also liked the camera's bright 2.5" (diagonal) LCD preview screen. Due to it's overall small size, we were quite surprised to see such a large screen. Although we would have liked to see the screen tilt up or down (for crowded media scrums, for example), we recognize this is asking a bit much considering the intended market.

As shipped from the factory, the Coolpix S2 has Auto flash turned on. There are other owner-selectable settings including Auto flash with red eye reduction (the flash fires off at low intensity a few times before the main flash), Flash Cancel (basically, when you want to avoid the flash entirely), Anytime Flash (this setting will fire the flash every time a picture is taken) and Slow sync (Auto flash combined with a slow shutter speed).

The S2 also provides some valuable feedback when it comes to picture quality. If, for example, the lighting is poor or you try to take a picture while on the run, the S2 will warn you with a Camera Shake icon. When this happens, photographers have the choice of accepting the shot – or trying again by turning on the flash (assuming it's been turned off) or using a tripod or other stabilizer.

The camera's macro mode (for extreme close-ups) was easily found, accessed and produced excellent results. We found using the flash in macro mode a bit optimistic and thought the resultant shots were overexposed (but could be ameliorated with a little quality time with Adobe Photoshop).

The S2 sports four "assist" modes (Portrait Assist, Landscape Assist, Sports Assist and Night Portrait Assist), as well as several "scene" modes (Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night landscape, Close up, Museum, Fireworks show, Copy, Back light and Panorama assist). You can also annotate your shot with some voice comments.

We especially enjoyed the Copy scene whereby you use the camera to make quick copies of business cards or other documents using the macro close up mode and other features. Unlike most of the other pre-set scenes, we couldn't think of a real-life use for the Copy scene -- it was just very cool!

The S2 is able to take pictures in five different resolutions: 640 by 480, 1024 by 768, 2048 by 1536, 2592 by 1944 and 2592 by 2592. For most applications, however, professionals photographers will shoot in the maximum resolution. We saw no demonstrable difference in cycle time between shots based on resolution setting selected.

Movie making
Besides its still shot capabilities, the S2 is also able to produce short movies. This feature is very easy to use and makes surprisingly compact movies. As an example, on a 256 MB SanDisk card, we found we were able to store a movie of approximately 14 minutes. Sure, it certainly isn't broadcast quality but we found it might rival lower end video cameras under optimum conditions. One word of note: capture rate is limited to 15 frames per second, so you will likely notice a distinct choppiness to the clips if you're shooting lots of motion.

Nicely, Nikon's engineers have also added a Time-lapse movie option where the S2 takes up to 1800 stills (depending on the capacity of your memory card) at specified intervals and creates a 640 pixel by 480 pixel movie with the images! Even some of our jaded photographers got excited about this feature being so useful on such a comparatively low-priced camera.

Just to illustrate the care that Nikon's people have packed into the Coolpix S2, the camera comes with an EG-E5000, an A/V cable that connects the S2's dock to a consumer-grade TV or VCR. This means you can record movies on your S2 and play them back on your regular TV or store them on analog VHS tape.

Sure, we know some of you are wondering why take something that's already digital and make it into analog? The answer is that for some consumers (and even for some industrial users), it may be satisfactory quality. And, for pro applications, at least you can do a cheap and quick storyboard for a more ambitious project.

Speaking of consumers, the S2 is also PictBridge compatible. This means you can place the camera in the dock, connect the appropriate USB cable and directly print your shots to a PictBridge printer – all without the need for a Mac or PC. Of course, most professionals will want to tweak things here and there in Photoshop, but consumer-level owners will find the PictBridge feature of Coolpix S2 very seductive. Also, we note that some pro photographers are using PictBridge as quick contact sheets for specific studio jobs.

Technical stuff
The Coolpix S2 weighs in at a svelte 5 ounces (140 grams) without its lightweight battery and almost featherweight memory card. The overall dimensions are 3.6" wide by 2.3" tall by 0.9" thick (approximately 92 mm by 59 mm by 22 mm). All this means the S2 is highly transportable. Power on time is very fast, perhaps the fastest we've ever seen in a point-and-shoot style camera.

The S2 comes equipped with a 3x Zoom-Nikkor ED lens. We found the optics equal or superior to anything we've seen in the point-and-shoot class of cameras. The focal length of the S2 is F=5.8-17.4 mm, making it roughly equivalent to a 35-105 mm focal length on a traditional 35 mm SLR-type camera. The sensitivity of the camera is roughly equivalent to ISO 50, 100, 200 or 400 levels.

We especially liked the few moving parts of this camera. In fact, the only thing we could see that physically moves in the S2 is the lens cover – and even this is under manual control. This, we thought, may result in a few problems down the road where mechanical parts tend to break down from the rough and tumble world of real world photography.

We were very impressed by the Coolpix S2 and found it one of the most useful, well designed and easy-to-use point-and-shoot cameras we've ever tested. While its lack of lens interchangeability and limited zoom capability precludes it from much professional work, it was surprisingly adept at many of the "must-haves" we think about when using pro-level SLR cameras. With a resolution of 5.1 megapixels, it can certainly do the job of much more expensive SLRs in close up work, not requiring special lenses, filters or other trappings. Very impressive. Highly recommended.

End of Review

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