Preview based on a pre-production Coolpix S800c

Smartphones have quickly become the most serious challenge to face the conventional compact digital camera since they first emerged onto the market. It's no exaggeration to say that all the big camera makers are becoming desperate to develop camera models that can stand up to this challenge. Nikon's response is the Coolpix S800c - the first camera from a major manufacturer to be openly based on the Android mobile operating system.

There are several reasons why smartphones have become so compelling as photographic tools: they're devices that people tend to have with them at all times and they are well connected to mobile data services to allow uploading and sharing of images. An additional benefit has come from the emergence of apps and the platforms through which they're sold which have encouraged third-party developers to create software adding new capabilities to the devices they run on. From Instagram to Angry Birds, apps have encouraged people to use their Smartphones for all sorts of things the hardware makers couldn't have predicted.

This seemingly boundless flexibility comes in stark contrast to conventional cameras, which tend to offer the same capabilities and features on the day they're consigned to a dusty shelf as they had when they were taken out of the box. The S800c is a full Android 2.3 (known as Gingerbread) device, meaning it can run any apps that an equivalent smartphone could offer - so you can run Photoshop Express to spruce-up your images, rather than being dependent on the manufacturer-supplied processing options. For that matter, there's nothing to stop you passing the time with a quick game of Temple Run or Fruit Ninja.

Compact cameras do still have some advantages though - they tend to have larger sensors (which means better image quality, particularly in lower light), and they tend to have optical zooms, giving greater photographic flexibility. They also tend to come with removable memory, meaning you can easily expand and swap-out the storage of your camera - something most smartphones don't allow. The S800c offers the same 10x zoom lens and 16MP backlit CMOS sensor as the Coolpix S6300, meaning you get a proper compact camera as well as the capabilities of a fully-functioning tablet computer. For perspective, the S6300 had a list price of $199 at launch, compared to the $349 Nikon is asking for the S800c.

Nikon Coolpix S800c key specifications

  • 16MP 1/2.3"-type BSI CMOS sensor
  • 25-250mm equivalent F3.2-5.8 lens
  • 3.5" WVGA OLED touchscreen
  • Android v2.3 operating system
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS
  • 2GB of internal memory (690MB of this for Apps)
  • Up to 8fps continuous shooting
  • 1080p30 video

Apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic have made a virtue of smartphones' generally disappointing cameras. It'll be interesting to see whether any app developers will develop apps that take advantage of the better camera that the S800c offers. In the meantime, the only app Nikon offers is its exisiting 'My Picture Town' app for uploading to its cloud storage service of the same name.

In addition to apps, the use of Android means the S800c gains all the capabilities of the operating system. As such, it has well-established tools for connecting to Wi-Fi networks and gives a choice of browsers, so you can even log on to Wi-Fi networks that require a web form to be filled-in. This means you can access your email and browse the web from the camera, if you need to research something you just photographed. The S800c also has GPS capabilities, meaning you can add location data to your images as well as making use of the many navigation and mapping apps available for Android.

In addition to letting you run apps, the S800c allows you to check your mail, or perhaps browse dpreview from your camera.

Battery life is pretty disappointing at just 140 shots per charge (when tested to CIPA standards), but the S800c has an advantage over most smartphones of having a removable battery. This means that, unlike most smartphones, you can swap a charged battery in when the existing one is exhausted. The small EN-EL12 battery offers 3.8Wh of power. For perspective, the Nikon S8000 managed to get 210 shots per charge from the same battery.

Unlike most smartphones, the S800c retains the ability to use SD cards and a removable battery, in this case a 3.8Wh EN-EL12.

At 140 shots per charge, the camera's lifespan isn't great (and the CIPA tests do not include time spent web browsing), but at least you can slot a spare battery in if you need to.

Gingerbread isn't the latest version of Android, with 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) taking hold on flagship smartphones and 4.1 (Jelly Bean) on its way, but it is the most widely supported. Nikon isn't clear on whether it might upgrade to one of the newer versions of the operating system - enabling use of the Chrome web browser. The majority of current apps are compatible with 2.3, however.

Hacker's delight

In addition to the intended app capabilities, a camera running such a common mobile operating system is a big deal because it opens up all sorts of unofficial customization, especially if the Android 'hacking' community takes an interest. Groups such as CyanogenMod offer custom ROMs (modified versions of the underlying firmware) for a wide range of Android phones and tablets. These versions offer modifications such as CPU overclocking and other performance and interface enhancements. CyanogenMod also usually makes the latest Android version available on many devices before the manufacturers or telecom-providers do. There’s no reason why the same thing could not be done on the S800c, so we may well see Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ running on a Nikon rather sooner than later, with the Google Now 'personalized search application' telling you what the traffic is like on your way home from your photo excursion.

Handling and first impressions

Camera control is essentially via the touchscreen (aside from zoom and shutter) – our first impressions are that it’s responsive and looks quite intuitive. The camera can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots directly, and will be able to set up a peer-to-peer connection with smartphones to transfer images to them, if they're running the Nikon apps for Android or iOS. You can also run Nikon's 'My Picture Town' app to upload images directly to the company's cloud hosting service, but this makes more sense for backup than anything else.

When you turn the S800c on you reach a simple menu screen with the choice of going straight to the camera. However, if you choose to go through to the Android home screen, the camera can be accessed just as the camera on any other Android device would be - by opening the camera app. Based on our use the S800c seems powerful enough to jump to the camera very quickly, though we didn't time it.

Because you've got the familiar apps for whichever social networking services you use, you can send images from the S800c to those sites just as easily as you would from any smartphone. It’s a directly-comparable transformative experience towards using a compact camera as the iPhone was for many mobile phone users. Suddenly you have a device that acts as a little portable computer on the back, and a pretty decently-specced camera on the front. Our biggest concern is the price (which is significantly higher in Europe than in North America).