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Nikon Coolpix S8000
14.2MP | 30-300mm (10X) ZOOM | $240/£193

Arguably the first compact from Nikon that qualifies for the 'travel zoom' designation, the Coolpix S8000 offers a 10x zoom lens in a very slim body. Announced in February, Nikon is trumpeting the S8000 as the world's slimmest 10x zoom camera, and it certainly feels a lot more compact than most of the other models in this test, helped in no small part by the minimalist, smooth curves of the front plate.

  • 14.2 effective Megapixels
  • 30-300mm equiv lens with vibration reduction (optical stabilization)
  • 1280 x 720p HD video recording
  • 3.0-inch LCD with 921,000 dots resolution
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600 at full resolution
  • Smart Portrait with smile and blink detection
  • HDMI output
  • In-camera battery charging (via supplied USB adapter)
  • Battery life: 210 shots

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Overview

The main selling point of the Coolpix S8000, like the others cameras in this test, is its versatility - primarily in terms of its 10x zoom range. Its close cousin the S6000 just misses out on inclusion in this test because it has a 7x zoom, but it is otherwise very similar. The S8000's lens is optically stabilized and contains an ED (extra low dispersion) element, which should ensure that chromatic aberrations are well controlled - a perennial problem for lenses of this type. The lens covers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 30mm to 300mm. Neither are quite as long or as wide as the longest/widest in this group, but it's a useful range, and 30mm is certainly significantly wider than 35mm, which was until relatively recently the 'standard' for compact camera zooms.

Apart from the lens, the S8000 offers an impressive set of features, including a 3in LCD screen with an class-leading resolution of 921k dots. Although resolution alone doesn't automatically make a screen 'better' than any other (just adding pixels doesn't aid visibility in bright light, for instance) it does mean that the detail visible in saved images and in live view is outstanding. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that the LCD screen on the S8000 is one of the best we've ever seen in a compact camera.

Video mode has been a standard feature in compact cameras for years now, and the S8000 is one of those models that offers a more or less 'standard' specification of 720p - the minimum resolution required in order to be able to put 'HD' in the marketing literature. A stereo microphone is a relatively unusual touch though, and a dedicated video recording button makes switching to video mode very easy with a single touch. Unfortunately, the position of the video recording button - immediately adjacent to the slightly textured thumbgrip - means that it is very easy to mash this button by accident when picking up the camera or shifting your grip.

New in the S8000 is a 'Smart Portrait' mode that combines face and smile detection to detect faces in the scene, bias focusing and exposure accordingly, and to automatically release the shutter when your subject smiles. Not only that, but you can also turn on a 'blink proof' option which locks the shutter when the camera detects your subject has blinked. The S8000 is - as you may have guessed - a fully automated camera, and unlike some of the models in this test, it is not possible to take manual control over the shutter or aperture settings at all. It is possible, however, to bias exposure by +/-2EV using a simple control, along with hue and 'vividness' (saturation).

Key Features

The S8000 is impressively slim for a camera that packs a 10x zoom lens, but the gentle contour around the lens extension certainly helps make it appear even thinner than it actually is. The perforations you can see on the top plate are inlets for a stereo microphone. On the far left you can see the S8000's built in flash, in the off (down) position.
At its full extension the 10x zoom triples the depth of the S8000, but the camera remains very well balanced, and even with the lens racked out fully, it doesn't feel like a bulky piece of kit.
The S8000's flash is typically a little underpowered, but it is good enough for most purposes and pops up automatically or on demand. When stowed, the clean lines of the top plate are unbroken.
This sort of cluster of control points around a 4-way rocker switch is becoming standard for mid-range compact cameras, and on the S8000, the switch also actions as a dial for navigating menu options and setting exposure compensation/hue/saturation. Pressing the green camera icon brings up the shooting mode options, including smart portrait and AF tracking.
There's nothing much to see on the top plate beyond the standard shutter release, zoom toggle and on/off switch. Move along.
Pressing the exposure compensation button brings up a simple interface for adjusting exposure, hue and 'vividness' using the rear control dial. If you're looking for manual control, this is as good as it gets.
The S8000's 'smart portrait' mode contains a smile timer, blink proof setting, and a skin softening option. The latter looks fine in very small prints, but in our experience the effect is less 'Hollywood Starlet' and more 'badly performed skin graft'.

Image quality and performance

The Nikon Coolpix S8000 is one of the weaker cameras in this test when the images are viewed critically, at 100%. Pixel-level sharpness leaves a lot to be desired at all focal lengths, and even low ISO shots show some noise (and the smudging effect of noise reduction) as well as the characteristic halos around high-contrast areas that betray the camera's attempts to sharpen soft detail. However, high ISO performance is relatively good, which was a real surprise. Although images are noisy, color and exposure are well-managed.

Naturally, we're not obsessing about pixel-level performance when we comparing these cameras, because how images look at 100% on screen isn't important compared to how they look in a decent-sized print or a web gallery. The fact that the Nikon doesn't give its full 14 million pixels' worth of detail is annoying, but it doesn't make the S8000 a bad product.

The automatic white balance system gives great results, and the metering system is all but infallible in most conditions, apart from a slight tendency to overexpose fractionally in very bright conditions. The 30-300mm lens is reasonably sharp at all focal lengths, and although fringing is clearly evident on close inspection, the camera makes a reasonably good job of reducing its intensity, rendering it all but unnoticeable in small and medium sized prints.

Startup time is ultra-quick at less than a second, and overall speed of operation is impressive. Shot to shot time, with a fast card installed is more or less average, at roughly 2 seconds including AF reacquisition, and in continuous shooting mode the S8000 can manage almost one frame per second, making it one of the fastest cameras in this test (at full resolution). The S8000's AF system is very capable as well, and it offers one of the most useful 'X detection' suites of the models in this group test. How useful some of the options turn out to be in extended use I don't know, (although I suspect not very) but the basic Face Detection works well, and very quickly, and is a sensible default setting for general use.

The Nikon's stabilized 30-300mm covers a useful range, and its small size makes the S8000 a great carry-everywhere camera. You'll get much nicer images out of it in high-contrast, sunlit conditions than in overcast weather, but the same is true of all digital cameras, especially those with small sensors.

Summary

Unlike a DSLR, where pixel-level image quality is (arguably) fundamental to any assessment of how 'good' a camera is, the most important parameters when looking at compact cameras are the speed and accuracy of its key systems, and whether or not it is pleasant and easy to use. The S8000 is a very good compact camera, as long as you don't need to look too closely at the images (or make huge prints).

Thankfully, despite its relatively poor showing in our image quality tests, the S8000 is a genuinely enjoyable camera to take pictures with, and its image quality is easily good enough for the unchallenging requirements of postcard-sized prints and web galleries. One of the things we like most about the S8000 is its high-resolution LCD screen, which remains impressively visible, even in bright direct sunlight.

  • We like: Fast and fluid operation, excellent LCD screen, reliable metering, WB and AF systems

  • We don't like: Image quality doesn't bear close scrutiny, limited customization options (and no quick menu button), 30mm is noticeably less wide than the 24mm lenses elsewhere in this group test.
Nikon Coolpix S8000
Category: Travel Zoom Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Novice photographers that want a slim, easy to use compact for small prints and web galleries.
Not so good for
Experienced users that want more control over their images
Overall score
69%
The Nikon Coolpix S8000 is pretty close to being an 'auto everything' camera, but this is no bad thing considering its target audience. Left to its own devides, the S8000 produces colorful, accurately exposed images in pretty much any environment. Its excellent LCD screen is also worthy of special mention.
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