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Nikon Coolpix S710
14.5MP | 28-101mm (3.6X) ZOOM | $350 US / £250 UK

The Nikon S710 sits atop Nikon's Coolpix 'S' (Style) range, offering just about every feature the company could think to throw at it. And the most pixels, obviously. It's got all the latest user-friendly options, such as a mode that automatically detects which scene mode it should use, and 'smile shutter'. It also has an optically stabilized lens, which is always useful, a 3.0 inch screen and - alone in this group - a full set of photographic controls (P/A/S/M modes). At launch in August '08, Nikon announced it was the world's smallest 14 megapixel camera; let's find out if this was a boast worth making.

  • 14.5 effective Megapixels
  • 28-101mm equiv lens with 3.6x Optical zoom and up to 4x Digital
  • 3.0 inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • ISO sensitivity up to 12800
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • Face Priority AF and D-Lighting
  • 15 scene modes including Smile Mode and Scene Auto Selector
  • Program, Shutter-Priority, Aperture-Priority and Manual Exposure Modes
  • In-Camera Editing
  • 42MB internal memory
  • Available in Black, Silver and Red

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Overview

The S710 is a mid-sized compact, in common with the others in the group test. In part that's because it has a larger sensor than the ones found in the size zero cameras we covered in our 'Slim' camera roundup. It's a solid-feeling camera though its deep, glossy finish ironically makes the metal areas feel like plastic, which may put off some buyers. It has an indentation with raised knobbles to rest your thumb in, but the profusion of buttons means you may find some of them a bit too easy to press by mistake.

The S710 is full to brimming with the latest 'must have' features from a wide zoom to face detection AF, lens-shift image stabilization, sensitivity up to ISO 12,800 and a large wide view screen - plus a Smile Mode (which won't take a picture until the subject smiles), in-camera red-eye fix, D-Lighting (for lifting shadows and reducing contrast) and 16 scene modes.

The user interface is consistent with other Coolpix cameras, with menus that can be displayed as icons, rather than descriptive text (which can be nice because it often shrinks multi-page menus to a single panel). There is no sub-menu on the S710 for commonly accessed settings, but the main menu is sufficiently concise and well-chosen that this isn't a big problem. In some modes the menu runs to two pages but this can be overcome by changing the menus to appear as icons (in the Setup menu). On the whole, the camera is well set up so that you can be as involved (or uninvolved) in the shooting process as you want, without the interface becoming too intimidating.

Key Features

The S710 is a moderately-sized camera. It's easy enough to grip, with a subtle recess for your thumb to sit in. It's easy to press the zoom buttons (which are just above the thumb rest), but it's personal taste as to whether this makes them really convenient or really awkwardly placed.
We're not big fans of four-way controllers that double as control dials (it can be rather easy to press when you mean to turn, and vice-versa), and we're a bit unsure about how many people will notice the exposure compensation marking on the side of the camera, but these issues are pretty innocuous.
Menus can be reconfigured to appear as icons, rather than text descriptions. This allows even the four-page setup menu to appear as a single screen. And, until you've memorized the options you use most often, the name of the option still appears at the top of the page when you select an icon.
The shooting menu, that rather inconveniently runs to two pages (there's no shorter sub menu than this), becomes a single page of icons if you want - making it much easier to dip into.
The virtual mode dial (summoned with the 'Mode' button), gives an impression of just how feature-packed the S710 is. There are modes varying from full manual control all the way to the awkwardly named 'Scene Auto Selector'. This works out which of the scene modes (from a selection of 7) would be most appropriate for the subject you're pointing the camera at (using, amongst other things, face and motion detection).

Image quality and performance

The Coolpix is overall not one of the fastest horses in the stable. While startup is quite quick, focus speed could probably only be described as average (slowing down at the tele end and in low light, and giving up completely when it gets too dark). There is also a noticeable shutter lag, and writing onto the memory card is quite slow; you'll have to wait a few moments for the camera to empty its buffer and write the image onto the card before you can take the next one. Image browsing and magnification in review mode is a little on the pedestrian side, and even the menus feel unresponsive compared to other cameras in this group. With the sensor capturing those massive 14.5 megapixel files, the S710 could have done with a slightly more powerful imaging processor.

I'd like to be able to say that the rather sluggish performance is worth it when you look at the pictures, but in all honesty I can't. Although the default settings produce images that are bright and vivid (with very, very blue skies) we thought the contrast was a bit high and found both metering and auto white balance to be slightly less reliable than the other cameras here. And if you think that all those pixels will allow you to crop images tightly or produce huge enlargements then think again; the lens isn't that sharp (and is soft at the edge at the wide end of the zoom) and the smeary noise reduction robs shadows of any texture and kills fine low contrast detail - even at base ISO. Up close these simply aren't very impressive; at normal print sizes they're just about average.

Up close the S710's output shows the price to be paid for such a high pixel count; smeary noise reduction and overall softness mean that you are, basically, paying for 'resolution' that not only you won't use - it isn't even there.

Viewed at normal magnifications the output is fine (if a little contrasty and prone to over exposure), but don't expect to see any more detail on zooming in than you would with a lower resolution camera.

Take a look at the difference between the sharp areas in the center of the frame (high contrast, bold detail) and the smearing of the low contrast detail on the left of the frame in the second shot here. The rendition of the tree on the lower right is also unconvincing at best.

Summary

First impressions of the Coolpix S710 are very positive; its understated styling, quality construction and well balanced feature set - including that rarest of things in this part of the market, manual control over exposure - inspire confidence. Unfortunately once you turn it on things start to go awry, with sluggish operation, pedestrian image quality and less than perfect metering, white balance, flash and focus.

You can't help feeling that the raison d'etre of this camera is to appeal to the user looking for megapixel bragging rights and that everything that actually matters (image quality, responsiveness and so on) was sacrificed in the process. We had high hopes for the Coolpix S710, and we were disappointed. It's by no means a terrible camera, but it's not a cheap camera either, and there are plenty of more reliable alternatives to choose from.

  • We like: Features, screen, ease of use, good resolution in optimal conditions

  • We don't like: Sluggish operation, image quality not that impressive
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