Archive: Compact and Bridge Cameras 2011-2012

REVIEW / Nikon Coolpix S3100

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Franck Mée Published on July 19, 2011
Updated on July 19, 2011
Translated by Catherine Barraclough
 
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SPECIFICATIONS

  • Sensor CCD 14 Mpx, 1/2.3" , 42 Mpx/cm
  • Lens 5x 26-130 mm f/3.2 -6.5
  • Stabilisation no
  • Viewfinder NA
  • Screen 6.7 cm, TN, 230000 dots, 4:3, Not touch-sensitive
  • Sensitivity (ISO range) 80 - 3200 ISO
Nikon usually does pretty well with its entry-level cameras, as the S220 and S3000 were best-sellers in 2009 and 2010. Will their successor, the Coolpix S3100, prove just as popular? In any case, not much has changed in this year's model, with a slightly more powerful zoom, a few more Megapixels, a stylish design and, as ever, an attractive price.

Handling

The S3100 looks and feels very, very similar to the S3000. In fact, the only visible difference is that the S3100 now has a separate video record button. The 2011 model has therefore inherited the S3000's sleek metal front face, available in a range of eye-catching colours, as well as its plastic back casing that feels like some kind of children's toy. The whole camera body is very smooth and you may find it a little tricky to use with just one hand.

Nikon Coolpix S3100 review

The S3100 has the same screen as the S3000, with a low definition of 230,000 dots, approximative colour fidelity and excessive contrast. It also has ridiculously tight viewing angles, which means it's very hard to see what you're doing when facing the camera screen at an angle.

As we said above, the only improvement in design is the arrival of a separate video record button. This does, nevertheless, make the camera a fair bit easier to use, as you don't need to search around in the menus to switch between video and photo modes.

Responsiveness

The S3100 isn't the fastest camera out there but it's no slow coach either.

One thing we're particularly disappointed about though, is that this camera takes half a second longer to start up than the previous model! Similarly, although you only have to wait around 1.2 seconds between the first and second photos, you'll have to wait over three seconds between the second and third snaps.

Otherwise, the S3100 does a decent, if unexceptional, job.

Picture Quality

The Nikon S3100 has the same 1/2.3" 14-Megapixel CCD that's been used in the majority of compact cameras since 2010. With this sensor, even brands that do great things with image processing struggle to maintain decent levels of picture quality at 800 ISO. So in the budget price bracket, where image processing chips are often limited in power, we weren't expecting amazing results.

Nikon Coolpix S3100 review picture quality

And we were right not to get our hopes up. From 400 ISO details are wiped out by smoothing, but the speckling effect of digital noise (which smoothing is supposed to remove) still isn't perfectly controlled. Even on a 4" x 6" print (11 x 15 cm) or when viewing pictures back at 100% size on a computer, you'll spot this loss in quality if you look closely enough. At 800 ISO smoothing is only too visible and the whole image looks flat, dull and slightly blurry over the entire frame. Worse still—dark or shady areas soon turn pitch black (probably another strategy for trying to control digital noise), which reduces the effective dynamic range and wipes out detail in darker zones. In other words, there's not much point using the S3100 at 800 ISO or higher.

What's perhaps more worrying, is the fact that the older S3000 managed to keep a minimum level of detail in pictures up to 800 ISO: the S3100 has therefore taken a step backwards!


The same regression can be seen in the Barbie without flash test, where the S3100 has to push up to 1600 ISO to take a shot that isn't plagued by the blurring effects of camera shake (don't forget that there's no built-in stabilisation system in this camera). At 1600 ISO, the S3000 took a Barbie shot that was smoothed and noisy but at least consistent in quality. The S3100, on the other hand, takes a photo that's full of noise, is no sharper or more accurate, and which is prone to chromatic aberration—check out those green splodges in Barbie's hair and the yellow blotches on her cheeks and lips.

The new 26-130 mm lens is only just acceptable at wide-angle settings, something Nikon tries to compensate for by enhancing certain details and areas of the shot digitally. In the 'Detail 1' shots in the face-off, for example, the '25 cl' written on the bottle has a fine white border that's not there in real life. Similarly, the background of the logo on the bottle is lighter under the hands of the washerwoman then in other areas. It's a clever trick, and the illusion works quite well on 8" x 10 " prints (20 x 27 cm).

Telephoto settings hold no surprises either (at f/6.5 with this type of sensor diffraction is usually very strong) as the image isn't sharp anywhere across the frame—not even right in the middle—although the edges of the shot are blurrier than the central area. This is visible on 4" x 6" prints and will certainly be more of a problem on larger-sized prints.

Video

The good news is that the S3100 films 720p HD video.

Nikon Coolpix S3100 review video mode

The bad news is that fuzzy noise is visible in low light, the white balance has a strong yellow tinge under halogen lighting, and finer detail is smoothed away. The digital zoom just makes all of these things worse and is therefore best avoided. Finally, the mono sound is prone to picking up echoes and individual sounds are barely distinguishable.

Needless to say, the S3100 is no replacement for your trusty camcorder.

Macro Modes
A few years ago, one of the things digital compacts really competed on was their macro modes. The first models boasted their ability to focus on an object less than 10 cm away, but this was soon slashed to 7 cm, 5 cm, 3 cm etc. The battle was pretty much over when every manufacturer's model could focus on objects less than 3 cm from the lens (some could even snap an object in contact with the lens). In fact, the advantage of the macro mode started to be outweighed by the fact that the subject ended up being in the shadow of the camera.

The S3100 is slightly surprising, as it's been a while since we've seen subjects taken in 'macro' mode look so small. And no, we haven't overlooked a 'super macro' mode hidden in the menu—the S3100 actually won't focus on anything closer than 10 cm from the camera in macro mode! That means the smallest zone it can capture measures 9.5 x 7 cm. In comparison, the Panasonic S1 we tested at the same time shoots an area of 5.5 x 4 cm, which still isn't anything special considering that some higher-end cameras capture areas under 2 x 1.5 cm.

PROS

  • Stylish, colourful front face
  • Easy to use

CONS

  • Back of the camera isn't as nice as the front (cheap plastic, naff LCD)
  • Noise control (800 ISO best avoided)
  • No optical or mechanical stabilisation
  • Lens just about acceptable at wide-angle settings and really not great at telephoto
  • Video mode: picture could be sharper, no optical zoom, no stereo sound

CONCLUSION 2/5

While competitors' budget compacts have come on leaps and bounds (you can now pick up a stabilised compact for under £100), the Nikon Coolpix S3100 is actually less impressive than the previous model in pretty much every way—and it's no cheaper either! We're having trouble finding reasons you might want to buy it.
2 Nikon Coolpix S3100 DigitalVersus 2011-07-19 00:00:00
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