HandlingThe 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.
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.
ResponsivenessThe 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 QualityThe 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.
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.
VideoThe good news is that the S3100 films 720p HD video.
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.