Nikon's budget compacts are hard to tell apart. After a very "entry-level" S3100 the company has released the S3300, which is... well, basically the same thing. One of the only differences is that it now (finally!) has an image stabiliser. The S3300 is bound to be a hit—it hails from a long line of best-sellers that did very well in the first quarter of 2012—and came this close to being the first model in the series to get a third star from us...
Given the sales figures, you can't deny that Nikon's strategy works: to cut prices by making nothing but tiny, incremental improvements from one generation to the next. On the outside you can see the family resemblance. The S3300 is quite fetching when seen from the front (which is the angle it's usually presented at in stores and packaging) and has the same hard, black plastic back as the others, is neither particularly great-looking nor -feeling.
The screen still has scandalously narrow viewing angles, especially when looking downward, and the colour rendering is second-, if not third-, rate. Blacks come out more like dark grey, the 260:1 contrast is the stuff of bad laptops and light greys simply turn into white.
When it comes to handling, the S3300 is practically identical to the previous generations. It's really a simple camera to use with an especially clear interface, although the main menu is depressingly barren and the settings are reduced to a bare minimum.
The S3300 takes a very-average two seconds to start up. Once running, the autofocus works perfectly well in good lighting but suffers in the dark (sometimes refusing to focus at all) and takes a bit too long to save in-between shots.
Burst mode runs at a mere 1.2 fps.
This is the part that counts. The CCD is the same as before, but the zoom isn't. For the first time in the series, the zoom has an image stabiliser. Technically, that means the S3300 is eligible for a three-star rating, but only if the image quality has improved.
There are no surprises here: noise begins to appear in dark areas of the image starting at 200 ISO and becomes entirely visible in small 400 ISO prints. At 400 ISO the smoothing becomes obvious; at 800 ISO it's so bad that you couldn't even use the picture for a small print.
How to describe the lens? Well, the first word that comes to mind is "bad". When zoomed out all the way, the detail in the middle of the frame is borderline acceptable and all you have to do is back up a little for the detail level to drop like a rock. Nikon has used an aggressive digital fix that's meant to save objects by accentuating the detail, but it lacks so much subtlety that certain lines stand out way too much and then just disappear out of nowhere. At 156 mm the angles are slightly better, but the middle of the shot is noticeably less precise, with the finest details simply not visible.
The S3300 shoots in 720p HD quality with satisfactory sharpness. That's it for the good points.
The bad points include: slightly brutal contrast, bright colours that are painful to look at, visible moiré on patterns with fine detail, a poor-quality digital zoom and, let's not forget, highly objectionable sound. The audio is all mono, it's sensitive to echoes and hissing, voices sound nasal and metallic sounds "clink" too much.