HandlingThe Nikon S8100 is a nice-looking compact. It's stylish and subtle, and the front face has a particularly pleasant soft-touch finish. On the back, there's a textured area that helps you grip the camera with your thumb. The controls are all pretty standard, with a classic four-way arrow button (self-timer, flash, macro mode, exposure) that has a handy click-round wheel around it for changing settings quickly. The S8100 doesn't have many shortcut buttons, apart from a video record button, so you have to use the internal menus or choose a specific mode (burst, subject tracking, scene modes etc.) using the dial on the top of the camera.
One slightly surprising thing is that the mode-selection dial seems to include an unusual selection of scene modes. There's the 'classic' scene mode (in which you choose the most appropriate scene setting), the automatic scene mode (in which the camera chooses the right scene mode for the conditions in hand) and a selection of pre-sets (night portrait, backlit portrait and night landscape) that don't appear in the classic scene modes. All that can therefore be a bit of a headache when you're first getting used to using the camera.
The S8100 is first and foremost aimed at beginners who'll put their faith in the camera's automatic settings. There are therefore no priority modes or direct access to settings such as white balance and ISO sensitivity. The S8100 therefore won't help you learn a great deal about photography.
The good-quality LCD screen is sharp, accurate (VGA, 920,000 dots) and smooth. In low light, the refresh rate does drop a bit, but the image is still clean and decent enough. Our sensor confirms the screen's credentials too: the delta E of 5.7 is just about acceptable, the gamma of 2.3 is pretty much perfect and the colour temperature of 6300 K isn't too bad.
ResponsivenessThe S8100 is a very nice camera to use. It's quick to start up and the autofocus works well both in wide angle and telephoto. So given that the lens isn't particularly fast, Nikon has clearly done a very good job in perfecting the camera's electronics. In burst mode, the Nikon Coolpix S8100 can shoot five frames at the incredible speed of 6.5 fps and a 120 fps mode (1 Megapixel) is also available.
Picture QualityThe BSI CMOS sensor should ensure that the S8100 takes better-quality pictures than its predecessor. There's no doubt that the CMOS sensor and updated image processing system do give good results but, ultimately, quality hasn't improved quite as much as we would have hoped. Although at 800 ISO pictures taken with the S8100 are more richly detailed, the improvement is really quite subtle, and at higher ISO settings it's barely noticeable.
On the whole, the 30-300 mm optical zoom lens is OK, with sharp, consistent pictures at 30 mm, and performances that drop as you zoom out. It's also not a particularly fast lens, but there's hardly any chromatic aberration and the 1 cm macro mode is a handy addition. Although the minimum focal length is 30 mm, there's still a certain amount of distortion (approximately 0.8%).
The camera's automatic white balance works well. It doesn't completely neutralise dominant colours in the surrounding light, which means your pictures keep a pleasant and atmospheric overtone that's not too strong, particularly under tungsten light.