Nikon Nikon Coolpix S02 Digital Mini-Camera mini-review



The new Nikon S02 is going to raise questions about whether a pocket camera with a sensor much smaller than typical pocket cameras is needed today, when cellphones with very small sensors are getting better, even to the extent of putting 41 mp on a cellphone sensor as Nokia apparently has done. Since I don't have access to a Nokia cellphone, I can only relate to these questions by comparing the S02 to the items I do have access to - the nearest in quality and capability above and below the S02. The iPhone5 makes for a good comparison on the lesser side, and the Panasonic LF1 7x pocket zoom camera makes for a good comparison on the better side.

The iPhone5's daylight images exhibit a lot of random smearing or lack of detail across the image, seen at 100 percent view, which seems to me to be a result of the camera's lens imperfections rather than the sensor. The Panasonic LF1's images are excellent in the center and out nearly to the edges, but there is a breakdown in quality at and near the edges of the image, again due to the lens I believe. The Panasonic LX7 has the same or lesser sensor than the LF1, but its images are clear and detailed edge to edge. In between the iPhone5 and LF1 is the S02 - having a 3x optical zoom lens gives it a big advantage over the iPhone5, and despite the tiny size of the S02 lens, the quality seems very good based on examining its images. So the combination of menu features, a better quality lens, and the 3x optical zoom give the S02 a clear advantage over the iPhone5's camera. Note that my tests of the new iPhone5s show its camera to be not as good as the iPhone5's camera.

Comparing the S02 to the LF1, the main difference is the pixel quality based on the large versus small sensor sizes. Although the S02 has 13 mp compared to the LF1's 12 mp, the pixel quality is much better with the LF1, yielding a more detailed image. Using a desktop computer with a 1280 pixel-wide screen, the S02 daylight images will look very good when fitted to the screen size, but when displayed at 100 percent (4160 pixels wide) they'll look slightly choppy. Night time photos are harder to predict, but basically the parts of the image that have good lighting and contrast will look very good, while the areas that aren't well lit or low in contrast will likely look very smeared or pixellated. The nighttime images I shot using auto-scene selection used ISO 800, which is not ideal for the tiny sensor (1/3.1 inch, compared to a typical 1/2.3 inch pocket camera sensor), and that raises the noise level considerably. But it does seem that the S02 camera is making the best possible auto-selections it can.

The Nikon S02 uses the touch screen for most operations, having physical controls only for on/off, playback, shutter release, and zoom. Startup time is about one second, and going from minimum zoom to maximum zoom takes about two seconds. Pressing the Home button to the right of the screen with my fingers hasn't worked at all, no matter whether I move my finger around or press harder etc. Using my thumb on that touch-button seems to work OK though, as long as I press it like I'm doing an identity thumbprint. The menus are unique to this camera - I haven't seen anything similar to the S02's menus, so I'd recommend downloading the S02 PDF manual (no manual in the box) and walking through all of the settings. Most of that can be skimmed, so it won't take a lot of time. The one video I've taken so far, in average indoor light at home (not bright), looks very clear and detailed when run on the desktop computer. There is no separate video button on the camera though.

The S02's 3x optical zoom (30 to 90 mm effective focal length) is an important feature, and most cellphones that don't have optical zooms can't match the S02 image quality when photos are taken at the full 90 mm zoom extension. That's because the cellphone photo would have to be cropped to 1/3 of both the length and width to match the S02 image contents, and that crop would reduce the number of pixels in the cellphone image by a factor of nine - in other words an 8 mp cellphone image cropped to match the zoomed S02 image would contain only 0.9 mp. Using digital zoom on any camera just crops the image internally in the camera, so the pixels are permanently lost in those cases. Wide angle photos of groups of people with the S02 zoom at minimum (30 mm) can be a problem, since when those images are displayed at 100 percent to see the faces better, most of the faces will have a lot of digital artifacts. Most other subjects aren't that critical.

The S02 battery life is rated about average, which I find is good enough for about three hours of use in the local parks, shooting 100 to 300 photos. How many photos you get on a battery charge depends on how many you shoot close together. If you have the camera on most of the time and keep it activated and take very few shots, the battery will still run down in a few hours due to the LCD screen and other electronic features that are active when the camera is active. Since the battery isn't removable, it might be a good idea to keep a portable charger or car charger handy, but note that Nikon warns against using non-Nikon USB chargers. Nikon's charger box has an output of 5 volts at 0.55 amps, and other USB chargers have outputs at 5 volts but amps ranging from less than the Nikon up to 2.1 amps like the Apple chargers. It might be safe to use a USB charger with a one amp output, if you keep a close watch on it and make sure nothing gets too warm, but more than one amp output at 5 volts could spell trouble.

At the bottom of the camera under a small flip-open door are the USB connector and an HDMI connector. If the camera setting for charging the battery is 'Auto', you can charge it from a computer or the included Nikon charger. Files are transferred with the same cable and USB connector that are used for charging the battery. Electronic digital cameras accumulate static charges inside the camera, which should be safe as long as the camera isn't tampered with. But those static charges act like magnets for dust, and keeping the camera in a pocket, purse, or shoulder bag etc. without protection makes it more likely that dust will work its way into the lens or sensor. I use a small zippered case for the S02, so that it's completely sealed off from dust when carrying it around.

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