Nikon's Coolpix S51c: Not Cool Enough

A few design flaws really detract from this camera's usefulness, and its Wi-Fi capability may be little more than a battery hog for many owners

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Stylish design; giant LCD screen; wireless uploading of photos directly to the Web

The Bad: Weak battery life, better at still shots than fast-moving subjects

The Bottom Line: A flawed 8.1-megapixel point-and-shoot, yet inexpensive, compact, and equipped with Wi-Fi

Over the past couple of years, Nikon has been amping up the style of its Coolpix point-and-shoot cameras to compete with the likes of Canon and Sony for consumers who buy just as much for looks as for performance. The 5-ounce Nikon Coolpix S51c fits squarely in that category, with a sleek silver-and-chrome faceplate that immediately catches the eye.

The front of this $280 camera is slightly thicker on the right side, where a built-in Wi-Fi radio is housed. The back is devoted almost entirely to the 3-inch, antireflective, liquid-crystal display screen, which makes quite a statement, though it might not be one many will like. Despite a relatively bright luminance, there's no painless way to quickly adjust the display in sun and other glaring light. Instead, you have to dig through a cumbersome menu on the screen, fighting the glare as you do. And while navigating the controls on many cameras is relatively simple, this Nikon gives you only a cramped, half-inch area to the right of the screen to work the buttons.

Bungled Buttons

On the upper right, a tiny zoom control rocks left and right. Below that are two small buttons to adjust picture mode and playback. A thumb-dial lets you adjust flash, exposure compensation, and the self-timer. Finally, there are minuscule menu and delete buttons.

The knock on this design is no petty gripe. With the S51c, you'll need to use assorted combinations of these buttons and the setup menu if you're doing anything beyond simple point-and-shoot photography, whether it's adjusting scenes or turning on the red-eye fix. This is one case where a touch-sensitive screen that removes the buttons altogether might serve Nikon well.

The tiny-button phenomenon continues on top of the camera. On the left are two, one for detecting up to five faces in a frame and one for e-mailing pictures via Wi-Fi. Here, the small buttons are more forgivable, since you won't be using them as often. Thankfully, the power and shutter-snap buttons on the top right are much larger.

Picture Imperfect

So how are the pictures? The Coolpix S51c is a middling performer in that category, and does best when taking pictures of still objects. Shooting photos of the Bay Bridge and the hills surrounding San Francisco, I was able to capture sharp detail with relatively accurate color reproduction. Yellows, greens, and blues looked slightly oversaturated, which I suspect is by design, since they made the colors of skies and lawns pop when viewed later on a larger computer monitor.

But in tests where one might require a higher ISO, such as for fast-moving images or in darker lighting, the detail looked a little grainy on the edges. And the camera's Zoom-Nikkor lens isn't really made for wide-angle pictures or large group shots, though it will work in a pinch.

Another factor I like to consider when judging digital cameras is the number of images that are completely unusable after a day's shooting. It's a real-world test of factors like the S51c's 3X optical zoom and optical image stabilization. With this model, about 25% of 20 shots taken were trashable—slightly worse than I found with some Canon and Sony (SNE) cameras I've recently reviewed.

Wi-Fi Audience

Nikon is hoping consumers will be drawn to the S51c and other newer models by their ability to upload images wirelessly to a Nikon photo-sharing site, My Picturetown, for free. The problem with this reasoning is that many of the people who buy point-and-shoot cameras will have trouble figuring out how to get the Wi-Fi to work, how to input passwords required for many hotspots, and how to access the Web site (you need to set up your account first). As an incentive, Nikon is offering six free months of Wi-Fi access at T-Mobile hotspots, which are found at Starbucks (SBUX) stores and other retailers.

As one might suspect, having an on-board Wi-Fi radio doesn't do wonders for battery life. If you use it at all, do so at your own risk, since even with the Wi-Fi radio turned off, the tiny rechargeable lithium-ion battery is only good for a couple hundred shots before conking out.

As point-and-shoots go, the S51c delivers a lot more style than substance. It has a relatively attractive price tag and will take good, if not spectacular, digital pictures. But if you're looking for a more intuitive, better-performing product, check out other cameras from Nikon or its competitors.