For navigating menus and activating frequently used functions, the Coolpix 3700 gives you a depressible joystick instead of the common four-way rocker. We found the controller's movement sure and precise. Nudge upward to choose from the four flash modes, downward to switch macro mode on or off, to the left to engage the self-timer, and to the right to scroll through exposure-compensation values. One press selects the option you've highlighted.
Other controls are arranged just as sensibly. The power switch is a well-designed ring around the shutter release that you're unlikely to trip accidentally. Next to the eyepiece is the Display key; pressing it cycles through the screen's viewing options, including a grid that helps you align compositional elements. At a flick of your thumb, the knurled mode dial spins crisply to positions for the setup menu, photo and video capture, and voice recording. Each mode has its own simple menu, which you activate with a button nestled between the dial and the joystick. In playback mode, which you enter by pressing the dial's center, you browse or scroll with the joystick and zoom in with the zoom toggle. The only other important control is the Trash key, which you push to delete photos.
When you shut off the camera, the lens retracts, and a built-in protective cover closes over it. There is no thread for adding filters or other accessories. A dedicated snapshot camera, the Coolpix 3700 lacks even rudimentary control over f-stop settings and shutter speed; the camera automatically chooses exposure times ranging from 4 seconds to 1/3,000 of a second. And Nikon made no provision for more-advanced photographers; there's no manual focus, and the one available file format is JPEG. You'll have to hope that the 3700's fully automatic and programmed modes select the right settings, but that's not as bad as you might think. After all, the only f-stops are f/2.8 and f/4.9, and the autofocus works great for normal and macro shots, although it's sometimes poky. You can apply exposure compensation, but ISO sensitivity isn't selectable.
The manual mode, which is available for both single-frame and continuous shooting, provides a limited range of additional controls. You can select from the white-balance presets, designate an autofocus area, pick a resolution and one of two compression levels, and adjust image sharpness. Another option in manual mode is Nikon's Best Shot feature: after you've snapped up to 10 photos, the Coolpix 3700 automatically chooses the sharpest one and dumps the rest.
The scene modes provide enough customization options to make most snapshooters happy. Presets include Portrait, Party/Indoor, Night Portrait, Beach/Snow, Landscape, Sunset, Night Landscape, Fireworks, and Museum.
Providing a 35mm-to-105mm range (the 35mm-camera equivalent), the 3X zoom lens is wide enough for indoor photos and usable for telephoto shots. In macro mode and at the middle-zoom position, the lens will focus down to 1.6 inches from your subject.
Nikon's self-timer is the one too-cool-for-school feature. You can set its sound sensitivity to one of three levels and trigger your shot with a clap, a shout, a firecracker, or whatever pleases you. If you'd rather forgo the sound activation, you can set the timer to snap a picture after a 3- or 10-second delay.
In the nifty movie mode, the Coolpix 3700 can fill your memory card with 640x480-pixel, 30-frame-per-second video. The time-lapse feature will grab as many as 1,800 frames separated by intervals ranging from 30 seconds to 1 hour. And you can save up to 5 hours of tinny but acceptable voice recordings using the sound-only mode. On the whole, the Nikon Coolpix 3700 was an average performer. But low-light autofocus was slightly slow, even with the assist lamp, leading to an abominable shutter lag of almost 2 seconds. But the delay shortened to 0.6 second under brighter, more contrasty conditions that didn't require the lamp.
We waited an acceptable 3.6 seconds between power-on and our first snap. And the shot-to-shot time was good but not stellar: typically 1.3 seconds and 2.8 seconds with the flash.
Continuous shooting is not this Coolpix's strong point; you get only two options. Firing at around 1.6 frames per second, the camera grabs up to five photos; if you can accept a maximum of three, then the 3700 snaps a little more than twice as fast.
The 1.5-inch screen is sharp, displays little ghosting or jitter when subjects move, and offers adjustable brightness. Even so, viewing the LCD under strong sunlight is a bit hard. For a 3-megapixel pocket camera, the Nikon Coolpix 3700 delivered good but not spectacular photo quality. Our test shots had well-saturated colors and realistic flesh tones, although red-eye was a problem when we took flash pictures in the kind of dim light that opens the human iris. Compared with the best images in this class, the 3700's exhibited a little less sharpness, which decreased slightly near the frame's edges.
Noise levels were low in brightly lit shots, for which the Coolpix 3700 always chooses ISO 50. In dim conditions, the camera boosts the ISO to 200 to improve sensitivity, but that noticeably increases noise. Because you can't manually control ISO and exposure, remedies such as tripod use may improve sharpness but won't automatically reduce low-light noise. We noticed a little barrel distortion, which was especially visible in photos with rectangular objects close to the frame's sides.