Nikon really shows off its style with its Coolpix S500, a sleek, compact camera that feels every bit as good as it looks. This little shooter has some of the nicest design points we've seen in a small shooter, plus a few handy features normally seen on higher-end cameras. Unfortunately, looks and tricks aren't everything, and the S500 simply doesn't live up to its potential.
The 7-megapixel shooter's brushed-stainless-steel body stands out as its most notable feature. Its simple, blocky design and steel shell give the camera an elegant look and a surprisingly sturdy feel. The S500 is hardly the only metal-bodied camera out there, but it is one of the very few made of stainless steel; many Canon PowerShot SD and Sony Cyber-shot T cameras sport aluminum shells that look quite stylish, but don't feel as durable.
Despite its steel frame, the S500 is surprisingly small and light. Its 0.9-inch-thick frame cuts a slimmer profile than the Canon PowerShot SD750's. It weighs just over five ounces with battery and SD card, making it one of the lightest cameras we've picked up this year. The small size and weight let the S500 fit into almost any pocket comfortably; you won't feel bogged down when carrying around this camera.
An iPod-like click wheel controls most of the camera's commands. While derivative, the wheel is a welcome upgrade over the conventional joy pad that most cameras use. Like the iPod's click wheel, the S500's spinning wheel makes navigating menus and browsing photos in its 2.5-inch LCD screen a simple, intuitive, and speedy process. If you don't like the change, however, the wheel can also work like a regular joy pad by pressing it instead of spinning it.
Underneath the shiny steel body and behind the click wheel sits a relatively cookie-cutter camera with a few very useful features. The 35mm-to-105mm-equivalent 3x optical zoom lens has a maximum aperture range of f/2.7 to f/4.7 and uses Nikon's Vibration Reduction optical image stabilization to help reduce blur. Face-detecting autofocus can recognize faces and automatically adjust settings when shooting people. The camera can reach up to ISO 2,000 sensitivity, a slightly higher setting than the ISO 1,600 maximum found on a lot of snapshot cameras.
A painfully slow shutter capped off the S500's consistently poor performance in our lab tests. The shutter lagged a slow 1.1 seconds with our high-contrast target and a full two seconds under low-contrast conditions. After a 2.9-second time to first shot, the camera could snap off only one shot every 2.8 seconds without flash, and once every 3.1 seconds with the flash enabled. The burst mode was quite fast at least, taking three full-resolution photos in 1.1 seconds for a rate of 2.8 frames per second. Still, it fires off only three shots at a time, so the burst mode isn't nearly as useful as some other cameras' continuous modes that can take many more pictures in one burst.