Some things never change. Some other things, such as Nikon's wireless S-series cameras, change a little bit at a time. Nikon's new Coolpix S50c is a whole lot like the S7c that the company offered last year. It boasts a 7.2-megapixel CCD imaging sensor, a 3X optical, 38mm-to-114mm-equivalent f/3.3-to-f/4.2 zoom lens, a 3-inch LCD, and houses it all in a cute, curvy-yet-slim casing that's available in silver or black. Oh yeah, and it can wirelessly upload (via built-in 802.11 b/g) your images to Nikon's CoolPix Connect 2 Web site and send e-mails to your friends and family so they can retrieve said photos for free. Other than some slight, but welcomed, control changes, the biggest and best difference between this and last year's model is the addition of optical image stabilization instead of the much-less-effective electronic stabilization found in the S7c.
Never ones to mess with a good thing, Nikon stuck with the same elegant, subtle wave design that most of its ultracompacts have used in recent years. However, compared to last year's S7c, there are a couple of minor differences in the control layout. Instead of using a tiny lever next to the shutter to control zoom, Nikon has opted for a tiny rocker on the camera back. I like this better, since the placement of the lever on the S7c was more prone to accidental zooming. Moving the zoom control also forced Nikon to redesign the four hard buttons on the camera back, which you'll now find above and below the click wheel, which provides quick navigation through the camera's menu system.
If you're looking for a plethora of exposure controls, you won't find them here. Like most ultracompacts, the S50c relies on scene modes (15 in this case) to deal with out-of-the-ordinary, or just plain tricky, shooting situations. Exposure compensation lets you tweak the camera's metering in third-stop increments up to plus or minus 2 EV, but in field tests, the 256-segment matrix metering generally did a good job of determining exposure.
In addition to the scene modes, Nikon includes features to make certain shooting situations easier. Easily accessible by a button on the top-left of the camera, the One Touch Portrait mode sets the camera to recognize faces. In this mode, while you frame the photo, the camera puts yellow boxes around the faces in your photo. At the same time, it chooses one as the main face to use for metering and focus, and puts a bracketed yellow box around that one. The hope is that the camera won't become confused and focus on something in the background when you're trying to get a portrait instead. In my field tests, it worked; friends were in focus and their faces were well exposed. In playback mode, the One Touch Portrait button doubles as the D-Lighting button, which tweaks the brightness and contrast of an image in case an exposure doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to.
Just to the left of that button is the Anti-Shake mode button. In this mode, the camera disables the flash, automatically chooses an ISO of up to ISO 1600 in an attempt to force a fast shutter speed, turns on optical image stabilization, and enables the Best Shot Selector (aka BSS) mode. BSS shoots up to 10 photos in a single burst, using only the first to determine focus and exposure, and then analyzes the results and chooses the one it thinks is best. If you want to use BSS mode without the other Anti-Shake features, you can activate it alone in the main shooting menu.
While Nikon included a year's worth of T-Mobile access with the S7c last year, you've got to pay your own way from the get-go if you want to use the S50c at a T-Mobile hot spot. However, you do still get free storage (50MB) on the CoolPix Connect 2 Web site, which can be used to share your photos with friends and family. If you have access to a private 802.11b/g network, you can use it to upload your photos and send e-mail notifications with links to your uploaded photos. The camera can even store network profiles, complete with TKIP, WEP, or AES security keys.
However, despite our ardent suggestions, Nikon hasn't seen fit to include a browser in the camera, which would let you use the camera with one of the many free Wi-Fi hot spots cropping up around the world. Since the vast majority of such connections require you to click a simple button to accept their terms of service (usually a legal disclaimer to limit the provider's liability), you end up with a network error message on the S50c if you try to access such a network. In my opinion, Nikon should really take it a step further to include a browser that would let you enter credit card info, so you can access the Wi-Fi networks offered by most hotels. Want to appeal to affluent business travelers, Nikon? This would definitely help.
To Nikon's credit, the S50c's wireless functioned flawlessly when I used it with my wireless router at home. Setup was simple, and fairly quick, on the camera. After I sent my first picture e-mail, I got an e-mail from CoolPix Connect 2 that prompted me to complete my registration at Nikon's Web site, where I input the camera's key (found in the wireless portion of the setup menu) and was then ready to go.
In our lab tests, the S50c turned in sluggish results. It took 3.9 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took 2.4 seconds between shots with the flash turned off, and 2.5 seconds between shots with the flash turned on. Shutter lag measured 0.9 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 2.1 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. In continuous shooting mode, we were able to capture 7.2-megapixel JPEGs at an average of 1.39 frames per second, or VGA-sized JPEGs at an average of 1.68 fps.
Image quality was good, but not outstanding, for an ultracompact. Colors were generally accurate and the camera's automatic white-balance system did a decent job of neutralizing colors under incandescent lighting, though our test shots retained a very slight yellowish cast. Of course, some people prefer this, since it retains a hint that you weren't shooting in daylight. The camera's tungsten and fluorescent settings did a good job with their respective light sources, and the manual white balance turned in the most neutral results of all. Images from the S50c weren't the sharpest we've seen, but they still have plenty of fine details and we were pleased to find only very minor colored fringing.
At the camera's lowest sensitivity of ISO we saw almost no noise, but at ISO 200 noise crept in slightly, manifesting as tiny white specks, but it was only really viewable on monitors and not in prints. At ISO 400, noise grew and included some larger off-color speckles. While Nikon's noise reduction algorithms smooth it out some, it still has a minor appearance in some prints. At ISO 800, noise obscures a large amount of finer detail when viewing on monitors and a significant amount of shadow detail is lost, though smaller prints should still be passable.
Overall, the S50c is a very nice ultracompact camera, though its wireless capabilities could be more useful. Since Nikon offers the S50, which is basically the exact same camera without the wireless, you're probably better off saving some money and opting for that, unless you think you'll get a really big kick out of uploading images through your home wireless router, or you plan on forking over an extra $4.99 a month for the privilege of using one of T-Mobile's hot spots.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Time to first shot||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)