Nikon COOLPIX S8100 12.1 MP Digital Camera - Black Reviews
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Nikon COOLPIX S8100 12.1 MP Digital Camera - Black

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Nikon S8100 Has Good Features and HD Recording But Also Quality Issues

Dec 13, 2010 (Updated Feb 16, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Very Good

  • Ease of Use:
  • Durability:
  • Battery Life:
  • Photo Quality:
  • Shutter Lag

Pros:Small size, good feel in the hands, HD video recording, large LCD, easy Record button.

Cons:Lens defect may cause it to get stuck, pop-up flash gets in way.

The Bottom Line:

The S8100 is a good camera with HD recording and high-resolution photos.  But its recent lens defect makes getting an extended warranty an option to consider.


************************
UPDATED 2/16/2011. 
Nikon really needs to do a better job with their point-and-shoot line.  My S8100 had a defect that caused the lens to extend and stay stuck in that position, the LCD screen reading a cryptic "Lens Error" message.

I checked online for fixes to resolve it and, finding none, was relegated to sending it in to a Nikon repair facility in El Segundo, Calfornia (with shipping paid by me).  I shipped the camera on 1/31/2011 and it took until 2/7/2011 for it to arrive because of the nasty winter storms that hit the nation.

Nikon processed it on 2/8/2011 - the estimate said it replaced a part and did a "check and clean" (whatever that means) - and shipped it back via UPS Ground on 2/11/2011.  I got it back on 2/16/2011.  The camera was out of my possession for a total of 16 days.

Now, I can hear some of you out there thinking, "Why didn't you just buy an extended warranty where you bought the thing?  You could have taken it back and gotten an exchange, right?"  Perhaps.  It's been years since I've ever purchased such a "warranty" from a place like Best Buy.  When they were first introduced, they were a good deal at about 5 to 10 percent of the purchase price of the merchandise.  They have since risen to no less than 15 percent of the cost of the merchandise, which is pretty steep.  The S8100 was a sale price of $250 plus tax.  An extended Best Buy warranty would have been about $50 for the year, or about 16%.  That's a lot of money.  (To hear how some retailers can bungle such extended-warranty plans, visit this link: http://blog.oregonlive.com/complaintdesk/2010/03/best_buy_warranty_just_got_bet.html.)

So I now have the S8100 back, but I have a dimmer view of Nikon's point-and-shoot Coolpix division.  I returned a Coolpix three years ago (see review below) because it had lousy specs.  This time I wound up with a unit that - either because of poor design or workmanship - went bad on me within three months.

I have this to look forward to, though - I had a Panasonic Lumix camera that I sent in for service once (because I'd dropped it, my fault).  But when the unit came back, it never failed, not once.  I can only hope Nikon's servicers added some reliability at the factory.

I have made adjustments to my review as a result of my experience.  The one thing Nikon MUST learn is that if their offerings aren't built to last, paying a celebrity to hock them won't save their business. 

************************


Let me say at the outset that generally speaking, I'm a fan of Nikon products.  The first serious point-and-shoot I bought was a Nikon, the first digital SLR I bought was a Nikon, and I've had an affinity for Nikon ever since.  That is not to say that Nikon products are perfect - they're not.  But when Nikon's Coolpix division made Ashton "That 70's Show" Kutcher the public face of their line of point-and-shoots, my first thought was "Oh, really?"  Having used one of Nikon's latest offerings, though, the S8100, I now must concur that the choice of Kutcher was apropos.  Like Kutcher, the S8100 is good-looking, sleek, and smart.  Kutcher's latest ad spot shows him flitting around a party of VIP's, snapping merrily away with his S8100.  Seeing that ad made me want to take a closer look at the S8100 and I wound up buying one (the ad agency gets a blue ribbon for that!).

I consider myself a semi-pro photographer.  I do my serious shoots with a D60 (another fine piece from Nikon) but, like many other photographers, enjoy not having to lug around a bigger, heavier camera and lenses for more casual occasions.  Up until recently I have been using a Panasonic Lumix camera - a 10X optical "monster zoom" camera circa 2007.  The camera was an 8-megapixel camera that could also shoot standard definition (480p) video and could also take what were then new SD HC cards (the faster class of SD cards suitable for video recording). 

My main problem with that camera wasn't so much operational as cosmetic.  The black coating on that camera's beautiful body began to rub off almost as soon as I got it, making it look worn out within months.  I continued to use it, but never forgave Panasonic for that design flaw.  When the new generation of point-and-shoots with HD video came out, I had an excuse, finally, for ditching the Lumix.  (It appears Panasonic learned from its mistakes as the newer Lumix offerings don't appear to have the same scratch-prone coating they did before, but I was interested in a Nikon nonetheless.)

The Nikon S8100 makes up for that with a camera that appears to be built to age well, to be versatile, and to be a good value also.  At this early stage of ownership I've been pleased with what I've seen, but there have been a few minor flaws I wanted to make sure you knew about.  But first, let's start at the beginning.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The Nikon Coolpix S8100 has a small, compact little body.  Its footprint is slightly larger than a deck of playing cards, and also slightly thicker.  There's a loop for a lanyard strap on one side of the camera.  The back of the camera has a decently large, 3" LCD.  Off to the right, the navigational controls feature a video record button, a playback mode button, a Menu button, a delete button, and a multi-directional dial that can rotate and be pressed in one of four directions.  A shooting mode dial is on the top of the body, with the wide/telephoto zoom control off to the immediate right.  The shutter release is inside the zoom control at the right top, and the pop-up flash is at the left top.

The underside of the camera has a metal tripod mount all the way to the left side (camera facing forward) and the battery/SD card hatch is all the way to the right side.

The camera's feel in the hands is pretty solid - very few loose or moving parts suggest the camera was basically designed right.  My only concern is the zoom control's surrounding the shutter release - I'm always a little nervous about combination controls like this, because if something happens to one component, it can affect the other.  Only time will tell if this was bad engineering.

One interesting thing on the S8100 - it has an HDMI output.  You can send output from this camera directly to a large, flat-screen LCD TV, a nifty way to view your photos without the use of a computer.
Inside the S8100 box, there's the camera, a rechargeable battery, a USB cable that doubles as a charger, an AC power unit (used with the USB cable to charge the camera), a quick start guide booklet, a Nikon software disc, and the user's guide (also on disc).  Apparently there's so much doc for this camera Nikon chose not to bother printing it, so don't bother looking for a detailed print manual.

INITIAL SETUP

When you first power on the S8100, you'll be asked to choose a language (there appear to be about 20 of them), and to set the system clock.  Once you've done this, you're generally good to go.

The camera's startup is pretty quick, although I notice that while the lens extends immediately, the screen doesn't fully light for a second or two - the initial image fades in.  I'm not sure if this could cost you a photo opportunity, but I'm hoping not.

MENUS

Pressing the Menu button takes you to a series of three menus - a shooting menu (you'll use this the most), a movie menu (settings for video), and a camera settings menu.  The menus reasonably attractive and aren't confusing to use.  The rotating navigational dial at screen's right are used to scroll up and down options, but you can also press the dial to the "up" or "down" positions to accomplish the same.

Shooting menu options include image mode (megapixel depth; this ranges from 12M down to 640x480), white balance (automatic, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, flash, and automatic; there's also a set-it-yourself preset mode), metering (matrix or center-weighted), ISO (ranging from 160 to a whopping 3200!), auto-focus area mode, and auto-focus mode (that's different from the previous option).

Movie menu options include movie quality (from 320x240 for the web all the way up to full HD 1920x1080) and movie frame rate (from 15 frames per second all the way up to 240 frames per second).  I'm a bit skeptical about the frame rate metrics because of the way the output video looks; more on that below.

CAMERA OPERATION

Like many other cameras these days, the S8100 has a kind of two-stage approach to shooting: gently press the shutter release to let the camera focus, and then press harder to take the picture.  Pressing the shutter release the first time activates the auto-focus assist lamp and, if light is insufficient, pops up the flash unit.

The flash unit will take some getting used to.  I took this camera to a party at night and many times when I was holding the camera, a finger was on top of the flash unit as it was trying to pop up, stopping the photo.  The pop-up might have been well-intentioned (such as to prevent red-eye, perhaps), but at this early stage it's a bit annoying.  The flash built into the S8100 body would have been a better choice - either that or having it pop out at the side of the camera, away from the fingers holding the body.

Setting the flash mode is done by pushing the rotating control to the up position.  You can choose automatic, red-eye reduction, no flash, or forced flash.  If you choose no flash and the camera senses not enough light is available, you'll see an icon on the screen telling you to ensure your hand is steady, or to secure the camera on a tripod or fixed surface. 

As you press the camera's shutter release the first time, the LCD will momentarily show the shutter speed and aperture the camera will choose for the photo.  There is no manual mode on the S8100 from what I've been able to see, so you'll either need to use one of the preset shooting modes, or trust the camera's automatic mode.

In addition, you'll see the camera's focus boxes appear - in red or green as it successfully finds things on which to focus or not.  There may be one box or several; it depends on what it seen.  If there are people in the photo, the S8100 uses face-recognition software to detect them before the shot; these boxes are yellow on the LCD.

Speaking of the LCD, it is beautiful - one of the best that's ever been in a point-and-shoot.  I read elsewhere that it sports some 900,000 pixels, meaning the display is crisper and sharper.  That's great for sharing photos in the moment with friends, but remember that the end target of your pictures will be a computer screen or photo paper, not the camera's LCD.

PHOTO QUALITY

Almost any commercially available camera is going to give you good photos in direct sunlight, so I'm not going to talk much about that. Instead, I'm going to talk about "boundary conditions" - room lighting and night situations.

I did a side-by-side photo shoot with a subject using my D60 and the S8100, and a halogen lamp for lighting.  I put the S8100 in automatic mode and used manual settings on the D60.

The S8100 did well.  White balance was good, color saturation was good, skin tones looked natural.  But the S8100 sometimes appeared to have a slightly softer focus.  And occasionally I saw some variation in quality from shot to shot, even if I didn't reposition myself much.

Later, I took the S8100 to a nighttime outdoor festival - this being the holiday season, it was a festival featuring festively illuminated homes.  Light scenes generally looked good but, again, there was some variation in quality, and I think it depends on where the camera metered from.  This may be preventable by adjusting  controls in the shooting menu, but I'm not an expert on those yet.

Flash photos were mostly good, but would occasionally wash out the subject for no apparent reason.  There is no question the S8100 has enough power to flash - I would say it can reach a good 10 to 14 feet.  If you plan on using flash with this camera, take at least two pictures to have a chance at one that's not overly bright.

LENS

The S8100 features a 5.4 to 54.0 mm lens with an aperture of 3.5-5.6.  That's good for low light images.  The 10X zoom lets you shoot a long distance and generally produces good results, but occasionally produces a slightly blurred picture if your hand isn't steady. 

And that's not all that may be wrong with the lens - if your camera was, say, made on a Friday, it may - for no apparent reason - get stuck in the extended position.  This was a problem I had with my S8100 that caused me to have to send it back to Nikon for service, a process that took a little over two weeks.  If you get this camera, consider getting an extended warranty at the retailer - I have never recommended this option before, but I will this time.

VIDEO OPERATION

Nikon made a smart choice with this camera for video - when you want to shoot a video, rather than having to rotate a dial to the "video" position, you just push a button on the back with a red dot on it.  No fumbling, just press it.  That is brilliant.  When you're through shooting, press that button again.

Video playback is a little trickier, though.  You start and pause a video with the OK button (in the middle of the directional rotating control), but use the "left" and "right" positions on that same control to highlight on-screen "buttons" to go backward or forward (and then you press the OK button again).  It's clumsy and yes, it's as complicated as I'm making it sound. I wonder if Nikon thought about putting a touch-screen on this then decided to back off because they thought that would have been costlier.  Stick to using your computer to view your video creations.

VIDEO QUALITY

The S8100 boasts full HD quality video (1920x1080), but I took a look at video shot with an actual HD camcorder and the S8100 is a little different.  I have a Canon Vixia HF10 which I bought in 2009 - this is a camcorder that can shoot full HD video to an SD card.  I took a look at some motion video - from a rock concert - that I'd shot in summer of the same year.  That video was fluid and gave me the feeling of really being "there."

Not quite so the S8100's video.  The video is good, but not "camcorder good".  The Canon video used the AVCHD format which, apparently, does something with compression to make it flow more naturally.  The S8100's video - MOV, the QuickTime format - seemed to have more of a cinematic quality which won't bother a lot of users, but will irk those who were hoping to get that "live" feel.  (It's not jerky or anything; it's merely a stylistic difference.)  The S8100 should not be confused with a digital camcorder, though, and I would not recommend it as a substitute for a full-size digital camcorder (especially with prices on that technology coming down as well).  It is good for short video clips and, perhaps, cinematic-style video, but pickier video enthusiasts thinking they're going to be getting the exact same results as a full-size camcorder are going to be a bit let down (but only a bit).

But one nice bit of news - on most cameras that can shoot video, you can't zoom.  With the S8100, you can, albeit slowly. 

HDMI OUTPUT

Well, when I decided to try hitching up the S8100 to my 42" LCD TV, I got an unpleasant surprise - the HDMI connection is a mini connection.  You can't use an ordinary connector, you have to have a mini-to-standard adapter.  Why couldn't Nikon have just used a regular adapter and spared users the hassle of having to have two HDMI cables?  So just remember if you plan on sending the S8100's output to a TV directly, without the use of a computer, you'll need a regular HDMI cable and a mini-to-standard adapter.

Once I got the unit hitched to the TV, the results were fine.  Photos look bright; video looks good but not eye-poppingly great (unless you've never seen HD before).  This is a good way to view your HD video creations quickly without having to copy them to a computer or burn a Blu-Ray disc.

BATTERY AND RECHARGING

The battery life on the S8100 is okay.  The camera uses a rechargeable battery rather than AA or AAA batteries. Years ago I would have howled about this, but the Nikon D50 and D60 also use a rechargeable battery and I have almost never been caught short, even with a single battery, and have enjoyed numerous exposures.  So I no longer think point-and-shoots must have removable batteries anymore, although I do encourage manufacturers to ensure they're packing as much power as possible into those suckers.  And if you plan on going on a long trip or excursion where you expect to take a lot of images, get a second back-up battery.

By the time I wrote this review, I shot 292 images (including a few short videos) with the S8100 and the camera's low-battery icon was showing on the LCD (there are no gradations to give you a feel of how much power you have left; that would have been nice - cell phones can do it; why can't digital cameras?).  Extrapolating, I would imagine you could safely get 330 to 360 photos on a single, full charge.  That's decent, but not eye-popping.  (Comparison: On my Nikon D60 SLR, I can shoot over 600 images without any signs of battery flagging.  That's the kind of performance I'd like to see on a point-and-shoot.)

Recharging the S8100 can be done either through your computer, or through a power socket.  The camera is connected to a USB cable, and that cable can be plugged into a spare USB socket on your computer, or into the power supply that you then plug into the wall.  It's a little strange because if you have a second battery, you have to finish charging a first battery before you can remove that and insert the second battery. I would have preferred a charging solution where you can remove the battery from the camera completely, place it in the charger, and go on with an alternate battery.  With so many people having laptop computers, though, this newer method will find quite a few fans.

But according to the manual it takes just under 4 hours to charge a "fully depleted" battery.  In this age of better battery technology that is a long time.  Consider ordering an extra EN-EL12 battery (about $40 from WolfCamera.com) and keeping it topped off; for longer shooting days this is a must.

By the way - if you see the low battery icon on the screen, estimate that you probably have about 30 photos to go (and that's if you don't shoot any video).

FINAL VERDICT

At a street price of $299 (I got mine for $249), the S8100 is a very good point-and-shoot camera.  Several years prior I tried a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot (the P60) and returned it because of its wimpy 5X optical zoom, short battery life, and other disappointments.  The S8100 is better.  The camera's overall photo quality is good, it has a 10X optical zoom, the HD video will come in handy at times, and the battery life is all right, but could be better.

The Coolpix line continues to improve, but they still need to work on details.  And Nikon most certainly had better get its point-and-shoot line up the quality of their digital SLR's, or they may get lapped by Canon and other makers.


*** UPDATE #1 - 12/18/2010 ***

A friend told me about a fashion show in the downtown area.  I was curious to see how the S8100 would hold up against a standard DSLR, which I typically would have taken.

As I mentioned in my original review, the S8100 - as well as any point-and-shoot - is not an SLR.  SLR cameras, by their very nature and design, have virtually zero shutter lag.  I found out just how slow the S8100 can be at an event where the models walk, present, and walk back in a matter of seconds.  If you miss a moment, that's it.

The S8100 is not a suitable camera for an event where you can miss something in a split second.  It was a bit frustrating trying to get the camera to focus, be ready to shoot, take the shot, and then hope it readies itself for the next shot in time.  This may not come as a surprise to many of you, but I wanted to update this review to make sure some of you don't buy the S8100 thinking it's lightning fast - it's not.

Again, some flash shots were washed out while others were not.  Since the event took place in a night club, I think that caused the metering to be fooled when I tried to photograph a model right in front of me.  Three shots I took after the show of a model all had some degree of blurriness.  I think that's probably what surprised me about the S8100, was the focus/metering wasn't as quick as I'd hoped.  There may be a setting for controlling this but in automatic, it leaves a bit to be desired.

Fearing I might miss some of the better images, I tried shooting some HD video and there, the results were better.  When an HD movie is frozen, some of the stills make very good pictures (for the web, not for print). 

Based on the use of the S8100 at this event, I would suggest you stick to using the S8100 for events where you have time to compose your shots.  If you're in a nighttime situation where you're trying to get a shot that can appear and disappear in a matter of seconds, you could get by with the camcorder and a video editor to extract some stills.  Otherwise, you'll probably be a bit annoyed.


*** UPDATE #2 - 12/19/2010 ***

While shopping with a friend at a non-corporate camera store, I asked a clerk if they had extra EN-EL12 batteries and a AC battery charger.  They did have extra EN-EL12 batteries ($29.95 apiece) and an OEM charger by a company called Synergy Digital ($17.95).  Not bad, but it would have been nice if a Nikon-branded charger would have been included like this, where you can slip a battery in and charge it without having to have it in the camera.  Still, what this shows is that extra batteries are available (if not cheap) and that external chargers can also be had.  I recommend buying both.


*** UPDATE #3 - 2/16/2011 ***

Please be sure to re-read my introduction at the top of this page about the lens problem, and then compare with other cameras from other makers. 


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 249
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Easy Enough for Anyone to Use


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