Nikon Coolpix S3100 review
1/2.3in 14.0-megapixel sensor, 5.0x zoom (26-130mm equivalent), 118g
If you're looking for an affordable digital camera, Nikon appears to think you're not interested in image quality. That's the only conclusion we can reach as we try to understand the thinking behind the S3100. Nikon is perfectly capable of producing capable low-cost cameras, but instead it has decided to lure customers in with shiny curves and impressive-sounding specs, and not give two hoots about the resulting pictures.
The key troublemaker is the 14-megapixel sensor. That's an awful lot of pixels to cram into a sensor that measures just 1/2.3in from corner to corner. The result is a high degree of error, which appears as speckled patterns of noise. Digital processing can hide it to an extent but doing so also trashes details.
This is true of all the 14-megapixel compact cameras we've seen to date, but the S3100 is much worse than usual. Going back through archived test shots for hundreds of cameras, we're tempted to say that this camera produced the noisiest pictures we've ever seen. Photos taken in bright light at the lowest ISO setting resembled phone-camera shots, with heavy noise reduction smearing any subtleties from existence. By ISO 400, the processing was failing to contain the noise, resulting grainy, blotchy messes. At the maximum ISO 3200 setting, photos looked like abstract finger-paintings.
Excessive noise was compounded by a lack of optical image stabilisation, which would have allowed longer shutter speeds and slower ISO speeds to reduce noise without resulting in blurry photos. The S3100 seems to be oblivious to the dangers of camera shake, though. In low light without the flash, it used shutter speeds as slow as 1/3 seconds before raising the ISO speed beyond 400, resulting in photos that were both noisy and blurred.
With such disastrous image quality, it seems largely irrelevant to discuss the slim, attractive case and the choice of colours (if shocking pink isn't your thing). Shooting performance was fine but menu navigation was sluggish. We were often caught out by the fact that settings must be navigated to and then selected with the OK button – in virtually every other camera, simply highlighting a setting is enough to select it. The orientation sensor was woefully unreliable, tagging only a third of shots captured in portrait orientation. The 720p video mode gave passable results in well-lit environments, but there's no optical zoom function and indoor clips were awash with noise.
Nikon is by no means the only company that appears to be doing its customers a disservice – Canon, Fujifilm, Kodak, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung and Sony have all launched 14-megapixel entry-level cameras this year, and many are moving to 16 megapixels at the mid-range. We're yet to test these models but our expectations are low. It seems that the industry is simply responding to what it sees as an insatiable need for ever-more pixels, regardless of the consequences for image quality.
So please, don't buy this camera, but also spread the word about compact cameras with inflated megapixel ratings. Until the demand dries up, it seems that none of the major camera manufacturers will be interested in designing low-cost cameras where image quality, rather than a marketing bullet point, is the key factor.