While we all like big high-spec digital SLRs or CSCs for "serious" photography, for most social photography, such as a family occasion or a night out with friends, a small pocket compact is a lot more convenient. For the past three years my personal favourite has been the tiny, cheap, but surprisingly good Casio Exilim EX-S12, launched in 2009 but still available for around £60. It's still one of the smallest and lightest cameras on the market; 16.9mm thick, 130g, and roughly the size of a credit card, perfect for slipping into your pocket as you go out the door. It's surprising that it's taken three years for anyone to come up with a smaller camera but Nikon has finally managed it, with the almost absurdly tiny Coolpix S01.
The Coolpix S01 is a unique miniature digital compact featuring a touchscreen interface, 10.1-megapixel resolution and 3x optical zoom. It is currently selling for around £120.
Design and features
This may be a somewhat shorter section than usual, because the S01 has almost no features to talk about and the design is about as basic as it's possible to get.
The S01 is so small it looks like a half-scale model of a normal compact. It measures 77.1 x 51.1 x 17.1mm and weighs only 95g, even smaller and lighter than the EX-S12, although still not quite as slim. Nikon has achieved this remarkable feat of miniaturisation by leaving out a few things we would normally take for granted. For a start there is no memory card slot; instead the S01 has 7.3GB of internal flash memory (sufficient for around 3,100 shots), and recorded images and videos have to be downloaded via a USB cable. Similarly there is no removable battery nor separate charger; the fixed internal battery is charged in-situ, again via the USB cable. The only external port is the mini-USB port concealed under a rather fiddly hatch on the bottom of the camera, and there is no tripod bush.
The external controls are also kept to a minimum thanks to a touchscreen interface. The only buttons are the on/off switch, the shutter button with its rotary bezel zoom control, and a button to toggle between shooting and playback mode.
Almost the whole rear of the camera is taken up with the monitor, but even so the screen measures only 6.2cm (2.5in) diagonally. It also has fairly low resolution, with only 240,000 dots. With such a small area to fill, the touchscreen menu is very limited, with only enough room for four icons on the screen. The main screen has icons for shooting, playback, video mode and setup with an additional six icons visible, when you scroll down, for controlling the self-timer (10 seconds only), flash mode, exposure compensation, image mode, touch-shooting and a very limited range of filter effects.
There is no manual control of ISO setting, metering mode, AF mode, continuous shooting mode or any of the other useful features you'd expect to find on even a basic budget compact. I found the touchscreen to be lacking in sensitivity and slow to respond, requiring a solid press to activate the icons, and some of the on-screen buttons are very small for anyone with large fingers. Nikon claims that the screen has an anti-reflective surface, but I still had problems viewing it in what little bright sunlight we've had lately. In this age of AMOLED capacitive screen smartphones the S01's monitor and touchscreen interface feel a bit clunky and primitive.
The overall build quality is reasonable, but it lacks that feeling of superior quality that one gets with most of Nikon's other cameras. The controls feel loose and fragile, and the body panel seams aren't as tight as I'd expect. The body is made from aluminium, and the S01 is available in a red, black, white, metallic pink or the chrome finish you see here. Thanks to the camera's small size and rounded shape it is quite fiddly to hold, especially if you have large hands. The smooth chrome finish of my review sample proved to be very slippery, and only the wrist strap saved it from a couple of nasty drops.
I've already mentioned the sluggish touchscreen, and unfortunately this is typical of the S01's overall performance. The autofocus system is very slow, especially in low light where it will hunt backwards and forwards for several seconds, and it will sometimes fail to focus at all even in relatively well-lit surroundings. The automatic flash also frequently fails to activate in low light, resulting in many ruined shots. Even when the flash does fire it is very weak, with a maximum range of only about two metres, and its close proximity to the lens means you'll get red-eye in almost every shot. Unlike some more sophisticated cameras the S01 offers no provision to correct this. For a camera designed with social snapshot photography in mind this is disappointing, especially so when you remember that prestigious Nikon badge on the front.
The S01 has no continuous shooting mode, and its shot-to-shot time in good light is approximately 2.6 seconds, which is again quite slow compared to many similarly priced but larger compacts.
The automatic ISO sensitivity is extremely puzzling, and seems to assign settings pretty much at random. In three consecutive and near-identical shots of well-lit leaves against a bright blue sky it set 500 ISO, 125 ISO and then 500 ISO again, while it set dimly lit rooms at 400 ISO with no flash, or 800 ISO with the flash. The results, not surprisingly, are terrible.
It's very difficult to gauge the S01's battery duration, since every time you connect the USB cable to download photos it also charges the battery. However, Nikon claims only 190 shots on a full charge, which is about half what you'd expect from a normal 3x zoom compact. It's also worth pointing out that pretty much the worst thing you can do to a lithium-ion battery is to continually partially charge it, so don't expect it to last more than two or three years if you use it regularly. Note also that the battery is internal and cannot be easily replaced.
As most readers are no doubt aware, compact digital cameras generally have one of two types of sensor. High quality advanced compacts aimed at enthusiasts usually have a larger 1/1.7in sensor for greater image quality, while most consumer compacts have a smaller 1/2.3in sensor, sacrificing image quality to make smaller, lighter cameras. The S01 takes this a step further, however, employing the even smaller 10.1-megapixel 1/2.9in sensor that Nikon also uses in its bargain-basement L23 and L25 models.
I may be wrong but I think it's a Sony sensor originally designed for a low-cost digital video camera; either way, it has a little over half the surface area of even a small 1/2.3in sensor, with consequently smaller photocells. A smaller sensor seldom signals anything good in terms of image quality, but even with my expectations lowered by this knowledge, I was still surprised by just how bad the S01 was. In the two weeks that I was testing the camera I didn't manage to take a single picture that I liked.
Many shots were blurred as a result of the unreliable AF, or the exposure system choosing an inappropriate ISO setting and a slow shutter speed, or the flash not firing, or any combination of the above. If it did by chance produce a sharp picture the lack of dynamic range wiped out any shadow or highlight detail, while the lack of resolution and massive over-processing did its best to wipe out everything in between. It almost seemed that the camera would deliberately choose the worst possible setting for any given situation.
There's no way to manually adjust the ISO setting, but suffice it to say there was noise even at 125 ISO. There's not much noise visible at 800 ISO, but only because the noise reduction has removed every trace of fine detail. Adding to the atrocities committed by the sensor is the awful lens, which suffers from overall softness, severe chromatic aberration, corner blurring and optical distortion, which is digitally corrected further reducing overall quality.
Considering the possible origin of the sensor it's appropriate that the S01's overall image quality reminded me of stills shot on a video camera. If you're looking for something to take snapshots on a night out you'll almost certainly get better results from your mobile phone.
Although the S01 is remarkable for its tiny dimensions and feather-like weight, it achieves this by cutting many corners, leaving it with only the most basic features and a number of crucial problems. Handling is fiddly, performance is slow, focusing and other automatic functions are unreliable, and to top it off the image quality is very poor. It you'd like a very small digital camera but also want to take some decent pictures with it you're still better off with a three-year-old Casio EX-S12.
The Coolpix S01 doesn’t have manually adjustable ISO settings, but here’s my usual test shot anyway, taken using tungsten studio lights. The camera has chosen 400 ISO. Download the original file.
f/5.9, 1/20th, 400 ISO. Even at this moderate ISO setting the image quality is very poor, with noise, artefacts, jagged diagonals and low colour saturation.
The tiny low-quality lens produces plenty of optical distortion, but it’s digitally corrected during processing.
Even at the centre of the frame the picture is soft, noisy (at 80 ISO) and over-processed.
At the corner of the frame the image is badly blurred, and suffers from chromatic aberration.
Here’s my usual detail comparison shot, the 15th century carved door in Cathedral Close, Exeter.
The tiny 1/2.9in sensor was originally designed for a cheap camcorder, and it shows in this shot. The image quality is awful.
Dynamic range is very limited, with no shadow or highlight detail. The 10.1MP 1/2.9in sensor has roughly the same pixel density as a 20MP 1/2.3in sensor, and it shows.
If the flash can be persuaded to fire at all it is very weak and its close proximity to the lens virtually guarantees red-eye. Download the original file.
Colour rendition is sub-standard, and the inappropriate ISO setting on this shot has reduced what little detail the sensor had captured. Download the original file.
1/2.9in CCD, 10.1 effective megapixels
3,648 x 2,736
3x optical, 4x digital
Focal length (35mm)
4.1 – 12.3mm (29 – 87mm equiv.)
f/3.5 – 5.9
1s – 1/2000th sec
256-segment matrix, auto
Automatic only, 80-1600 ISO
6.2cm (2.5in) 230k dot LCD touchscreen
Wide 0.5-2.2 m, Tele 0.5-1.2 m
1,280 x 720 HD
Memory card slot
Non-removable li-ion battery, approx. 190 shots
Dimensions (W x H x D)
77.1 x 51.1 x 17.1mm
Weight (body only)
Wrist strap, software CD, cables, instructions