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Nikon Coolpix S520

Elegant 8 megapixel ultra-compact with optical image stabilization
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

The Nikon Coolpix S520 was introduced in January of 2008 as part of Nikon's Spring 2008 lineup. The new Coolpix S520 is part of Nikon's "Style" series, a line that seeks to combine sophisticated elegance with advanced technology and speedy operation. If they were automobiles, the Nikon S-series cameras would be the sleek and nimble sports coupes exuding speed, elegance and class.

One of four new S-Series cameras introduced by Nikon, the 8.1 megapixel Coolpix S520 takes its place beside the still offered S510 which sports the same resolution. Like the more expensive S510, the new camera offers sophisticated optical vibration reduction image stabilization technology. The body is quality-crafted aluminum instead of stainless steel body. There is high ISO 2000 sensitivity for shooting in low light, the camera is compatible with the new high capacity SDHC storage cards, and it is equipped with most of Nikon's latest "In-Camera innovations" that make for better pictures. And with a list price of US$229, it is also less expensive than what now looks like its predecessor, even after the S510's January 2008 price reduction from US$299 to US$279.

What you get with the Coolpix S520

Let me preface by saying that Nikon threw a little curve here by launching a new camera that, while less expensive, also offers less than its predecessor in some respects. For example, we consider LCD resolution to be a big issue because a sharp picture makes it much easier to enjoy playback, zoom in, and determine if a picture is in deed in focus. Well, the S520's 2.5-inch display only has 153k pixel resolution compared to the older S510's 230k pixel. That can make a big difference. Of less importance is that internal storage has shrunk from 52MB to just 23MB. No real big deal, but if your storage card is full and you need some extra space to tide you over, it may matter. Finally, the S520 is also in sort of a difficult position compared to the also new 10-megapixel S550. That camera does not only have more resolution, but also a 230k-pixel high-res screen, yet it costs the same US$229. What it comes down to -- but unfortunately that is not clearly explained in Nikon literature or the website -- is that the S520, like the S510, has optical lens shift vibration reduction as opposed to the less effective digital vibration reduction. At least that is what the Nikon press release says. Nikon's glossy camera comparison brochure simply shows the S520 as having "vibration reduction" like all other new S and P series Nikons. If that is so, then after all is said and done, the S520 is essentially the same camera as the S510 but at a lower price, and for that you give up LCD display resolution and get an aluminum body instead of stainless steel.

Form should follow function, and with the S520, as it did with the S510, it mostly does. The camera is very small, with a footprint of 3.7 x 2.1 inches -- about as tall as a credit card and a bit wider. It's just under an inch thick, which despite its light weight of 4.1 ounces (w/o battery) gives it a substantial feel unlike that of the ultra-thins. Most of the backside is taken up by the 2.5-inch LCD with anti-reflection coating for very good outdoor viewability. To the right of the big display are the few hardware controls, all nicely and logically arranged.

The front of the S520 is flat and very clean. Three little dots mark the microphone, the tiny flash and the AF-illuminator light sit on top of the lens barrel. The barrel itself is large, and the actual lens sits off-center. That looks kind of weird and it's the camera's only design element that misses the mark. The lens barrel itself is big and motors out a good distance when you turn the camera on. A folding internal zoom would be nice in such a stylish camera.

Optics and technology

The Coolpix S520 comes with a 35-105mm equivalent 3X Zoom-Nikkor glass. An available 4X digital zoom multiplies that to a maximum 12X magnification.

If our assumption is right, the camera is equipped with optical Vibration Reduction that can correct blur caused by slight hand movement, something that easily happens when zooming in. This is an active lens shift anti-shape technology that senses movement perpendicular to the panning. So if you pan horizontally, the VR mechanism will reduce vertical shake; if the camera pans vertically, horizontal shake is smoothed out. VR can be used in all shooting modes, including movies. In our experience, optical lens shift vibration reduction works substantially better than digital anti-blur.

Like the S510, the S520 is a quick camera both in start-up time and almost non-existent shutter lag. Nikon's EXPEED digital imaging processing system provides noise reduction and improved signal-to-noise ratio. Sensitivity up to ISO 2000 comes in handy in low light conditions. The S520 has 16 scene modes, those being portrait, landscape, sports, night portrait, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, night landscape, close-up, museum, fireworks, copy (to take clear pictures of text and print), backlight and panorama assist. New is a "Food Mode" that lets you shoot close-ups of food at high ISO settings without flash in restaurants or other locations where flash photography is inappropriate or not permitted.

Another new feature makes it quicker and easier to finding often used camera modes and favorite images. You can select your three favorite scene modes so they appear directly in the Mode menu. And favorite images can now be saved to individual albums with the S520's incorporated in-camera image organization system. There is also "Face Zoom-in" that allows you to quickly zoom in and switch between faces during playback.

Like most recent Coolpix cameras, the S520 includes Face-priority AF that automatically identifies and focuses on up to five faces in a frame (however, the S510 could find a dozen). In-Camera Red-Eye Fix automatically spots and fixes red eye. D-Lighting compensates for excessive backlight or insufficient flash in images.

Unlike the S510, the new S520 has the standard 4-way navigation disc instead of a rotary multi selector that required a bit of getting used to.

Voice recording is available both as a freestanding feature (record til full) or as voice annotations to picures (up to 20 seconds).

In movie mode you can record at full 640 x 480 resolution and at a lifelike 30 frames per second, with sound. Recording time is only limited by storage capacity. Unfortunately, like all other new Coolpix models, the S520 won't let you use the optical zoom while shooting movies; digital zoom is available but only up to 2X. That was an unwelcome surprise. On the plus side, you can do time-lapse movies with intervals between shots from 30 seconds to 60 minutes.

There are no manual modes; the S510 is strictly a point & shooter.

Overall

What you get with the Coolpix S520 is a elegant, small and handy aluminum-bodied 8.1 megapixel camera that emphasizes style and technology. It's small enough to fit anywhere, yet has a large but not very hi-res 2.5-inch LCD that remains quite readable outdoors. The design is clean and uncluttered. The S510 is a speedy point & shooter without manual control. It offers full voice recording, VGA movies with sound and even time-lapse movies. Active lens shift vibration reduction eliminates most blur when you zoom and it can be used both for still pictures and for movies.

We like:

  • Elegant aluminum design
  • Very small and handy
  • Optical lens-shift image stabilization
  • Face recognition mode
  • Voice recording
  • Full speed VGA movies with sound
Not so much:
  • Relatively low res display
  • Only 23MB internal storage
Specifications Nikon Coolpix S520
Status Added 02/2008
Camera Type Compact
Size 3.7 x 2.1 x 0.9
Weight (oz.) 4.1 without batteries
Effective Pixels 8.1 mp
CCD Type 1/2.5
Max pixel size 3264 x 2448
File formats JPEG, WAV, AVI
Compression fine, normal, basic
Movie recording (best) til full, with audio
Max movie pixels 640 x 480 with sound at 30fps til full (digital zoom only)
Voice recording til ful + voice clips up to 20 seconds
Lens 5 elements, 5 groups
Focal length 5.7-17.1mm (35-105mm)
Zoom (optical/digital) 3X/4X
Image stabilization Optical lens-shift
Aperture f/2.8 - f/4.7
Focus modes auto, center, manual face-priority, and AF-assist illuminator
Focus minimum/macro 1.6 feet, 6 inches
Shutter speed 1/1500 to 4 sec
Sensitivity (ISO) auto;64/100/200/400/800/ 1600/2000
Autofocus system Contrast-detect AF
Metering 256-segment matrix center-weighted or spot
Autofocus system contrast-detect
White-balance modes auto/6 presets (manual, daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy, flash)
Shooting modes auto, high-sensitivity, 15 scenes
Exposure compensation +/-2EV in 1/3 steps
Viewfinder Type none
LCD size 2.5" LCD (153k) 5-level brightness
LCD type outdoor viewable, anti-reflection coating
LCD construction fixed
Flash type built-in
Flash range up to 21 feet
Flash modes 5 (auto, red-eye, off, fill, slow sync)
Camera internal memory 23MB
Storage Medium SD Card
I/O USB
Battery type EN-EL10 Li-Ion pack
CIPA Battery life (LCD/off) 180 images
List Price US$229.95
Contact www.nikon.com

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