At less than $300 at launch, the 12.2-megapixel Coolpix S5100 is a very tempting bit of kit. With little more than a fully automatic point-and-shoot mode, though, it has a long way to go to convince us that it deserves a place on the A List.
Build quality feels convincing, although we're left with doubts over the flimsy-feeling battery door; not the first time we've levelled that complaint at a mid-range Nikon compact. The shell is plastic, and the buttons on the back feel a little cheap. However, the S5100 is about as small as any compact can practically be. At 97mm wide and weighing a shade over 130g, it's ideal for dropping into a pocket. The 2.7in, 230,000-pixel screen is another tick in the box: it's bright and reasonably crisp.
The features list is otherwise sparse. There's a face-priority face-detection mode, which gives focus priority to human faces and works well, and there's a similar self-timer feature. Select the Smart Portrait mode and level the camera at someone's visage, and it will wait until they crack a smile to fire the shutter. It's an impressive party piece, and works reliably, although a group timer mode might have been useful as well.
Otherwise, manual modes are thin on the ground: white balance and two stops of exposure compensation are all you get. While the S5100 may not be a great choice for stills purists, the inclusion of a decent HD 720p, 30fps movie mode is a definite plus, particularly at this price.
The lens' focal length is a modest 28mm-140mm in 35mm terms, but while that doesn't offer spectacular length, it's more than usable for general point-and-shoot photography, and the lens shift image stabiliser is very effective. More importantly, it's extremely sharp. With low ISO settings and careful focusing, the S5100 produced some beautifully crisp images in our tests.
Adjustments on this front run from ISO 100 to a decidedly ambitious ISO 3200. ISOs 100-400 are all but indistinguishable from each other: sharp edges and virtually no noise meant our test shots all looked excellent. ISO 800 began to produce more noise, although not enough to discourage printing at large sizes. Even images taken at ISO 1600 were good enough for printing, if not cropping and enlarging.
Only the top-most setting of ISO 3200 produced seriously flawed images. There's the option to fix the ISO settings to top out at either ISO 400 or 800, should you wish to leave the S5100 to choose its own ISO without visiting the upper reaches of its capabilities.
Of more concern is the S5100's performance when it came to chromatic aberrations, which made unwelcome appearances in almost every test image that had areas of extreme contrast. Spindly tree branches against an overcast sky brought it out especially badly, but it was present elsewhere as well. It's the S5100's only major optical failing, and the single factor that keeps it off the A List.
That the S5100 is available for less than $300 is an undeniably good thing: it generally takes excellent images, purple fringing notwithstanding, and is particularly sharp at lower and middling ISO settings. The 720p movie mode is also a good reason to consider this instead of the Canon Ixus 105, which records video only at VGA resolution. We're not mad about the all-plastic construction or purple-fringing issues, but we like almost everything else.
This article originally appeared at pcpro.co.uk