Touchscreen cameras haven't always been our favorite because, just like certain phones, they're often not nearly as responsive as digicams with good old fashioned buttons. But the Nikon Coolpix S230's resistive touchscreen is quick to respond, and has a generous 3 inches of real estate to boot. Priced at $229, it takes excellent macro shots, and its image quality and zoom factor are adequate for casual shooters.
The S230 has a 3-inch touchscreen, and a slim, youthful design to match. Ours came in Plum, but it's also available in Warm Silver, Gloss Red, Night Blue, and Jet Black. Although the chassis is made of plastic, it has a faux brushed-metal pattern, which makes the camera look more high-end than it is. Whereas the Coolpix S630 has a thick, convex shape, the S230 has a relatively thin (0.8 inches thick) design, with flat faces and square edges (the side puffs out a bit like a pillow, giving it a less severe shape). Although not the absolute lightest, at 4.1 ounces, it's light and compact enough to store easily in your pants pocket.
Thanks to the large touchscreen, the S230 is nearly devoid of buttons: there's a power button and shutter (complete with zoom toggle) on top, and playback and scene buttons on the backside. On the bottom, there's a tripod mount and USB door; the SD/SDHC Card slot is housed behind the same door as the rechargeable battery.
When we first learned of the S230, Nikon promised that the touchscreen would be more responsive than that on the S60, the company's first touchscreen model released last year. Indeed, the S230 was very responsive when we tapped the on-screen icons, which were plenty large enough for our finger (using a finger to swipe through photos in playback mode took more practice, however). We also had no problem tapping the screen to choose our focus point; you can do this in Auto mode, but not Scene Auto Selector mode.
Less essential, but still neat, are the retouch features, available in playback mode. You can select from various stamps (heart-shaped ones, for instance), and from different sizes. You can also draw on-screen using either the pad of your finger, your fingernail, or the included stylus (for finer details), and choose from five colors and a few levels of thickness. The selection of choices is somewhat limited, and you do have to concentrate on applying pressure to the screen, but it's nice nonetheless to see Nikon trying out new uses for its touchscreen technology, a feature which could otherwise be dismissed as a gimmick.
Part of the reason the touch interface works so well is that the camera doesn't have any manual or program modes. In other words, once you select Auto, Scene Auto Selector, or any of the 17 scene modes, the camera will adjust the camera's settings accordingly. Oddly, though, Nikon kept a dedicated scene button, which you have to press to change from, say, Auto mode to a specific scene mode. We wish you could just tap the mode icon on-screen, as you can with the flash settings.
For us, the touchscreen, while imperfect, wasn't distracting, and the strong and fast shutter speeds (more on both of these later) helped make our shooting experience pleasant.
Although most of our 10-megapixel shots looked sharp--including some taken in very dim situations--a few were inexplicably soft, particularly around the edges of the frame. We suspect this could have to do with the fact that the camera has electronic, not optical image stabilization, which means it attempts to freeze images by adjusting the ISO (and not shifting the lens). Normally, we'd expect optical IS in a camera above $200.
However, the S230, which has Motion Detection technology, often did a good job capturing moving subjects. In one frame, for instance, we were able to freeze a basketball in mid-air. The camera also took sharp macro shots, which we preferred to the 3X Canon PowerShot SD780 IS', which were often overexposed.
The colors in our 10-MP shots looked rich; in a sunny skyline shot, for instance, the camera picked up a range of blues from one corner of the shot to the other. However, the exposure in some of our shots looked off: In that same outdoor series, for instance, our shots had a dim overcast that just wasn't there in real life. As a result, some of our backlit shots (friends posing with the sun behind them or in front of a window) didn't show as much shadow detail as the pictures we took with the SD780 IS.
Although the S230's 3X zoom is fine for indoor and close-range outdoor shooting, we would have liked to see a more versatile lens in a camera of this size and price (3X is more the norm for entry-level, sub-$150 models).
Speed, Battery Life, and Warranty
The S230 takes about four seconds between shots, but for a good two of those seconds, the photo you've just taken hangs on the screen. That means you can forget continuous shooting, but at least the shots you do take will register quickly. Again, our crisp shots suggest the shutter lag really isn't that bad. Otherwise, the camera was undeniably fast; it started up in about one second and shut down in about two seconds. That made it easy to get the shots we wanted without wasting battery life by leaving the camera on.
The S230 has a rated battery life of 160 shots. Our final folder of test shots includes 159 images, and that doesn't include the duds we deleted on the spot. The S230 has a one-year warranty.
The $229 Nikon Coolpix S230 has one of the most responsive touchscreens on a camera that we've tested, and we like the colorful, compact design. If you like playing with the settings on your camera, though, this digicam isn't for you, as it has no manual or program modes, and the image quality is generally underexposed (and often soft). For an extra fifty bucks, the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS has similar specs, but offers better image quality. If $229 is more your price range, however, and you like the idea of having a streamlined touch interface, the S230 is a good buy.