In a field crowded with near-identical point-and-shoots, the Nikon S4100 stands out, just a little bit, as the one of the cheapest shooters with a touchscreen interface. Otherwise, it's typical of the class: 14 megapixels, 720p HD video, 5x zoom, a handful of extra features, and a sub-$200 price tag.
So its worthiness basically rests on how well the touchscreen holds up. Our reviewer praised its predecessor, last year's S4000, for being intuitive and fun to use. The S4100 is largely the same camera, but one year later, it's apparent that we've raised our standards for what we consider a good touchscreen.
Body & Design
The S4100 is a small camera, about the length and width of a credit card and just two-thirds of an inch thick. Its rounded edges make it appear even tinier than it actually is, and the matte finish lends a sleek look to this plastic shooter. It should fit comfortably into any pants pocket, no problem.
A 2.7-inch, 460,000-pixel touchscreen LCD takes up most of the rear panel. It looks decently sharp and smooth, though it still tends to wash out in sunlight, which is a major obstacle to effective touchscreen operation. Most important functions are touch-based, so there are only a few buttons on the rear panel: A dedicated video record button, a scene-preset access key, and a playback access key. Up top, there's a tiny, recessed power switch and a shutter-button/zoom-tilter combo.
Nikon slapped a 26-130mm (5x zoom) Nikkor lens on the front -- not as wide as some shooters out there, but broad enough to make indoor shooting pretty easy, and long enough to be useful. It’s flanked by a small in-body flash and an LED focus-assist lamp. All the hookups are on the bottom, including a micro-USB port, battery and memory card slots, and a plastic tripod threading.
Performance & User Experience
It’s cool that a sub-$200 point-and-shoot like the S4100 comes with a flashy touchscreen interface, but we’d give it up in a heartbeat. It’s a chore to use and hinders the user experience. When a camera’s interface runs through a touchscreen, that screen should be quick and responsive. The S4100’s screen is sluggish and stubborn. Zooming and shooting are fine, since they’re tied to actual buttons, but just about everything is unnecessarily frustrating. The toughest part might be just getting to the menus. The tabs to access them are at the edges of the screen -- always the least-sensitive part of touchscreen devices. The menus themselves are laid out well, but again, triggering the right “button” is a hit-or-miss experience. Maybe the S4100 just isn’t designed for adult-sized fingers.
Ignoring the navigation issues, the S4100 is slightly slower than average. The power button is recessed into the body a bit, which prevents accidental triggering, but the flipside is that it can be difficult to turn on. It takes a few seconds from startup until it’s ready to shoot, and autofocus sometimes needs a few seconds to lock accurately, especially in low light. Shutter lag isn’t much of an issue as long as the focus locks, and shot-to-shot times are reasonable -- about two seconds between shots, with the right timing. Not bad, all things considered, but certainly not the best in its class.
The S4100 offers a modest set of shooting modes. Of course there’s an Auto mode, which chooses all the user settings on its own, but also does allow some user overrides for settings like ISO sensitivity, white balance, and the like. In that regard, it’s like a Program mode, which is fine, since there’s no dedicated P setting. A big batch of scene presets are available, too, plus a dedicated Face Detection mode. There’s not much else to it, which is fine for a style-oriented point-and-shoot like this.
To offset the cost of the touchscreen, it seems like Nikon cut a few corners elsewhere. The most obvious is the lack of optical image stabilization. Electronic stabilization helps a little, but handheld shots indoors and in low-light are prone to blurring. The S4100 also lacks an orientation sensor, so users will have to rotate their portrait shots by hand (or computer mouse, rather). We’ve seen them in plenty of other cameras (even up in dSLR territory), but we can’t help but think that users would be better served if Nikon ditched the touchscreen in favor of more basic amenities.
Unsurprisingly for a touchscreen camera, the S4100’s battery is rated for a modest 190 shots per charge. That’s about what we achieved during our testing period. It isn’t a particularly short battery life, but it’s nothing to brag about either. It’s also worth noting that the S4100 does not ship with a dedicated battery charger. Some folks prefer in-camera charging because it keeps all the relevant pieces in one place, others hate it because it prevents them from charging a backup battery while the camera is in use.
Image & Video Quality
Image quality is unspectacular for the price, though not bad. Exposures are generally balanced and eye-pleasing, though occasionally underexposed. Colors are accurate, leaning towards vibrant but sometimes jaundiced (white balance can clear that up, though the touchscreen is the obstacle there, once again). Shots taken in bright light are almost always clear. In dimmer settings, a fairly high ratio of pictures come out blurry, likely because there’s no optical image stabilization, as we’ve noted. When they do work, they come out OK, at least viewed at medium resolutions or lower.
At the low end of the ISO range, shots are nice and sharp by point-and-shoot standards. Noise starts to appear around ISO 400, becomes apparent at ISO 800, and takes a major toll on shots at ISO 1600. The top setting of ISO 3200 is not worth using, as colors desaturate and details turn to complete mush.
There are some other image quality issues, most of them pretty common at this price point. The most obvious, to our eyes, is that it isn’t particularly suited to handling shots with a wide dynamic range -- shots with both bright sunlight and deep shadows, for instance. It tends to blow out the bright parts of the scene, and muddle the details in the darker areas. Pixel peepers will find even more reasons to complain -- overzealous noise reduction and sharpening, mostly. In the study of philosophy, that’s called “defeating a straw man.” Of course a cheap camera has image quality issues, so calling them out on the same bases as a $2,500 full-frame dSLR is neither helpful nor impressive.
But the vast majority of folks who would actually be interested in buying this camera should be satisfied with the results, as long as their expectations are set accordingly. The chief complaint, as mentioned, will be the ratio of blurry shots in dim settings, but the simple solution in that case is to turn on the flash. There are a handful of cameras at this price that outperform it, due mostly to optical image stabilization, but the S4100 is the most outwardly stylish, for what it's worth.
The S4100 shoots 720p HD video, though it's pretty average-looking for something that's supposed to be high-def. It does not support optical zoom during video, either. The sound is decent, avoiding most wind noise while still picking up some ambient sounds. Basically, it records some serviceable moving pictures, but is certainly not a standout feature.
If Nikon had left off the clunky touchscreen and taken about $30 off the price tag, the S4100 would have been a better camera. (The S3100 basically fits the bill in that regard.) It's a good-looking, well-built camera with decent if unspectacular image quality. It's just incredibly frustrating to adjust settings or scroll through pictures in playback. Half-baked touchscreens are a terrible, terrible idea.
Users that will shoot exclusively in Auto mode will be fine (though that raises the question, Why spend money on a touchscreen camera if you won't use the touchscreen?). But take a look at some other cameras in this price range before you pull the trigger. There's the aforementioned S3100, which basically the same, except for the touchscreen. Check out the Panasonic FH5 or FH25, as well as the Canon A3300 or ELPH 100.