Yet another entry to the compact travel zoom category, the Nikon S9300 replaces the S9100 as Nikon’s high-end all-in-one compact. The S-series, which truly spans the compact spectrum from the budget-oriented S3300 up to the $350 S9300, has been consistently improving over the last two years and are now quite competitive. In fact, the mid-range model, the S6300, is currently our choice for Best Point and Shoot under $200. The S9300 is the most expensive and most versatile of the S-series, sporting an 18x optical zoom, GPS, and 16 megapixel backside-illuminated sensor in a relatively small body. The camera is looking to woo buyers who shy away from extended zoom cameras like the recently-reviewed Nikon P510 but still crave versatility. The S9300 fills exactly this niche, but following recent tests with the very good ZS20 and F770EXR, the S9300 will really need to shine to recommend it over the competition.
Body and Design - Nikon COOLPIX S9300
The review model's matte-black finish is highly reminiscent of the Fujifilm F770EXR’s, and that’s a good thing. The camera is subtly stylish and isn’t likely to attract attention; the square body eschews curves except for around the slightly-protruding lens. If you'd like something a little flashier, there are also blue, red, and silver options to choose from. We should mention that the S9300 is a pretty large camera, definitely bigger than the ZS20 and many of your average point-and-shoots, but you can still slip it into a pocket and forget about it. It’s very well-built, too, with only the delicate pop-up flash creaking and bending under pressure.
Part of what makes the camera so easy to pocket is the lack of a real protruding grip on the front. There’s asmall plastic bar inlaid on the front to wrap your fingers around, but it definitely didn’t provide the same reassurance a real grip might. Along the top of the camera lie the pop-up flash at the left side, a GPS unit surrounded by stereo speakers in the middle, the On/Off Button, the Shutter button surrounded by zoom toggle, and a small mode dial that sits essentially flush with the camera top.
The back of the camera features a large and clear 3-inch screen with 920,000 dots. A red record button sits at the top right corner where your thumb lies, which is provided a rubber strip to hold onto.Next to that grip is the flash recharging LED and Playback button. A four-way controller, which doubles as a control wheel, is where most of your camera settings can be accessed. Along the bottom are the Menu and Trash buttons. The underside of the camera has, oddly enough, the plastic tripod mount at the far left of the camera, nowhere near the lens’ center. There’s also a battery and card compartment door here.
User Experience and Performance - Nikon COOLPIX S9300
The S9300 camera has the usual bevy of automatic modes but is missing the more advanced manual functions we would expect to see on a camera in this class. The Mode dial includes Automatic, Effects, Continuous Burst, a Smart Portrait mode with skin softening and smile timer, Backlighting/HDR (see HDR off left/on right below), Night Landscape which combines a burst into a single photograph to reduce noise, Scene Mode, and Scene Auto Selector. For general shooting, either Automatic or the Scene Auto Selector will do just fine.
The S9300’s shooting menu is no different than the normal Menu, calling up a full-screen dialogue with access to Resolution, White Balance, Metering, ISO, AF area, and Autofocus mode. Scrolling over and then down yields menus for Movie, GPS, and a generic Set up menu. The system works well enough, although we would have preferred a Quick Shooting menu that can be operated without diving into thefull-screen menu. Thankfully the white balance options minimize the menu and preview the scene so you can see the effects of your setting changes as you go. Nikon should take a hint from their own four-way controller, which offers very fast access to flash, self-timer, macro, and exposure compensation settings. Still, controls are quite intuitive and should be easy for the average shooter to pick up and learn within a few minutes.
Speed and operation on the S9300 were just okay. The camera starts up quickly enough, and Nikon included a number of different continuous drives from pre-shooting cache to 120fps(see the Nikon P510 review for samples of burst settings), yet each drive mode only shoots for about a second until the buffer is full, followed by a long write time. The screen blacks out while its shooting too, making tracking difficult. It would be nice if the user was at least shown a quick review of images as you shoot, to give some idea of framing.
Autofocus speed was never a real problem, yet it didn't reliably find correct focus; oftentimes the camera would achieve a false focus lock or just give up trying altogether. This was true inmerely moderate lighting conditions as well as at the long end of the zoom. We even had some misfocused shots in broad daylight (see right), which is completely inexcusable. With little method to the camera’s focusing madness, it was hard to predict in what situations a photo would be focused properly. The other serious issue with the camera is the flash, which completely locks up the camera while it charges. Flash recycle times are abysmal, approaching 5 seconds, during which time the camera refuses to focus or take a picture. It was particularly funny waiting as the high-end S9300 recharged while someone else snapped away, flash and all, with their cheap Nikon S3100. It’s a bit jarring to have to deal with issues like these in 2012, especially when other Nikon models have done so well.
Image Quality - Nikon COOLPIX S9300
On the whole, image quality is decent if not outstanding. Detail reproduction is just okay, with smearing evident even at the base ISO of 125. These backlit CMOS sensors generally trade low-ISO clarity for better low-light performance, and images viewed at 100% show obvious signs of noise reduction. Admittedly, pixel peeping isn’t how most people view their images, yet even at much smaller sizes things can look washed out and a bit mushy. Some of this is due to slight (or often not-so-slight) focusing errors, for indeed our ISO test shots look quite impressive, but the overzealous processing prevents images from ever obtaining a natural, crisp look. Quite simply, we don’t think most consumers would be happy with such unimpressive and unreliable results in normal shooting conditions.
The lens does a surprisingly good job at both the wide and long end of the zoom. It’s definitely softer in the corners at the wide end of the zoom, but the limiting factor here is in-camera processing and focus rather than lens sharpness. If the focusing issues weren’t so prevalent and the jpeg processing so heavy-handed, Nikon might have had a winner here.
Video quality is quite good, and although zooming in or out resulted in lost focus, the camera quickly found focus again and stuck with it.
Conclusion - Nikon COOLPIX S9300
Ultimately, the Nikon S9300 digital camera does little to stand out in the travel zoom category. Image quality, which is just okay, is hurt further by the frustratingly unreliable focus system. Other seemingly minor foibles, likethe flash recharge time, actually do impact the usability of the camera and result in both missed photos and user frustration. Getting a group of people into place and then having to wait while the flash charges is an annoyance that should have been avoided with the switch to a lithium-ion battery. Finally, the S9300's lack of manual modes places it firmly out of the competition for most budding photographers. For the Nikon S9300’s rather steep asking price and faulty image quality, you can surely do much better.
For sheer image quality, Canon’s SX260 HS and Fujifilm’s F770EXR sit at the top of the heap for travel zoom cameras. The Canon’s 12 megapixel sensor is looking a little paltry now in 2012, but its natural-looking images and competitive ISO performance outweigh any resolution qualms. Sony’s new HX20 and HX30 are also worth a look for sheer responsiveness and resolution, with their new very good 18 megapixel sensors. And of course, the recently reviewed Panasonic ZS20 should sit on everyone’s list of travel zooms as a great, relatively compact option.