Nikon Coolpix S9700 review

Want a great camera for your vacations? Nikon’s Coolpix S9700 comes packed with a 30x lens and GPS to help you remember where you took those photos.
Want a great camera for your vacations? Nikon’s Coolpix S9700 comes packed with a 30x lens and GPS to help you remember where you took those photos.
Want a great camera for your vacations? Nikon’s Coolpix S9700 comes packed with a 30x lens and GPS to help you remember where you took those photos.

Highs

  • Good-looking images
  • 30x zoom lens
  • Built-in GPS

Lows

  • So-so OLED screen
  • Rudimentary Wi-Fi
  • Compression artifacts in Normal mode

When we placed the Nikon Coolpix S9700 ($330) in our hand, we thought we had already reviewed it. With its 30x and similar compact form-factor, the S9700 is the doppelganger to Canon’s PowerShot SX700 HS. Both are relatively on par in specs and performance, and both are capable of taking good photos. The S9700 is $20 less expensive, but includes GPS. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but there’s no clear winner as both are so alike.

Feature and design

The S9700’s design and form-factor bear some resemblance to Canon’s SX700 HS. Glanced quickly from afar, side by side, and it’s easy to mistake one for the other; both model names even contain “700” in them. The S9700 weighs 8.2 ounces and measures 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 inches (versus 9.5 ounces and 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.4 inches for the SX700), so the two cameras have almost the same weight and dimensions. Both have a large (and long) 30x optical zoom lens (4.5-135mm equivalent) on the front, a 3-inch display and typical button layout on the back, and even a similar pop-out flash. Of course, inspect both closely and you’ll notice the differences – inside and outside.

With its 30x lens, the S9700 is the doppelganger to Canon’s PowerShot SX700 HS.

Since the S9700 is more advanced than the basic point-and-shoot, there’s a mode dial on the top that lets you choose from various shooting modes, including PASM, full auto, scene, and what Nikon calls Smart Portrait (automatically takes a photo when the camera detects a face with a smile) and Special Effects (applies filters over a photo to give it a unique look). The dial doesn’t offer as many options as the SX700’s, but it’s also not as hard to rotate and the options will satisfy the majority of users (who will mostly stick with auto for casual shooting).

We will say that the Smart Portrait mode does work (Samsung also has a similar feature in its compact cameras) but you have to give the camera a really big smile for it to detect one; a grin isn’t going to do it. With Special Effects, you can create images with a soft or sepia look, turn them into monochrome, give them a toy-camera effect, or increase the saturation. Some of the effects are useful, like making a dark photo more vivid, but we prefer to take more “natural-looking” photos, so they don’t do much for us. We know some users enjoy stuff like this, so it’s subjective. The effects can also be applied later in playback; what’s nice is that the process in nondestructive, in that your original image isn’t saved over.

Like the SX700, the S9700 uses a 1/2.3-inch 16-megapixel CMOS sensor. The lens uses optical lens-shift and electronic Vibration Reduction (Nikon’s name for image stabilization) to keep things steady, and has an aperture range of f/3.7-6.4. It has a shutter speed 1/2,000th of a second, although it can go higher depending on the mode. Top burst mode is 5 shots at 6.9 frames per second (faster than the SX700, and Nikon offers more burst-shooting options). ISO ranges between 125 and 1,600, but you have the option of 3,200 and 6,400 in PASM modes. The S9700 records Full HD 1080p movies, but only up to 30 frames per second; you can taking still photos while recording, however. A note about the lens: Nikon introduced a new feature called Dynamic Fine Zoom at the beginning of 2014. Nikon claims that DFZ maintains a section of high image quality in the first 2x of digital zoom. You can tell when you’re in DFZ by the zoom indicator on the display, which displays the zoom bar in blue (optical zoom in white, digital zoom in yellow).

Nikon’s Wi-Fi implementation isn’t as rich as the competition.

On the back you’ll find a 3-inch display, rated at 922k dots. There’s no touch functionality, but what makes it unique is that it’s an OLED screen. Although the display is plenty bright and viewable under bright sunlight (it’s set at 3 by default, but you can increase the brightness to 5 in the settings menu), we think the colors look dull, and dark colors aren’t as dark they could be for an OLED screen. The colors also don’t look as natural when you compare it to the SX700, which uses a regular LCD, although you can change this by altering the hue via the exposure compensation button. It’s definitely not as impressive as Samsung’s use of OLED, but, to be honest, we also don’t think it’s a deal breaker for most users. If you had nothing to compare it to, you’d think the screen is fine.

You’ll find the myriad, typical camera buttons and navigation wheel on the back, plus the movie-record button next to the useful thumb rest. There’s no flash button to pop it out from the body; you just have to enable it via the flash menu. We seldom use the flash anyway, so it’s no big deal. One you won’t find on many cameras is the Map button. Because there’s GPS built into the camera, you can enable geotagging on your photos. After pressing the button, you can view a map of where you are. If your photos have been tagged, pressing the button during playback will show you the locations of where your photos were taken. For everyday use, this feature isn’t a necessity, but it’s useful for vacation pics, helping you remember where a particular photo was taken. The annoying thing about this feature is that it’s slow to navigate around the map; if you’re use to smartphone speed where you can pinch and zoom around a map, you’ll be frustrated. It’s times like this when you wish for a touchscreen.

NIKON S9700 back screen wifi

Nikon has had Wi-Fi capabilities in its cameras before, but it required an optional hardware accessory. The company is starting to build the feature into new cameras because, let’s face it, it’s 2014 and everyone is doing it. Nikon’s implementation isn’t as rich as Samsung’s, Sony’s, or even Canon’s. You can only use it to connect the camera directly to a mobile device running either Android or iOS; it won’t log onto wireless networks. You’ll need to install the Wireless Mobile Utility app on your phone or tablet. As limited as it may be, we thought it worked well. Our iPhone 5S discovered the camera right away and successfully connected to it, and we were able to view photos and access the camera remotely. Remote viewing is responsive and we never encountered a dropped connection. Again, it’s not a very robust interface, and remotely zooming the lens is very slow and not smooth. Unlike other new cameras with Wi-Fi however, there’s no direct button to access it nor is there near-field communication (NFC) for quick pairing.

As much grief as we give Canon for its convoluted menu system that requires you to drill through layers, Nikon’s user interface isn’t any better. It’s very rudimentary to look at, yet it requires going through lots of submenus. We do wish for a quick-access button that takes us to the often-used settings, rather than having go through multiple steps each time; this isn’t so much an issue for users who only shoot in automatic, but if Nikon is giving us the option for more advanced shooting, it also should provide menus for such.

Nikon has moved away from including a battery charger, opting instead for in-camera charging. This is fine for smartphones without removable batteries, but we think it’s easier to pop out the battery instead of having to plug the entire camera into a USB port or wall outlet. I guess we’re old school, and Nikon is probably trying to keep costs down. (At least the camera still uses standard SD cards, not the tiny MicroSD variants in some new models.) The battery is rated at 300 shots, which is typical and better than the SX700’s rating.

What’s in the box

The camera comes with a strap, USB cable, battery, and AC charging adapter. As mentioned, the battery charges in-camera. Also supplied is quick-start guide. Nikon’s ViewNX 2 imaging software can be downloaded.

Warranty

Nikon includes a one-year limited warranty. It also offers a two-year extended service coverage in select states, for an additional fee.

Performance and use

The S9700 is a fairly well constructed camera that has a nice solid feel in the hand. Although it has a thin bump on the front that serves as a grip for your fingers, the camera has a textured finish that makes it easy to hold onto firmly, despite the small ridge.

Set image quality to Fine, or else you’ll deal with compression artifacts.

Like the SX700, the S9700 is a typical point-and-shoot, even with the more advanced features. Despite what we said about the convoluted menus, the S9700 is easy to operate and, over time, you’ll get used to the menu system. Most of the controls are easily accessible from your right thumb. If you stick only to automatic mode and never take advantage of other features, it’s completely foolproof.

Of course, with a camera like this, we tested the various shooting modes, sticking to program and aperture priority, while moving to manual when we wanted finer adjustments. We also played with some of the scene and effects modes. Overall, it’s typical of many new advanced compact cameras – nothing earth-shattering here.

The camera has a good startup time, and the autofocus is responsive under well-lit conditions. There’s very minimal, if any, lag time between shots. But, if you have the Quick Effects option enabled, you’re presented with this pop-up option after each shot that lets you apply one of the filters, which can be annoying; turn it off, and apply the filters during playback at a later time.

Like our comments about the SX700, having a 30x zoom lens in a compact camera is a nice plus. Sure, it may feel a bit voyeuristic considering that you can zoom all the way into your neighbor’s living room, but it’s useful to have when you’re on vacation, and you want to capture something in the distance without having to trek all the way to it. Now, while Nikon says that the camera’s DFZ feature retains great image quality in digital zoom, our images still looked blocky with the artifacts common with digital zooms. Sure, it looks perfectly good if you’re using it at smaller sizes, but that’s the case with most good compact cameras anyway. Even at full optical telephoto, the images could be sharper and detailed. When you’re zooming that far out, it’s difficult to counter shakes, but we think Canon’s stabilization system is more effective.

The S9700 does take good photos, although, by default, it seems to gravitate toward the blues in some of our photos. You can correct this by changing the hue via the exposure compensation menu (you can also pump up the richness of the colors). For sharing or making small- or medium-size prints, the images will look absolutely fine. However, we do wish the images we took in Normal mode were crisper, more vibrant, and more detailed right out of the gate. Some of our photos, when viewed in full, looked washed out like a watercolor painting, especially in the background. By default, image quality is set to Normal, so be sure to switch this to the Fine setting or you’ll deal with the compression issues that we did. We noticed improvements immediately. If you can bring along a tripod or steady it on a level surface, the camera will take even better photos.

In low light, the S9700 does get messy (granted, the SX700 wasn’t any better). All our shots were blurry and nearly impossible to use for presentation purposes. (Surprisingly, some faraway shots of streetlights weren’t bad.) We did put the camera on a tripod to take some photos of a dark window with limited light from a nearby desk lamp, and were pleasantly surprised. Up to ISO 800, the objects in the window were visible, and it was able to retain the details of the curtain fabric. Things start to break down by ISO 1,600 and above, but still very usable. Like most cameras, if you plan to shoot in low light, bring along a tripod. The S9700 is capable of pulling things off if you give it some help. Handheld, however, and you’re asking for trouble.

The camera does a good job at recording video. Unless you’re a stickler for great video, you won’t notice anything alarming. In our test videos, colors were generally good (could be more vibrant) and motion was relatively smooth. The stereo mics also do a very good job at capturing nice sounding audio that’s clear; the noise reduction feature is effective at cutting out some of the wind noise.

Conclusion

With a similar price tag, looks, and specs as the SX700, the S9700 is clearly a direct competitor. While we think the SX700 has a better image stabilization system, both cameras take good photos. We prefer the quality of the images we took with the Canon, but the S9700 does offer options for improving the picture quality in-camera; with that said, we just wish it did that by default, as the SX700 did. Just remember to switch the image quality from Normal to Fine, and you’ll get fewer compression artifacts.

We think users will be pleased with either camera. The S9700 does one-up the SX700 with built-in GPS. Is it essential? Not really, but for those who like to track where their photos were taken, especially during vacation, it can come in handy. We do wish, however, that the Wi-Fi was more robust.

Highs

  • Good-looking images
  • 30x zoom lens
  • Built-in GPS

Lows

  • So-so OLED screen
  • Rudimentary Wi-Fi
  • Compression artifacts in Normal mode
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