- Review Date: 9/25/2013
- Bottom line: Nikon's Coolpix S9500 is a fully loaded pocket camera with a huge zoom range and a sharp lens, but it doesn't quite edge out our Editors' Choice.
- Pros: Very sharp lens. 22x zoom range. Short shutter lag. Wi-Fi and GPS. Sharp OLED display.
- Cons: Detail suffers at high ISO settings. No manual shooting modes. Off-center tripod socket. In-camera battery charging.
The Nikon Coolpix S9500 ($349.95 direct) is a pocket-size digital camera that manages to squeeze an 18-megapixel image sensor, a GPS radio, Wi-Fi, and a long 22x lens into a slim form factor. It's a stylish design that can snap sharp photos in automatic mode, but it doesn't offer the level of manual control that some others in this class do. If you don't like to fiddle with settings it's a solid option, but we like the 20x-zoom Canon PowerShot SX280 HS, a bit more. It's our Editors' Choice compact superzoom since it offers many of the same features, is a bit less expensive, and also gives you access to shutter and aperture settings.
Design and Features
The S9500, available in black, red, or silver, is impressively small, especially when you consider that its lens is a 25-500mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.4-6.3 design. It measures 2.4 by 4.4 by 1.3 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 7.3 ounces. It's not out of line for this class of camera, but it's tiny compared with the always-connected, 21x Samsung Galaxy Camera, an Android-powered beast that packs a huge touch screen; it comes in at 2.8 by 5.1 by 0.75 inches and weighs 11 ounces. One quibble about the S9500's design is the placement of the tripod socket; it's located at the edge of the base of the camera, not centered under the lens as you'd expect. This isn't a camera that you'll likely use frequently with a tripod, however.
You get a good number of physical controls, even though shooting modes are limited. There's a mode dial on top, along with the shutter release, zoom rocker, and Power button. The rear panel houses a control dial with push-button directions to set the flash output, exposure compensation, macro focusing mode, and the self-timer. There's also a Record button to start and stop videos, a Menu button, and image playback controls.
The mode dial gives you access to a number of scene modes and image effects. By default, the camera operates in Auto mode. There's a setting to automatically select a scene mode, and also one for manual scene selection; this is accomplished via the menu. Nikon opted to include a few scene modes separately on the dial: Night Landscape, Night Portrait, Backlighting, and Smart Portrait.
The standard program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes are not included, as they are on the SX280 HS. Depending on your level of photographic expertise, this may or may not bother you; I was attempting to capture a shot with a lot of motion on the street one morning and the camera defaulted to a very low ISO with a 1/40-second shutter speed, resulting in a shot with considerable motion blur. Activating the Sports scene mode would have fixed that, but I would have missed my shot by the time I dove into the menu system to change to that setting. A simple shutter speed control and shutter priority mode on the dial is quicker to access, and would have resulted in a useable photograph.
There's also an Effects mode, which lets you apply artistic filters to your images. These include soft focus, sepia toning, selective color, and a few others. It's not as extensive a library as the Quick Effects that are enabled by default; with these turned on you are prompted to add an art filter to your images after every shot. The filters available through this menu are much more extensive—there are more than 20. You can dismiss this screen by tapping the shutter button. Quick effects can be applied via the playback menu, but only if that feature was enabled when the photo was captured. I found the menu to be a bit of an annoyance, and it's unfortunate that it's not possible to disable the prompt, or to apply the effect to images without having it enabled during capture.
The 3-inch rear display uses OLED technology, and packs a 614k-dot resolution. It's noticeably sharper than the 460k-dot displays found on the Canon SX280 HS and the Samsung WB800F, and there are five brightness settings so you can increase its luminance on sunny days.
Wi-Fi and GPS are integrated, which is fairly common for cameras of this class. GPS automatically adds your geographic location to your photos. And Wi-Fi allows you to transfer images to your iOS or Android device using the free Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility app. The camera acts as a wireless hotspot; you just need to connect to it with your phone to transfer images. Your device can also be used as a remote control for the camera using the app. You'll get a Live View feed on its screen and there are controls available to adjust the zoom and fire the shutter.
Performance and Conclusions
The S9500's performance is in line with others in its class. It starts and shoots in about 1.6 seconds, and manages a very short 0.1-second shutter lag. The only real knock is its burst shooting; it can fire off a quick burst of 5 shots at 7 frames per second, but a 5.3-second recovery time is required after that. There's a low-speed continuous shooting mode that can rattle off shots at a more reasonable 2fps for as long as you'd like. The Canon SX280 HS doesn't offer the short high-speed burst, but it can fire off shots at 3fps, and it matches the S9500 in start-up speed and shutter lag.
I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the S9500's lens. It's an impressive performer, scoring 2,823 lines per picture height on our sharpness test. This is better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo, and better than the 1,770 lines that the Galaxy Camera managed. The S9500 is one of the sharpest compacts we've tested.
Image noise is another matter. It can rob photos of detail and add an unwanted graininess as the sensitivity to light, measured in ISO, increases. The S9500 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 800. Compare this with the SX280 HS, which controls noise through ISO 1600. The Imatest score isn't the only factor in how a camera performs at high ISO; we closely examined our ISO test scene on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display in order to see how photos held together at high sensitivities. There is some noticeable smudging of detail at ISO 800, but images look quite good at the sizes you'll be using to share on social networks, and quality should hold up in smaller prints. Smudging is more pronounced at ISO 1600, and by the time you hit the top ISO of 3200 you've got images that are very noticeably noisy, even when viewed at smaller sizes.
Video is recorded in up to 1080p30 quality in QuickTime format. The footage is sharp with crisp colors, and the lens can zoom in and out when recording. That motion is impressively quiet, you can hear a slight whir under voices when zooming, but it's not any worse than standard background noise. The S9500 is quick to refocus when the scene changes. The only real knock on the video quality is one that's fairly common for compact cameras: The rolling shutter effect. Because CMOS sensors capture a scene progressively, line-by-line, there is a bit of delay when panning or in scenes with a fast motion. This causes an optical effect that's not too different from the rubber pencil optical illusion; objects in the bottom of the frame advanced to their new position more quickly than those at the top.
There's no external battery charger included with the S9500; instead an AC adapter and USB cable are included to plug the camera directly into the wall for in-camera charging. The USB connection isn't a standard mini B or micro B design, so you won't want to misplace this cable. The only other connector on the camera is a micro HDMI port. The memory card slot is located in the battery compartment and supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.
The Nikon Coolpix S9500 is a solid effort as far as compact superzooms go. It has an impressive 22x lens that covers wide angles and captures telephoto scenes, and also boasts integrated GPS and Wi-Fi. It's one of the sharpest that we've tested, but its performance isn't quite good enough to earn an Editors' Choice award. It's a bit more expensive than the winner in this category, the Canon PowerShot SX280 HS, a camera that does just a little bit better in low light and gives you access to more advanced manual shooting controls. If you don't mind a larger camera, and are a frequent Instagrammer, you may also want to consider the Samsung Galaxy Camera. Its optics aren't quite up to the level of the Nikon or Canon entries, but it offers always-on 4G connectivity and full compatibility with Android apps—just be prepared to pay a bit more up front, and to see your cell phone bill to increase if you opt for a 4G data plan.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.