What do you get when you cross Nikon's popular, pivoting-lens Coolpix 995 with a cell phone? The new Coolpix 2500 -- a coat-pocket digital camera whose lens swivels inside the body like a window-shade louver or car-dashboard cooling vent.
It's not a high-end, high-resolution camera to please expert photographers; it's a two-megapixel consumer gadget that combines autofocus simplicity with a few extra controls for users who want to go a step or two beyond point-and-shoot. And at the risk of putting ourselves in the lowbrow latter category, we'll say it's our favorite digital camera to date.
Both offer a compromise between their fully automatic modes and higher-end cameras' fully manual control with a variety of "scene modes," prefab combinations of exposure and flash settings for picture-taking situations such as indoor portraits, outdoor landscapes, and backlit subjects. The 2500 has a dozen scene modes to the 775's seven, and comes with a more usable 16MB instead of 8MB CompactFlash card (though Nikon labels even the former a "starter memory card").
While both can capture 15-second, 320 by 240-pixel QuickTime videos - without sound - the Coolpix 2500 can't show movies or stills on a TV set, since it lacks the 775's video-out port. And in a bit of a design gamble, the 2500 omits its sibling's and other cameras' traditional optical viewfinder: You frame every shot using the Nikon's LCD monitor, which is what most casual digital camera users do anyway, but can be a washout in outdoor sun (although the 2500's LCD is a bit more glare-resistant than most we've seen, helped by the ability to hold the camera above or below your face while swiveling the lens to stay pointed at your subject).
Though a bit bulky for a shirt pocket, at 4.5 by 2.3 by 1.2 inches and 7.5 ounces with battery and CompactFlash card installed, the Nikon is easy to carry in a jacket pocket, and its swivel-shut design means you don't have to fiddle with a lens cap. Turn the camera on with the lens shut, and an animation on the LCD reminds you to flip it open; you can shoot with the lens aimed normally (at right angles to the camera body) or up to 40 degrees above or below horizontal when pointed forward, or up to 40 degrees above horizontal pointed backward for self-portraits.
The camera is fairly easy to use one-handed (right-handed), with your index finger on the shutter button and thumb to press the wide-angle and telephoto zoom buttons. A sliding switch on top, beside the shutter on a fingerprint-smudgy chrome strip, switches between shooting, playback, and power-off modes.
A latched door on the left side opens to reveal the battery and CompactFlash Type I (IBM's Microdrive won't fit) slots; a rubber flap that feels likely to break off covers the connector for the supplied USB cable. Windows XP, 2000, and Me automatically recognize the Coolpix as a plug-in storage device, so you can drag images from the camera to your PC in Windows Explorer, but the bundled Nikon View 5 image-transfer and -browsing software performs more elegant feats such as transferring images with the push of a button on the camera's back or uploading them to the free NikonNet service.
The 2500 uses a flat lithium-ion battery (part number EN-EL2, smaller than the EN-EL1 of the Coolpix 775 and 5000) that recharges in two to three hours. We averaged a reasonable 90 minutes' shooting, reviewing, and uploading per charge (with, remember, the LCD monitor always on). A battery icon appears in the monitor when you're down to your last 10 or 15 minutes.
Its 1.5-inch, 110,000-pixel LCD seems pretty small, probably because of all the fine-print menu options and controls that appear there, but the display is bright and sharp and the Coolpix 2500 is generally quite easy and intuitive to use. Three tiny buttons below the LCD do most of the work - cycling through flash modes, choosing scene modes or the auto-everything default, and summoning the command menu.
A four-way compass button to the right of the LCD navigates through on-screen menus - it's so small that we feared pressing the center to activate menu choices, as on many digital cameras, would be clumsy, but happily the 2500 doesn't work that way (the right arrow, not a center push, is usually the equivalent to an Enter key).
The wide-angle and telephoto zoom buttons (actually a single rocker switch) are in one corner of the rear panel, and a handy "quick view" button - which lets you check out a quarter- or full-screen stored image without really switching from shooting to playback mode - is in another.
In playback mode, you can use the zoom switch to view full-screen images, four- or nine-at-a-time thumbnails, or zoom in and scroll around within an image. The buttons along the bottom change duties to delete images, mark or unmark images for uploading, and save a nifty "small pic" copy of an image - creating a shrunken (320 by 240 pixels, just 33K) duplicate, ideal for Web posting or e-mailing, without deleting the full-sized original.
As mentioned, the Coolpix has a 3X Zoom Nikkor lens (F/2.7 to F/4.8, 5.6mm to 16.8mm, 35mm film camera equivalent 37mm to 111mm); keep the telephoto button pressed beyond its max, and the on-screen zoom gauge changes from white to yellow ("Warning: You Are Now Merely Blowing Up Pixels in the Image Center") as a 4X digital zoom kicks in. Normal focus range is 1 foot to infinity; the close-up or macro scene mode minimum is 1.6 inches.
It's Your Choice
If you don't want 1,600 by 1,200-resolution images, you can opt for 1,280 by 1,024; 1,024 by 768; or 640 by 480-pixel pics, each with Fine (4:1), Normal (8:1), or Basic (16:1) JPEG compression or image quality (the permutations fit anything from 16 to 232 images on the 16MB memory card). Don't look for an uncompressed or TIFF image mode, nor for manual ISO settings, though you can adjust exposure (-2.0 to +2.0EV in 0.3EV steps) and control the flash (auto, on, on with red-eye reduction, off), as well as a 10-second self-timer. Nikon rates the flash's range at up to 10 feet, though we think it's a bit weaker than that.
Switching to manual mode lets you also specify image sharpening - automatic, high, normal, low, off - and white balance for lighting conditions - automatic, sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, keyed to the flash, or preset based on a white object of your choice (a sophisticated touch in a consumer camera). In addition to shooting 15-second (rather grainy) silent movies, you can shoot a continuous-mode sequence - roughly three frames every two seconds - or a 16-shot collage of 400 by 300-pixel tiles.
Manual mode also offers our favorite Nikon digital camera feature, best shot selection - which lets you keep the shutter pressed for as many as 10 (no flash) shots, then saves only the sharpest to the CompactFlash card. It's a boon when you're shooting without a tripod or for longer exposures when the annoying trembling-hand, "beware of camera shake" icon appears in the monitor.
Overwhelmed by talk of manual modes? Just press the Scene button below the LCD to pick from a dozen preset modes with optimized exposure and flash settings (in some cases, a fill-in or slow-sync flash not otherwise available) for indoor shots; normal or nighttime portraits; close-ups; backlit subjects; day or night landscapes; bright beach or snow scenes; sunsets; no-flash indoor "museum" pics; high-contrast copies of printed pages or drawings; or even long exposures of fireworks shows (okay, that last may get used rather infrequently).
The scene modes are occasionally hit-or-miss, but usually indeed improvements on generic point-and-shoot pics. The same goes for our Coolpix 2500 images overall - the camera struggled with tricky half-sunlit, half-shadowed exposures that models with more manual controls can handle, but produced crisp, colorful outdoor shots; handsome (if sometimes red-eyed) indoor portraits; and downright impressive close-ups.
As with all two-megapixel cameras, we think 8 by 10-inch prints are borderline, but you'll be proud to display smaller sizes. The combination of a zoom and swivel lens helped us frame shots in ways no cheap camera can, and the controls and menus made everything easy.
If last year was about affordable digital cameras reaching the mainstream, this year is about competition and evolution yielding really good ones -- and right now, the Coolpix 2500 is our Exhibit A.
Nikon Coolpix 2500 - $380
Pros: Compact, clever, no-lens-cap swiveling design; lithum-ion battery and charger included; easy to use; good zoom lens; shot selection, and scene modes are superior to cheap, point-and-shoot cameras.
Cons: No optical viewfinder, and LCD monitor can wash out in bright sun; no sound in video clips; no TV-out port.