Nikon CoolPix S1

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Dads, grads, men, women, young and old, all of them want an ultracompact digital camera. The basic specs: five megapixels, a 3X optical zoom lens, a thin body and a face with a surface area hardly larger than a credit card. Sony's T1 set the bar a year and a half back, but by now the field is littered. Sony has since replaced its T1 with two models, the T33 and the improbably slim T7, and everybody from Casio and Canon to Fujifilm and Kodak has a similar product. Now Nikon is making its first foray into Ultracompactville with two new CoolPix models, the S1 and the splash-proof S2. I checked out the S1. It combines high performance with some highly evolved features that frankly took me by surprise.

It's a great little shooter, one I'd rank up with the Sonys and Canons for consistency, speed and color reproduction. Unlike other cameras in this reasonably affordable range, it has wonderful flash coordination: where other cameras tend to drench people's faces with a bleaching blaze, the S1 seems to be more tame, or more responsive to the demands of the shot.

Most cameras in this class have a variety of scene modes to work with, but few are as defined as the S1's. A flash setting called Back Light ensures that you have proper fill flash when shooting, say, portraits on top of a sunny mountain pass. Under the heading Landscape, you can choose from a generic mode or a number of modes with guidelines?actual lines you see on the 2.5-in. viewfinder that help you line up your shot. A Close Up option lets you get in closer than you would normally be able to, even with the little macro-lens flower turned on. (That last mode reminds me of Sony's very cool magnifying glass tool.)

Visible scene assistance is just one comfort for the timid shooter. The camera also boasts an automated red-eye removal tool. I couldn't totally test it because it happens on the fly, but I never saw red-eye during my test shooting. The D-Lighting feature brightens shots. This is an optional measure, one whose results you can preview before agreeing to do it. There's also a crop tool right on the camera. When reviewing a shot, zoom in to where you'd prefer it be bordered, then press down on the shutter. The camera will ask you to confirm the crop, then save it with a new number, leaving the full image intact on your memory card.

Perhaps the nicest handholding feature for beginners is the blurry warning. If you shoot a shaky image, a message will pop up. It says "Picture is blurred. Save picture?" If you were going for blur, you can, of course, save your funky work, but if it wasn't what you wanted, the S1 saves you the trouble of finding out only after it's too late to do anything about it. What can it say? It's a very thoughtful camera.