General performance is also somewhat questionable, but it does have a couple of good points. It starts up quickly in just under two seconds, although it takes about three seconds to shut down again. It has a very strange continuous shooting mode, in which it focuses, shoots three frames in about four seconds, then pauses, focuses again and shoots another three frames, and so on. Like most recent Nikon compacts focusing is reliable, but quite slow even in bright daylight, since it seems to hunt from one extreme to the other with every attempt, and it gets even slower in low light. The camera has an AF assist lamp, but it has very limited range and doesn’t seem to help much. I found that it often took two or three tries to focus even in restaurant lighting.
Picture quality is, on the whole, not bad. The Nikkor lens produces pretty good centre sharpness, and this only really drops off in the extreme corners at wide angle. Spherical distortion at wide angle is noticeable, but no more so than with most 3x zoom compacts. Although the sensor produces good detail and dynamic range considering its small size, I did notice that the light meter tended to under-expose by about a stop, which caused heavy shadows and muted colours. Image compression is also a problem. For a 7MP camera, the average of 2MP per image at maximum quality is very small. The image noise reduction system is also very heavy-handed at 200 ISO and above, seriously reducing image quality. Despite this, image noise is a major problem at 800 ISO and above.
All things considered, I’d have to say that if the CoolPix S500 is Nikon’s attempt to beat Canon at the ultra-compact game then it isn’t entirely successful. While the inclusion of optical image stabilisation in such a small camera is an achievement, and the build quality and appearance of the camera are excellent, the image noise problems, slow focusing and poor low-light performance are major handicaps. If I was looking to buy a 7MP ultra-compact, I don’t think it would be this one.