Operation of the S3100 is a cinch, as it should be. The largest and most obvious button here is the shutter release, which is encircled by a rocker switch for operating the zoom. It has a noticeable 'halfway' point when pressing down to have the camera determine focus and exposure before pressing down fully to take the shot. Next to this, and also set into a narrow chrome strip that runs along the top plate and drops down at either side, is a small, recessed power button. This is a bit more fiddly, requiring fingertip precision to activate, at least ensuring that the camera won't easily get activated accidentally when in a pocket or handbag.
The camera is commendably fast to respond, powering up from cold in just over a second. A half press of the shutter release button and there's the briefest of delays whilst the S3100 determines focus and exposure, AF point/s highlighted in green on screen.
Two thirds of the back plate is dominated by the LCD, in the expected absence of any optical viewfinder. As with all cameras of this ilk, the camera's monitor is a bit below par in terms of both size and resolution but is nevertheless adequate for general purpose snapping, when the camera is held at shoulder height. But when attempting low angle shots, its angle of view wasn't sufficient for us to be able to see what was going on.
Take a shot and it's a wait of the standard 2-3 seconds whilst an image is written to SD card or built-in memory, the screen briefly blanking out and then displaying the captured shot. If using the zoom, the lens travels through the entirety of its optical range in two to three seconds, though there's a brief pause before it kicks into life.
In terms of still image quality, shots taken at maximum resolution and at the widest zoom setting display softness towards the corners of frame which isn't uncommon at the budget end of the market. Neither is purple pixel fringing between areas of high contrast, which also makes an appearance. Such fall-off of focus is better disguised when shooting natural subjects than buildings - and examples of both can be found in our test samples for you to carry out your own comparisons. In addition we struggled to get a sharp image when shooting at maximum telephoto, even in broad daylight and despite its relatively modest focal range. In such circumstances we found it better to take two or three sequential shots of the same thing, or even to apply the self timer to avoid unduly 'jogging' the svelte camera with a full press of the shutter release button and causing camera shake. For such reasons of practicality, you certainly wouldn't want a digital camera much slimmer than the S3100.
On its default 'standard' colour option setting we found colours were a little drab straight out of the camera and images looked flat overall too - easily adjusted with an application of Auto Levels in Photoshop. Of course though, it's conceivable that the target audience for the S3100 won't own a copy of the image editor exemplar; so in such cases we found merely switching to 'vivid' mode produced a warmer and more pleasing result - though for some subjects, chiefly those displaying a fair amount of colour anyway, results can look a little over-cooked. So do what we did; take two shots and choice best.
In this way it is possible to get decent results from the S3100 - certainly above what we expected at this low cost end of the market, and ones which are comparable with the impressive Coolpix S5100 from last year, which again was one of the very best options for those with just over £100 to spend on a new camera. Despite a relatively high number of pixels being crammed on to a relatively small chip, you can crank the ISO up without image quality degrading too much. Up to and including ISO400 there are no problems with image noise creeping into shadow areas either, and we'd be happy shooting at the next incremental jump of ISO800. At ISO1600 detail is being more noticeably lost and at top whack ISO3200, images are resembling watercolours with soft, fuzzy edges to subjects. Again this is slightly better than we expected from a point and shoot camera in its relatively modest snapshot class.
At this price point you can't really expect a digital camera to be anything other than basic and functional, an expectation that the Nikon Coolpix S3100 happily surpasses. The main improvements over its predecessor are a bigger zoom, a couple of million extra pixels, and HD video rather than standard definition. That being said, this is not the type of low cost camera that would have someone seriously consider moving from one generation to the next; hopefully existing S3000 owners will set their sights higher for their next upgrade, and for those users a high performance compact like Nikon's equally new Coolpix P300 or its rival in the Panasonic DMC-LX5 would be a better if more expensive bet.