Rating: ★★½☆☆

A camera is a camera is a camera. Until it isn’t. These days, there are plenty of devices with a camera…but only a few cameras act as more than a device to save memories. That’s where the Nikon S1100pj comes in. Packing a projector into the camera body, does this unique design make for a great tool for both saving and sharing moments, or does it fall flat by trying to offer too much?

The Nikon S1100pj is a stocky compact digital camera with a 14 megapixel sensor, 5x optical zoom, a 3” LCD touchscreen display and, perhaps most importantly, a projector capable of displaying full-size images up to 10’ away. Shutter speed is from 1/1500-2 seconds, the camera has an active ISO rating of 80-6400, and has an f/-number of f/3.9-5.8. It can record 720p video at 30fps in H.264, and shoots stills in JPEG. The S1100pj supports SD and high capacity SD (SDHC, SDXC) memory cards, but does not have much internal memory.

It’s a big camera, mostly due to the built-in projector, which sits firmly in the center of the camera like Sauron’s eye. The left top has an extended lens housing which protrudes from the main body two centimeters. The lens has an automatic protective cover that opens and closes whenever the lens is in use. It’ll automatically close the lens off when reviewing images or in projector mode. The entire front panel is silver and sturdy, with a thin metal plate protecting 90% of the front. Even the projector has a metal ring around it to protect from falls. The lens also has a metal ring, but the entire lens is recessed into the camera.

On the bottom of the S1100pj is the standard battery and SD-card slot, as well as a small slide-out plastic tab to put the camera at an angle for projecting images slightly up. It’s a neat feature, but frankly I’ve had trouble ever finding a surface at the perfect height to project onto a suitable wall, so the tab was mostly useless for me. Battery life, labeled for 220 shots and 1:35 of 720p video recording is about right, though this will depend highly on how much you use the projector. I didn’t see a serious drop in battery life after using the projector, going down from 200 to 150 shots after 15 minutes on the projector. That’s to be expected.

However, considering that the camera is made for sharing, I am disappointed that there is no easy plug-in option to charge the battery. For avid photographers who want to share everything, being able to charge by a quick plugin is convenient. Being forced to remove the battery every night so that there’s enough battery life for the next day isn’t. An A/V out port sits on the right side and uses a proprietary connector cable.

The rear of the S1100pj is mostly barren except for a speaker, video record button, scene selection button and play button. Most functions can be controlled via the resistive touchscreen, which is small and difficult to navigate with. It has trouble reading finger presses, as most resistive screens do. Instead, it’s easier to use a fingernail to select between various options or focusing the lens. Simple touch controls include turning flash on and off and quick settings changes, such as timer controls, picture and video resolution, setting the focus and exposure settings. A deeper settings menu is also available, which includes options for vibration reduction, AF assist, digital zoom settings, using the flash for lighting when taking video, and general camera settings.

On the top is the shutter release and zoom in/out ring, which houses the shutter release for easy control. The projector button and focus ring sits beside the on/off button, and pressing it automatically starts the projector and shows the most recently taken picture. Like those old projectors you’ve seen in classrooms, it needs to be focused depending on the distance from the wall. The projector can display images from about 1’-11’ in distance.

The overall build quality is solid, but fat. The touchscreen is a letdown, and I’d happily give away the rest of the back’s real estate and stretch the screen another inch. Resistive technology today is almost always a mistake, as it is in this case, especially if there is no included stylus. Having such a hefty camera is fine, so long as the quality of the images holds up.

Image Quality

After far too long testing the S1100pj (my own fault, so I apologize to our readers and Nikon for taking so long with this review), I’m not impressed with the picture quality. Under good light conditions, the S1100pj performs well, providing accurate colors, though lacking vibrancy. However, most cameras can do well under nominal lighting. I tested the S1100pj to determine how well stills come out in twilight, night, day, indoors, and in various environments.

The first thing I noticed is that in twilight (that is, a moderate amount of surrounding light but in relatively low levels. Easily visible to the human eye) the S1100pj slows down tremendously, and most images are blurry because the lens takes too long to snap a picture. Several examples below show how surrounding light, which is generally fine for shooting, isn’t enough for the camera. The level of noise can be tremendously high even at ISO 400.

When I played around with the ISO settings, pictures often came out too noisy in low light, especially at 800 or higher. I did find that leaving the ISO setting at automatic proved safer than manually adjusting it per shot, as more photos came out cleaner and less noisy thanks to very specific ISO counts. The image below, for instance, has an ISO of 193, F-stop of 3.9 and 1/30 second exposure time. It came out great…though I had time to see the shot, set the camera up, and take multiple shots. The picture below is the best of five.

Motion proved to be an equally big problem for the S1100pj, especially in mid- to lower-light conditions. Even the slightest shaking would blur the images. Several shots taken inside a moving car, as seen below, didn’t come out so great.

Video quality is fair to good, with some noisy video and an overly sensitive microphone, but I was pleasantly surprised with how videos turned out. Obviously we’re not looking for the same depth in color and contrast in videos as with stills, but if users have a strong interest in shooting video – especially HD 720p video – the S1100pj does a fine job at it. Users will not be disappointed. Viewing videos is not as enjoyable because so much of the quality is lost on the projector, and sound quality playing from the S1100pj, especially loud volumes to fill a room, is tinny and sharp. Unfortunately there is only a proprietary A/V cable, no standard auxiliary jack to plug into a speaker system or media center.

Shooting in the day was fine, but as stated earlier, colors were somewhat dull, lacking in vibrancy. The first picture below, taken from a boat off the Hawaiian coast, lacks the deep blues of the deeper waters, but is has accurate colors and came out great on the first try. The other three images, as you can see, were equally rushed (as one expects from any camera…the best shots are never expected) but they lack vibrancy and some details disappear under brighter light. They are all a little dull.

Click to enlarge

However, it is important to note that while some images shown may not look good on a high resolution computer screen, most looked great on the built-in projector. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the projector downscales the images to VGA (640×480), has no back light source, and isn’t as sharp and clear as a screen.

But those reasons may not matter. Sharing photos isn’t always about storing them on a computer to look at anywhere from weeks to years later. Sometimes it’s about shaing them with friends and family instantly. Instead of taking time to transfer pictures and videos, all that’s needed is to darken the room and use a clear wall. Within a matter of seconds even weak photographs – the ones you would delete in an instant on your computer or cringe at when shown in public – look just fine plastered to the wall ever so briefly.

That’s the real strength of the S1100pj, the chance to instantly share pictures without any limitations. Just turn the lights off and close the shades. For that, Nikon has done an excellent job. There is no better way to take and share pictures.

Having said that, more serious photographers will find the S1100pj lacking because ultimately the actual picture quality is what matters. As you viewed above, the slow speed is a huge problem. Poor ISO causes very noisy images. A giant build makes it cumbersome to carry around. Finally, $350 is a high price to pay for such a camera, though a quick search will reveal lower prices.

I recommend the Coolpix S1100pj to photographers who shoot mostly in the day and who don’t necessarily care about storing every picture they take on the computer for future use. If you find that most of the time you share pictures once or twice, this is a great camera. It’s even better knowing that you can store whatever pictures you like and then put them back on the camera, and it will still be able to project those same images. Ironically, video quality is good but watching videos on the projector isn’t, mostly because of the small, tinny speaker and the projector’s relative weakness when compared to standard projectors and television sets. So even if you’re not fond of the ‘camera’ part, the projector may be well worth the buy.

The Nikon Coolpix S1100pj is available for purchase from Amazon and other retailers.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.