The OS on the Nikon Coolpix S800c - it's Android, and that's both good and bad

This is where things could have been different. This is where Nikon could have taken a traditional point-and-shoot camera and made it something special with the Coolpix S800c.

Instead, we have exactly what I feared -- a traditional point-and-shoot camera with Android slapped on top of it.

The vast majority of folks out there will lament the fact that it's running Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread -- a version of Android that's closing in on two years old.

But even that's not what bothers us. 

To appreciate what the S800c is missing, you need to look to, of all places, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Those companies took "aging" versions of Android and actually made compelling tablet/e-readers at a time when manufacturers were still struggling with the concept of using a traditionally mobile user interface on a two-handed tablet device. And what they came up with were (and still are) devices that run Android without looking like Android tablets. 

The S800c? It's Android with a point-and-shoot wrapped around it, not a P&S that happens to be running Android and can also take advantage of all the apps and sharing and the Android ecosystem itself. 

For many of you reading this review, that's just fine. You can rock Android forwards and backwards, root and ROM and customize till the cows come home. And that's just fine. But for the broader audience -- normal consumers -- they need something better, something simpler. 

The S800c goes through the usual setup process. If you've ever opened a Gingerbread device out of the box and added Wifi, your Google account and any other sundry settings, you'll be right at home here. It takes about a minute on the S800c. Our only issue was that on a couple of trips through the setup process, the camera wouldn't detect our wireless network right away. But whatever the issue was disappeared after a few flips through the menu.

Once the setup process is complete, you're greeted with what looks like a pretty standard Android home screen, albeit one with very few icons on it. There are shortcuts for the following:

  • Shooting: Opens the camera app and opens and extends the lens.
  • Play: Nikon's own gallery app (the stock Android gallery app is available, too)
  • Upload: What appears to be a pretty horrific wireless sharing app that is completely useless out of the box
  • Browser: The stock Gingerbread web browser
  • Settings

And that's it for the main homescreen. There actually are five home screens available. Blanks bookend the lot, and the others have news, music and Google Play widgets installed. The dock (either at the bottom of the screen or on the right-hand side, depending on how you're holding it) has shortcuts to the "shooting" and "play" apps. 

Typical Android experience. Only, this isn't a typical Android device. The single most important feature on this camera is, well, the camera. And to use the camera, you'll have to hit the app icon that, design-wise, is no more important than any other app on the homescreen. At the very least, Nikon could have cheated and made a couple of widget options for a larger camera shortcut. But, no. It's the usual Android experience, and that's no good here.

We went over the hardware of the S800c in a previous post, but it ties into this problem as well. From standby, the only way to get to the camera app is to hit the power button, toggle the unlock screen -- which, by the way, has no shortcut to the camera app -- and then use the app icon. Pressing the shutter button won't launch the camera app. Neither will any of the other physical buttons on the camera. That's a show-stopper.

The app drawer is a Gingerbread app drawer. Yawn.

The one real fun spot of having an Android camera -- and the Coolpix S800c in particular -- is that it can run traditional Android applications. And the S800c has access to Google Play, which opens things up for all sorts of fun, as you saw when we loaded up Skype. The camera plays Angry Birds just fine, too.

We did, however, run into a little trouble with one app that you'll be sure to want to install. That'd be Instagram, and the app doesn't recognize the S800c as a device it'll allow itself to be installed on, and so it doesn't even appear in Google Play on the S800c. (See the pic above.) That didn't stop us, of course. We sideloaded Instagram (yes, you can install non-market apps and turn on USB debugging just fine), and the app works as you'd expect, up to and including being able to take pictures from within the app using the camera's, erm, camera.

Such Google Play hiccups are to be expected, but you'd think the manufacturer of an Android-based camera might get with the developers of the most prolific camera and photo-sharing app in recent history to make sure it'd be easily available. Just sayin'.

Other Android things you'll recognize on the Coolpix S800c

  • The settings menu is the settings menu
  • The menu button brings up the usual contextual menus
  • Gmail and e-mail are on board. 
  • As is Google Maps. (Remember that this camera has GPS, so you can find your way around.)
  • Google+ is there. Of course it's there.

Again. This is a full Android build with Google apps. 

The bottom line

The Nikon Coolpix S800c could have been so much more. Nikon could have taken the Android framework and made a compelling user interface that complements the fundamental usage case for the device -- it's a damn camera, after all.

Instead, we've got a traditional Android experience. And while we're all for seeing Android on anything and everything, it needs to be customized. Just as the Android phone UI didn't lend itself well to 7-inch tablets, neither does it really work for a camera. Oh, it's functional, but that doesn't make it good. For a mass-market consumer device, the UI needs to be simple, intuitive and, frankly, simply look better than what's on the S800c.

Why did Nikon miss out here? Was it from a lack of programming experience with Android? Is this simply versoon 1.0? Was it a lack of willingness to spend the time and money required to develop a new user interface? Or does it have something to do with keeping Google happy so that the camera could have Google Apps? 

Whatever the reason, it comes down to this: If you're comfortable with an aging, stock Android interface, you'll be comfortable on the S800c. If you're a more casual smartphone user and want a point-and-shoot with a simple user interface, you'll want to look elsewhere.

Coming up next: The Nikon Coolpix S800c camera

Phil Nickinson
  • No Instagram?!?!? Commence suicide mission in 5....4....3....2.....
  • Comparison to the Samsung Galaxy Camera?
  • ^This^ Please A.C.!
  • wow really? it's like comparing a Galaxy Nexus to a Nexus One
  • how so?
  • Sad that this is the case, but it looks like this thing pretty much needs a nice ROM to reach full potential.
  • If you have any appreciation for how slow moving and stuck in "traditional ways" the two major camera makers have been over the, oh, last 20 years; maybe there would be a little more appreciation for what this is. A first step. -Suntan
  • Canon and Nikon risk losing a lot of business if they don't move faster. Samsung and Apple are quickly making them less relevant to the average picture taking consumer with their smart/connected cameras and high end phones. If they don't mind only catering to the professional market in the future, then by all means, continue failing to transition into the connected age as Kodak failed to transition into the digital age.
  • So can it be rooted? If it can I wonder if people can create a better user interface... If it can't I'd be emailing this article to Nikon as a heads up.. this is a pricy camera and I would want my moneies worth
  • I've rooted mine, but I have major doubts that a custom ROM could be created which could do minor unimportant things like access the camera hardware :-). That has got to be highly Nikon specific hardware and the odds that any ROM developers could figure it out in a finite amount of time seem small (a lot of ROMs for much more popular phones still don't have the complicated camera hardware working 100%).
  • Well that's sad. The galaxy camera is more compelling
  • Neither of them are all that interesting, at the price points they are asking.
  • So was this a review, or just a rant (serious question)? If the former... how do the look?
  • They said in an earlier article the would be reviewing the s800c in 3 parts: hardware, software and camera. They should have reiterated that in this article.
  • Ahh, thanks. I'm reading these newest down so I too wondered what that "Next" part at the bottom meant.
  • I can answer that. When you first get the camera, the pictures look really nice and the camera has almost no shutter lag. Of course after a month of light use - I hadn't even installed an app - it starts having problems. The biggest are these 1: For no apparent reason it will sometimes not focus and the problem persists until the camera is turned off. 2: Sometimes the camera "app" crashes, and continues crashing until you turn the camera off. In a prelude to a crash, sometimes the zero shutterlag keeps increasing to a quarter second, half a second, then - then you wonder what is going on then CRASH. 3: Frequently the camera decides not to shut off (you tap power to go into standby and push for a long time to do shutdown - this problem won't go away, until you take out the battery several times. This makes it particularily annoying when one or two occur. I last used the camera at a dance competition for my daughters, and with all the crashes and focus problems I was spending most of my time with the camera instead of watching them dance. I ended up putting it away and taking a few shots with the cell phone instead. Some minor points missed
    1: Doesn't use the new standard microUSB connector, so you will have to carry an extra cable/charger whereever you go.
    2:It will not work while charging -so you let the kids play angry birds in the back or try to use the phone for mapping - as suggested in the article and your camera will be dead by the time you get to your destination and want to use it.
    3: They don't give you software or 'splain how to get the photos from the camera to your PC wirelessly. You need to take out the chip. I suppose you can use dropbox or Google drive but then you basically need to download twice, and pay for the service, if you have more than a trivial amount of photos. That is about it. Camera is a nice idea, looks sleek, nice screen, great photos when it is working, zero shutter lag when it is working - but it is like they released it 6 months early before they could work out the bugs.
  • You've got to be kidding me. Doesn't look like they actually took the time to make this thing. Other than getting the OS to play nice with the hardware, they've done almost nothing compelling..Hope Samsung having a lot more experience with Android comes with something better. But as all new type of devices, usually the first generation isn't really of good use
  • I'm glad that there's still a way to turn even the highest quality pictures into garbage via instagram, albeit sideloading.
  • I get the Instagram concerns being voiced in this article (and comments), being this is an Android device and all, but can I just say for the record: Instagram is terrible. An abomination actually. Instagram is to photography what "Fruity Pebbles" is to a satisfying meal.
  • Noooo, Fruity Pebbles are the bomb! Other than you are right.
  • "Was it from a lack of programming experience with Android?"
    I think this question nailed it. I agree with Suntan - a fantastic first step and though I'd be devastated if it was the final say in Android cameras, I think that Nikon just built a team from scratch in parallel to their normal development team. If you get their regular OS folks working on this you'll have a much better interface. Call it an experiment and Nikon went into it timidly. I fully expect Samsung to do much better.
    I'm waiting for the Canon Android camera, though.
  • It was already a show-stopper for me that it didn't have a SIM slot to use with a wireless carrier, but this thing sounds horrendous based on Phil's post. How can it not just take a picture by pressing the shutter button? Ridiculous. God I hope Samsung gets this right ...
  • I think you guys are being a little harsh on this thing. I do agree that pressing the shutter button should instantly launch the camera, that's a no brainer and almost a complete fail based on that alone. But, from my point of view, it's an easy fix made even easier because it's running almost stock android. This thing will be rooted and running ics or jb almost instantly. There are apps available to make the camera button launch the camera, so that's not that big of a deal. If the quality of the camera is great, then this is the android camera I want. Not some buttered over version of software where android barely shows through. So many devs work hard to bring aosp to our phones, and we beg and complain about more phones not being released with stock android, I think this is a win here. But again, they should add some refinements so you know you're working with a camera and not a phone. And as far as taking a sim card, meh, I think that's a waste of resources. Why would I want to pay monthly for my camera data. And if I choose not to do that and just swap my phones sim card into the camera, well, that's just a hassle. I can just tether the camera to my phone and we're off and running, no hassle, no extra fees. As long as this thing take great pictures, I'm in.
  • Nikon should be touting the lack of Instagram as a feature.
  • As I said in an earlier post... the problem with this camera (and the Samsung Android camera) is that the average soccer Mom is not going to want to hassle with Android on a point-and-shoot camera. All they want to do is pull the camera out of their purse, turn it on and shoot a picture of Junior making a goal (or trying to). Who is buying these cameras for their significant other(s)... a husband, boyfriend, girlfriend (well, you get the picture) who knows not much more about cameras than the person they are buying it for. Sometimes we, as a society, overthink these things instead of really understanding the market. Go to WalMart and ask which camera they sell the most of. I guarantee it is the simplest, easiest to use point-and-shoot. And, most likely with a price tag of under $100. Android on a camera makes much more sense for the high tech minded person who would use photo editing software, facebook or other social media sites off the device. Not the average person who uses a point-and-shoot camera. Point-and-shoot cameras with the ability to send photos over Wi-Fi to Facebook, etc., have been around several years. That is nothing new or unique. I showed this to my wife, who is in fact your typical soccer Mom. She looked at it and said, "Who would ever buy that... all I want is something to take a picture with!" That my friends is going to be the downfall of this camera and the Samsung Andriod camera. Manufacturers need to get smarter and apply technology where it makes sense. This is not one of those "better ideas".
  • As was stated in the AC rant, it's not the OS that was used but rather how it was used. Android 2.3 if I remember correctly was a fairly intuitive OS and it was easy to customize out of the box provided you were running stock, a Nexus device or one that had an unlocked bootloader and could run custom roms. Maybe instead of looking at the glass half empty, consider it half full. It's vanilla Android without any telephony. Who is to say it couldn't be rooted and customized with a ROM. Install Launcher Pro on it and a custom wallpaper. Use Widget Locker and create a shortcut on the lockscreen for the camera. Disable the lock screen! Assign the trigger button to activate the camera. For what it is - a camera with Android - I think it is a good first step. Will it be updated to Jellybean? Will another model come out in 6 months wiht a faster processor, quad cores tegra 3? Will it play Crysis?
  • Probably not. The battery is the same size as Nikon's non android compact cameras, which means it is half the size of smartphone batteries, which means it'll die pretty quickly if you start using it like a smartphone/tablet.
  • It is worse than you thought: If you are an android developer, and you want to develop a custom Camera app (the sort of thing that will help make android cameras sell like hotcakes :-), you can't actually get to all the features of the camera via the standard android Camera API calls. The max available size image reported by the Camera class is 8 MP (not the 16 MP the camera is actually capable of). Nikon seems to have utterly missed the point of putting android on a camera. I only hope the Samsung Galaxy Camera is better integrated with android.
  • When you first use the phone the pictures look great in easy mode and does fantastic multi person autofocus. A few months later - with not much use - sometimes for no apparent reason it doesn't focus right until you power down the camera. But wait - now power down no longer works. Only goes to standby so I have to pull the battery. Today I tried taking pics of my daughters at a dance competition and the shutter lag was almost a second! I was wondering what was up with that when the camera app crashed. Gingerbread kindly asked me if I stop the process. Of course the camera continued to crash until I shut down the camera - yup pulling out the battery again and then I gave up and started using my phone. Other sites have found that Nikon doesn't provide the camera's full resolution to the Android API, which is probably to prevent installing a new OS. I would avoid this camera. I made a $300 mistake.
  • When you first use the phone the pictures look great in easy mode and does fantastic multi person autofocus. A few months later - with not much use - sometimes for no apparent reason it focus right until you power down the camera. But wait - now power down no longer works. Only goes to standby so I have to pull the battery. Today I tried taking pics of my daughters at a dance competition and the shutter lag was almost a second! I was wondering what was up with that when the camera app crashed. Gingerbread kindly asked me if I stop the process. Of course the camera continued to crash until I shut down the camera - yup pulling out the battery again and then I gave up and started using my phone. Other sites have found that Nikon doesn't provide the camera's full resolution to the Android API, which is probably to prevent installing a new OS. I would avoid this camera. I made a $300 mistake.