Hands-on with the Android-powered Coolpix S800C from Nikon
Almost everyone who buys an Android device expects there to be a camera onboard, but now you can buy a camera that has Android onboard, if you prefer.

The 16-megapixel Nikon Coolpix S800C looks pretty much like any other compact point and shoot camera. It comes with a 10x optical zoom lens, shoots to a SecureDigital card, and has a wide 3.5-inch touch-sensitive OLED panel on the back for interacting with the camera. But look just to the right of that screen and you’ll see three physical buttons designed for Android. That’s right – the S800C is a Android-based device, running on Gingerbread.

Even though every single camera out there has an operating system of some sort, most of them are proprietary OSes designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to make sure the camera does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s take pictures. And while Android has proven itself fairly flexible and generally reliable inside smartphones and other devices like televisions, will it be a stable bedrock for cameras?

Trying to power a camera with something other than a single-use OS has potential drawbacks, of course. The camera has one purpose and one purpose only – capturing images (both still and moving) – and if it’s not ready to do that when you press the on button, it’s a huge liability: you want to be able to capture an image extremely quickly, because often if you don’t do it quickly, the moment is gone.

Unfortunately, the Android-powered camera experience comes with a few kinks.

For example, at one point I fired up the camera and tapped the screen to engage macro, but nothing happened; shortly afterwards an error message appeared that “The application Shooting has stopped unexpectedly. Please try again.” Oops. Moment gone.

At another point, I grabbed the camera, and when I pressed the on/off button, the camera fired up directly into Android mode instead of camera mode. Why? That’s where I had been before I powered it down earlier, and consequently that meant having to unlock the Android lock screen and tap the camera app icon before I could shoot a picture again. (You’d think that pressing the shutter button would automatically fire it up, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t.)

So: if you want to be prepared to take a photo at a second’s notice, you’ll always want to fire up the camera app before shutting down. It’s what the Boy Scouts would do.

But what about the photos, you ask? Well, they’re about what you’d expect from a consumer-friendly point and shoot: if you’re used to an SLR, you’re not going to be impressed, but if you’re used to point and shoot models, even though the pics aren’t stunning, they’re completely fine.

Like other cameras, the S800C gives you the option to shoot in full auto, or a number of different scene modes (landscape, sports, party, snow, night, pet, etc). You can shoot in video mode at full 1080p resolution (and then push the video out to a TV using the built-in HDMI connector), but you can also drop down the resolution and shoot at 120 or 240 frames per second, if you want to slow down the action later.

Here’s the thing though: if you’re buying this strictly as a camera, you may want to look a bit further down the lineup for something with a slightly lower price tag, because at $379.95 suggested retail, the S800C isn’t exactly a bargain – you’re really paying for the extra features that Android brings to the table here.

What are those features? Well, the camera comes with Wi-Fi, allowing you to connect to your home network, allowing you to share your images with the world without even having to go to the computer. It comes with a number of Android apps pre-installed, and access to the Google Play store, allowing you to download movies and even more apps (and yes, it can run Angry Birds, folks).

But it’s worth remembering that the S800C doesn’t come with what makes a smartphone a smartphone: the phone and data connection. For any net-based apps, you’re limited to Wi-Fi hotspots, unless you use another phone to create a hotspot. And of course, you can’t make calls. So as an full-on Android device, it does have a few limitations. (And running on Gingerbread, there are bound to be a few apps that it won’t run, too. But this isn’t surprising for a device designed more as a camera.)

The bottom line, if the price tag doesn’t scare you off: while the Coolpix S800C doesn’t make the most ideal camera or Android device, it’s certainly an interesting combo device that does work as either…once you get used to its quirks. If you’re just looking for a camera, you can get a point-and-shoot model that is close to the camera specs of the S800C for about half the price – it just won’t run Angry Birds, too.