Noise

The D5100 has an excellent JPEG noise profile, very clean up to ISO 400 and despite some detail degradation from color noise quite usable up through ISO 1600. Beyond that will depend upon the content of your scene, though I wouldn't recommend ISO 6400 or higher. (Though you might be able to gain some latitude by shooting raw, I wasn't able to test raw processing performance as Adobe Camera Raw doesn't yet support the D5100.)
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Photo by: Matthew Fitzgerald/CNET / Caption by:

Noise, ISO 1600

This is pretty good for ISO 1600. Though there's far more color noise in the JPEGs than I'd like, there's still enough detail, color saturation and tonality to make the photo usable.

(1/30 sec, f3.5, AWB, matrix metering, ISO 1600, standard picture style, 18-55mm lens at 18mm)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Noise, ISO 1600, D5100 vs. T3i

Canon leans just a touch more on the color noise suppression than Nikon, which I think produces slightly better results. It also helps that at equal settings, the T3i delivers brighter exposures, with slightly better white balance, than the D5100.

(1/30 sec, f3.5, AWB, ISO 1600, default color styles)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Noise, ISO 12800 (Hi 1)

For scaled-down images, ISO 12800 may be perfectly acceptable.

(1/100 sec, f4.2, AWB, ISO Hi 1, standard picture style, 18-55mm lens at 26mm)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Noise, ISO 1600, D5100 vs. D5000

Despite the higher-resolution sensor, the D5100 delivers visibly better image quality at all ISO sensitivities than the D5000, although the D5000 has slightly better white balance.
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Night Vision effect

Night Vision mode is a very clever, useful way to take advantage of the sensor's capability of increasing gain up to ISO 102,400. In color, the results would be useless. But by converting the results to black and white, you get the ability to shoot in near darkness and obtain usable--though not optimal for high-resolution printing--results (scaled down you don't see the hot pixels). Autofocus only works in Live View mode.

(1/30 sec, f5.6, AWB, matrix metering)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Sharpness, 18-55mm VR kit lens

The kit lens/D5100 combination produces some very sharp images, though there's more fringing than I like. And to give you a sense of how good the noise performance is, this shot was at ISO 400, higher than I ever like to go for sharpness testing. In this case necessary, because the D5100 exposes a bit darker than normal.

(1/50 sec, f5.0, matrix metering, ISO 400, 18-55mm kit lens at 26mm, standard picture style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Color Sketch effect

One of Nikon's less commonly found effects is Color Sketch. I don't really like its oversaturated pastel and sherbet color scheme--it makes me feel like I'm being attacked by an evil Easter hallucination.
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Color

The colors in the default Standard picture style seem to have the saturation pushed just a little, which produces attractive, relatively accurate results.
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Picture Styles

I prefer the Neutral picture style; the others are too contrasty, which results in loss of shadow and dark midtone detail. (You can always increase the contrast later, but getting that detail back is hard.) However, Standard doesn't shift the colors excessively as on some consumer dSLRs.
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Distortion control, 18-55mm VR kit lens

By default distortion control is off, and the lens' slight barreling is symmetrical; overall, it's not bad. The corrected image, though, isn't quite rectilinear in the upper left quadrant.

(1/100 sec, f3.5, AWB, spot metering, +1.33 exposure comp, ISO 100, 18-55mm VR lens at 18mm, standard picture style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Fringing, 18-55mm VR lens

Though there's no fringing/aberration in unusual or unexpected spots, there's quite a bit on blown-out, high-contrast edges.

(1/100 sec, f3.5, AWB, spot metering, +1.33 exposure comp, ISO 100, 18-55mm VR lens at 18mm, standard picture style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:

Bokeh, 18-55mm VR kit lens

For an inexpensive lens, it renders out-of-focus highlights very nicely.

(1/100 sec, f5, AWB, spot metering, ISO 100, 18-55mm VR lens at 18mm, standard picture style)
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Photo by: Lori Grunin/CNET / Caption by:
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