There aren't a lot of options if you want a compact camera with a long zoom lens and powered by AA batteries. Even fewer if you want that camera to be somewhat pocketable. In fact, outside of the Nikon Coolpix L610, there's really only one other current model, the Canon PowerShot SX160 IS.
The SX160 IS' advantages over the Nikon are that it has a lot more shooting options, including semimanual and manual modes, and a slightly longer lens (though the L610 starts wider). Also, the Canon can zoom while shooting movies; the Nikon is limited to digital zoom. But if you don't plan to leave auto mode much and the other two aren't deal breakers, the L610 might be the better choice.
Though picture quality isn't spectacular from either, the L610's backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor provides slightly better low-light results, and shooting performance is a touch better, too. It's also a smaller and lighter camera (though the SX160 feels better-constructed).
With both models currently available for around the same price of $150, it really comes down to what matters most to you in features and photo and video quality.
For its price and features, the Coolpix L610 shoots a bit above its class. However, that still means it does its best work outdoors under good lighting, especially if you're using the zoom lens. There's noise visible even at its lowest ISOs when photos are viewed at full size, but detail is very good up to ISO 200.
Color, white balance, and exposure are generally good, too, so, again, as long as you give it plenty of light, you'll get nice results. Going up to ISO 400 and above, photos get a little less usable at larger sizes because noise and noise reduction ramp up.
Though you can set the sensitivity up to ISO 3200, Auto ISO stops at ISO 1600 (and for good reason, since ISO 3200 looks pretty bad). However, the L610 will significantly slow shutter speeds before it starts to use ISO 800 or above. That means if you're shooting indoors or in low light, you may end up with blurry photos before you ever have to worry about noise or smeary details from noise reduction.
Video quality is good with results that are basically in line with its photos: the more light you have, the better the results. Expect more noise and softness the less light you have. Audio quality is OK, and again, the optical zoom doesn't work while recording.
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to gauge slightly more real-world performance, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.
Most lower-end cameras as well as those powered by AA batteries aren't speedy, but the L610 fared better than most. The camera's CMOS sensor helps keep shooting speeds tolerable, but it can feel slow when shooting indoors or with the lens fully extended.
From off to first shot takes about 1.9 seconds, assuming you fully press the shutter release immediately after the power button. Shutter lag -- the time from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- was 0.3 second in bright lighting and 0.7 second in dim conditions. Extending the lens slowed that time to an average of 1.2 seconds. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.5 seconds without the flash and 3.3 seconds with flash. However, these times were under lab conditions, so depending on what you're shooting and in which mode you use, the camera may require more processing time before it's ready to shoot again.