Nikon joins the fast-lens ultracompact club

Nikon's new member of its advanced P series, the Coolpix P300, offers a fast f1.8, wide-angle lens, broad set of manual controls, and a shooter-friendly but compact design.

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Even after using a preproduction model for the past few days, I've really had a hard time classifying the new Nikon Coolpix P300. As part of its P series, geared to enthusiasts, you'd think Nikon was taking on models like the popular Canon PowerShot S95 and the new Olympus XZ-1. But while it has the basic black, no-nonsense design, fast lens and broad manual feature set of those models, it uses a relatively small but backside-illuminated (BSI) 1/2.3-inch sensor similar to mainstream consumer cameras like the PowerShot Elph 500 HS--it's priced lower than the former and higher than the latter.

Overall, I really like the camera's design. Though it lacks the lens-ring control of the Canon and the Olympus, the P300's pair of dials--one on the top right and one doubling as four-way switches for exposure compensation, macro, flash and self-timer--provide a nice feel for fast shooting adjustments. Despite being on the small side, it's still fairly comfortable to hold, with a grippy stripe in the front for extra security. And the popup flash's split design means that you still have a spot on the top left for your fingers while the flash is open. The LCD looks big, bright, and relatively high resolution as well. I also like the dedicated movie-record button, which doesn't require choosing a dedicated mode on the dial.

My one gripe with the design is the menu and delete buttons, which sit below the navigation dial, are too flat and difficult to feel.

As for features, here's a comparative summary:

  Canon PowerShot Elph 500 HS Canon PowerShot S95 Nikon Coolpix P300 Olympus XZ-1
Sensor (effective resolution) 12-megapixel BSI CMOS 10-megapixel CCD 12-megapixel BSI CMOS 10-megapixel CCD
1/2.3-inch 1/1.7-inch 1/2.3-inch 1/1.63-inch
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 80 - ISO 3,200 ISO 160 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400
Lens 24-105mm
f2-5.8
4.4x
28-105mm
f2-4.9
3.8x
24-100mm
f1.8-4.9
4.2x
28-112mm
f1.8-2.5
4x
Closest focus (inches) 1.2 2.0 1.2 0.4
Continuous shooting 3.4fps
(8.2fps in special mode)
n/a
1.9fps
frames n/a
n/a 2fps
23 JPEG/8 raw
Viewfinder None Optical None Optional EVF
Autofocus 23-area
Contrast AF
n/a
Contrast AF
n/a
Contrast AF
11 area
Contrast AF
Metering n/a
n/a n/a 324 area
Shutter 15-1/1,600 sec 15-1/1,600 sec 4-1/2,000 sec (est) 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 16 min
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hot shoe No No No Yes
LCD 3.2-inch fixed touch screen
461,000 dots
3-inch fixed
461,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
610,000 dots
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
Video (best quality) 1080/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
720/24p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
1080/30p H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
720/30p Motion JPEG AVI
Manual iris and shutter in video No No No No
Optical zoom while recording Yes No Yes No
Mic input No No No Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 180 shots 220 shots 240 shots 320 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.0 x 2.2 x 1.0 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7
Weight (ounces) 6.5 (est) 7 (est) 6.7 (est) 9.6
Mfr. Price $299.99 $399.99 $329.95 $499.99
Availability March 2011 August 2010 March 2011 January 2011

Like a lot of cameras with BSI sensors, it has several multishot modes for improved low-light quality.

I have to admit; as part of the P series, I really expected that this would be Nikon's answer to the S95--an ultracompact with the P7000's sensor--rather than the Elph 500 HS, though no doubt Nikon sensibly enough considers the manual controls sufficient reason to position it this way.

As for its potential, a lot will be riding on image quality and performance (we can't comment on those based on the preproduction unit); ultimately, it's not worth paying more for a nice set of manual controls if it doesn't deliver on the photo quality. We look forward to putting it to the test.