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Nikon D80 review:

Nikon D80

Meanwhile, in the "not keeping up with the Joneses" department, Nikon continues to charge extra for its Capture NX software. PictureProject software is included for free, and will do rudimentary raw conversion, but if you want full raw control you'll have to shell out the extra cash for Capture NX. To their credit, Capture NX does include more image-editing functionality than that of the free software included with other manufacturers' dSLRs, but most buyers expect full raw conversion to be included with the camera.

Because of some nasty problems with third-party batteries in recent years, the camera will accept only Nikon's official EN-EL3e batteries. However, the company's new batteries let you see more detailed info. If you look under battery info in the setup menu, you can see remaining battery life as a percentage, as well as how many pictures have been shot since the last charge, and a loose gauge of how many times the battery has been recharged. It would've been nice to see average minutes or pictures remaining, as Sony's InfoLithium batteries provide, but we're not complaining about this extra info from Nikon, and the charge meter is a well-conceived idea.

Performance was among the fastest we've seen so far. In our lab, the D80 took 0.1 second to power up and capture its first image. Subsequent shots took 0.3 second without flash and 1 second with the flash turned on. Raw shots were just as fast, with a shot-to-shot time of 0.3 second. In our lab's high-contrast test, the shutter lag measured 0.45 second, slowing to 0.9 second in the low-contrast test. Continuous shooting yielded nine fine-quality 10.2-megapixel JPEGs in 2.7 seconds, for an average of 3.33fps and turned in about the same performance on basic-quality 2.5-megapixel JPEGs, capturing 99 images in 33.3 seconds for an average of 2.97fps.

The built-in flash has a Guide number of 13 at ISO 100, up from the D70s's Guide number of 11 at ISO 100. The extra power was noticeable in our lab test shots. Plus, the D80 did an excellent job of balancing the camera's fill flash with our scene's incidental lighting. In the field, we also noticed that fill flash from the D80 was consistently even.

Image quality from the Nikon D80 is quite impressive. Colors were accurate and neutral and the camera's meter did an excellent job of reading the scene and providing an accurate exposure. At times, mostly in extreme cases when the scene was dominated by darkness, the Matrix metering tended to preserve detail in the shadows at the expense of highlights, though typically, this is what one would've intended in that situation. Plus, switching to selectable zone metering or using the camera's massive plus or minus 5EV exposure compensation should help in those situations.

The 18mm-to-135mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 kit lens, which pushes the suggested price well above $1,000, performed well. We saw almost no colored fringing and were impressed with the lens's sharpness given its affordable price. Despite its plastic lens-mount, it feels more solid than many of the kit lenses on the market. Our only complaint was a slight amount of vignetting noticeable at the wide end of the zoom range.

Images from the D80 showed very little noise in our tests. At ISO 100, ISO 200, and ISO 400 noise was practically nonexistent, with only an extremely fine grain beginning to become apparent at ISO 400. Even at ISO 800, noise was a little more noticeable but still no more than a fine grain. At ISO 1,600, noise became noticeable but lacked the many off-color speckles that characterize many cameras' noise profile, and was similar to what we've come to expect at ISO 800 on some other dSLRs. At ISO 3,200--Nikon calls it H1.0--noise was obvious, resembling a coating of fine, snowy grain. A fair amount of detail was obscured by the grain but plenty still remained, and prints as large as letter size--and possibly even larger--should be acceptable, though far from perfect.

Buying an SLR is a complex process, which should include not only the camera body, but also a given manufacturer's--and third parties'--complement of lenses and accessories. That's exactly why manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, and KonicaMinolta have built up such a large following over the years. Now that Sony has bought KonicaMinolta's know-how and released the DSLR-A100, which is compatible with past KonicaMinolta lenses and accessories, the consumer electronics giant has gained entrée into this market in a meaningful and substantial way. The same can be said for Samsung and Panasonic and their respective licensing of Pentax's and Olympus's technology. That means that big players, such as Nikon, have to continue to refine their technology if they want to remain competitive.

With the D80, Nikon has proven that it is very much still pushing ahead strongly. With 10.2 megapixels, lightning-fast performance, high-quality images with very low noise, and a heaping pile of convenience features, Nikon's D80 will not disappoint. We're just eager to see how it stacks up to Canon's Rebel XTi, which is due to hit stores just weeks from now. But, if you already own some Nikon lenses and have been waiting for an affordable 10.2-megapixel dSLR, this one is a sure winner.

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