As far as compact cameras go, the Nikon Coolpix P4's elaborate specifications sheet places it towards the top end of the market. Its massive 8.1 megapixel sensor allows for high resolution shots, while the 3.5x optical zoom and large 2.5-inch screen are icing on the cake.
We went in with high hopes for this camera, given that it's the first Nikon compact to include the company's patented anti-vibration technology, which has previously been limited to its SLR range. And for the most part we weren't disappointed, as the P4 offers a multitude of features catering to both novice and adept users.
In terms of size, the P4 is placed in the middle of the compact camera space. By today's standards it's not tiny at 92 by 61 by 31mm or feather-weight at 170g (without battery), but it's still small enough to not be a burden for frequent, spontaneous use.
The plastic/metal hybrid body is curved and stylish, fitting the hand well whilst maintaining a sleek aesthetic. We did have a few gripes, however. Specifically, we would've preferred it if the shutter release button was placed a little further to the left, while a recessed grip would enhance comfort immensely.
The zoom rocker is positioned on the rear of the device in the top right-hand corner, and is in the perfect position for manipulation with a thumb. Just below it is the menu button, which sits atop a four-way directional pad that's used for menu navigation. Sure, it's not as stylish as the iPod-like click wheel seen on the Nikon Coolpix S6, but this isn't an issue thanks to the intuitive, simple to navigate menu interface.
When you're not at a menu screen, the directional pad controls the camera's main functions such as macro, flash, self-timer and exposure compensation. As a result, those shooting on automatic mode will rarely have to venture into the menu system. Just below the pad are picture review and trash buttons, rounding out what is overall a great example of logical button placement.
Button placement on the top of the camera is as impressive as that on the rear. The mode selection wheel sits in the middle, flanked by the shutter release and power buttons on the right-hand side. On the left sits the VR (Vibration Reduction) button, which is particularly well-placed as it can be accessed on-the-fly with little searching.
Given that the camera doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, the LCD screen is particularly important. Thankfully, the 2.5-inch display featured on the P4 doesn't disappoint and, since it's slightly recessed, reflections are few and far between. This is particularly important if you spend most of your time shooting outdoors.
The P4 was released in concert with the Nikon Coolpix P3. Both cameras are functionally identical, save for the P3's built-in Wi-Fi support, which allows for the wireless transfer of images to a PC or PictBridge-compatible printer. However, transferring directly to printers requires the optional "Wireless Printer Adaptor PD-10" accessory. The P3 also costs AU$100 more than the P4, which we think is quite dear for such a novelty feature. So if you're not planning to use the Wi-Fi support, stick with the P4 instead.
For those interested in the nitty gritty tech specs, the 8.1 mega-pixel sensor is capable of taking images at resolutions up to 3264x2448. Of course, if you value your memory card space, you'll want to be shooting closer to 1024x768. The 3.5x, 36-126mm Nikkor lens (35mm equivalent) extends quite a bit past the camera's chassis, but that's the price you pay for expanded zoom capabilities.
Novice users will appreciate the mandatory "auto" shooting mode, but those after a little more control should stick with the "Programmed" or "Aperture-priority" modes. There are also sixteen scene modes with presets for a variety of common environments -- Portrait (face), Portrait, Night Portrait, Landscape, Night Landscape, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Fireworks Show, Close Up, Party/Indoor, Panorama Assist, Beach/Snow, Back light, Museum, Copy and Sports.
On top of this there's a selection of three quality modes -- Fine, Normal and Basic. Unless you're really low on memory, you'll want to be shooting in Fine mode. Speaking of which, as with most cameras, an external SD memory card is a necessary purchase since the 23MB of internal memory will easily fill up in one sitting.
There are four ISO settings to choose from -- 50, 100, 200 and 400. It's not the most extensive selection we've seen -- many cameras offer up to ISO 1600 -- but this should only worry advanced shooters.
In addition to still images, the camera is also capable of shooting 30 fps video (with sound), at a maximum resolution of 640x480.
The vibration reduction feature impressed us far more than we expected. An internal lens element moves in the opposite direction of your hand to offset shaking, and in our testing this reduced the incidence of blurring immensely. It wasn't as useful when taking extreme close-ups, but all other shots benefited nicely. In particular, if you're taking a lot of night-time shots with long exposures, the vibration reduction offsets hand movements very effectively.
Another impressive aspect of the P4 is its automatic shooting mode. White balance, light detection and red eye removal are all top notch, as is the auto focus. In fact, we rarely felt the urge to switch to the "Programmed" mode.
Both outdoor and indoor images are sharp and well-exposed, but if you're using the flash it'll have to be in a small room, since its range won't extend beyond four metres. Image and sound quality on recorded videos are also pleasing.
The macro mode is great for most close-ups up to 1.6 inches, and the zoom feature is both quick and smooth.
Not so quick are the camera's start-up and shooting times. It takes around four seconds to power-on and shoot the first image, and there's around a three second delay between shots. Further, focusing often took longer than expected.
Finally, while Nikon claims a battery life of 200 shots, we were able to capture around 140 before experiencing low battery warnings.