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The much-rumored and even more longed-for update to the Nikon D80 has done its predecessor proud. The 12.3-megapixel Nikon D90 doesn't replace the popular 10-megapixel D80, which moves down Nikon's dSLR product line, and unsurprisingly, provides some significant enhancements over that 2-year-old model. Most notably, the D90 was the first digital SLR to support movie capture.
Though the inevitable comparison tends to be new versus new, the D90's main competitor isn't Canon's significantly cheaper Rebel XSi, but the company's older 10-megapixel 40D, as well as the 12.2-megapixel Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 and 14.6-megapixel Pentax K20D. The D90 comes in two versions: body only and a kit with the 18-105mm f3.5-5.6 lens.
At 1 pound, 10 ounces, the body is considerably heavier than most sub-$1,000 models, but it also feels sturdier and more substantial. The slightly more expensive A700 and K20D have more advanced dust and weather sealing, however. It's about the same size as the D80 and takes the same battery and vertical grip. It also has the same wireless flash controls and high-speed flash sync features. Nikon improved the shutter durability and integrated the same dust-prevention system as that of the D300. And while it uses the same LCD as that camera, it's covered by a polymer rather than glass.
I really enjoy shooting with the camera; it's comfortable to hold, and the control layout and navigation should be immediately recognizable to anyone who's shot with a Nikon dSLR recently. If you're making the switch from another brand, there might be a bit of a learning curve; for example, Nikon puts the white balance, ISO, and quality buttons to the left of the LCD on its cameras, while other manufacturers tend to place them under the control of your right hand. As I complained about with the D80, I wish they were more easily identifiable by touch and the labeling a bit less cluttered.
To the right of the LCD you'll find the dedicated Live View button, four-way navigation switch plus OK button, a switch to lock the navigation from moving the selected AF point, and a context-sensitive information button. In Live View mode, it cycles through a grid and two information displays and in standard shooting mode it displays the now-common settings summary and lets you change a limited number of parameters. The parameter selections are a bit odd, though. You can only adjust settings you don't normally change that frequently--such as Assign AE-L/AF-L button behavior, Assign Fn button, and Long exposure noise reduction--while options you'll likely need more often, like the AF mode choices (Single point, Dynamic and Auto) or self-timer delay, remain buried in the custom settings. True, you can assign at least the AF mode choices to the Fn button, but there's a lot of other stuff you might want to assign to that as well, most notably the one-touch raw-format toggle. (For more on the D90's design and control layout, click through to the slide show.)
While its movie mode certainly ranks as the D90's most novel capability compared with its peers, the implementation leaves quite a bit to be desired. Its movie-capture specifications aren't too shabby: 24 frames per second 1,280x720-pixel motion JPEG and support for VR optical image-stabilization if the lens has it. But it seems like Nikon faced some technical limitations that impair the capture experience, as well as makes some rookie mistakes with both its video and HDMI output. For instance, exposure is fixed for the length of the clip, it has monaural sound, and you can only focus manually while shooting. HD clips are capped at 5 minutes because of file-system limitations. Plus, Nikon doesn't seem to have put sufficient video processing smarts into the camera to properly render video or stills; when connected via the mini-HDMI output, it relies on the TV to do the downconversion to HD resolution for stills (never a good idea) and Nikon's true 24fps video doesn't quite match that of most TV processors' expected 23.976fps, which can result it occasional playback stutter. Still, this has been a long-awaited feature in the entry-level segment, since it's one of the two important most features users have had to sacrifice when moving up to dSLRs (the other being pocketability).
Like the newer Canon EOS 50D, the D90 adds face detection to its Live View repertoire--part of the enhancements enabled by a revision of its Expeed image processor--though it maxes out at five faces. The FD supplies data to the camera's face-priority AF, and Nikon has integrated the FD information into its automatic scene recognition algorithms to help with metering and AF. In practice, it doesn't seem to make much difference, either in speed or portrait quality, over wide-area AF; both of those two AF modes are significantly faster than normal area AF in Live View, however.
There are also the usual array of improvements and additions to shooting controls, including an expansion of Active D-Lighting parameters (you can now go extra high), nine slots for custom Picture Control settings, which can be uploaded to Nikon's Capture NX 2 raw-processing software, as well as advanced scene modes that incorporate Picture Controls and Active D-Lighting, and that can automatically program shift to slower shutter speeds when the camera knows a VR lens is attached. Most important, my casual testing confirmed that operating in Active D-Lighting mode doesn't impose a performance penalty, as can happen because of the processing overhead. The D90 also includes a socket for Nikon's GP-1 hot shoe GPS device. But I'd trade all these bells and whistles for the custom settings banks found in the D300 and D3, or even a less complex implementation like the three mode-dial-based custom settings slots in the 40D. (To get a real sense of any camera's capabilities, I always suggest reading the manual. You can find the D90's PDF documentation here.)
My main complaint is with the new 18-105mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens. On one hand, it seems like the perfect range to cover as a primary: at 27-157mm in 35mm-equivalent terms it gets wide enough and long enough for typical shooting needs. But the zoom ring is a bit too stiff and the lens seems just slightly less sharp than the kit lenses from Canon.
But I've no complaints about the D90's performance, which clearly improves upon the D80's. It has the same 11-point AF system, but Nikon adds an 11-point AF 3D-tracking mode that's a trickle-down technology from above. The camera feels exceptionally responsive for its class, which is borne out by our performance testing. For all but continuous shooting, it's about as fast as the D300, and overall one of the fastest in its class. It takes less than 0.2 second to power up and shoot. In bright, high-contrast conditions the shot lag runs about 0.4 second, while in harder-to-focus scenes that runs about 0.9 seconds. It typically takes about half a second to shoot two raw or JPEG frames in a row; enabling the flash bumps that to a still-respectable 0.7 second.
Continuous shooting on CNET Labs' tests typically clocked at about 4fps, which is very good for a sub-$1,000 model. In more casual tests using the 8GB SanDisk 30MB per second Extreme III SDHC card it reached about 4.5fps, as specced, without the buffer bottlenecking at all (our standard tests use a slower Class 6 card).
Even without the zippier card, the burst mode and AF system are certainly fast enough to keep up with kids and dogs--as long as you shoot JPEGs--which make this a great camera for parents of sports-minded children. The 11-point 3D-tracking AF mode is nice, as long as your subject moves in predictable ways. It was less successful trying to track a squirrel, for example, which randomly moved to and fro; the system would alternatively lock onto the tail and the head, whichever was closer to me.
Though it incorporates a 12-megapixel DX-format sensor, Nikon stresses that it's not the same sensor as in the D300. The pixels are the same size, however, and though it uses only 12-bit processing rather than 14-bit like the D300, Nikon claims high-ISO quality as good as the D300's, thanks to the same on-chip noise reduction. Our numbers don't exactly bear that out--the D90 seems to perform better up to and including ISO 400, then they reverse--but they're still excellent and quite competitive with the 40D. As usual it depends upon scene content, but the photos are quite usable up to and including ISO 3200. As usual for Nikon, the D90 tends to underexpose, and the dynamic range of bright shots fares better than dark, but you can easily compensate. Overall, the tonal range is very good and colors are quite accurate, as well as nicely saturated. (You can find more discussion of the D90's photo quality here.)
D-Movie doesn't match the best of the snapshot-camera movie modes. I shot the flags blowing in the breeze and a fountain that I typically use to test camcorder and camera video. The clips themselves look OK, although for some reason Nikon bumps up the saturation beyond the photo settings, and I wish the camera shot 30fps instead of 24fps. You also need three hands if you plan to use the zoom--which requires manually focusing--because it's hard to hold this relatively heavy dSLR out in front of you steadily while shooting videos in Live View. But problems and quality aside, I still like the creative potential of the mode.
Ultimately, the Nikon D90 gets high marks because it's a fast camera that delivers a great shooting experience and first-rate photos for the money. If your budget can't stretch quite that far, the D80 remains an excellent deal at its price.
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