Consider it mega-zoom madness, or more like a super-zoom summer fever. Fresh on the heels of the somewhat challenged 20x zoom Canon PowerShot SX1 IS and the Editors’ Choice 20x Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX1 comes the Nikon Coolpix P90 with a more potent 24x lens. Like the Canon and Sony, it too is a wide-angle zoom, but in this case it’s a whopping 26-624mm, versus 28-560mm for the SX1 and HX1. And the Nikon is a 12-megapixel digicam, versus the 10-megapixel Canon and 9.1-megapixel Sony. That said, the P90 isn’t nearly as sophisticated or as expensive as the other two, plus it only takes VGA videos, compared to 1080P movies from the others. The P90 is really for the person who just wants to take pictures and is looking for the convenience of a huge zoom. Let’s see if it’s worth the cost of entry, or if you should spend more for a different camera.
Features and Design
The Nikon Coolpix P90 gives off a DSLR vibe, but it’s not nearly as big or heavy as most entry-level models. And as we pointed out in our reviews of other mega-zooms, if you want this focal range with a DSLR, you’ll have to spend a small fortune and go to the gym to get in shape in order to carry all the lenses with you. The P90 measures 4.5 inches wide, 3.3 tall and 3.9 deep, tipping the scales at 18 ounces fully loaded. Since the camera uses a lithium-ion battery and not four AAs like the SX1, it’s much lighter than that mega-zoom. Bottom line: You won’t have any problems carrying it around all day.
The 24x zoom dominates the front. It has a range of 26-624mm, so you’ll capture nice wide-angle images and zoom onto objects you can barely see. Without question, this is the top feature of this $399 digicam. Also on the front is the AF Assist lamp, a single pinhole mic and several low-key logos, but a big “Nikon” is in front of the built-in flash. Like the SX1, it has to be opened manually, even if you’re in auto. A button on the left side easily does this, but we’re all for making life easy for shutterbugs. Yes, you get a warning onscreen, but in the time it takes to open it, the magic moment could be gone.
The top of the camera has the flash, mode dial, power on/off key and a shutter button, surrounded by a wide/tele toggle which resides on the pistol grip. There is no hot shoe. Overall, we found it comfortable, and the key controls nicely positioned, but you should definitely do a hands-on before you buy, as with any camera or camcorder. The mode dial has the usual options: auto, program auto, shutter- and aperture-priority, as well as full manual. There’s also U1 and U2, so you can save your favorite settings from P, A, S and M and go right to them. Movie mode allows users to take decidedly non-high-def 640 x 480 VGA videos. Scene allows access to 15 scene modes, plus voice recording, while Scene Auto Selector makes the camera guess the subject in front of it to switch to the appropriate scene mode. This is Nikon’s version of Smart Auto, Intelligent Auto, Intelligent Scene Selection ad nauseum offered by other makers. And like the competitors, it does a good job.
The rear has another one of the camera’s top features—a 3-inch vari-angle LCD screen rated 230K pixels. Even though it could use more pixels, the LCD held up well in direct sunlight. Like the Sony HX1, this screen pulls straight out from the back and doesn’t flip to the side. It does let you hold the camera over your head or waist-level for some different angles than the usual eye level.
Like all mega-zooms, the P90 also has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) with diopter control. It’s better than the Canon SX1 since it’s 230K pixels, not 140K. Just hit the screen icon on the top left of the LCD and you can easily switch between the LCD and EVF. Moving farther right is the Display button to eliminate icon clutter onscreen and at the top right is a jog wheel to make adjustments, depending on the mode you’re in. On the bottom right is the classic four-way controller with center OK button. The four-points give access to exposure compensation, macro, self-timer and the flash. Other buttons surrounding the controller are for playback, menu and delete.
On the right side is the compartment for a combo A/V-USB out connection, and on the left is a speaker. The bottom of the Made-In-Indonesia camera has a metal tripod mount and compartment for the lithium-ion battery (rated a so-so 200 shots, per CIPA standards) and optional SD/SDHC cards.
What’s In The Box
The Nikon Coolpix P90 comes with everything you need, other than an SD/SDHC card. You get the camera, battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, strap and lens cap. Get ready to lose this, since there’s no string or clip to keep it secure when not in use. You also get a 180-page owner’s manual and a CD-ROM with Nikon Transfer, ArcSoft PanoramaMaker and My PictureTown Utility. If you go online, you can download ViewNX, a decent program for handling images or get a free trial for CaptureNX, a much better package, but it’ll cost you. Since there’s no RAW option, there’s really no need to spend the extra bucks.
Once the battery was charged and a 4GB card loaded, it was time to start zooming.
Performance and Use
The Nikon Coolpix P90 is a 12.1-megapixel camera, so it saves 4000 x 3000 pixel JPEGs. There’s no RAW capture like the SX1, so if this is a critical feature, look elsewhere. After using the camera, we’re pretty sure RAW wouldn’t be such a good idea anyway, since it’s already pretty slow saving high-resolution JPEGs (around one frame per second). RAW+JPEG would slow things to a crawl.
We used the digicam for a variety of subjects – indoors and out – and found it fairly intuitive, but definitely keep the owner’s manual nearby as you drill into the manual adjustments. For example, rather than using the jog wheel to adjust manual focus, you have to press up and down on the four-way controller. This is not a deal breaker, but there’s a bit of a learning curve in order to make the most of this nicely featured camera.
We started off in basic auto, then moved to Scene Auto and finally into manual. In auto and Scene Auto, no parameters can be changed, other than resolution. In program AE and other manual modes, you can tweak practically everything: white balance, ISO (64-1600 at 12MP, 3MP at 3200, 6400), metering, color levels, noise reduction, D-lighting and so on. The menu system is simple, and you’ll have no problems making all the adjustments you’d like.
Once done with our shooting, it was time to download our photos, make prints and view them closely on a monitor.
First off, given the huge zoom, we were very pleased with the camera’s stabilization system. We got very steady results even fully zoomed at 624mm. The lack of purple fringing for extreme-zoom images was also welcome. That said, we recommend bracing yourselves and holding your breath when you snap the shutter.
When we took our photos we were a little concerned with the quality, since the shots had a weird fluorescence in playback. Fortunately, this had to do with the screen itself, as the downloaded photos were fine. Nikon really should improve the quality of the screen, since this is their “flagship” Coolpix; 460K should be a given, rather than 230K. Overall picture quality was quite good, with accurate colors and superior sharpness. You can tweak the colors to give them a little more pop—which is our preference. When we set the optimize image mode to vivid, photos were more dramatic, and it’s something you should experiment with, if you choose this camera. As noted, the camera is a bit on the pokey side, saving fine full-resolution files (about a frame per second) so forget true DSLR response. Even for a point-and-shoot, it was a bit slower than the competition.
We were impressed the way the P90 handled digital noise. It didn’t appear in our test shots until ISO 400, and was under control even at 800. Three-megapixel images captured at ISO 3200 and 6400 were useable for the Web, or a 3×5 print. However, the camera lets you limit the ISO to 400, which is where it should be kept for best results. This is basically the case for all non-DSLRs, so Nikon shouldn’t take a hit for this issue.
As for the VGA videos, they’re so passé in 2009 as to be ridiculous. Plus, only the digital zoom works in movie mode, making quality even more problematic.
After checking reputable online sites for prices, we found the P90 for around $360, which on the face of it doesn’t seem too bad. But – and it’s a big but – the Sony DSC-HX1 goes for $50 more. This is the best Ulysses Grant you’ll ever spend, even though the zoom is less powerful (see our review here for the details). The Sony’s Sweep Panorama, 10 fps shooting and 1080P put it way ahead of this Coolpix. Then again, there may be people who don’t care one whit about video. For them, the Coolpix P90 will zoom to practically the ends of the Earth, and capture quality photographs. Just keep the ISO low and try the vivid option.
- 24x zoom (26-624mm)
- 3-inch vari-angle LCD
- Accurate colors
- Extensive feature set
- Relatively slow
- No RAW capture
- Manually operated flash
- Poor VGA videos