Now, Nikon steps up to the plate with the P7700, the third iteration of the P7xxx series. The new version updates the P7100 with a 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, a bigger grip, a fully articulating LCD, and a significantly brighter 7.1x zoom lens. This market is pretty cut-throat, though, so we got to work testing this Nikon to see if it could hold its ground and back up those awesome specs with similarly awesome performance.
Design & Usability
The P7700 isn't exactly pocket-sized, but the handling is phenomenal.
This camera's 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor and its 28-200mm (effective) f/2.0-4.0 zoom lens are not exactly cutting edge, but they don't need to be. They simply get the job done, and do it as well as virtually any other advanced compact camera out there today. The longer-than-average 7.1x zoom range requires a larger body, and Nikon goes all-in, adding a big grip and an articulating LCD to create the largest advanced compact out there (aside from the mammoth Canon G1 X). The upshot? It's by far the most comfortable of its kind, though no doubt some will complain about its lack of pocketability.
You want buttons? The P7700's got 'em. A lot of them. The rear face is packed, while the top plate supports only a mode dial, an on/off switch, a zoom ring, a shutter release, and an exposure compensation dial—the latter of which is de rigeur for advanced compacts these days, and always a welcome addition.
Perhaps the biggest pro is the camera's physical design—particularly its comparably massive front grip. Here at DCI, we've handled a lot of advanced compacts, and they're usually a far cry from the ergonomic joy of a well-designed DSLR or superzoom. The P7700 breaks out of this mold: it just feels great. When hands met leatherette, even our most cynical reviewers caved to the P7700's charms. The grip is chunky, curved in exactly the right place to cradle your fingertips, and covered in a soft leathery coating that makes it feel glued to your hand. Holding the P7700 is something like sinking into the leather chair in your dad's study—well, compared to its rivals, at least.
Here a button, there a button, everywhere a button button...
The P7700 never shies away from offering three or four options where one or two would do. From its white balance to its special effects, from its customizable controls to its articulating screen, this is a camera that adjusts to suit its user—not the other way around. If users are intimidated by the massive feature set, fully automatic shooting modes come to the rescue. But the array of physical controls will take some time to master, no matter how you're shooting.
For video shooters, the P7700 provides several different bitrates and resolutions to choose from, maxing out at 1080/30p (18.8Mbps) with options for 1/4- and 1/2-speed slow motion and 15fps, which makes action look over-cranked to 2x normal speed. The P7700 can serve as a simple point-and-click video camera, but the CSM video mode is there as a creative alternative too. This latter mode offers manual control, but it also offers access to many of the picture effects and filters carried over from still shooting.
Best or near the top in almost every category
Image quality is a complex equation incorporating many factors. Some cameras master one function while failing in another. Results are frequently quite mixed. We haven't found a camera yet that gets everything right, but the P7700 makes a great effort. Sharpness is very impressive, and more importantly, it achieves its results without resorting to excessive software-based JPEG sharpening. Color accuracy is among the best we've seen, distortions are minimal, and noise and dynamic range performance are among the best in the class. Of course, there are still areas to improve: Automatic white balance is a mess, and video performance has a long way to go.
Nevertheless, the Nikon P7700 came out tops in most of our image quality tests, narrowly edging out the Sony RX100. While we like the overall package of the P7700 more, there's no denying that the RX100's larger 1-inch sensor provides an aesthetic that's as close to a DSLR-in-your-pocket as it gets. The RX100 generally provides much better bokeh (shallow depth of field effects) compared to the P7700, though it's also plagued by the over-processing that Sony inflicts on all of its point-and-shoots. If you're willing to shoot in RAW and edit later, the difference here is smaller.
If you're looking for speed, the P7700 offers 8fps continuous shooting, but it's hamstrung by an anemic buffer and slow image processing. While most of the cameras in this class top out at 10fps or less, they can at least capture around 10 shots in a burst. The P7700 manages just six, meaning a burst lasts just three quarters of a second. And the camera processes images (whether JPEG or RAW) slower than others in its class. If you're shooting action, you'll be lucky to get the shot you're trying for.
The is a horse of a different, better color.
What makes a great advanced compact camera? Image quality is the first thing that springs to mind: What use is a camera that takes bad photos? But this is not the only concern. Comfortable handling and a friendly user interface are just as critical, as the Sony RX100 illustrates. All the image quality in the world might not sway a buyer if the camera feels like a slippery bar of soap.
A truly great point-and-shoot should also be dynamic enough that interested photographers can grow with it, without having to upgrade to get access to more advanced features. Consumers in this category want to dive into the deep end of the photographic pool, not float around with water wings in the fully automatic shallows. To be a great advanced compact camera, a device needs to excel in all of these ways and more.
While the P7700 isn’t the best in many of the categories we test, it’s one of the best in virtually all of them. Some competitors might be slightly sharper, have marginally better noise performance, or a little higher dynamic range, but this Nikon's overall output is definitely among the best in its class. Ultimately it succeeds—at least in terms of image quality—on the sum of its parts, rather than individual features. Add to that the wonderful variety of manual control, customization, and excellent handling, and the P7700 is the complete package.
In the end, this category really comes down to two contenders for 2012: the Sony RX100 and the Nikon P7700. The RX100 is pocketable, and boy is that top-of-the-line sensor nice to have, but the P7700 is for enthusiasts who want a camera to grow with. It's big for its class, but the physical design is exquisite. Our only reservations are for truly inexperienced shooters who may want a simpler camera that does more of the heavy lifting for them. For the rest of us, the P7700 is an exceptional camera that stands firmly among the best advanced compacts we have tested to date.
The Nikon P7700 is one of the most solid all-around performers we've tested in the advanced compact camera class. Its strong resume is punctuated by superb color accuracy, as well as great noise and dynamic range scores. We're also impressed with the camera's sharpness, particularly because it doesn't rely on excessive in-camera processing to earn its high score, as so many of its competitors tend to do.
Among the best we've seen from a compact
The P7700 is one of the most accurate compact cameras we've ever tested when it comes to color error and saturation. Its uncorrected color error score of 2.22, when using the neutral color mode, is simply superb, though the low saturation levels (92.17%) used in this mode produce shots that are unlikely to win over many users. But wait! Switch to the standard color mode and the uncorrected color error only jumps up by a tenth of a point, to 2.33, and the saturation levels rise to a simply outstanding 99.48%. The results, both in the lab and in the real world, are gorgeous. As you'd expect, the Vivid mode eschews such perfectionism and allows the uncorrected color error score to climb to 4.03, with saturation at 119.3% of normal. But, impressively (or sadly, depending on your perspective), that score is still better than many other compact cameras.
Generally speaking—at least for the neutral and standard color modes—color accuracy is at its worst in blues and cyans, though neutral does much better in blues than standard does. Bright yellows can also be an issue, but they're an outlier as far as the warmer colors go. Reds are handled remarkably well, considering so many cameras screw them up. But again, consider shooting RAW if you want to have the maximum control over your colors.
Resolution & Distortion
Not the best in the class, but not an oversharpened mess, either
The Coolpix P7700 is not the sharpest camera we've tested, but it is a very competitive performer in general. At full wide angle, images are very sharp in the center—the sharpest this particular lens/sensor combo gets, actually—and remain quite sharp through the majority of the frame, but then sharpness drops off substantially as you get toward the extreme edges. At middle focal lengths, peak sharpness isn't as high, but it's much more even across the frame. When you zoom in to full telephoto (200mm effective), overall sharpness is at its lowest, but it's also the most evenly distributed. Our lab tests also revealed very little geometric distortion, kept in check by the camera's software processing.
Out in the real world, the P7700 simply produced great-looking shots, with excellent apparent sharpness in the default configuration. Well-modulated contrast levels play a big role here, as does the generally very consistent resolution performance throughout the entire frame. Also important is the camera's refusal to oversharpen its output. While we've seen oversharpening scores up to 150% of ideal recently, even from enthusiast-oriented cameras like the Canon PowerShot G15, the P7700 never gets above 105%, and is more often below 102%. The result is incredibly natural looking sharpness, without any of the harsh haloing we see from oversharpened JPEGs.
Noise Reduction & Detail Loss
A conservative approach produces well-managed noise levels and pretty nice high-ISO image quality.
The Coolpix P7700 has three noise reduction settings: low, normal, and high. There is no option to disable noise reduction entirely, at least in JPEGs. You can always shoot RAW, which should leave the noise reduction entirely in your hands. By default, the camera is set to normal NR.
Noise reduction is plainly applied even at the base ISO setting of 80, where measured noise levels are at about 0.62%. The NR doesn't really ramp up significantly until you hit ISO 400, where noise levels actually dip lower than what they were at ISO 200, before resuming a very gradual climb to the 1% mark. The P7700 doesn't cross that barrier until ISO 1600, where it hits 1.17%. It tops out at 1.73% at the maximum ISO setting of 6400 (Nikon calls this "Hi1").
Sterling all-around performance with only a few hiccups
The P7700's performance is as excellent as advertised, save for the notable exception of its poor automatic white balance under artificial light. This was rarely a real concern, though, and it doesn't detract from the rest of the camera's remarkable attributes. The one remaining area of middling performance was in shot-to-shot speed, which tops out at eight frames per second for around six shots. This is behind most of the class, with several cheaper cameras from Canon and Sony easily besting those numbers.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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