Nikon's mirrorless system has advanced much the way other mirrorless systems have before it: The second generation performs roughly the same as the first, but launches with lower price points, a more refined shooting experience, an a more defined top and bottom model. But while the Nikon 1 V2 (MSRP $899.95) and Nikon 1 S1 (MSRP $499.9) are clearly positioned for enthusiasts and novices, respectively, the Nikon 1 J3 (MSRP $599.95) seems lost somewhere in the middle.
The S1 is clearly the entry-level model at its bargain-basement price, but the J3 is only $100 more expensive, with the same updated sensor and processor as the V2. That presents an interesting value for Nikon shooters who want to enjoy the best that the Nikon 1 system can muster, but don't want to pony up the $900 for a V2 just to get an electronic viewfinder and improved handling. With similar internals and a practically identical feature set, just what separates the Nikon J3 from the V2?
Nikon's V2 includes an EVF and a nice, large grip, but is it worth the extra money?
The Nikon 1 V2 departs from the original V1's design in some key ways, The new model looks a lot more like a mini-DSLR thanks to a large grip. a built-in flash, an EVF, and even an accessory port piled on top of the whole mess. The design looks awkward, to say the least, but the electronic viewfinder and large grip make for easier handling and better framing, especially in bright light.
The J3, by comparison, looks almost identical to the Nikon 1 J1 and J2 that preceded it, with the same slick plastic shell. The only noticeable change from a handling perspective is the mode dial, which moves from the back of the camera to the top. The V2 also has a mode dial embedded in the top plate, with a second dial on top providing additional control.
Between the two cameras, there's not really a question which handles better: For all of its ungainly looks, the V2 handles much better than the J3, offering improved ergonomics and a grippy covering that is easier to hold on to. The J3 is more compact and will fit in a jacket pocket, but its covering is made of slippery plastic that gets slick when handled. Also, we found framing next to impossible when shooting with the J3 outdoors in bright sunlight: The V2's EVF gives it a serious leg up if you plan to take photos outdoors during the day.
Both cameras use Nikon's simplified menu system, which is certainly aimed at an entry-level audience. There is some manual control available—both cameras have traditional modes like program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual—but on the J3 these are hidden in a sub-menu, while the V2 places them on the mode dial itself. Advanced users can certainly get plenty of use out of either camera, but Nikon hasn't made it easy for J3 shooters. All told, the V2's design provides significant advantages over the J3, though as we found in our testing the major differences only go skin deep.
Performance & Features
With an identical sensor and processor, there isn't much difference to be seen on paper.
There simply aren't many differences between the J3 and the V2 from either a performance or a feature perspective, which is a little shocking given the $300 price difference. The V2 has a physical shutter, offering faster flash sync (1/60th of a second vs. 1/250th of a second), as well as the obvious physical differences such as an EVF and a large grip and battery. The V2 also has remote control support as well as an image sensor cleaning mechanism, rather than just a dust shield like the J3.
Both use the new 1-inch, 14.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, with phase detection pixels built into the sensor for improved autofocus. In addition, both share the updated Expeed 3A processor, which allows for unique features like Motion Snapshot, high-speed video recording, and improved autofocus speed. The two cameras max out at 60 full resolution frames per second using the electronic shutter, with exposure and focus locked on the first frame. With the V2's mechanical shutter you can also get 5 frames per second continuous shooting, but there isn't much benefit to that beyond the increased flash sync speed.
In our test labs, we found that there were some slight differences in the overall look of images despite the fact that they share similar components. The J3's noise reduction algorithm is tuned to be slightly more aggressive, though we found that it was generally quite good at removing noise without harming fine detail. The V2's noise reduction system was less overbearing, though noise—especially chroma noise—was higher, resulting in splotchier images with more detail. We also found small differences in the automatic white balance algorithms of the two cameras; the V2 struggled to produce accurate results under incandescent and fluorescent lighting, while the J3 performed better under artificial lighting while producing very poor results in natural daylight.
Of course, these results will be equalized greatly if you plan to shoot RAW images and develop them later, but we found the J3 is more friendly to JPEG shooters by default. Otherwise, both cameras produced strong image equality, at least compared to most high-end compact cameras. Compared to DSLRs and other system cameras in this price range, the V2 and J3 really pale by comparison.
Nikon's 1 system is more affordable than last time around, but competition is fierce.
On paper, the Nikon J3 and V2 are very, very similar, with the same 14.3-megapixel 1-inch image sensor, Expeed 3A processor, and a practically identical feature set. From a design perspective, however, the V2 has some significant advantages that the J3 does not. The V2 has an electronic viewfinder, a mechanical shutter, and a larger grip that greatly improved handling. That said, those advantages come at a $300 price increase that puts the V2 in some very competitive price territory.
The V2 comes in at around $300 more, however, with a kit price of $899.99 compared to $599.99 for the J3. For that price, you get much better handling and the advantages that come with a viewfinder, but $900 is an extremely competitive price point and there are plenty of better cameras to be had for that money. If you're set on the Nikon 1 series, though, we'd have to recommend stepping up to the V2. For those bright outdoor scenes where the J3 and V2 perform best, framing is all but impossible without the finder. Also, there is only a limited selection of 1-series lenses available right now, so the larger grip will really come in handy if you wish to attach larger F-mount lenses via an adapter.
The J3 does present an interesting option for those who just want to step up from normal point-and-shoot image quality, but the new S1 offers almost all the same benefits in an even simpler, cheaper package. The S1 uses the older 10-megapixel CX-format sensor, but the performance gap isn't noticeable in most shooting situations.
Otherwise the Nikon 1 system is still going through all the typical growing pains that previous mirrorless camera systems have gone through—a lack of lenses, a competitive market, and a struggle to get DSLR-quality images from a smaller image sensor. The lenses will come, the body prices will fall, but we'd recommend neutral observers wait and see what Nikon can do next time around.