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While a competent camera, the Nikon Coolpix P90 didn't distinguish itself from the ultrazoom competition, and had a disappointing video mode. Though the 24x lens is impressive, other cameras have better features and performance.
In the Box
- Nikon Coolpix P90 Camera
- Li-ion Rechargeable Battery EN-EL5
- Battery Charger MH-61
- USB Cable UC-E6
- Audio/Video Cable EG-CP14
- Strap AN-CP18
- Lens Cap LC-CP19 (with tether)
- Quick start guide
The first of our panoply of tests looks at how accurately the camera records color. At 3000 lux illumination the Nikon was very accurate, though oddly its best mode was called 'Softer' rather than the default Normal. For this test, we shoot the X-Rite ColorChecker chart with each camera, and then use Imatest software to compare the captured colors versus their known values. More on how we test color.
The table below shows the colors captured by each of our recently reviewed ultrazoom cameras in their most accurate modes, compared to the ideal value shown in the leftmost column. The P90 had very accurate browns and greens, but had some trouble with pinks and blues.
The Nikon handled itself well in this section, scoring a bit below the Canon, but on par with the Olympus and better than the Sony.
The Coolpix P90 offers a fair few color modes. In addition to the above-mentioned Softer mode, there's also Normal, Portrait, Vivid and More Vivid (for when you want crazy over-saturated and bright colors).
Noise levels have traditionally been a strong point of Nikon cameras, and at levels below ISO 800 the P90 continues this fine tradition. Our first part of this test shoots a chart at 3000 and then at 60 lux to look at the variations between the two. In this case the noise was slightly higher under bright light, with the disparity increasing at the higher sensitivities. More on how we test noise.
Compared to the other ultrazoom cameras, the Nikon keeps noise admirably low at ISO 800 and below, but it rockets up above the others at ISO 1600. This translates to the most usable ISO 400 of any of these cameras, but trouble beyond that level, which is true of just about every point-and-shoot camera on the market.
The Nikon P90 comes out a touch ahead of the competition when considering the entire range of ISOs, especially compared to the Olympus SP-590UZ.
At full resolution, the Nikon P90 will let you shoot up to ISO 1600, then 3200 and 6400 at reduced size. That said, the extremely high noise levels in these reduced size versions renders them all but useless. One feature that has migrated down from SLRs to ultrazooms is some degree of control over noise reduction. On this camera you can turn noise reduction on or off, but there are no additional settings for the level of noise reduction processing.
NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.
The camera scored poorly in our battery of resolution tests, which look at distortion, chromatic aberration and sharpness over three points in the considerable zoom range of the lens. The P90 suffered from poor sharpness and significant distortion, which dragged down its score in this section. More on how we test resolution.
At the widest focal length (the 35mm equivalent of 26mm) the Nikon had a whopping 3.2% of barreling, though this dropped to below 1% at the mid and tele end of the zoom. This is a very high level of distortion, enough to be easily noticeable in your final photos. However, the P90 has a built in Distortion Correct setting, which when used significantly improves the bulging that you see at wide angle.
Overall, the P90 was decidedly on the soft side, even at its sharpest. As with most lenses, the most detail can be captured at the center of the lens, which then worsens outwards from that, before picking up again towards the edges. The sharpest result was at the widest angle, then worsening as the zoom increased.
Chromatic Aberration ()
Chromatic aberration was the one area of our resolution test where the P90 didn't falter. All cameras with zooms this long have issues with chromatic aberration, but the P90 wasn't as bad as some of the other ultrazooms. Chromatic aberration was least noticeable at the widest angle, and grew progressively worse the greater the zoom.
Quality & Size Options
While the P90 can't record RAW files (a feature many power users clamor for), it does have a number of compression settings. It can be set to Fine (compression ratio of 1:4), Normal (1:8) or Basic (1:16).
Under the circumstances of our stabilization test (1/30 of a second at standard indoor illumination), the camera's vibration reduction system failed to make any measurable improvement. More on how we test image stabilization.
The movie mode on this camera is an utter disappointment. Not only is it stuck in the increasingly anachronistic standard definition, but almost all controls are stripped away while in this mode. Not what you expect to see on a $400 camera.
Because the Nikon P90 doesn't have a manual white balance option while shooting video, its inability to properly handle incandescent light meant that it scored very poorly for color. While it'll probably handle a bit better in sunlight, it's still miles behind the competition, as see in the score comparison chart below. More on how we test video color.
The limitations of standard definition really hammered the P90 in this test, just as they did to the Olympus, another standard def camera. Contrarily, the Canon and Sony's HD video performed well. More on how we test video sharpness.
The Playback mode seems relatively bare bones compared to some other cameras. There's not a lot of interesting features, and even the slideshow is minimalist, offering no transitions or effects.
Nikon is known for letting users undertake extensive editing in-camera, without having to resort to a computer, which is certainly true in the P90. There are tools for Quick Retouch, D-Lighting (dynamic range adjustment), rotate, resize, crop or add a border. There isn't anything gimmicky here; these are all useful tools.
Direct Print Options
There are generally two ways to print pictures from your camera without resorting to an intervening computer. You can connect the camera directly to compatible printers via PictBridge, or else tag photos on the memory card to be printed by a service bureau through DPOF (direct print order form). For both systems, this camera lets you chose number of images and paper size, and for DPOF you can imprint date and file number. This lacks many of the features of other cameras, such as the ability to create index prints, or multiple small versions of a photo on a single printout.
The electronic viewfinder on the P90 has approximately the same resolution as the LCD, refreshes smoothly and feels comfortable.
The LCD is a relatively standard 3-inch, 230,000 dot display. It has the slight advantage of being partly articulated, so you can shift it up and down when shooting at odd angles. It's not quite as nice as a fully articulated screen like the one offered on the Canon PowerShot SX1's, but it's a step up from the completely fixed LCD you see on the Olympus SP-590UZ.
One of the main advantages to having a pop-up flash, as opposed to one mounted on the camera body, is that distancing the strobe from the lens reduces redeye. The P90's flash sticks up impressively far, which certainly helps. However, since the camera has such a long snout, the lens can still block the flash in certain situations. The flash seems very bright, with minimal drop-off towards the corners. However, even with the autofocus assist bulb, the camera had significant trouble focusing in low light situations.
Ultrazoom cameras are all about the lens, and the Nikon P90 offers an impressive 24x zoom. This isn't quite as huge as the 26x offered by the Olympus SP-590UZ (currently the largest zoom on the market), but it's enough to make any wannabe paparazzo extraordinarily happy.
Another nice feature about this lens, is the maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/5 at full zoom. Sadly, the minimum aperture is only f/8, so you're not going to manage an extensive depth of field.
To get a feel for just how long a zoom 24x is, have a look at the examples below.
The P90 uses a rechargeable lithium ion battery, the EN-EL5. Nikon gives the battery life at around 200 shots per charge, which we feel is accurate. This is on the short side, so keep an eye on the battery levels while shooting, and be sure to charge up before heading out for a weekend away.
This camera takes SD and SDHC cards. This format is nigh on ubiquitous, and is easily found, low cost and high capacity.
Jacks, Ports & Plugs
There's a single I/O port located on the right side. It's a proprietary jack, which is used for both USB and AV duties. Its proprietary nature makes it expensive and difficult to replace cables; we would have greatly preferred an industry standard USB port.
Ultrazoom cameras generally include the manual shooting controls so often missing in standard point-and-shoots. In addition to your standard Auto mode, the P90 also has Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual mode. It also has two custom modes, U1 and U2. These are basically customizable versions of Program mode, retaining their settings so you can easily return to them.
Auto Mode Features
If shooting with autotofocus, you can set the camera to face priority, auto (full frame), manual or center.
The exposure compensation range runs ±2 EV, in 1/3 EV steps, which is typical. The P90 does have auto exposure bracketing, over three shots at ±0.3, ±0.7 or ±1 EV.
Nothing too surprising on this front. Metering can be set to Matrix (full frame), center-weighted, spot or spot AF, which will meter off the focusing area as defined by the AF Area Mode setting.
Quite a few timer options are provided. In addition to the standard 10- and 2-second modes, there's smile detection and blink proof. The former waits 5 seconds after you press the shutter, then takes a photo after it detects a smile. Blink proof handles identically to smile mode, but takes two photos and discards the one with eyes closed.
There are 15 scene modes on the P90, which will do for most situations. The one letdown is the Panorama Assist mode can't stitch the images together in-camera. We've become slightly spoiled by the Sony HX1's superb panorama function, which allows you to simply pan across a scene to automatically create a striking image.
There aren't any crazy picture effects on the camera (except for the More Vivid color mode, which is a bit over the top). However, you can set up a custom color mode, which lets you tweak contrast, sharpening and image saturation to ±2 levels each. There's also the option to shoot in black and white.
Manual focus is available, but it's adjusted using the up and down buttons on the four-way controller. It strikes us that it would have been more sensible to use the control dial on the rear of the camera for focus rather than relying on buttons.
The preset white balance settings are daylight, incandescent, fluorescent, cloudy and flash. Unsurprisingly, there are also auto and manual settings. One nice feature of the white balance system is that the menu is shown as an overlay on the Live View display, providing an interactive preview of each white balance setting's effect.
Thanks to the magic of Aperture Priority mode, you have complete control over the entire range of apertures on the P90. At the wide angle end of things, the maximum aperture is f/2.8, which then decreases to f/5 at maximum zoom. Regardless of the focal length, the minimum aperture is limited to f/8, which limits available depth of field.
The shutter speed range is respectable on the P90, especially at the high end. It can get exposures down to 1/2000 of a second at full resolution, 1/4000 at reduced resolution. The stats are a bit less impressive at the long exposure end, as it maxes out at eight seconds, and there's no bulb mode. It seems this isn't a camera for attempting long exposure work.
While our drive/burst mode testing only looks at full resolution speed, the P90 has a number of alternatives that offer faster speeds and additional options. Continuous mode is the full resolution version discussed below, which captures 1.4 frames per seconds. Best Shot Selector (BSS) that takes up to ten images in a row, and saves the one which is the sharpest. Multi-shot 16 mode fires off 16 photographs at 7.5 frames per second and assembles them into a 4x4 grid on a single image. Interval timer shooting takes photos every 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes or 10 minutes. Finally, there's a Sport Continuous mode, available from the mode dial, which knocks the resolution down to three-megapixels, and can be set to 15, 11, 6 or 4 frames per second.
Shot to Shot ()
At full resolution, the P90 only managed 1.4 images per second. Hardly the fastest horse off the mark, but not the slowest either. Thankfully, if you crank the resolution down, you can get a fair bit more speed.
The Nikon Coolpix P90 is a bit uncomfortable to handle, due to it having a very shallow grip. It's just too small to get a good grasp on, and it feels like you need to keep a death grip on the camera to stop from dropping it. It's also missing a decent handling area on the left side, so you're forced to awkwardly grasp around the lens if you want to shoot two-handed.
Buttons & Dials
The construction and layout of the buttons on the camera is effective overall. The layout is well designed, with plenty of space between each of the controls, preventing accidental settings changes. While they're a bit on the small side, the controls do feel like they're strong enough to take a bit of a beating.
If you've used a Nikon point-and-shoot in recent years, you won't be surprised by the menu system. It's logically organized, but menu sections run multiple pages in length, so scrolling down to find the option you want to change can be tedious. The P90 also misses a quick menu system containing frequently used record options, an increasingly common option that can dramatically streamline the shooting process.
Manual & Learning
The camera's manual is a tome, in the best kind of way. It has a good table of contents, decent index, and goes into great detail on how to set options and what they do. While its sheer size might be off-putting to some, there's also a Quick Start Guide, and the level of detail makes the manual a good reference guide. The manual can be downloaded in PDF format here.
Olympus SP-590UZ Comparison
The Canon SX1 is a hell of a camera. It's well designed, tough, easy to grip, and scored very well on every test we could throw at it. It thrashed the Nikon in every facet of our review except noise levels. Additionally, it shoots HD video, where the Nikon P90 is mired in the increasingly backwards world of standard definition. Of course, all these additional features come at a rather significant price boost. The Canon SX1 costs $200 more than the P90, which at $400 is hardly pocket change.
Hardware wise, the Canon is missing some of the zoom of the Nikon P90, and has a lower megapixel count. What it has in its favor is a fully pivoting screen, stereo sound, and far superior image stabilization system. If money is no object, the Canon is doubtless a better camera, but the Nikon is still perfectly respectable, shoots well, and is markedly cheaper.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 Comparison
The Nikon and Olympus are both on the lower-priced end of the spectrum for ultrazooms. They have a number of similarities too; both have very long zooms (24x and 26x respectively), shoot 12-megapixel images and standard-def video. In terms of our testing, neither showed a clear advantage over the other, with lower image noise for the Nikon and sharper resolution for the Olympus. The P90 can take photos faster, but the 590UZ has better controls in video mode.
Given both their limitations, we narrowly prefer the Nikon. It's slightly less expensive, has the semi-articulated LCD, and the Olympus uses the antiquated xD memory card rather than the far more common and affordable SDHC cards the Nikon accepts.
While the Nikon P90 is a decent camera by all accounts, the Sony HX1 is something special. It may cost $100 more than the Nikon, but the Sony has the great performance and superb feature set to justify the investment. The marquee feature of the Sony is its ludicrous speed, and the tricks it can do with that capability. First, it shoots 10 images per second at its highest resolution (9 megapixels). In a technological breakthrough, it can use this speed to automatically create in-camera panoramas. All you have to do is hold down the shutter button and pan around, and it shoots the sequence and stitches together the images. It's simple and just about foolproof, making it preferable to any other system out there.
On top of that, the Sony delivers an effective image stabilization system, low distortion levels, stereo sound and high definition video. While it didn't test quite as well for image noise and color accuracy as the P90, the other facets of the camera put it significantly above the Nikon.
The Nikon Coolpix P90 is a good camera, with a reasonable price point for an ultrazoom camera. However, it comes into a market that is rife with competition, and doesn't fare well by comparison. When we subjected it to our battery of tests, we were happy with color accuracy and image noise, but the lens tended to distort images heavily, and the image stabilization system wasn't up to scratch. One of the great disappointments of this camera is its standard definition video mode, made even less satisfying by its lack of key controls.
What we did like about the Nikon was the breadth of still image options and shooting controls, but this is true of most ultrazoom cameras. The presence of aperture and shutter priority modes, the ability to auto bracket, and some degree of control over noise reduction are all nice features, but are also found on ultrazooms with better lab test results.
The Nikon Coolpix P90 is a good camera at a low price, with one or two significant drawbacks. If you can afford the extra cost, we recommend the Sony HX1, as it has a significant edge on the features. On the other hand, if cost is your first priority and video doesn't matter much, then the P90 provides lots of ultrazoom power for $400.
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