As has become routine lately, this new Nikon DSLR passed our tests in the Pop Photo Lab with gusto. The D90 captured wonderfully accurate colors -- a bit better than the more expensive, full-frame Nikon D700 and samesensored D300: It scored an Excellent rating, with an average Delta E of 6.9. (The lower the Delta E number, a measure of color deviation, the better.)
Comparisons? Canon's EOS 40D ($970, street, body only; $1,450 with EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM) turned in an average Delta E of 7.7, while Sony's Alpha 700 ($1,300, street, body only; $1,400 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 DT AF lens) scored 8.9, and Pentax's K20D ($1,000, street, body only) earned an 8.0.
The D90's noise profile is similarly impressive, though it couldn't beat the D300. At its lowest regular sensitivity of ISO 200, the D90 earned a Very Low rating. Noise rose to Low at ISO 400. At ISO 3200, it essentially matched the performance of the D300, though that camera bests its new sibling in the middle ISOs. That's better than the Sony and Pentax; the Canon earned better scores at ISO 400 and 800, but showed more noise than this Nikon at ISO 1600.
The D90's noise just edged into Unacceptable levels at ISO 6400. And at that ISO it still maintained resolution above 2000 lines per millimeter -- 2030, to be exact. At ISO 100 and 200, the D90 scored its top resolution of 2315 lines. That's essentially a tie with Nikon's flagship D3 ($5,000, body only), which showed 2320. The D300 and D700 both tested at 2350 lines, as did the Pentax K20D. Sony's A700 checked in with 2280, while Canon's 40D hit 2100. Although pixel counts have been used as a big selling point in recent years, we're finding many cameras with different pixel counts turning in very similar resolutions.
Another key measure is autofocusing performance. Here, the D90 trumps its predecessor in all but the dimmest light. At very bright light levels (EV 8-12 in our test) the D90 focused in less than 0.4 sec. In mid to low light (EV 1-6), focusing time ranged from 0.46 to 0.69 sec. At the lowest level Nikon's specifications claim, EV -1, the D90 still achieved focus in less than 1 sec. And the AF system didn't fail when we dropped the lights to EV -2, about the same amount of light as a field illuminated by a full moon -- and the lowest light level in our AF tests. But it was much less consistent and much slower, averaging 1.99 sec.
Live view on the D90 remains the same as it has been on other Nikons. We give a thumbs-up to the dedicated button, but still like Sony's dual-sensor live view better. Nikon does include contrastdetection AF in live view, which means you can focus without blanking out the screen, but it's slow compared with the phase-detection system employed when you're using the optical viewfinder.
IT'S A WRAP
As a still camera, the D90 continues Nikon's strong record in the midrange. While its videomaking is more than a little clunky, it's the first (and, for now, the least expensive) DSLR with this capability. It's a very worthy follow-up to the D80, and stacks up well against similarly priced cameras. If you shoot frequently at ISO 3200, you'll like the D90's excellent image quality, with low noise at that high sensitivity. And if you plan on shooting your child's soccer game, the D90's fast burst and zippy AF should help you achieve your goal.
• Canon EOS 50D ($1,400, street, body only; $1,600 with 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 EF IS lens)
While we haven't yet tested this recently announced camera, we expect that the Canon 50D will give the D90 a run for its money. No video, but it boasts a 15.1MP (effective) sensor with 14-bit RAW capture, and a claimed 6.3 frames per second in burst mode. Top sensitivity: ISO 12,800 when the range is expanded, though its standard top ISO of 3200 matches the D90. Its higher price, though, may be the dealbreaker if you don't already own any lenses.
• Sony Alpha 700 ($1,300, street, body only; $1,400 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 DT lens)
Also more expensive than the D90, Sony's 12.2MP A700 offers similarly excellent resolution and slightly faster AF through most light levels. It doesn't match the D90's color accuracy or low noise, though, especially at higher ISOs, where the Sony sacrifices more resolution than the Nikon as it combats noise. The A700 has a higher viewfinder magnification and a faster burst speed (5 versus 4.5 fps).