Camera Test: Nikon D40x

So new. So small. So smart.

Camera-Test-Nikon-D40x

Camera-Test-Nikon-D40x

Camera Test: Nikon D40x18208094219NikonD40xHere's the latest engine swap in DSLRs: The entry-level 6MP Nikon D40 got a 10MP image sensor to become the D40x, putting it in the race with such cost-cutter ten-shooters as the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi and Sony Alpha 100. The D40x ($799, estimated street with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX Nikkor; $729, body only) does not use the 10MP sensor of its upscale sibling, the D80, but, says Nikon, a "similar" APS-C-sized CCD. Figuring this was a lower-cost CCD, we worried it would show compromises in performance. Wrong. Image Quality data from the Pop Photo Lab proved about on par with the D80, the top camera in our 10MP DSLR shootout (February 2007). To wit: Excellent resolution through ISO 3200, stellar noise control (Extremely Low through ISO 400, Very Low through ISO 1600), Excellent color accuracy. As for the specs of the new camera -- other than the 10MP imaging, addition of ISO 100, a boost in framing rate, and a drop in flash-sync speed -- it's the same camera as the D40. Not similar, not derived from, but exactly the same camera: controls, menus, chassis, autofocus, metering, the works. So it has the same strengths and weaknesses of the D40, which we tested in March 2007. For starters, the D40x is heavily menu-dependent; few settings can be accessed directly by an external control. The upside here is that the menus are very legible and provide help screens for virtually every item. The downside is adjustments that can get tedious. For example, to set a white balance preset, you branch through Menu > Shooting Menu > White Balance before you come to the selections.

Here's the latest engine swap in DSLRs: The entry-level 6MP Nikon D40 got a 10MP image sensor to become the D40x, putting it in the race with such cost-cutter ten-shooters as the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi and Sony Alpha 100.

The D40x ($799, estimated street with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX Nikkor; $729, body only) does not use the 10MP sensor of its upscale sibling, the D80, but, says Nikon, a "similar" APS-C-sized CCD. Figuring this was a lower-cost CCD, we worried it would show compromises in performance. Wrong. Image Quality data from the Pop Photo Lab proved about on par with the D80, the top camera in our 10MP DSLR shootout (February 2007). To wit: Excellent resolution through ISO 3200, stellar noise control (Extremely Low through ISO 400, Very Low through ISO 1600), Excellent color accuracy.

As for the specs of the new camera -- other than the 10MP imaging, addition of ISO 100, a boost in framing rate, and a drop in flash-sync speed -- it's the same camera as the D40. Not similar, not derived from, but exactly the same camera: controls, menus, chassis, autofocus, metering, the works. So it has the same strengths and weaknesses of the D40, which we tested in March 2007.

What's Hot • Top Image Quality for the money • Most compact 10MP DSLR yet • Shooting lag? What shooting lag? What's Not • Needs AF-S lenses to autofocus • Meandering menu sequences • Limited AF system Who's This For? First-time DSLR buyers set on a 10MP model. Nikon system users who want a lightweight body that's not lightweight in performance. Competitive Set • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi • Sony Alpha 100 • Product Gallery • Image Quality Gallery • Rate this Camera • How to Read a Camera Test

For starters, the D40x is heavily menu-dependent; few settings can be accessed directly by an external control. The upside here is that the menus are very legible and provide help screens for virtually every item. The downside is adjustments that can get tedious. For example, to set a white balance preset, you branch through Menu > Shooting Menu > White Balance before you come to the selections.

Yes, you can program the function (Fn) button near the lensmount for one-press access to a setting -- but only one setting. And yes, pressing the magnification button lets you toggle quickly through common settings (picture size, white balance, ISO, drive mode, exposure compensation, etc.) and provides useful thumbnail photos showing the effect of various settings. But we still think that's a lot of toggle-tapping.

The D40x in this regard reflects the increasingly schizoid personality of all the so-called entry-level DSLRs: Designed to be non-threatening to the SLR newcomer, they have as few external control switches as possible. At the same time, cameras in this class have added more and more sophisticated functions, which end up hidden under layers of menus. The D40x has nearly the capability of the Nikon D80, but throws some tricky curves when you want to get beyond all-auto shooting.

The basic handling of the D40x is quite pleasant. The ergonomic front grip and back thumb rest, and the well-positioned shutter button and command dial, give it a feel something like a slightly miniaturized D80. The finder has relatively low magnification (although certainly better than the tunnel-visioned D50 and D70), but has enough eye relief so that eyeglass wearers can see the full frame plus finder readouts.

This is a tiny camera -- smaller even than Canon's EOS Digital Rebel XTi. In fact, the D40x qualifies as the smallest and lightest 10MP DSLR currently available, and serves as a potent counter to the complaint that high-megapixel DLSRs are Just Too Damn Big. (Large-handed users may even want more pinky room.) At just over a pound and a half with the kit lens, the D40x is no bother during a full day of shooting.

The D40x foregoes a top LCD control panel, placing the control readouts on the rear 2.5-inch LCD monitor. Most Pop Photo testers preferred this bright, clear display to the D80's sometimes unreadable top control panel. Nikon lets you choose the look of the control panel: Classic is a straightforward array with exposure readouts dominating the screen. Graphic shows an iris diaphragm, whose aperture opens or closes as you change exposure settings. Wallpaper is similar to Classic, but adds any picture as background. We preferred Graphic; it's the cleanest of the three.

With only one command dial, the D40x takes more deliberation to adjust exposures. To set exposure compensation, for example, you press and hold a small button behind the shutter button while simultaneously turning the rear command dial. The same goes for manual exposure -- to set aperture, press and hold the button while twirling the thumbwheel.

The camera may be small, but its shooting capacity is big. Set to highest resolution and Basic (highest compression) JPEG, the D40x cranks out 100 shots at slightly better than Nikon's claim of 3 frames per second, using a SanDisk Ultra II SD card. At Standard quality, it managed 100 shots at 2.7 fps, and at Fine quality, it slowed to 2.2 fps.

Is burst performance relevant to ordinary shooters? It can provide a good measure of real-world performance. When set to highest-quality 10MP JPEGs, the D40x fires off single-frame shots as fast as you can press the shutter. Even with combined RAW + Basic JPEG capture, the biggest gulp of data the camera can make, you can take a shot about once a second. So expect to get the shot when you want it.

The economy-model status of the D40x doesn't show in picture quality, either. At ISO 100, the D40x turned in an average resolution of 2075 lines, slightly behind the Nikon D80 and Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi.

Noise suppression was generally better than the D80's and much better than the Rebel's. As ISOs increased, the D40x's resolution exceeded that of the Rebel. Its noise levels of 0.9, 1.05, and 1.05 at ISOs of 100, 200, and 400, respectively, would qualify for a Ridiculously Low rating if we had one. (They all rank Extremely Low.) Noise reduction is applied steadily but unobtrusively at higher ISOs. At ISO 1600, noise was only Very Low, while resolution dipped by less than 5 percent, still Excellent. This is great performance -- especially for $799.

By ISO 3200, noise was getting noticeable, stepping up to the Moderately Low level, while resolution, at 1920 lines, stayed in the Excellent rating. The message: eminently usable in low light.

We achieved the best Color Accuracy scores with the D40x's contrast control set to -1. Note: Middle (default) contrast and saturation settings are slightly high -- for the most neutral colors, turn either or both down a notch.

The camera has much of the same pre- and postproduction image adjustments as the D80, such as the Optimize Image menu of color/sharpness/contrast profiles, redeye fix, and D-Lighting to turn down excessive contrast. One of our favorite functions lets you do color corrections on a RAW file and save the edited image as a separate JPEG, in camera. (The D40x also carries over some of the D80's quirks, like the menu sequence for Adobe RGB color space: Menu > Shooting Menu > Optimize Image > Custom > Color Mode > Adobe RGB > Done. Earth to Nikon...)

Drawbacks? The D40x has the lens limitation of the D40 -- only AF-S lenses (the type with built-in AF motors) will autofocus on the camera. For a first-time SLR buyer this is a non-issue, as most future Nikon lenses will be AF-S. But shooters with some non-AF-S lenses -- for whom a $729 10MP DSLR body might be attractive -- have some thinking to do. Plus, the D40x's AF system is a rudimentary three-point array that, while fast and precise, doesn't have the across-the-frame tracking of the D80 -- or of competitors in its class.

One thing Nikon lost in the switch to the higher-res CCD was the fast 1/500 sec flash-sync speed. The D40x's CCD doesn't support the electronic shutter function that enabled the fast sync and so is limited to 1/200 sec -- same as the D80. Nor does the D40x have the build quality, or multiflash control, of the D80. It is not a camera for heavy-duty trekking in the dusty boondocks.

So if you want a tougher camera, or if you have a bagful of older Nikon AF lenses, spend $925 (street, body only) for a D80. If not, the D40x provides the best imaging performance for the buck you can get in a 10MP camera. Expect long lines at the camera store.

Vital Statistics

Imaging: 10.1MP (effective) CCD captures 10MP images (3872x2592) with 12 bits/color in RAW NEF format.
Storage: SD cards. Stores JPEG, RAW, or RAW + Basic JPEG.
Burst rate: Up to 100 Basic quality JPEGs at 3.1 fps (tested).
AF system: TTL phase detection system with 3 selectable AF zones and red activation lights. Single-shot, continuous, and AF autoselect, predictive focus tracking. Sensitive down to EV -1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).
Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments). Metering: TTL metering with 420-segment RGB sensor. 3D Color Matrix II evaluative metering, centerweighted (8mm circle), and spotmetering (approx. 2.5 percent of viewfinder). EV 0-20 (at ISO 100).
ISO range: 100-1600 (in 1-EV increments, plus boost to ISO 3200).
Flash: Built-in pop-up with i-TTL autoflash and 420-segment RGB sensor, GN 35.5 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync at 1/200 sec. Dedicated hot-shoe.
Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level, pentamirror. LCD: 2.5-in. TFT with approx. 230,000-pixel resolution.
Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and video. PictBridge compatible.
Batteries: EN-EL9 Li-ion rechargeable; 520 shots per charge (CIPA rating).
Size/weight: 5x2.5x3.7 in., 1.22 lb with card and batteries (body only).
Street price (projected): $729, body only; $799 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 GII AF-S DX Nikkor lens.
For info: nikonusa.com.

Viewfinder Test

Accuracy: 97% (Excellent)
Magnification: 0.81X (Very Good)

The Competitive Set

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi

With 18-55mm f/3.6-5.6 Canon EF-S lens ($770, street):

The Nikon D40x produces Image Quality a bit higher than Canon's mighty lightweight, notably in better noise control throughout the ISO range, and it has an ISO 3200 setting, which the XTi lacks. But the XTi remains a potent competitor, with faster and more sensitive AF using a sophisticated nine-point AF array that can track across the frame. The Canon takes a RAW file simultaneously with a highest-quality JPEG, not lowest. While we'd rate the build quality about equal, we'd trust the Canon more in dusty conditions, as it has both self-cleaning sensor and software dust deletion (the D40x, just the latter). And the Canon has no AF lens limitations -- all EF and EF-S lenses have built-in focusing motors.

Sony Alpha 100

With 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony Zoom DT lens ($710, street):

The Sony's singular advantage over both the Canon and Nikon models is its sensor-based Super Steady Shot system, which provides image stabilization across both the Sony and the discontinued Konica Minolta Maxxum lens lines. Canon and Nikon make you pay for stabilization with every lens. The Sony has faster and better-tracking AF than the Nikon D40x, a self-cleaning sensor, and innovative dynamic-range controls. We also think it's a better-built camera than the D40x. The Nikon wins on Image Quality, with somewhat higher resolution but, more important, clearly superior noise control. The Sony lens line is smaller than Nikon's AF-S lens catalog, but not by much.

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