Nikon Coolpix P7100 Review

Review originally appeared on on 10/10/2011

The P7100 has now been replaced by the P7700, which has a lens with larger apertures (f/2.0-4.0 versus f/2.8-5.6), a built-in ND filter, adds more external controls, changes to a 12mp BSI CMOS sensor, adds a swivel LCD, and leaves out the optical viewfinder.

What is It?

The P7100 is the one-year update to the Coolpix P7000 model (which in turn was a substantive update to the P6000). To refresh people's minds, I conditionally recommended the P7000 when I reviewed it, citing too many small issues like focus and raw write performance. Image quality was quite good with the P7000 (for a compact camera), which made the small things that got in the way quite annoying.

bythom-PROD SHOT-D7100-D7000-front.jpg

P7100 on left, P7000 on right. Ever notice that Nikon was so insecure about these cameras that they didn't put the name on the front where someone being photographed by it would see it? Great marketing, guys.

So what did the P7100 change?

Well, we have some body differences right out of the gate. Let's go front to back:

  • On the front of the camera we have a different (slightly better) contoured finger hold. The reason for this is simple: we've now got a front command dial (vertical, not embedded as with the DSLRs) on the front of the camera. The IR receiver moves from the left front to the right. The FN button becomes an FN1 button. Everything else remains the same, including the 28-200mm equivalent lens.
  • Up top, the strange Canon-like AvTV button becomes an FN2 button and the Mode dial adds an Effects position.
  • Out back we see the biggest changes: the P7100 now has a tilt LCD (up/down only), the Rear Command dial is larger and in a better, more DSLR-like position, and several of the buttons have moved around, most noticeably the AE-L/AF-L button, which also is in a slightly better position.

Unfortunately, the P7100 has grown in size. It's a little wider and definitely deeper (due to the pivot LCD). The P7000 was already one of the biggest compacts on the market, but the P7100 tops it. It gains an extra 35g in the update, as well. This is a hefty, well-built camera.

Inside, everything is much the same, too. We've got the same 10mp 1/1.7" CCD and virtually all of the features are the same. There were no real changes to the video abilities of the camera (likely due to the sensor being used), and they remain relatively weak. So maybe the extra 100 in the name has to do with something other than basic specification differences?

How's it Handle?

As with the P7000, the P7100 is basically a mini-DSLR, except with two extra, slightly retro dials. Besides the full PASM positions on the Mode dial, we've got three user-defined positions, which means that you can move between common settings very quickly (though this takes a bit of study of the manuals to realize how to set and use effectively). Exposure compensation is by dial, so you do need to take careful note of its position when you're removing the camera from your pocket or bag. Though the dial is quite stiff and not prone to accidental movement, it is still possible.

bythom-PROD SHOT-P7100-P7000-back.jpg

P7100 on left, P7000 on right. Yeah, that's what I thought, too: brighter and bluer. Note also the subtle changes to controls in the upper right.

The second dial provides a button in the middle that allows you to quickly use the Rear Command dial to set white balance, ISO, Image Quality, Picture Control, bracketing, and another user custom setting relating to menus. Between the dials on top of the camera and the Command dials in front and back, setting essential things on the P7100 is very DSLR-like, and fast.

Menus are relatively clean and again DSLR-like, which means that they can be a little long: there's 36 items in the SET UP menu. That's too many, in my opinion, and it once again leads me to ask if they're really seeing which menu items are used most. Format is buried on the third page of the SET UP menu, for instance, but Welcome screen--something you'd set infrequently if at all--is the top item on the first page. This random positioning of items on Nikon menus needs to be completely rethought, as it's getting old and the more Nikon cameras you use, the more confused you get as to where something is on each camera's menu. Nikon would probably make the retort that they're adapting menus to the target user, but if that really is their position, I think it's complete bunk. The more likely answer is that menus are being populated by random decisions by different product managers who aren't on the same page.

Overall, I've got no major complaints about how the P7100 handles, which isn't surprising, as I didn't have major complaints about user interface decisions on the P7000, either. The one thing I pointed out: that the Nikon operated a lot like a Canon, seems to have been addressed by adding that front dial, creating the second FN button, and moving some control positions so that you tend to use the classic Nikon hand position while shooting. Still, it's not exactly a Nikon DSLR feel with the Front Command dial being vertically oriented, ala Canon's top dial on DSLRs. The odd thing is that the Canon G12 has a Nikon-like front dial, the Nikon has a Canon-like front dial. What the heck is going on here?

The tilt LCD is simple enough, but it isn't equal to the Canon's swivel LCD. Besides adding some bulk to the camera, it doesn't do a couple of things that the Canon solution does: protect the LCD when in a pocket or bag, and allow you to see what the camera is framing from the front. So...better than the fixed LCD in the P7000, worse than the swivel LCD in the Canon G12. (Note: some complain that a swivel LCD means that up/down uses push the LCD to the side of the camera. True. But I don’t find this all that awkward, and the additional positioning angles are definitely useful to me.)

How's it Perform?

Nikon claims improvements in four areas on the P7100 over the P7000: noise reduction, operational speed, AF speed and accuracy, plus faster raw write speeds.

Let's get right to those things.

Operational speed is noticeably better. I don't see the same small delays in menus that I saw in the P7000, and overall the camera feels more responsive to the shooter. This includes autofocus. I don't think focus speed has improved significantly, but focus integrity has. The P7100 seems to always lock on it situations where the P7000 sometimes stalled. This is quite noticeable in shooting through glass or in close-in macro shooting.

Raw shooting is still slow. A bit faster than the updated P7000 in overall times using the same Lexar or SanDisk cards, but still decidedly slow--measured in seconds, always. The buffer seems a little deeper on continuous shooting--I got three more shots out of the P7100 than the P7000 under the same settings conditions--but still has a very long (20 second or more depending upon card used) write period before the camera becomes operative again after a buffer fill. Curiously, it appears that one of the things Nikon sacrificed to "improve write speeds" is the shutter sound. Instead of the usual shutter "click" in continuous shooting mode with raw I get a short shutter "tick." Put simply, the P7100 is not a raw speed demon. If that's what you were waiting for, you're still waiting.

Noise reduction is indeed cleaner on the P7100 than the P7000. I see very clear improvement in JPEG quality at higher ISO values over the P7000. Not enough to get fully excited about, but it does improve on what was already a decent performance with a small sensor, and I'll take that gain any day. Raw performance appears to be the same, which is what I would expect.

Most of the things I wrote about image quality with the P7000 are still true with the P7100: Nikon gets a slightly better performance at base ISO than Canon does with the same sensor. That's true of both JPEG and raw. Even at higher ISO values Nikon appears to be extracting more out of the sensor than Canon is. Nikon's lens is quite good, every bit the match for the sensor.

Final Words

Closer, and maybe worth a(n inexpensive) cigar now. It seems clear that Nikon knew what they needed to address to improve the P7000. They managed to deal with almost all of it except one thing: raw write performance. The P7100 handles well, performs well, and has a pretty deep set of still features (I wouldn't recommend the P7100 as a video camera, as it is quite limited in what it can do).

So we're faced with the same question as before: is this the ultimate compact camera? The answer is still no, though Nikon is closer than they were before. Let me enumerate the things that are still not quite there:

  • The optical viewfinder is near useless. At 80% view, you simply can't frame well with it. Given that we're on a 10mp camera, you don't want to be cropping to fix compositions you framed with the optical viewfinder. The camera could be smaller with the optical viewfinder, too.
  • The MyMenu and U1-U3 customizations are a little kludegy. This could and should be simplified, I think.
  • RAW file writing performance is about the worst of any modern camera. Even Fujifilm, who I disparage almost constantly for their raw write speeds, does better. Given the high-end user that's likely to desire a P7100, this is probably the most glaring issue on the camera: it's a slow shooter for high-end users.
  • The video isn't worth the time to engineer it. Just remove it. 
  • Canon's G12 swivel LCD is a better choice than Nikon's tilt LCD. Yes, the tilting LCD is better than the P7000's fixed one, but I would have preferred Canon's choice to Nikon's. 
  • The menus need some better organization and structuring.

Really, how hard would it have been to do all that? The menu stuff has been a constant thorn ever since we first got deep customized sets with the F5, but Nikon has never quite rationalized it. They keep tinkering without solving. That's a sign of not understanding the real problem. Likewise, the tilt LCD seems like a "quick and dirty" solution as opposed to a fully engineered one. Why do I suspect that someone said "it will be too difficult to run the LCD ribbon cable across over to the side of the camera than to just let it stick out where it currently attaches"? Probably because that's it's highly likely someone said just that.

In short, it feels like a lot of "easy" changes were made. Yes, the changes mostly addressed the shortcomings of the P7000. But two things: (1) the P7000 should never have had those shortcomings in the first place; and (2) great design requires deep and hard decisions, not easy ones.

With the Nikon 1 now knocking on the P7100's performance door, it appears that Nikon made a choice to keep the Nikon 1 from having the controls a P7100 user might like, but they didn't give the P7100 the performance that will keep those folk from considering a Nikon 1 anyway.

Okay, so let's fix all of that once and for all and design next year's P8000:

  • Put the Nikon 1 sensor in the P7100 body.
  • Since you have to change the lens due to the first bullet, change it to a 24-120mm.
  • Make the LCD swivel.
  • Speed up the raw write performance.
  • Make a real attempt to clean up and rationalize the menu system.

Gee, that wasn't much, was it?

In the meantime, the P7100 is still a difficult camera to give an unqualified recommendation for. It's bigger and heavier than some of its direct competitors and it's slower at writing raws than those competitors. On the other hand, it produces some of the best looking images out of a small sensor we've seen to date and it handles like a small DSLR.

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