Ultra-zoom in a travel friendly package – Gadling reviews the new Nikon Coolpix P100

This is a great time to be in the market for a new travel friendly camera. Almost weekly, new cameras are revealed that add more of the stuff travelers can benefit from.

In this review, I’ll introduce you to the newest from Nikon – the Coolpix P100. The P100 is an “ultra zoom” – which means its zoom lens packs quite a punch.

The basics are all pretty impressive too – 10.3 megapixels, 1080p HD video, high-speed video (up to 240 frames per second), tilting screen, pop-up flash and an electronic viewfinder. But perhaps the best feature in the P100 is its 26x optical zoom.

Operating the Nikon is simple – its startup time is quick, and you can start shooting your first photo in about 2 seconds (more if you need the flash). Subsequent photos are equally fast – also about 2 seconds. On the top of the camera is the mode selector (auto, sports, scene favorite scene, subject tracking, user settings, manual, aperture priority, shutter priority and programmed auto). Next to the mode selector is the power switch and zoom button.

On the rear of the camera is the viewfinder button, display option button, a selector knob for high-definition or high-speed video, video record button, play button, menu button, erase button and of course a d-pad control for menu operation and quick access to flash, timer, macro and exposure.

The tilting display is a fantastic feature – the entire 3″ display swivels up or down, and because it is mounted on an arm, you can angle it in all kinds of ways. This makes it perfect for shooting above or below you without having to get down on your knees or hurting your neck. Angling the display also makes it easier to move it out of the glare from the sun, because the anti-glare coating isn’t always efficient.

Photos are good, not great – obviously you won’t get professional digital SLR results from a camera with a small(ish) sensor, but for most people, the results will be perfect for travel photos. Video clips are acceptable, but I found the colors to be a little washed out. Even though you are shooting in 1080p, the results are about the same as most HD cameras in this price range. Bottom line is that if you want “real” HD video, you’ll need a “real” HD camcorder.

Here are two examples of what the lens in the P100 can do for you:

Zoomed out…

And zoomed in… Both photos were taken from the same spot. Obviously, the 26x zoom and optical image stabilizer help make photos like this.

The menus are very easy to navigate and you can make things as simple or complicated as you want – amateurs (like myself) will want to stick to the scene or auto mode settings, but if you are little more demanding, you’ll find plenty of other settings to tweak.

Videos and photos can be viewed on a TV using the included composite video/audio cable. but you’ll probably want to invest in a miniHDMI to HDMI cable which allows you to connect the camera to your HDTV. On the side of the camera are the proprietary USB/video connector and the miniHDMI plug. Using a proprietary USB connector means you’ll always want to carry the included USB cable – I wish Nikon would switch to MiniUSB (like Canon uses). Thankfully, the P100 can be charged over USB, which means you can leave the charger at home.

The P100 uses SD and SDHC memory cards – no card is included, but it does offer 43MB of internal memory – which is enough for just a couple of pictures.

The P100 is not a compact camera – but it is quite a bit smaller than a dSLR with a comparable lens. Of course, many people with a dSLR wouldn’t want to be seen in public with a “point and shooter” – but sometimes you just want to turn your camera on and start shooting, without having to worry about the settings on your $2000 camera.

Battery life is pretty basic – the battery pack is a mere 1150mAH, which is rated for about 250 shots – I got just under 230 before I had to swap out the battery. Thankfully, Nikon has not made the switch to authenticated battery packs, so I was able to order a non-Nikon spare for under $10.

The P100 weighs just over one pound (with SD card and battery). Of course, because it is mostly made of plastic, the weight can be kept to a minimum.

Included in the (rather large) box is the camera itself, a lens cap, USB and video cables, a battery with charger, a stack of manuals and an installation CD with transfer software, a panorama maker and more.

All in all a solid ultra-zoom shooter with decent photos. Colors in the video clips are a bit disappointing, and there is no denying that you’ll get better shots from a more expensive camera – still, the quality is perfect for those of us that are still firmly stuck in the point and shoot world. Being able to charge the camera using USB is a huge plus.

The tilting display and ultra-zoom are what make this camera stand out in the crowd – but perhaps its best feature is its price. The MSRP is $399.99, but I was able to pick one up at the local electronics superstore for just $349.99. This makes it a fantastic bargain. Later this year, other companies will be releasing their own ultra-zooms, so the Nikon is in for some decent competition.

PROS: huge 26x optical zoom, charges over USB, tilting display

CONS: washed out colors in HD video clips, images are only “acceptable”, not outstanding

Product page: Nikon USA Coolpix P100
Shopping prices: Google price search

In the photo gallery below, you’ll find more photos, along with hi-res version of the zoom lens demo (large photos!)