Nikon has developed a habit of making very attractive entry-level DSLRs, which are rarely the best specified but cleverly designed so that they're easy and enjoyable to shoot with. The D3000 fitted this pattern perfectly, a gentle refresh of the D60 (which was itself a slightly updated D40X), it added ease-of-use features to make it a pleasant little camera to use, despite a specification that was beginning to look rather out-of-step with the rest of the market.
The D3000 sold well, despite its rather aged 10 megapixel sensor and lack of both live view and video. However, there's only so long that clever product design and feature integration can make up for a specification that looks dated. So with this in mind, Nikon has announced the D3100 - probably the biggest refresh of its entry-level offering since it really attacked the low end market with the original D40.
The D3100 is built around a 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, bringing not only live view but also Full HD video capture to Nikon's entry-level model for the first time. In fact, this made it the first Nikon DSLR to offer 1920x1080 movie recording. It can only record clips up to about ten minutes long (due to a 4Gb maximum file size limitation shared by all DSLRs), but this still counts as an impressive feature addition at this level.
The body gets a slight refresh from a basic design that essentially dates back four years to the D40, gaining an extra button to the left of the screen, a drive mode switch at the base of the mode dial, a sprung lever to engage live view and a direct record movie button. Revisions have also been made to the feature-teaching, hand-holding 'Guide Mode', and an additional autofocus mode that's designed to allow better focusing in live view and autofocus during video shooting.
All of this adds up to a DSLR that incorporates all of 2010's 'must have' features but looks like the product of evolution, rather than dramatic innovation. And 2010 has been a year during which the rest of the market hasn't devloped along such predictable lines, not least during the expansion of the large sensor, mirrorless interchangable lens camera crowd.
Camera makers always try to stress that mirrorless cameras are creating an entirely new market, rather than competing with entry-level DSLRs, but it's pretty clear that many people planning to upgrade from their point-and-shoot compact will consider both types of camera when making their decision. So, while the D3100 is unequivocally a DSLR (in a time where the line between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is becoming increasingly hazy), its beginner-friendly guide mode puts it squarely in competition with several of the mirrorless models that are equally eager to welcome point-and-shoot upgraders.
Many of these cameras, such as Sony's NEX-3 and 5, Olympus' E-PL1 and Panasonic's GF2, offer similarly accessible interfaces in a smaller, competitively-priced packages. They also, by eshewing the conventional DSLR design, are able to offer a shooting experience that is much closer to that of a compact camera - which even the best DSLR live view implementation can't easily mimic at the moment.
So, while the D3100 offers an improved feature set when compared to a camera we really liked, it remains to be seen whether these additions will be enough to make it stand out as well as its predecessor did.
Nikon D3100 Key Features
- 14.2 megapixel DX-format CMOS sensor
- 3.0" LCD monitor (230,000 dots)
- Image sensor cleaning (sensor shake)
- 11 AF points (with 3D tracking)
- IS0 100-3200 range (12,800 expanded)
- HD movies (1080p, 720p or WVGA)
Nikon D3100 vs D3000: Key DifferencesThe D3100 substantially refreshes the D3000, taking a rather outdated-looking specification and turning it into one of the most competitive in its sector.
- Higher resolution sensor (14.2MP vs. 10MP)
- Ability to shoot Raw + Fine JPEG
- Socket for connecting Nikon GP1 GPS unit
- Optional wired remote via GPS socket
- No wireless remote option
- Live view
- 1080p HD movies
- HDMI output
- Wider ISO range
- Full-time AF mode (AF-F in live view)
- Revised focus screen (different AF point illumination)