Last December, Nikon released the D40, an entry-level digital SLR with a very good 3x zoom lens at a nice price: US$600. A mere four months later, Nikon announced the D40x, an enhanced version of the D40 that takes the original’s resolution from 6.1 to 10.2 megapixels and offers better ISO sensitivity and a slightly better burst mode. These additions drive the price of the D40x up to $800, but they also help Nikon compete more directly with Canon’s very successful (and more expensive) Digital Rebel XTi. The end result is a very good camera that takes great pictures, and one that is a great fit for casual shooters who are DSLR newcomers, but who want a little more resolution.
For all its power, the D40x is a marvel of size and design. Like its lower-priced sibling, the D40x is compact and lightweight, but its construction is solid. There aren’t a lot of extraneous buttons on the camera body, and the ones that are present are well-placed and easily accessible. The 2.5-inch LCD on the back is bright and clear, viewable in all but the brightest sunlight.
The D40x starts up immediately, and you can take your first picture less than a second after powering it up. The camera offers fully automatic shooting and a group of modes for different conditions, like landscapes, portraits, sports, night shots, close-ups, and more. Touching all the bases, the D40x can also operate manually, or in aperture- and shutter-priority modes. A lamp on the front of the camera helps with autofocus in low light, and the pop-up flash has a red-eye mode. The flash also works well in fill-flash situations, letting you brighten the foreground to compensate for backlighting, for example.
You can continuously shoot 3 images per second with the D40x, up slightly from the 2.5 images per second possible with the D40. If you’re shooting in Raw format, you can shoot a maximum of 6 images continuously. I was able to get 15 to 20 consecutive shots at the maximum rate when shooting in JPEG format.
The D40x has a well-chosen set of features for novices, and their presentation isn’t overwhelming or intimidating. To help keep you from getting lost in the details, the D40x has an excellent built-in help system: If you aren’t sure what a setting will do, simply push the “?” button and a small help screen pops up on the LCD.
The camera’s image quality is superb, especially from ISO 100 to 800; colour noise increases when you shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200, but that is normal for most DSLRs in this price range. Noise was most evident when zooming or printing images out at sizes larger than 11 inches by 17 inches.
You can also apply some image conversion in the camera. For example, you can use Nikon’s D-Lighting feature to brighten backlit images, or you can perform a rudimentary crop on an image, or overlay a dark and a light version of a photo to create one that uses the best tonal range from each photo.
The only downsides I could find with the D40x will be minor issues for most new DSLR owners. While I could live without exposure bracketing–taking a sequence of photos at slightly different exposure settings–it would have been nice to see Nikon put a depth of field preview into the D40x, since it’s such an essential concept and one worth knowing, even as a new user. Also, although dust wasn’t a problem with the unit I had, I would like to have seen Nikon incorporate some sort of dust reduction system, especially since Canon, Olympus, and others are moving in this direction.
How we tested: The image-quality rating of the camera is based upon a panel of judges’ opinions in five categories: exposure, colour, sharpness, distortion, and overall. Battery life testers follow a precise script, including shots with and without flash, until the battery dies.–Tested in conjunction with the PC World Test Center
If you’re a novice photographer looking to move up to a DSLR, choosing the D40x over the D40 will mostly come down to whether you want more megapixels (for bigger prints and more resolution for better cropping), a faster burst mode, and a slightly wider ISO range. If you’re just looking for a weekend or vacation camera for snapshots, the D40 is probably all you need. The D40x is $100 less than the Digital Rebel XTi with a comparable lens, and the Nikon has a wonderful, easy to use feel about it. Just make sure that the features you won’t get with the D40x–exposure bracketing, depth of field preview, and automatic sensor dust cleaning—aren’t that important to you.