10 Megapixel DSLR group test design and controls
The Canon EOS 400D / XTi, Nikon D80 and Sony A100 are pictured below from left to right. The Canon’s clearly the smallest of the group, measuring 127x94x65mm, although the Sony’s only a few millimetres wider and deeper at 133x95x71. The Nikon’s the largest of the three at 132x103x77mm.
The Canon’s the lightest too at 510g for the body alone compared to 545g for the Sony and 585g for the Nikon. Of course few people carry around a DSLR without a lens, so it’s important to also take this into consideration. Canon’s EF-S 18-55mm kit lens for example is unusually light at just 190g, making the 400D / XTi a much lighter overall package than either the Nikon or Sony with their kit lenses. So if you’re after the smallest and lightest DSLR of the three, the Canon’s the way to go. It can make a big difference if you travel light, are into hiking or used to a smaller and lighter point and shoot.
That said, larger size and weight are no bad thing for a DSLR. The Canon 400D / XTi may be the smallest of the group, but it's arguably the least comfortable to hold. The space between the grip and lens barrel is particularly tight and those with larger hands may find their fingers being pinched. The grips on the Nikon and Sony though are noticeably larger and more comfortable to hold, as can be seen in the picture below. Their additional weight also gives them a better balance in your hand and lends a greater air of confidence.
In terms of build quality, all three are very solid without any creaks to worry about, but the Nikon D80 is definitely a step above its rivals. From the hooked area inside the grip for your fingertips to the rubber surface under your right thumb, it’s simply a very well thought-out design that combines strength and good ergonomics. As an additional example, while all three have finger dials, only the Nikon has an additional thumbwheel, allowing independent control over aperture and shutter in manual mode.
Ultimately while we prefer the feel of the Nikon D80 overall, it’s very much a personal thing and as with all cameras, you should pick them up for yourself. Whether it’s the size, weight or even the touch of the shutter release, we assure you one will almost certainly look and feel better to you. So long as the quality and feature-set’s right, we’d always recommend going for that one.
All three have built-in flashes with red-eye reduction, compensation and rear curtain options, although the Nikon and Sony additionally support wireless flash control. The Nikon takes this one step further by allowing its popup flash to act as a Commander to a pair of Speedlights with refined control over each. You can alternatively fire the D80’s popup flash like a strobe for special effects. The Canon and Nikon support flash sync speeds up to 1/200, while the Sony offers 1/160 or 1/120 if it’s Super SteadyShot anti-shake is enabled.
Certainly if you’re really into using flashes, the Nikon D80 is the most powerful of the group, although all three can deliver very natural results using their popup units and also support more powerful external options through hotshoes.
Memory and battery
The Canon EOS 400D / XTi and Sony A100 both take Compact Flash memory, while the Nikon D80 takes SD cards; the Sony additionally takes Memory Stick Duo cards, but via a CF adapter. All three support cards with capacities above 2GB.
Today it’s possible to buy larger and cheaper Compact Flash cards than SD, but for capacities of around 1GB, there’s not a great deal in it. If you have a significant existing investment in one format though, it may sway your choice of body.
All three are powered by rechargeable Lithium Ion battery packs, rated at 720, 1150 and 1500mAh for the Canon, Sony and Nikon respectively. Under CIPA testing conditions, Canon and Sony claim 360 and 750 shots on a full charge respectively. Nikon doesn’t quote CIPA figures, but claims between 600 and 2700 shots per charge.
In general use we managed around 300 and 500 shots with the Canon and Nikon per charge, and about 300 on the Sony, although to be fair this was with its anti-shake system switched on all the time.
The Nikon D80’s Fuel Gauge system gives the most accurate feedback with an actual percentage of battery life remaining, along with general condition, although annoyingly you’ll need to enter a menu to see the details. From the outside, you’ll have to make do with a six-segment indicator, although it’s still better than the four segments of the Canon and Sony.