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10 Megapixel DSLR group test Gordon Laing, October 2006
 
10 Megapixel DSLR group test verdict

   

First things first: if you’re in the market for a new digital SLR, you wouldn’t be disappointed by any of the three models tested here. The Canon EOS 400D / XTi, Nikon D80 and Sony A100 are all excellent cameras, handling well, offering plenty of creative control and capable of delivering superb results. As such they all come highly recommended.

Each camera does have specific advantages though which will see certain photographers select one over another. For example, if you want the smallest, lightest digital SLR kit at a great price, then go for the Canon 400D / XTi. If you’re after a step-up from an entry-level model in terms of build quality and traditional features, the Nikon D80’s the camera for you. And if you want the most affordable digital SLR and lens combination with anti-shake, then the Sony A100’s the way to go.

While you may be close to a decision already, there are of course further pros and cons to each model which we’ll discuss in turn.

Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi

 
Canon EOS 400D /  XTi
 

Canon’s EOS 400D / XTi improves on its predecessor in several key respects, and for some buyers, that’s all they’ll need to know. After all, the earlier EOS 350D / XT was by far the best-selling entry-level DSLR, so if the new one’s even only a little bit better, that’s recommendation enough.

Of course the market’s become more competitive in recent times and while the new 400D / XTi is indeed better than its predecessor, there’s some tough new rivals.

Sony’s A100 is the 400D / XTi’s biggest competitor and for little extra outlay, it boasts built-in anti-shake and a kit lens with a slightly longer focal length. Adding anti-shake to the 400D / XTi takes its price comfortably above the A100 kit, and that’ll be enough to steer many towards Sony.

In its favour, the Canon has a smaller, lighter body, lower noise levels at high ISOs and many more anti-dust features, although they were far from 100% infallible in our tests. It also has access to Canon’s wide range of lenses and accessories and there’s no denying the company’s brand cachet.

The bottom line is the 400D / XTi handles well and delivers great quality images at a low price. We would highly recommend upgrading the kit lens, but as a starter package which has plenty of room for growth, it represents excellent value. See our Canon EOS 400D / XTi review for more details.



Nikon D80

 
Nikon D80
 

The Nikon D80 is arguably the best camera of the three. It beats the 400D / XTi and A100 in almost every respect, sporting superior design and build quality, the biggest, brightest viewfinder, more sophisticated AF, greater customisation and a secondary status screen which many will find easier to read in bright light. While some test results were very close, the D80 also resolved the greatest detail and many will prefer its handling of high ISO noise to the Canon.

In these traditional photographic respects, the D80 is comfortably ahead of the Canon 400D / XTi and Sony A100, but there’s one key difference: it’s also comfortably more expensive, especially when you add the cost of a lens. And if that lens happens to feature Vibration Reduction to combat camera shake, you could be spending double that of the Sony A100 kit. The D80 also doesn’t have the anti-dust features of the Canon 400D / XTi, which additionally comes in at a much lower kit price.

To be fair, the D80 is pitched at a slightly higher-end market than the Canon and Sony models. It’s designed for someone who wants a step-up from an entry-level DSLR, but can’t or won’t stretch to something like a D200. So if you’re the kind of person who would value the superior build and viewfinder of the D80 while also exploiting from its more sophisticated AF and flash control, then we’d say it’s worth the higher investment. If however you’re on a stricter budget, or don’t think you’d use the D80’s more sophisticated controls and features, you’ll be better off with the Canon or Sony. See our Nikon D80 review for more details.




Sony Alpha A100

 
Sony Alpha A100
 

The Sony Alpha A100 is a contender before you even consider its built-in anti-shake. It’s priced competitively, handles well, sports a high degree of manual control and some genuinely neat features inherited from the earlier Konica Minolta 5D such as exposure information on the main screen which remains upright even when you turn the camera on its side.

Of course the A100’s big selling-point is the Super SteadyShot anti-shake system, which works with any lens you attach. While Canon and Nikon can argue their lens-based solutions allow specific tailoring for, say, extreme telephoto lenses, the fact is the Sony system works just as well for more common focal lengths, and crucially comes for free with the body. Until Canon and Nikon release budget kit lenses with optical stabilisation, this gives the Sony a significant price advantage.

Considering how much an optically-stabilised general purpose lens will increase the kit price of the Canon 400D / XTi and Nikon D80, the Sony A100 is quite simply a bargain. On the downside, many will prefer the look and feel of the Canon or Nikon models, not to mention their choice of lenses, and crucially both also deliver much lower noise levels at high ISOs. These aspects prevent the Sony from running away with the top prize, but if you want the most affordable DSLR kit with anti-shake, it can’t be beaten. See our Sony Alpha A100 review for more details.




Final verdict

In many group tests a clear leader emerges to win, and while the Nikon D80 is arguably the best in traditional photographic respects, the Canon and Sony are both cheaper and boast compelling features it’s lacking. Ultimately once you take price, performance and features all into consideration, it’s impossible to single out one as being best for everyone. All three are quite different propositions, and the goal of this feature has been to highlight aspects where each excels, allowing you to choose the one which best suits your kind of photography and budget.

 
from left: Canon 400D / Rebel XTi, Nikon D80, Sony A100 - front view
 
 
from left: Canon 400D / Rebel XTi, Nikon D80, Sony A100 - rear view
 

Ultimately if one model still doesn’t stand out, you simply have to get yourself down to your local camera store and actually pick up all three in person – indeed we’d recommend everyone does this. Often days or weeks of pondering can be resolved the instant you see each camera in the flesh and hold them for yourself. Most people will immediately prefer the look and feel of one model much more than the others, and so long as it has the required features and quality – and of course is within your budget – then this is the one to buy.

 

Click here for the 10 Megapixel video tour
 

The bottom line is while each of the cameras tested here have pros and cons which will see them adopted by different people with specific requirements, all deliver great quality pictures. Under normal conditions you’ll also have to look very closely to spot any difference in quality. Check out our video tour to see them in action, and visit our Budget DSLR Buyer's Guide for an update of the best buys around right now.

Finally, if you're torn between the various kit lens and upgrade options available, allow us to be of assistance! Potential Canon owners should check out our Canon 400D / XTi lens upgrade group test which details the benefits of upgrading the kit lens to the EF-S 17-85mm, EF-S 17-55mm or EF 17-40mm models. Anyone confused by the wealth of Nikon kit lens options should head over to our Nikkor kit lens group test which compares the DX 18-55mm, DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and the premium DX 18-200mm VR. Potential Sony owners considering the great value twin lens kit option should visit our Sony 75-300mm review to see how this longer lens performs.

NEW: For a report on the latest 10 Megapixel DSLR, check out our Nikon D40x review and video tour.


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Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi
Nikon D80
Sony Alpha A100
Good points
Low noise, high quality images
Wide range of anti-dust options
Nine-point AF from EOS 30D
Great value for money

Bad points
Anti-dust not 100% infallible
No anti-shake in standard kit
Kit lens lets down resolution
Screen less visible in very bright light

Scores
(compared to entry-level DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

14 / 20
19 / 20
15 / 20
18 / 20
19 / 20

85%
  Good points
Highest resolution of group
Step-up in build quality and handling
Best viewfinder experience in its class
Superb metering, flash and AF

Bad points
Higher price than rival models
No physical anti-dust feature
No anti-shake in standard kit
RAW adjustment software not included

Scores
(compared to entry-level DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

17 / 20
20 / 20
16 / 20
16 / 20
17 / 20

86%
  Good points
Effective built-in anti-shake system
18-70mm kit lens longer than Canon kit Screen info stays upright as body turned
D-Range option enhances tonal detail

Bad points
Anti-dust system far from infallible
Relatively noisy at 800 ISO and above
Kit lens soft in corners at wide angle
Can't see anti-shake while composing

Scores
(compared to entry-level DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

15 / 20
18 / 20
15 / 20
18 / 20
19 / 20

85%

All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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