Roughly one year ago, Nikon release their first substantial entry into the extended zoom camera market with the Coolpix P80. [Read our full review of the P80 here]. Intended to compete with similar offerings from Canon, Panasonic, and Olympus, the Nikon P80 was, although a fine camera, a little behind the times. The P80 boasted a long-range 18x optical zoom lens, which is excellent. It's just that other cameras had reached 20x zoom, and in comparison, 18x wasn't much to get excited about. This time Nikon swung for the bleachers, and equipped the Coolpix P90 with a 24x optical zoom. It's still not the longest zoom out there (that would be the 26x lens found on the Olympus SP-590 UZ), but it's at least a more timely release.
Overall, however, the P90 was a disappointing follow-up to the P80. Photos taken with the P90 lacked any real verve, and were plagued by graininess and noise, and blurriness was a frequent problem.
While the 24x zoom is the marquee feature on the Coolpix P90, the camera has a number of other appealing improvements over its predecessor. The most obvious involves the 3.0-inch LCD display. Nikon has constructed the display so it can be swiveled along the Y-axis. A photographer can pull the LCD panel outward, and position the display perpendicular to the body of the camera. The LCD cannot swivel left to right, only up and down, back and forth, along an articulating arm. It's a handy feature for photographers concerned about glare on the LCD or who'd like to position their camera in ways that would preclude them from viewing the display if it were affixed to the back of the camera. It does add a little bulk to the body, but less than the enormous lens does. If you're looking for a compact camera, the P90 isn't it, though compared to other extended zoom cameras it's a good, comfortable size. The P90 also has a digital viewfinder.
The P90's lens is not just long-range, it's also wide angle, (26mm), meaning shooters have plenty of depth and scope at their disposal when using this camera. It shoots photos at 12.1-megapixels (3MP for shots utilizing ISO 3200 or 6400), and uses a proprietary rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
The design of the Coolpix P90 is fairly standard. No great innovations but a solid layout that's easy to navigate and simple to use. The zoom control, whose importance is obvious on a camera like this, is a motor-driven lever, like the ones found on point-and-shoot cameras. Though I tend to prefer the manual zoom ring controls (like the one found on the Olympus SP-570 UZ), they don't seem to be popular on current extended zoom models (even the SP-590 UZ doesn't have one). In any case, the P90's zoom control is fast and responsive, and does not suffer from the sluggishness I would have expected using a lever control.
From the front, the camera looks like a giant lens. There's hardly any body to it at all; Nikon has taken great pains to slim down the camera's body, knowing that a 24x lens is going to require a lot of space. The camera body is about the size of a point-and-shoot camera, with a slightly exaggerated grip handle, and the big lens barrel slapped on. The P90 is easy to hold, comfortable, and lightweight. You may wish to use a neck strap, however, simply for stability's sake. It's not nearly as weighty as Canon's 20x SX10 IS, which practically requires a neck strap because it's heavy as a brick.
Unfortunately, the generally positive experience I had with the Coolpix P80 did not carry over to the P90 model. While photos taken under normal circumstances were fine looking, attempts made with the zoom in use were spotty. Some shots came out clear, others not so clear. Nikon's "vibration reduction" image stabilization didn't seem able to handle the extra work required to smooth out images taken at 24x. Blurs were common.
Also, the EXPEED image processor Nikon trumpets in their press releases was somewhat slow. Occasionally, the camera would hang for a second, and even the audio cue for the shutter click would stutter. The first 'chk' would sound, and then there would be an awkward pause for a few seconds before the final 'chk' was heard and the camera finished processing the image.
Shots taken at high ISO ratings of 1600 and 3200 (at 3 megapixels) were of poor quality, marred by image noise and distorted. ISO 800 (at 12MP) showed cleaner, more satisfying results.
The 3.0-inch LCD is big and vivid, but similar to the LCD on the Nikon S60, shows a lot of speckled image noise, making it irritating to use. It's easy to see the pixels dancing when trying to frame a shot, and it's very distracting.
Though Nikon seems to be on the right track, the Coolpix P90 simply didn't live up to the expectations set by its forbearer, the P80. The P90 was plagued by inconsistent results and despite its high-end feature set, could not come through when it was needed.