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16th November 2006
Nikon's enigmatic new D40 DSLR babe
by Ian Burley

Nikon's new entry level DSLR is full of surprises and we're not exactly sure how welcome they might turn out to be

Read the press release: Nikon UK announces the D40

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So what should we make of the new Nikon D40, officially announced today? We've had a brief play with one and we have to say that it is a bit of an enigma. With only six megapixels and a radically altered autofocus lens compatibility, we wonder if Nikon has made a huge gamble with the D40.

Nikon's decision to stick with a six megapixel sensor has surprised us the most and in more ways than one.

Surprise number one is that while the D40 represents Nikon's new entry level DSLR, replacing the 18 month old Nikon D50 once stocks of these are depleted, apart from Pentax, with its K100/100D models, all Nikon's competitors have recently introduced ten megapixel entry-level DSLRs.

The new Nikon D40 is small and sturdy
The new Nikon D70 is small and sturdy.

Only 6MP, but that's a good thing, isn't it?

Surprise number two was, basically, 'goodness, it looks like Nikon has been listening to us journalists – what do we do now?!' A popular theme at recent new-camera press launches during Q&A sessions has been that of the megapixel race and how double digit megapixels don't often make a lot of sense in a consumer camera. But so convinced are we that the marketing momentum would steamroller the concept of 'only' six megapixels in a DSLR, the D40 comes as a genuine surprise and, if I'm representative of some of my photo magazine journalist colleagues, we feel a bit sheepish about the whole thing.

It goes rather like this: on the one hand, the D40 should be a good thing as its lower resolution specification should validate our argument that too many pixels can be unhealthy. In theory, the D40 should benefit from superior noise and dynamic range performance compared to 8 and 10 megapixel rivals. But will the theory prove correct and are buyers going to be convinced with gleaming 10MP logos beckoning them?

Is this a clever ploy by Nikon to put us to our word with the D40? With Nikon 'bowing' to our 'advice' that racing to 10MP is not good, will we be forced to sing the praises of the D40 as an example of digital camera design sanity winning against megapixel marketing might? All I can say is, woe-betide Nikon if image quality actually fails to meet expectations!

Gone is the top plate LCD status panel
There is no longer any room for a top plate status LCD display and the mode selector knob has moved from the one side of the top plate to the other.

Autofocus compromises

But there are more surprises from the new Nikon babe – gone is support for a huge range of current and old autofocus lenses. These lenses are focussed by a motor inside the camera body, but not with the D40, which is the first autofocus Nikon DSLR not to support body-actuated AF. The absence of this motor makes the D40 cheaper to make.

If you want to autofocus your D40, you must ensure you use AF-S or compatible lenses that have integrated AF motors. AF-S is quiet and quick, much better than the old system abandoned in the D40 and Nikon points out that there are over 20 AF-S lenses in the Nikon range. Indeed, Nikon's budget 18-55mm kit lens, until now, has been non AF-S, but the D40 will come with a new AF-S version of the 18-55.

However, there are hundreds more Nikon-mount autofocus lenses, both Nikon and third party, that will only operate manually on the D40. Non AF-S lenses are also often cheaper than their motored alternatives. Surely Nikon is bracing itself for some customer confusion in this area?

My concerns about the sensor specifications and the compromised AF support aren't alone. Nikon has simplified the AF system as well, reducing the number of AF points down to just three compared to the D50's five. Once again, I hear myself saying – well OK, no big deal – most people only use the central AF point anyway. And I stand by that. But will the paying public buy it?

Killer features?

So what do we have so far? Only six megapixels, compromised AF lens compatibility and dumbed-down AF. What is there to compensate? Built-in image stabilisation like Pentax/Samsung and Sony? Nope. Ultrasonic sensor cleaning like Olympus and Canon? Nope – though Nikon says the D40's design should attract less dust.

So just what is the killer selling point of the D40? Is it price? Well, maybe. The officially expected street price for the D40 in the UK is £449, or EU€679. You can buy a ten megapixel Canon EOS-400D for close to that price if you shop around. Official prices do tend to get squeezed eventually, but it’s not clear if the price differential between hot-selling 10MP rivals and the D40 will be large enough to promote D40 sales.

The D40 is shown fitted with the new compact SB400 flash
The D40 is shown fitted with the new compact SB400 flash.

What do you think?

The Nikon D40 is a good looking camera; it's compact, well built and feels solid. It has some natty ease of use features, like a simplified and accessible auto ISO mode, for example. And of course it carries the Nikon logo. But are all these enough? What do you think?

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