Not all 26x zoom lenses are created equal. A big zoom range is enticing, but how well can you expect the lens to perform from wide angle all the way out to telephoto?
The answer? About as well as you can expect a 26x zoom lens to perform on a compact camera body. Both cameras employ sensor-shift image stabilization. We found that the systems were helpful most of the time, but pushing the lens to full telephoto and getting a clear handheld shot was something of a challenge. With assistance from a monopod, clear images at the long end of the focal range were much easier to capture. The lenses performed well overall, but in both cases they shouldn't be expected to do the same job as a DSLR.
The Nikon Coolpix P100 records up to ISO 3200, and the X90 stops at ISO 1600. That's probably a good thing, because our studio test image at 1600 was pretty fuzzy. The P100's ISO 1600 shot is noticeably cleaner. The backside illuminated CMOS seems to be doing the trick.
Nikon Coolpix P100, ISO 1600
Pentax X90, ISO 1600
Default shots from both cameras show sharp detail at the center of the frame and some softness out toward corners. We saw some barrel and pincushion distortion from the P100, though it offers in-camera corrections that work well. The X90 produced very little in the way of geometric distortions at wide and telephoto focal lengths, though we did see some vignetting toward the long end of the range.
That said, both cameras produced very good images. The Pentax X90's default processing mode is "bright," with an option for natural and monochrome. The P100 has no less than seven processing options, ranging from "softer" to "vivid" and "more vivid" and several black and white options. The images below offer a little bit of a comparison of each camera's natural processing mode, though keep in mind they were recorded at different times of day.
Nikon Coolpix P100
The P100's sensor gives it another edge in this category, and a better range of usable ISO settings means more options in low light shooting and faster shutter times throughout the zoom range.
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P100
Price and Value
The Nikon Coolpix P100 sells for $399.99 at the time of this writing directly from Nikon. A savvy shopper can find it for a little bit less, but not much. The Pentax X90 is offered at $379.99 from Pentax's own site. Street prices are as low as $300.
Given the capabilities of both cameras and the high level of image quality both are capable of producing, the Pentax X90 is a better buy if you can find that discounted $300 price tag. The P100 will do more for a little more money, but the X90 offers good image quality with a very nice wide-to-telephoto focal range.
Advantage: Pentax X90
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