It’s time to pull out the “H” word – yes, the holidays are just around the corner, like it or not. And this year more than ever, we’d like the gift budget to stretch as far as possible. Thus our Head to Head feature today is an ultrazoom shootout. The Nikon Coolpix P90 and the Olympus SP-590 UZ are priced nearly evenly and matched almost spec for spec, so which camera will give you the most zoom for your buck?
We’ve said it before: the ultrazoom platform is a beautiful thing. These cameras offer the flexibility of manual controls along with the simplicity of a fixed lens. At upwards of 24x optical zoom, these DSLR-esque cameras can zoom in on objects a pocket and point-and-shoot could never dream of touching. With full automatic shooting modes, they offer the beginning photographer the chance to get out there and get shooting while still providing enough room to grow.
Both the Olympus SP-590 UZ and the Coolpix P90 offer the best of what the ultrazoom category can offer. But which one will offer the best value at nearly the same price point? Read on for a breakdown of how these two cameras match up across a wide range of criteria.
Sophistication and Style
Taking a look at the SP-590 UZ and the P90 head-on, the similarities in their appearances are obvious. They’re both cut from the same DSLR-like cloth. Both offer a deep handgrip covered in a tacky, non-slip material. They’re both classic black, and only available in that color. Though they mimic the build of an SLR, they’re both quite a bit more compact than one.
The style differences are subtle. The Olympus lens is accented in metallic silver, the Nikon lens is mostly black. The pop-up flash on the SP-590 gives the camera a little bit more height than the P90 as well as a more rounded look.
More differences appear on the back panel. The Olympus has a few more buttons clustered around the four-way controller, but they both adhere to the same basic control layout. The plastic molding around the Olympus’s LCD is more angular, the Nikon is a little more rounded.
DCR Contributor Jim Keenan, who reviewed both cameras, noticed a small amount of play in the lenses of both cameras. He points out that the problem is a bit less prominent in the P90. Overall, though, he liked the ergonomics of both cameras and thought they felt secure and steady. Judging only on looks, though, I favor the more simplistic, understated aesthetic of the Nikon Coolpix P90.
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P90
Features and Specs
It’s no surprise that the similarities extend beyond aesthetics. They’re both armed with a 12 megapixel 1/2.33 inch CCD sensor, 640×480 video recording, and a 26mm wide angle zoom lens.
The Olympus SP-590UZ ups the ante with a 26x optical zoom range, covering an equivalent at the telephoto end of 676mm. The Nikon is just shy with a 24x zoom, clocking in at 624mm. Both lenses feature a maximum aperture at wide angle of f/2.8 and f/5.0 at telephoto.
The other difference is in the burst shooting mode. In our own lab tests, the Nikon edged out the Olympus, posting a rate of 1.4 fps with 14 full-resolution images. The Olympus rated 1.2 fps at 6 frames. They both boast faster continuous shooting at 3 megapixel resolutions.
Another difference concerns the LCDs – though they’re both of 230K dot resolution, the SP-590 UZ measures 2.7 inches and the P90’s screen is a slightly larger 3.0 inches. And the kicker – the P90’s vari-angle LCD will Tilt and rotate through 90 degrees. That’s a major bonus when bright sunlight makes images on the LCD difficult to see or your photographic subject is difficult to reach. The SP-590 LCD was a good one, but there’s just something exciting about an articulating display.
In this category, the advantage really comes down to preference. If zoom range is your thing, then the extra reach of the Olympus will make it your pick. If burst shooting is more important, then the Nikon will serve you better. And that’s the beauty of the current ultrazoom lineup – performance and image quality are so good across the board that it really comes down to personal preference when you’re choosing one over the other.
My favor leans toward the Olympus SP-590 UZ. With almost every other spec lined up evenly, that 26x optical zoom range puts it just past the Nikon in this category.
Advantage: Olympus SP-590 UZ
Ease of Use
Both they Olympus SP590-UZ and the Nikon Coolpix P90 offer full auto modes in addition to shutter priority, aperture priority, program and manual shooting modes. They both offer scene modes tailored for different shooting conditions.
As equally matched as these two cameras are in specs, they’re just as close in performance. Our lab tests timed them both at a very fast 0.03 second shutter lag. AF Acquisition times were within a hundredth of a second of each other, with the Coolpix P90 locking focus and capturing an image in 0.56 seconds; the Olympus clocked in at 0.57 seconds.
Neither of these cameras are going to slow you down, and since they’re both shaped more or less the same way, the ergonomics are similar too. So what’s the major difference? Again, personal preferences will put one of these cameras ahead of the other.
Both cameras are relatively easy to use, but on the whole, we thought the Nikon was just a little bit easier to pick up and master quickly. The Nikon menu system feels a bit more streamlined, and fewer buttons on back panel translates to a smoother shooting experience in our opinion. Olympus menus are by no means difficult to master, and they’re colorfully executed with bright, large icons that some may find more appealing.
It’s a tough call, but we’ll give this round to Nikon.
Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P90
As previously mentioned, both of these cameras are going to put out some very nice images. We were happy with the image quality at default settings from the SP-590 UZ, though a saturation boost in vivid mode was sometimes preferable.
Similarly, the Nikon produced sharp, nicely saturated images at default settings with options for more vivid images.
Our studio shots at high ISO don’t separate a clear winner in this category either. Both cameras shot relatively clean images through ISO 400. From there, quality declines at about the same rate through ISO 1600.
Olympus SP-590 UZ, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon Coolpix P90, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Some common flaws cropped up in images from both cameras such as some barrel distortion at wide angle and pincushion distortion at telephoto. The amount of distortion we saw from each was about average for this class. One issue that did stand out in the Nikon images, though, was a bit more chromatic aberration at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
While the SP-590 UZ is also guilty of producing some purple fringing, it seemed better controlled, especially in wide angle shots. Though the presence of some chromatic aberration isn’t a killer for the Nikon Coolpix P90, it does put the Olympus just ahead of its competitor in this category.
Advantage: Olympus SP-590 UZ
Price and Value
Introduced in March, both the Nikon Coopix P90 and the Olympus SP-590 UZ have been on the shelf for a while, so prices are starting to slip from the original MSRP. The P90 was originally priced at $399.95, and the Olympus debuted with a price $50 higher. They’ve remained at those prices at their respective manufacturer’s online stores, but many online retailers have the Olympus camera around the $350 mark. In fact, if you do a little online detective work, you’re likely to find both of these cameras well below $400.
If you can snag the Olympus SP-590 UZ at that $350 sweet spot, then that’s going to put the Olympus ahead in this category. It’s just a whole lot of zoom for a comparatively low price.
Advantage: Olympus SP-590 UZ
Our favorite Head to Head battles pit two evenly matched cameras against each other, and that’s exactly how this one turned out. In the high-zoom shootout, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick a clear winner from the array of capable cameras that make up the current ultrazoom offerings. The Olympus SP-590 UZ came out ahead of the Coolpix P90 in more categories, but don’t chalk it up as a clear victory. Personal preferences will ultimately put one of these two cameras ahead in your own favor.
Is it unbridled zoom power you’re after? The 26x Olympus SP-590 UZ might be the camera for you. Do you attach more importance to the look, feel, and user experience of your camera? Take another look at the Nikon Coolpix P90. Bottom line – there are no losers here. When $350 can buy an excellent camera with all the zoom you could dream of, we’re all winners.