Head to Head: Pentax X90 vs. Nikon Coolpix P100
by Allison Johnson -  8/1/2010

Which type of shopper are you? Will you pay a little more for something tricked out with extra features, or spend a little less on something that covers all the basics? That's the debate you might face choosing between two 26x ultrazooms - the gets-the-job-done Pentax X90 and the feature-packed Nikon Coolpix P100.


Both cameras are equipped with big zoom lenses covering roughly the same focal range. Will the heavyweight P100 knock the X90 out of the ring with its range of video recording capabilities? Or does the X90 cover all its bases with a smaller price tag? Read on.

Sophistication and Style
In terms of style, the X90 and the P100 are incredibly similar in their DSLR-esque form factors. They've got texturized handgrips and minimally intrusive branding, excluding a big "26x Optical Zoom" badge on the side of each camera's lens. Both models are very light on style updates from their respective predecessors, the Pentax X70 and the Coolpix P90.

Taking a closer look at the back panel, you could argue that the P100's control layout aesthetic is a little bit more restrained and clean-looking. That's either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your needs. The X90's buttons are labeled in pictures and letters that are a little bit bigger and might be easier for a photography newcomer to navigate based on sight.

The Pentax X90 is also set ever-so-slightly apart by its "gunmetal blue" color. The Coolpix P100 is black.

With not much to distinguish these two cameras from each other style-wise, I give the P100 a very slight advantage. The control layout is just a little bit tighter, and the classic black look is a little more appealing.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P100

Features and Specs
The Pentax X90 is equipped with a 12.1 megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD sensor and the P100 a 10.3 megapixel 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. That gives the P100 a definite speed advantage. The X90's sensor is carried over from the previous model, while the P100's sensor is completely new to the Nikon ultrazoom series.

Zoom-wise, the cameras are almost evenly matched. The Pentax's f/2.8-5.0 26x lens covers an equivalent focal range of 26-676mm. The Nikon lens covers 26-678mm with the same maximum aperture range of f/2.8-5.0. Nothing to give an advantage there, so let's dig deeper. They each focus as close as 0.4 inches in their respective macro modes, and both systems use a combination of sensor-shift and electronic image stabilization.

Pentax X90
Pentax X90

We'll have to look elsewhere to give one of these cameras an edge in the specs department. Unfortunately for the X90, that's where the P100 shines - other goodies. It has a higher-resolution 3.0-inch 460k-dot tilting LCD to the X90's merely fixed 2.7-inch 230k-dot monitor. Both systems have an electronic viewfinder, with the P100's slightly higher in resolution at 230k to the X90's 200k-dot EVF.

Nikon Coolpix P100
Nikon Coolpix P100

The P100 has a lot more to offer in terms of video capture as well. It's armed with 1080p HD video recording capability at 30 fps with stereo sound (ala left and right microphones on the top of the camera). It will also record slow motion 320x240 video at 240 fps, 640x480 and 120 fps, and 1280x720 at 60 fps. The CMOS sensor also handles full-resolution burst shooting at 11 fps for up to six frames.

The X90's video resolution tops out at 720p at 30 fps. That's not exactly a bad thing, though it doesn't offer nearly as many video options as the P100. Depending on your interest in different video capture modes, 720p might be just fine for your needs. However, it lags behind in burst shooting speed too, capturing five full-resolution frames at 1.4 fps.

We have to hand it to Nikon, they packed a lot of good stuff into the P100's relatively small camera body.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P100

Ease of Use
The Pentax X90 and the Nikon Coolpix P100 have relatively similar ergonomics and control layouts. So how did they handle in the field? DigitalCameraReview contributor Jim Keenan said of the X90:

"Controls are arranged in a simple, logical manner. The shutter button/lens zoom lever, exposure compensation button, power switch and shooting mode dial all sit atop the camera body."

Reviewing the Nikon P90 (virtually a twin control-wise to the P100) he called the layout "straightforward."

He found that both cameras' LCDs were very difficult to view in bright sunlight. Here's where the P100 has another slight advantage: the tilting LCD can be adjusted for a better angle of view in sunny conditions. Users of the X90 will just have to hope for the best.

Nikon Coolpix P100

For the user looking for relatively quick access to video, the P100 would seem a logical choice with a dedicated video start/stop button. However, we noticed a significant delay between pushing the button and the actual start of video recording that put a little extra guess-work in capturing videos on the fly. Given the advanced video capabilities, it seems a nice option to have on hand, but in practice doesn't save much time.

Both cameras are equipped with reliable, fairly quick AF systems. We clocked the Pentax X90's auto focus at 0.43 seconds in our studio test, though Keenan notes that "AF acquisition time gets slower at telephoto, a common occurrence in the class, but the X90 seems among the slower cameras in this respect." We timed the P100 neck-and-neck with the X90 at 0.44 seconds.

While it could be argued the larger buttons and text on the Pentax X90's control deck make it a less aesthetically-pleasing choice, it does make for a better user experience if you're familiarizing yourself with a camera. The X90 is also tailored more to a beginner's needs by offering the green "easy" button to remove almost all shooting options in favor of a complete auto mode.

That's not to say the P100 is out of reach for beginners. It's equipped with sixteen specialized scene modes and an auto selector scene mode, photographers at any level of experience will be able to pick it up and start shooting without much trouble. If your preference is for larger and well-labeled controls though, you'd be better served by the X90.

However, for overall usability, the P100 edges the X90 out. Pentax's interface is a little bit dated, and performing tasks like applying artistic filters to images individually is time consuming. Another advantage to the P100.

Advantage: Nikon Coolpix P100

Image Quality
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?

Nikon Coolpix P100, full telephoto 678mm

Pentax X90, full telephoto 676mm

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

For a look at all of the studio shots, check the Pentax X90 and Nikon Coolpix P100 review image quality sections.

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

Pentax X90

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

Our Head-to-Head features as of late have been pretty evenly matched. Unfortunately, this one isn't. Our advantages weigh heavily in the Coolpix P100's favor. Nikon's addition of the venerable 10.3 megapixel BSI CMOS chip puts it on par with the best cameras in its class.

Nikon Coolpix P100

High speed shooting, a variety of video options, and improved low light performance give the P100 an edge that's hard to top. The Pentax X90 is a fine camera in its own right, but if you're in the market for a 26x ultrazoom, consider the P100 first. It's not the bargain that the X90 is at close to $300, but it's a good buy and a heavyweight in the ultrazoom ring.