- Review Date: 7/11/2013
- Bottom line: The Nikon Coolpix P330 pocket camera is capable of producing some truly outstanding images, but may be too slow for some shooters.
- Pros: Very small for a 1/1.7-inch sensor camera. Sharp lens. Impressive images through ISO 1600. Raw shooting support. Wide aperture when zoomed out. Built-in GPS.
- Cons: Sluggish performance. Extreme distortion at widest angle in Raw mode. In-camera battery charging. Finicky power button.
On paper the Nikon Coolpix P330 ($379.95 direct) is an impressive pocket camera. It's got a 12-megapixel image sensor with a 1/1.7-inch design, larger in surface area than those in other compacts in this price range. The lens opens up all the way up to f/1.8 on the wide end, Raw shooting is supported, and the rear LCD is impressively sharp. Unfortunately, the P330 is a noticeably slow performer—it takes a full 1.9 seconds to recover after capturing a JPG photo. It's priced on the high-end of the scale for midrange cameras, but can also be looked at as a bargain version of an enthusiast-oriented compact. But despite capturing impressive images, it doesn't manage to oust the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS as our Editors' Choice for midrange compact cameras.
Design and Features
The P330 is a practical clone of the Nikon Coolpix P310, a similar camera (that still remains in the Coolpix lineup) with a smaller 1/2.3-inch sensor. Both are flat black with a boxy design and similar control layout. The P330 measures 2.3 by 4.1 by 1.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 7.1 ounces; the P310's measurements are the same, but it's a smidge lighter at 6.9 ounces.
The lens is a 5x design, covering a 24-120mm (35mm equivalent) range. At the wide end it opens all the way up to f/1.8, but narrows to f/5.6 when zoomed all the way in. It's still a reasonable f/3.2 at the 50mm-equivalent focal length. The lens and camera are similar in design and concept to the Canon PowerShot S110. Both use a 1/1.7-inch sensor design and pack a 5x zoom lens that covers a similar zoom range and aperture.
If you want a lens that captures more light, you'll have to move up to a more expensive camera. Wide-aperture lenses are usually the bailiwick of larger compact cameras priced above $500. Nikon's own Coolpix P7700 is one example—it's priced at $500 and its 7.1x lens has a 28-200mm f/2-4 design. The P330's lens is physically smaller; it doesn't jut out as much from the camera body and its front element isn't as large.
The control layout is sure to please serious shutterbugs. On the front of the camera there's a programmable Fn button—I used it to control the ISO, but it can also be set to adjust the drive mode, image quality settings, the metering pattern, and focus area. On the top plate there's a standard mode dial, a zoom rocker, shutter button, a control wheel, and the power button. Rear controls include a record button for movies, an additional control wheel with button functions at the cardinal directions to adjust the flash output, self-timer, exposure compensation, and macro shooting mode. There's also a button for image playback, a delete button, and the menu button.
I had a couple of quibbles with the control layout, but your mileage may vary. The top control wheel always adjusts the shutter speed, so if you're working in aperture priority mode it doesn't do anything. Likewise, the rear control wheel always adjust aperture. While the consistency of this approach is appreciated, it would be preferable that the top wheel was dedicated to exposure compensation and that the rear wheel's function changed from mode to mode. There's no way to adjust the functions of these controls via the menu system. The menu system itself is a bit on the slow side. There's a slight lag when scrolling through options and when going from screen to screen. It's 2013, and that's just plain puzzling. These are text menus, and either the firmware engineers at Nikon have deliberately slowed down the operation of the menu, or the P330's processor is severely underpowered.
The power button is a bit finicky. Simply pressing it in does not turn the camera on; you have to hold it for an additional beat before the camera starts. This isn't the same when turning things off; a good, quick press powers down the camera. It'd be one thing if the button was easily tripped—it could save you from accidentally powering the camera on in your bag, and discovering your battery dead at the worst time. But the button is slightly recessed—the chances of it being pressed in accidentally are minimal.
The rear LCD is impressive. It's 3 inches in size, but packs an outstanding 921k-dot resolution. It's very, very sharp and bright enough for use on sunny days. It's one of the best LCDs we've seen on a compact camera, absolutely killing the 230k-dot LCD packed into compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX80 in comparison. It's also better than some of the more expensive competition—the Canon S110 only packs a 460k-dot display.
There's a built-in GPS, which isn't a common feature in digital cameras. It automatically adds your location to photos, so you can view them on a map in software like Lightroom, iPhoto, and Picasa. The GPS requires about 90 seconds to lock onto a signal at our standard test spot under the open skies of suburban New Jersey. This is a bit slow; the Olympus Tough TG-830 iHS acquired a signal in 30 seconds at the same spot. There's no built-in Wi-Fi, but you can add an external adapter to add that functionality to the camera. The Nikon WU-1a adds $60 to the cost of the camera, but we felt it was a disappointing accessory when we reviewed it along with the Nikon D5200 D-SLR.
Performance and Conclusions
The start-up time, about 2.1 seconds, and shutter lag, 0.2-second, aren't out of line for a camera of this class. The Canon S110 requires 2.2 seconds to start and shoot, and its shutter lag also clocks in at 0.2-second. The P330 also has an impressive burst shooting mode, capturing a 10-shot burst at 6.8 frames per second. The issue is what happens after that burst has been captured. We tested the P330 using a SanDisk 95MBps memory card, and the recovery time seemed like an eternity. If you're shooting JPG or Raw photos you'll have to wait about 25 seconds to take another photo after a full burst. If you are in the unfortunate position to shoot in Raw+JPG that wait extends to 105 seconds. The P330 isn't the only Nikon compact that suffers from sluggish response after grabbing a burst of shots; the Coolpix P7700 requires 14.6 seconds for a 6-shot Raw+JPG burst to write to the memory card and 5.5 seconds for a JPG burst to do so.
And it's not just burst shooting that leaves you waiting. As is also the case with the Coolpix P7700, a single photo takes a while to write to the card, and there's an additional delay before you can snap another photo. If you're shooting JPG the wait is 1.9 seconds, but it extends to 3.7 seconds to Raw and to 3.9 seconds for Raw+JPG. That's just too long. Nobody expects a compact camera to perform with the same speed as a D-SLR, but shot-to-shot time needs to be a bit faster. The Olympus XZ-1, which is a few years old at this point, requires about 1.1 seconds between shots in single drive mode, regardless of which file format you choose.
I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the JPG files that the P330 outputs. At its widest angle it manages 2,319 lines per picture height—a much better score than the 1,800 lines we require for a photo to be called sharp. The extreme edges are just a tad soft at 1,729 lines, but stopping down to f/2.8 improves edges to 1,848 lines and overall sharpness to an outstanding 2,495 lines. Sharpness at f/4 is on par, but f/5.6 and f/8 should be avoided as diffraction robs images of detail.
Zooming to the 55mm equivalent focal length narrows the maximum aperture to f/3.5, but improves sharpness across the frame. At that setting it manages 2,588 lines, with edges that top 2,000 lines. At the 120mm equivalent, as far as the lens zooms, the maximum aperture dips to f/5.6. The average resolution dips to 2,013 lines, and we see some softness along the edges of the frame; the score there is only 1,505 lines.
Let's talk about distortion. If you're shooting in JPG the P330 applies some in-camera adjustments to correct for the shortfalls of its lens. It tops out at 1.5 percent at the widest, and is virtually gone when zoomed all the way in. But if you switch over to Raw mode, you'll find that the widest angle is practically a fish-eye. There's 11 percent barrel distortion there, which gives images a seriously curved look. I took the Raw shot (above) and worked with a bit in Lightroom, applying as much distortion correction as the software would allow and bringing up the exposure in the corners. The resulting shot (below) looks more natural. But if you're a Raw shooter, be prepared to do some work in software when shooting at wide angles. The distortion goes away as you zoom—it's about 1.7 percent at the 55mm-equivalent setting, and gone when zoomed all the way in. This isn't a trait that's unique to the P330. The Canon S110 shows about 5 percent barrel distortion when shooting in Raw at its widest angle.
Imatest also checks images for noise, which can rob images of detail and add unwanted grain at higher ISO settings. You'll need to increase the ISO in low light, as it increases the camera's sensitivity to light. The P330 has a base ISO of 80, which is necessary to shoot at wider apertures on bright days; there's also an in-camera neutral density filter, which will let you shoot longer exposure shots under bright skies. The sensor goes all the way to ISO 12800, though we don't recommend using that setting at all—images are much, much too noisy. We do like it at ISO 1600, where noise is just under our 1.5 percent threshold. Detail is quite crisp there as well, better than the Canon PowerShot N, a camera with impressive high ISO capabilities for a 1/2.3-inch sensor. Raw images are noticeably noisier, but you'll be able to adjust noise to your liking in Lightroom or similar software. You should feel comfortable shooting the P330 at ISO 1600, and if you don't mind sacrificing some detail, ISO 3200 is also useable in a pinch. Of course, for maximum image quality, it's always best to keep the ISO as low as possible. At ISO 400 and below images from the P330 run circles around the PowerShot N (and PowerShot Elph 330 HS, for that matter) in terms of detail and noise control. We evaluated images side-by-side in Lightroom using a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display.
Video quality is impressive. The tiny camera rolls QuickTime footage at 1080p30 or 720p30 quality, with crisp detail and accurate colors. It's quick to refocus as the scene changes, and the sound of the lens zooming in and out is barely audible on the soundtrack. There's a proprietary USB connector and a micro HDMI port on the camera, and the card slot accepts SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards. There is an AC adapter and a USB cable included for charging; there's no dedicated battery charger in the box. If you're the type of shooter who likes to carry a second battery, you'll find it a bit frustrating as you'll not be able to charge one battery while using your spare to power the P330. An external charger is available for $37.95.
Based on image quality alone, the Nikon Coolpix P330 is one of the better cameras that we've tested in its class. Photos are extremely sharp, and are amazingly detailed at lower ISO settings—and quite useable when shooting as high as ISO 3200. There's obviously some software magic going on behind the scenes to control distortion in JPG output, as wide-angle Raw images show an insane amount of barrel distortion, but Raw shooters can correct it via a few slider adjustments in Lightroom. The camera's real bugaboo, and what's holding it back from a better rating, is its speed. If it was acceptably responsive after grabbing a photo or burst of shots it'd be an easy camera to recommend, and to recommend highly. But as it stands it's only one for shooters who are willing to live with a sluggish response and a wait between shots: This is a camera that delivers 4-star images, but is hobbled by its lack of responsiveness. If you can spend a bit more money, you'll be better served with with the Canon S110, which has a similar design and the added benefit of in-camera Wi-Fi. If your budget is a bit tighter, and you're willing to sacrifice the ability to shoot in Raw mode and live with the image quality that a smaller sensor delivers, consider our Editors' Choice in the midrange compact camera category, the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS. Its lens doesn't have quite as an ambitious aperture, but its zoom range is a bit longer and it does very well at high ISO settings.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.