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Comment of the Fortnight
19 July 1998
Digital Camera Comparison: Olympus D-500L and Nikon Coolpix 900

Two days ago I bought a Nikon Coolpix 900 digital camera, thinking it would be a move up from the Olympus D-500L which I now own. If the strict definition of a good camera is:

At the end of the day, he with the most pixels and the sharpest pixels wins
then the Nikon 900 is definitely a better camera than the Olympus D-500L. However, I feel that the Olympus is a better product than the Nikon for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with size of the CCD sensor or quality of the lenses. First a disclaimer: This is not a scientific review. As the demigods of Human Interface, would be the first to tell you, a scientific survey needs a sample size greater than one. Bear in mind that I haven't had the Nikon for very long, either. That having been said, let's look at...

The Hardware

When my 44-year-old eyes see the Olympus, my brain says, "Camera..." When I pick it up, my brain says, "Yes! Camera!". The Olympus feels like what a camera should feel like.

Advantage: Olympus

The Nikon is smaller than the Olympus, but when I look at it and pick it up, my brain just says "...". The Nikon just doesn't look like a camera or feel like one to me. Of course, if I were a member of Generation X, the Olympus would look old and stodgy and way too big.

The Viewfinder
The Olympus is a true Through-The-Lens Single Lens Reflex camera. What you see in the optical viewfinder is what the camera sees. The concept of What You See Is What You Get has become a cliché, but here is one place where WYSIWYG makes an enormous difference.

Advantage: Olympus

The Nikon's LCD, rather than the optical viewfinder, shows what the camera sees. This can be a problem in low light conditions where the LCD image is largely darkness, or in bright sunshine which washes out the LCD.

The ability to swivel the lens independently of the LCD section does help with this, and it does allow you to get some shots at angles you'd never be able to achieve with the Olympus.

I took both cameras with me today to the Chinese Summer Festival in San Jose so I could get a set of comparison photos. The difference between using the Olympus viewfinder and the Nikon LCD was astonishing. When I used the Olympus, I had confidence that the picture I wanted was there. Using the Nikon LCD, I had the camera held at a distance, it felt awkward, and with the bright sunlight I wasn't 100% sure I was getting what I wanted. When I used its optical viewfinder, I wondered which part of what I saw was not being seen by the camera.

The Olympus has a 3x zoom. The control is a lever that outside the shutter button, as you see in the picture above. W stands for Wide-angle, T stands for Telephoto.

At first I was always pushing the lever the wrong direction. I finally found a way to remember how the lever works: if you push it away from you, the image gets smaller, as if you were pushing the subject away. If you pull it towards you, the image gets bigger, as if you were bringing the subject closer. (I wonder if the control was designed purposely with this in mind.) A zoom all the way from wide to telephoto takes a little over two seconds.

Speed advantage: Olympus

The Nikon also has a 3x zoom; its rocker switch control is located to the right of the LCD. I didn't seem to need any help remembering which way was which; it seemed to be "set up correctly" as is. The zoom functions more slowly on the Nikon than on the Olympus. A zoom all the way from wide to telephoto takes about three and a half seconds.

Ease of Use advantage: Nikon

Mode Control
The Power On/Off switch on the Olympus is the button in the center of the control. You set the lever to REC to take pictures, PLAY to review pictures you've taken. When switching to PLAY, the picture you took most recently comes up on the LCD in less than two seconds. All your settings, such as zoom, flash, and macro, are preserved when you switch modes.

When using the Olympus I frequently switch modes to see if I'm getting the shots that I want; I barely give it conscious thought. Not so with the Nikon.

Huge Advantage: Olympus

Ye cats! Who is responsible for this design? A REC is the setting for taking pictures where the camera handles focus and exposure automatically. M REC gives you more manual control over exposure. The PLAY setting lets you look at the pictures you've taken. Switching to play takes about ten seconds, and the image comes on the LCD s-l-o-w-l-y.

The worst part of this is that you have to pass through the OFF setting to go from taking pictures to reviewing them. This means that whatever zoom, macro mode, and flash settings you had are lost when you return to record mode to take your next picture.

Both Olympus and Nikon are less than optimal in this area. The buttons marked "+" and "-" are used to set exposure as well as to control movement through the menus. The lower button moves you downward (forward) in a menu, and the upper button moves you upward (backward).

Unfortunately, at least in my mind, the plus sign is associated with "forward" and the minus sign with "backward", so I am consistently screwing this up.

The font on the Nikon is far superior to the Olympus. It's crisp, clear, and easy to read. The use of a pastel green background for the menus is much easier on the eyes than the bright blue of the Olympus.

You use the telephoto rocker switch to move up and down through the menu. Notice that the left button is down and the right button is up. Unfortunately, having grown up reading English, I am used to the idea of "left to right;" left is backward and upward; right is forward and downward. If Nikon had reversed the arrows, by the way, it would have been great mnemonic for the function of the rocker switch - the wide angle pushes the subject away and the telephoto brings the subject closer, as the arrows would clearly indicate.

Advantage: Nikon

Setting Options
This one comes out as a tie. Once you've gotten to a menu item, it takes approximately the same number of button presses to complete the operation you've chosen.

Nikon's date setting shows four digits for year; Olympus shows only two. With all the brouhaha over the Year 2000 Problem it would have been politically advantageous for Olympus to spring for four digits.

Picture Download Software
This is where the Olympus really shines. The Windows 95 © ® TM version of the picture download software is a clean, fast, stand-alone application. While the program is reading the thumbanils from the camera or while you're downloading pictures, you always have a clear indication of the progress of the operation.

The Macintosh implementation was not done as an afterthought; it is also clean and fast. I don't know about the Windows version, but the Macintosh version also includes an Adobe Photoshop plug-in.

Huge Beyond Belief Advantage: Olympus

As cartoonist Scott Shaw's character You-All Gibbon would say, "God hell, boy!" Does Big Bad Bill have Windows users hyp-mo-tized into accepting mediocre software without a complaint?

The Nikon software has been designed to make the camera look like a hard disk in Windows Explorer or "My Computer." When you open this volume you see a display of the thumbnails from the camera rather than a file list. While it's loading in those thumbnails, you are pretty much stuck; the rest of the system bogs down to a crawl (at least on my Pentium it does). After the thumbnails are loaded, you'd better make sure you don't click a different folder or close that window, for when you return to see the contents of the Nikon "disk," yes, you guessed it. It goes out to the serial port for all the thumbnails again.

This is truly a horrible interface, since (surprise) a serial port is not a disk; it doesn't even work at floppy disk speeds.

The Macintosh version works in the same way, making the camera appear as a volume on the desktop. I'm not particularly thrilled about having another extension added to the "march of the icons" as my system boots, either. Worse, the software is excruciatingly slow; it doesn't appear to run the serial port at full speed. Worst of all is that the software doesn't work very well. Downloading from the 4MB Compact Flash card that came with the camera worked fine, but version 1.01 of the software took an hour and a half to download fifty pictures from a 20MB SanDisk Compact Flash card (which had been formatted in the camera before use), and the resulting files could not be read by either Adobe Photoshop or DeBabelizer.

The considerable effort that it must have taken to make the camera look like a mountable device would have been far better spent in creating a stand-alone download program and a Photoshop plug-in and making both of them fast and robust.

I dearly love the Nikon Coolpix 900's crystal-clear images and its great resolution. The Nikon's superb autofocus and manual controls are a blessing in contrast to the curse of trying to get the Olympus to autofocus under less-than-ideal conditions. As a pure camera, the Nikon is definitely superior.

For me, however, taking pictures is more than just the final image. No matter how irrational and emotional this may be, I'll say it again: the Olympus D-500L just "feels right." As a result of Olympus's design decisions, the camera works with me rather than requiring me to work with it, and that's why I think it's the better product.

Your mileage may vary; please let me know what you think.

Addendum on 20 July 1998
Several folks have written to me with their comments. Especially valuable were those of Pier Rodelon, who has used the Nikon 900 for an extended period of time and disagrees with me on almost all the points listed above.

He has suggested that I use the Nikon 900 extensively for a few weeks. I will do so; I have no intention of selling either camera at the moment. I will also keep you folks updated on my experiences.

Remember, please, your mileage may vary. Depending upon your application, my comments may be totally irrelevant in regard to your choice of camera. Case in point: one correspondent noted that he will be using the camera mostly for macro shots of jewelry; for him, I'd say the Nikon is better - Nikon's macro pictures are just faboo, and, because his subjects are not in motion the LCD vs. optical viewfinder is not an issue.

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