Coolpix 880
last update: 8 February, 2004



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You want a state-of-the-art 3-megapixel camera, but the Coolpix 990 is out of your price range. The Coolpix 880 is several hundred dollars less expensive, but has the same sensor. Could it be as good as the 990?

A complete deviation from the twist-and-shoot digital camera line that began with the 900, the 880 uses Sony's latest 3-megapixel CCD to capture images of up to 2048 x 1536 pixels, but comes in a body that resembles a traditional 35mm point and shoot. In fact, the 880 is one of the smallest Coolpix models yet.

The primary things the 880 sacrifices over the 990 are:

Benefits of the 880 over the 990 are:

Things that are a toss-up:

My bottom line may be surprising to some of you: if you can live with the bad battery choice and missing flash features, the Coolpix 880 is actually a better handling camera than the 990, and in my tests, produces ever-so-slightly better results.

[Review update: The 880 is no longer made, now long replaced by a series of other similar looking models. Curiously, other than perhaps battery life, not much about those newer models attracts me. The 880 was a fine basic digital camera, and if you can find one used in good condition at a low price I wouldn't be afraid to consider it. Do get the optional EN-EL1 battery though.]

The Basics

You've already learned about some of the major features, but let's take a closer look:

The Coolpix 880 is light (9.7 ounces, 275g without battery) and reasonably small (longest dimension is 3.9 inches, 99.5mm). Unlike the Coolpix 900 series the 880 doesn't feature Nikon's unique twist-and-shoot body. Instead, you get a small, conventional point-and-shoot type of body. The camera doesn't quite fit in a regular shirt pocket, but its small size and weight means you'll find plenty of reasons to carry it.

Unfortunately, the 880 uses 2CR5 batteries. These 6V batteries are expensive (US$10) and nowhere near as ubiquitous as the AA batteries that power other Coolpix models. Even the AC adapter is different (you need the EH-21). Nikon sells a rechargeable EN-EL1 Lithium Ion battery. So, plan on spending some extra money purchasing the AC adapter and a couple of rechargeable batteries. Battery consumption is better than most Coolpix models (probably due to the slight extra voltage coming from the 2CR5), but you'll still be changing batteries often if you use the color LCD regularly. [I was astonished to see that the usually reliable Peter Lewis singled out the Coolpix 880 for praise in its battery choice (January 29th issue of Fortune). Peter doesn't seem to realize that most dedicated digital camera users are already using rechargeable batteries in their camera, and that a set of AA Nimh rechargeables is cheaper by far than Nikon's proprietary EN-EL1.].

And you'll be wanting to use the color 1.8", 110,000-pixel color LCD regularly. It helps when composing shots, when you're using any of the accessory lens converters (fisheye, wide angle, and two telephoto converters are available), and when you're using the close-up or spot AF modes. The optical viewfinder only shows 80% of the image, rendering it nearly useless. The color LCD--if you can see it in bright light--shows 97% of the frame. The optical viewfinder zooms to match the lens, and AF and flash confirmation LEDs are easily visible without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Lens wearers can see the entire frame (at least I can).

The lens is a 8-20mm Nikkor (that's equivalent in angle of view to a 38-95mm in the 35mm world. At the wide end, the lens opens to f/2.8. At the telephoto end, the variable aperture lowers this to f/4.2. You'll see some apertures you've never seem before (f/11.3 anyone?) when you choose aperture priority, and the lens only closes down to a little over f/11. The lens itself is worthy of the Nikkor name (and uses 9 glass elements in 7 groups). If you don't mind ugly artifacts, there's a digital zoom effect (up to 4x in .2x steps) that produces Big Pixels (if you really must blow up a portion of the frame, save the image using the Genuine Pixels software supplied with the camera, and/or use Photoshop's sizing controls).

You get continuous, single, or spot autofocus from 1.3' (40cm) to infinity. In macro mode, the lens focuses as close as 1.6" (4cm). An infinity focus function is available, plus you can also choose one of 48 manual focus steps. This latter specification is a bit misleading, as half those steps are available when in close-up mode, half in normal focus mode.

Now that you've read all about all those focusing abilities, forget 'em (well, the macro settings are useful). Depth of field is always quite high with this camera. For the current Coolpix models, the circle of confusion is about 0.008. We can use that number to calculate the hyperfocal distance (the maximum depth of field) for the Coolpix 880. For example, at the widest aperture and focal length:

hyperfocal distance = (focal length * focal length) / (aperture * circle of confusion)
hyperfocal distance = (8mm * 8mm) / (2.8 * 0.008)
hyperfocal distance = ~2857 millimeters (112.5 inches or 9 feet, 4 inches)

Since the Coolpix 880 doesn't always use physical aperture sizes to change "apertures," you should play it safe and only calculate depth of field at the largest physical aperture.

Image quality and size ranges from 640 x 480 with high JPEG compression to 2048 x 1536 uncompressed TIFF, with a wide variety of options in between. The camera is billed as being a 3-megapixel camera, which in reality is 3.34 million pixels. Like most modern digital cameras, the Nikon uses the same Sony CCD sensor every other manufacturer does. That doesn't necessarily mean two cameras from different companies with the same sensor produce the same results, though. My results from the 880 were slightly better than from my 990 (slightly better resolution, similar color and saturation). The default sensitivity of the CCD sensor is ISO 100, but if you don't mind spurious noise, you can manually override that to ISO 200, or 400.

The shutter is a combination of mechanical and electronic, and offers shutter speeds from 8 seconds to 1/1000. Useful range is much more limited than that, though, as long shutter speeds tend to generate random pixel noise. The camera has a Bulb setting, though this is inconvenient to use (you must hold the shutter release down unless you have the MC-EU1 remote cord), has an upper limit of 60 seconds, and generates lots of sensor noise.

Photos are stored on a removable CompactFlash card. An 8MB card comes standard, though you can purchase third-party cards with capacities over over 200MBs. Unfortunately, the 880 only supports Type I CompactFlash cards, which means that the IBM 340MB Microdrive, which comes in a CompactFlash card version but requires a Type II slot, can't be used. For each 8MBs of CompactFlash memory you can store approximately:

You can set Program (P), Aperture-priority (A), Custom (CSM), or Manual (M) exposure modes, plus Auto and Scene modes. White balance can be set automatically or manually. Metering is done via traditional spot, centerweighted, or 256-element matrix methods, there's also a AF spot mode that works a bit like the spot meters in the F80/N80, F100, and F5, but which is frustrating to use in practice, since you can't tell which area the camera is using unless you switch a special function ON and use the color LCD to select focus areas.

Exposure compensation can be set in a -2 stop to +2 stop range in third-stop steps. Bracketing is done in five steps, at +2/3, +1/3, 0, -1/3, -2/3.

Additional exposure and image options include a few dubious controls: Best Shot Selector (camera throws away all but what it thinks is the best image of 16), Image Sharpening (better left to the computer), plus user-adjustable Contrast and Brightness settings (again, usually better left to the computer; if you need 'em in camera, your exposure is probably wrong).

The 880 uses USB communications to Windows or Mac computers, though you can also use serial communications if you're got an older computer.

Like the 990, the Coolpix 880 has user-selectable NTSC (US) or PAL (Europe) video output, which enables it to display images on a television virtually anywhere in the world. A video cable is supplied with the camera. Rudimentary slideshow controls are built into the camera.

Handling

Two giant steps forward, one smaller step backwards. One of the moves in the positive direction is making the switch around the shutter release simply an ON/OFF control. Mode controls are moved to a new dial that sits about where you'd expect a Command Dial. Like low-end 35mm bodies, you simply turn the dial to M, A, or P if you want to use that mode. Yippee!

Another useful setting on that Mode Dial is CSM (custom). This puts a user-defined custom mode a quick dial flick away. You've also got the ubiquitous Auto mode and a 11-program Scene mode to choose from (more on that in a bit).

Buttons have been moved around yet again from previous models, but most of them live on and continue to have dual (or triple) personalities. The exposure compensation button is moved to the back again, aligned with three other similar-sized and shaped buttons (focus, flash, and Quick>). The Menu button is above the direction pad, the Monitor button below it. The exposure compensation button is the only one that really should be in another location. Because it's immediately below the optical viewfinder, you can't really use it while shooting (unless you like poking yourself in the eye).

The Nintendo-type direction pad is useful for navigating the menu system. The menus themselves have been slightly rearranged, mostly for the better (black and white is buried in the Image Adjustment menu, though, which I keep having to hunt for). Since there's no Command Dial, there are no shortcuts possible through the menu system, but that's okay, as for the most part Nikon has done a good job of keeping menu clutter to a minimum.

There's still heavy reliance on the color LCD. Indeed, since the optical viewfinder renders only 80% of the frame, you're going to want to use the color LCD to compose your shots. But it's darn difficult to see the color LCD in daylight.

If you've got big hands, you're not going to like the way this camera feels, and you may have trouble keeping your fingers from blocking the flashtube. I can barely reach an octave on the piano keyboard, so the 880 fits just about right in my petite hands.

The manual that comes with the camera is again quite good, though trying to find a particular setting isn't always easy. To Nikon's credit, they liberally sprinkle cross-references and try to organize each section with its own mini-TOC. Unfortunately, you have to remember where a command is set to find the information for it (like that black and white command, buried on the Image Adjustment menu).

Also, while the Scene modes are documented in the manual, it's darn tough to figure out what they actually do. For example, here's the full text for Beach/Snow: "Use for photographs that vividly capture the brightness of such subjects as snowfields, beaches, or sunlit oceans and lakes." Huh? What the heck does "vividly capture the brightness" mean? There's no indication of what changes the camera makes to its decisionmaking process or to camera settings. Or maybe you can tell me what the Copy setting does: "Use to obtain clear pictures of text or drawings on a white board, business card, or in printed matter." Of the 11 Scenes, only Close Up is unambiguously useful, while Back Light, Fireworks, Landscape, and Night Portrait all seem reasonably straightforward, if not overly compelling.

I miss the Command Dial of the 990, which provided a useful shortcut in the settings menus.

The major step backwards is the flash system. The flashtube is badly located, there's no flash exposure compensation, no external flash capability, and you're going to get redeye despite the function that tries to suppress it. I can't think of a situation where I'd really want to have to rely upon the Coolpix 880's flash--they might as well have left it off the camera.

Other minor quibbles: the lens needs to extend from the camera when you turn it ON. However, be sure to take the lens cap off first, as you'll jam the lens if you turn the camera ON with the cap in place. There's no rubber door over the Video Out connection, and the one's over the USB and AC connections don't look like they'll hold up under heavy abuse. The door over the CompactFlash socket is a little hard to get open with gloves on (hey, it's 15 degrees F while I'm testing this camera!).

Exposure

If you're used to Nikon's metering on the 35mm bodies, you'll find the Coolpix 880 to be spot on to what you know. Matrix metering has the same problems with high contrast, large brightness range scenes as do virtually every Nikon 35mm body (expect underexposure). Virtually every normal condition is rendered with aplomb and accuracy.

Centerweighted and spot metering are a bit tougher to use on a Coolpix than they are on the 35mm bodies. First, the viewfinder indicators don't always correspond as well to the actual metering area. The AF spot metering mode is hidden in the menu system and requires you to use the color LCD to select focus and metering spots.

Focusing

Autofocus performance is swift. The 880 includes a close-up (macro) mode that'll take you down to 1.6' (4cm), an "Infinity" mode, and a 48-step manual focus ability that takes a bit of study to figure out how to access and use.

Drawbacks

Positives

For many, the Coolpix 880 is a darn good starter digital camera:


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