HandlingCompared with the D3000 and previous models (the Nikon entry-level range had barely changed since the D40), the D3100 is quite different. The marbled plastic has been replaced with rubber on the handle and there's a rubber thumb-rest at the rear too. It still feels a bit light and plastic compared with higher-end models, but the overall quality has improved noticeably.
The real downfall is the screen, which although 3 inches in size only displays 230,000 dots, when most £250 compacts display more. In fact, the camera's direct competitor, the slightly more expensive Pentax K-r, has a screen with VGA resolution. Plus, the Sony NEX-3 compact camera with interchangeable lenses (no viewfinder) has a VGA swivel screen!
It's all the more annoying because the previous model, with its outdated 10-Megapixel CCD, only used the screen to display menus and view back pictures, while the D3100 has a 14-Megapixel CMOS that can shoot in real time (and film in Full HD) using the screen as a viewfinder. The screen is therefore no longer just an accessory.
The controls and general handling are all typical Nikon stuff, with new features including a burst mode/self-timer switch and a new switch for moving to Live View. While some may find they like this switch, others may prefer a regular button, as found on the EOS 7D. The rest should feel very familiar to anyone who's used to using Nikon SLRs.
ResponsivenessThe camera does a great job in this field. It starts up almost instantly, the autofocus works incredibly well (taking around half a second no matter what the lighting conditions) and the camera saves pictures and turns itself around quickly. With the on-screen viewfinder, focusing is a touch faster than in older models. It's perfectly suitable for day-to-day use too, even if it's still not quite as good as certain compacts with interchangeable lenses.
One thing that could be improved is the burst mode, as some competitors' models are faster than the D3100. That said, 3.2 fps for 11 shots (Raw+Jpeg) is still largely sufficient for most users.
Picture QualityThe 18-55 mm VR lens supplied as standard is already well-known on the market. Although the results aren't entirely consistent across the frame (a touch of sharpness is lost towards the corners at all focal lengths), it still does a perfectly decent job, especially for a kit lens. On the other hand, the 14-Megapixel sensor is definitely all new. Rumour has it that it's the same sensor as used in the Sony NEX range, but as the tech specs are slightly different, it could well be a similar version developed for Nikon.
The sensor is quite simply excellent. From 100 to 1600 ISO you can barely tell the resulting images apart. A slight speckle of noise starts to appear at 3200 ISO in darker areas and the image is slightly less accurate. However, even in Hi-1 mode (equivalent to 6400 ISO) the result is still perfectly suitable for a 8" x 12" print.
Colours are well-reproduced on the whole but beware; Nikon has opted to under-correct Jpeg shots taken in halogen light. That means they have a strong red overtone that some users may like, but which we find too strong.
VideoThe D3100 is Nikon's first SLR to film in Full HD. It records 24 full frames per second (no interlacing) and the image is clear and detailed, even if noise does appear in low light. Plus, it's a shame the dynamic range is so limited, as light hues are soon washed out to white.
It's a different story for the sound though. The mono sound recorded isn't amazing quality and the microphone is quite sensitive to breathing noises. The D3100 doesn't have a microphone socket for connecting an external mic, as found in the manufacturer's higher-end models (D7000 upwards).