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Nikon latest sub-$1000 DSLR doesn't drastically improve upon the D5100, but is that really such a bad thing?
Man did we love the Nikon D5100 (MSRP $599.95). In fact, we loved it enough to name it our Camera of the Year back in 2011. So last April, when Nikon announced the D3200 (MSRP $699.95), our mouths started to water. We knew an update to the company's other sub-$1,000 DSLR wouldn't be far behind. And now, here it is.
Almost all of the D5100's lab scores were above average, leaving the updated D5200 (MSRP $799.95 body-only, $899.95 w/ kit lens) with big shoes to fill. The D5200 carries over the previous model's best test results, including accurate colors and extremely wide dynamic range. While the new model is a relatively modest update, major changes include a big jump in resolution, plus a significantly improved autofocus system.
Design & Handling
Highlighted by a great, fully articulated rear LCD, the D5200's design is easy to use and comfortable to handle.
We may be overanalyzing here, but we think the concave body paneling and receding angles leading away from the mount lend the D5200 a rather aggressive appearance, as if the lens is leaping out at your subject. As with the D5100, this produces a distinctive look that makes the camera instantly recognizable if you see one in the wild. The chassis itself is very sturdy, but without much heft. In fact, the camera is quite light overall, even with the battery installed.
You'll feel comfortable and confident handling the D5200. A medium-sized grip is provided for the right hand, and your pointer finger will come naturally to rest on the shutter release. The grip is a bit shallow, though, so you'll be holding on mostly with your fingertips. Thankfully, the entire area is covered by a rubberized surface to give you a little extra traction.
The rear panel is equally comfortable. The thumb naturally comes to rest in its intended area below the command dial, and Nikon has included a tall lip on the right side of the this thumb rest for better leverage. We noted the camera was also much lighter than expected, with most of the weight shifted to the right side of the body, making for good balance once a lens is attached.
Nikon's user interface is more complicated than its competitors', but rewards persistance with excellent depth of control.
Having a learning curve isn't all bad, but even Nikon purists will agree there's some room to tweak for ease of use. Drive mode options, for example, are split into two menus in two very different locations, so getting the right setting can be a pain. The D5200 also makes very little effort to explain when or why certain functions won't work. Movie mode, for example, won't automatically lift the mirror; the camera expects you to know enough to activate live view beforehand. Basic stuff, we know, but a little convenience never hurts either.
The button layout is almost untouched since the D5100. The "i" button is still helpful for quickly changing the most common settings, and the programmable AE-L/AF-L button alongside it is handy. What is new is the new graphical display that shows up on the rear LCD by default during shooting. Where the older GUI only showed the shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO as numbers, the new interface has a simulated dial for the first and last, while the aperture indicator actually closes and opens an on-screen iris. It's an interesting take, but not one that adds much to the shooting experience—for one thing, how many rookies actually know what a smaller iris implies? Not many, we'd wager.
Image quality remains almost entirely the same, but the new autofocus system is a great step up.
The D5200's overall performance is equivalent to the D5100's, meaning that it's very strong indeed. Once again, color accuracy and dynamic range are the standout results, meaning that the camera should produce exceptionally good portraits and landscape shots.
The D5200's new and improved focus system is exactly what we hoped it would be: fast, smart, and accurate. The 39-point phase detection system is quick, almost always chooses the most appropriate point or points, and is easily controlled and managed via the "i" menu. Continuous autofocus is usable for all but the most hyperactive subjects, and we say this even after being spoiled by the 1D X sitting in our office.
Although 1080/60i video capture has been added to this model, video image quality seems unchanged. Movies shot with the D5200 are just as sharp as the clips we got from its predecessor, though no sharper. We can hardly complain about this—or really any of the D5200's performance results—it just would've been nice to see some improvement... somewhere.
Amateur videographers stand to gain the most from upgrading to the D5200.
The D5200 is light on brand-new features, but most of the ones that have been included are there to improve videography. Nikon has also implemented a new Manual Movie Settings menu option. This unlocks shutter speed and ISO settings for user control, adding to the aperture, white balance, and exposure compensation control that was already present in the D5100. There's a mic input jack, too, meaning budding filmmakers can feasibly use the D5200 as an all-in-one capture device.
Beyond those largely incremental or extraneous feature upgrades, the most important new addition is compatibility with Nikon's WU-1a WiFi module. When plugged into the D5200's USB port, it facilitates two-way communication between the camera and an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, allowing you to use your device as a remote viewfinder and control panel. We're sure all of this could be compelling for the right user. Not us, but presumably that "right user" does exist, somewhere out there.
In buying the D5200 over the D5100, you're spending a little extra on video, a little on WiFi, a bit on extra pixels, but most of it on the new autofocus system.
If you go with the new model, you'll need to be pretty clear-minded about how you actually plan to use it. You'll spend a little bit of that $300 on video, a little on WiFi adapter compatibility, a bit on extra megapixels, but most of it on the new autofocus system. If you're an action photographer that likes shooting the occasional video too, then this might sound like a good buy. If not, consider the aging—but still relevant—D5100 instead.
The ultimate irony of these cameras is this: when the D5100 first came to market we awarded it both Camera of the Year, and Budget DSLR of the Year. It was just such an amazing deal, with rare levels of performance at the price point. But after two years and little improvement for the D5200, this great camera didn't hit us with the same impact its predecessor did. Like we've said countless times in the review, the D5200 is a fine camera, but it's not $300 finer than the old one.