One area where the P5100 improves over the P5000 is overall performance, thanks mainly to the faster processor, but it has to be said that the improvement is only slight. It starts up in a fraction over two seconds, which is the biggest improvement, but it takes just as long to wake from the power-saving sleep mode. In single-shot mode at maximum image quality its shot-to-shot cycle time is approximately 2.3 seconds, which is a marginal improvement, while in continuous shooting mode it is strangely slightly slower at 2.4 seconds per shot although it does focus for every shot. This is a little faster than the P5000 though.
Unfortunately one thing that hasn’t been improved is the woefully slow autofocus system. Even in good light it takes over a second to achieve focus and this slows down dramatically in low light. The P5100 does have a good AF assist lamp, but even using this low light focusing is extremely slow and unreliable, taking nearly five seconds to operate regardless of whether or not it can achieve focus. For a camera aimed at more demanding photographers this is a major failing, especially when compared to the fast and reliable AF system used by main rival Canon.
As before, the P5100’s main strength is its overall image quality, although the extra two megapixels don’t make a huge amount of difference, with roughly the same overall level of detail despite the slightly larger image size. The distortion control feature does work well, eliminating barrel distortion at wide angle and also cutting down the slight chromatic aberration that is visible toward the corners of the frame when it is not used. There appears to be no negative impact on image quality, although it does slow down shooting speed even more, to approximately four seconds per shot, so you might not want to leave it switched on all the time.
Noise control also appears to be virtually unchanged. Low sensitivity image quality is excellent, with nice smooth colour gradations and plenty of fine detail. Quality remains good up to 400 ISO, with some noise but good colour reproduction and not to much loss of detail, however shots taken at 1600 ISO and above are very noisy, and the 3200 ISO maximum, available only at a smaller 5MP image size, are really pretty ropey.
The EXPEED image processor seems to do a better job of preserving dynamic range than its predecessor, with good shadow detail and few burned-out highlights even on high contrast and brightly lit shots. Overall the image quality is definitely a cut above the average pocket compact, and while the P5100 still isn’t competing with the Canon G9 it is at least a step in the right direction.
The Nikon CoolPix P5100 is a small but worthwhile update of the P5000, and while it may not tempt owners of the previous model it is a good alternative to a point-and-shoot compact for anyone who wants a bit more creative photographic control. It is solidly made, handles well and looks suitably impressive despite its relatively small size. Its main strength is its excellent image quality, but it is let down by slow performance, especially its disappointing AF system.