The D40x also has a very fast AF system, but whereas the EOS 400D, and indeed most of the other sub-£500 10MP DSLRs such as the Sony Alpha A100 and Olympus E-500, have multi-point systems, the D40x has only three focus points. I tend to use the multi-point AF on my A100 a great deal, so I would find the Nikon’s AF system restrictive. It’s difficult to fault it in other areas though. It has what may be the brightest AF assist lamp I’ve ever seen, and is able to focus in complete darkness at a range of at least eight meters.
All in all, the experience of using the D40x is very pleasant. The camera is light and easy to hold, with a sensibly laid out control system that quickly becomes intuitive. Despite its relatively low cost and plastic body it feels very solid and well made, and every inch a Nikon. It’s easy to see the resemblance to the more professional models such as the D80 or D200. It performs quickly and quietly, and even a first-time user should have no trouble producing first-class results.
Of course the key criterion for a digital SLR is image quality, and here the D40x really shines. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II lens is significantly better than the lens supplied with the EOS 400D, and combined with the improved image processing of the D40x it provides a fantastic level of fine detail, superb contrast and flawless colour reproduction. It is very difficult to draw distinctions between the various 10MP DSLRs currently available, but based on my subjective opinion of the photos that I was able to take with it I think the D40x has, by a narrow margin, the best image quality of any that I’ve seen so far, crucially slightly superior to the EOS 400D.
One area where the D40x excels is in noise control. It has an ISO range of 100-1600, and only at the highest setting was image noise even visible. It was almost impossible to spot the difference between shots taken at 100 ISO and those taken at 800. In this respect it scores a major win over the 400D.
It has three JPEG modes (Basic, normal and fine) as well as RAW and RAW + Basic JPEG. Having compared all the modes, I have to say that the D40x’s JPEG image processing is so good that it almost makes the RAW mode redundant. Shooting the same image in fine JPEG, and then again in RAW mode and converting it to JPEG using the supplied software it is impossible to tell the difference. The RAW mode is really only useful if you want to save your images as TIFF files, or if you want to make major changes to the sharpness or colour balance, although there is little reason to do either.
The redundancy of the RAW mode is a good thing in a way, because I did encounter one small problem, although not with the camera itself. The D40x uses Nikon’s proprietary NEF RAW format, but it uses a new version of it which is not yet supported by Adobe Camera RAW, the standard Photoshop CS2 file converter plug-in used by professional photographers to process their images. This means you have to use the supplied Nikon Picture Project 1.7 software, which is frankly not very good. It offers very limited scope for creative image processing, and is really only useful for converting the NEF RAW files to TIFF format so you can use them in Photoshop.
In the D40x Nikon may finally have got the entry-level DSLR that can give Canon a run for its money while holding off Sony’s advance. It is, by an admittedly narrow margin, a better camera than the EOS 400D in many respects, including the crucial area of overall image quality. It is easy to use, has Nikon’s traditional fantastic build quality, and performs superbly well. If you’re looking for an SLR for under £500 the D40x should be near the top of your list.