The initial impression of the D90 is overwhelmingly favourable. It feels extremely sturdy and the build quality is certainly up to Nikon's usual exemplary standard. It's quite a heavy camera for a hobby DSLR, weighing 145g more than the EOS 450D or the Olympus E520, and 38g more than the Sony A350, although it is lighter than the Pentax K20D. With the 18-105mm lens fitted it's even heavier of course, tipping the scales at a hefty 1080g. The large rubberised grip does provide a secure handhold, but if I'm honest the balance feels a little off to me, with the lens pulling the camera down and left.
The control layout is, as I've mentioned, very similar to the D80, but with a few slight changes. The four-way D-pad now sports an "OK" button in the middle, and above it is a new button to activate the Live View mode. A couple of the top panel buttons are a different shape, and the main shooting mode dial now has an extra setting for the "Auto with no flash" mode, but other than that the two cameras look almost identical. Like the D80 the D90 has a large LCD display panel on the top, with a manually activated backlight, and like all Nikon DSLRs it has two adjustment wheels, one under the forefinger and one under the thumb, for altering exposure settings.
The menu system has undergone a complete overhaul, and is now home to more custom functions and creative options than anyone could feasibly need. In an effort to appeal to a wide audience, the D90 features an extensive selection of in-camera retouching options, including D-lighting, red-eye correction, cropping rotating and re-sizing, filter effects, colour balance, multi-image composites and Raw processing options, among others. As well as this there is a huge list of custom functions, allowing you to set the camera up just as you like it. It certainly offers a greater level of control and customisation than any comparable semi-pro camera; in fact it is more akin to the D300 and D3 in this respect.
As far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out on whether or not live monitor view is a big selling point on a DSLR. Certainly it has its uses, mostly in the studio with the camera mounted on a tripod, but I think it's of limited use for day-to-day shooting. As with most live-view DSLRs, the D90 cannot use its main autofocus system in this mode, and is limited to a simple contrast-detection AF system, similar to that found on most compact cameras. Consequently in live view mode, focusing in lower light conditions is very slow, hunting backward and forward for several seconds before achieving focus. It does have the option of face detection and two different-sized focus points, but it's still not as good as a camera like this deserves.
By contrast, when shooting using the viewfinder the main Multi-CAM 1000 11-point AF system with 3D tracking is superb, focusing quickly and accurately in almost any lighting conditions, and tracking even fast-moving subjects very reliably. It is certainly one of the best AF systems on a consumer DSLR. The viewfinder itself is very good, with a large bright screen and clearly marked AF points, and none of the tunnel-like appearance of some other APS-C sized DSLRs.