Aside from the plastic battery latch, the J1 benefits from an all-metal outer construction that gives it a solid, premium feel in the hand. At 389 grams with a battery, memory card and the 10-30mm kit zoom attached there’s a reassuring weight about it too. In terms of overall size the J1 is on a par with the Olympus E-PL3, slightly smaller even. The 10-30mm kit zoom is a collapsible design, and when it’s fully retracted the overall package is small enough to fit inside a regular coat pocket, although you’ll certainly notice it's there.
In line with the general theme of minimalist design, the J1’s buttons are set fairly flush to the camera body, although they remain well spaced and easy to use. As we mentioned earlier, the physical shooting mode dial feels a bit empty and doesn’t offer any direct access to the PASM shooting modes.
While the J1 sits quite comfortably in the hand there’s no finger grip and the smooth metal finish makes it hard to get a secure grip. There is a texturised thumb pad on the back, but it feels like a bit of token effort. While we can appreciate that Nikon wanted to give the J1 a stylish appearance (which it undoubtedly has), a decent finger grip really is a must for a £500 camera in our opinion. Without one you’ll definitely want to make good use of the supplied neck strap.
The J1’s AF module uses an intriguing combination of 135-point contrast-detection and 73-point phase-detection to deliver a super-fast AF system that Nikon neatly describes as Hybrid Autofocus. In testing, we’ve found it to be one of the best around, up there with the super-speedy Lumix G3 even.
In good light, focus is all but instantaneous – by the time you’ve half-pressed the shutter button the focus box will be green and you’re good to go. In less than ideal light (such as at dusk or in dim artificial lighting), you can expect to encounter a small amount of focus hunting, although the camera still remains impressively quick to lock on. Once light levels become too low for the camera to focus independently then a green AF Assist light can be called upon to help focus on subjects within 6-8ft of the camera.
Start-up time is a fraction under 1.5 seconds. While that’s not quite as instant as a DSLR, it’s still far quicker than most regular compacts and pretty good by CSC standards too. The super-speedy AF means that you can have a shot in the bank in less than two seconds from pressing the On/Off button, which should be plenty fast enough in the majority of situations.
The J1 offers class-leading continuous shooting performance for a CSC with a maximum speed of 60fps at full resolution, with options to shoot at 30fps and 10fps too. There is a price to be paid for this though, as all of the 10/30/60fps Electronic Shutter options put the camera into what is effectively an automatic mode whereby user control over shutter and/or aperture settings is disabled. Should you opt instead for the J1’s standard 5fps Continuous drive mode then you are free to change the camera’s shooting settings as you wish.
AF control can be set to multi-point Auto-area, adjustable Single-point and automatic Subject tracking. This final AF mode is pretty reliable, so long as your subject isn’t moving too quickly or erratically, however for the majority of our testing time we found ourselves favouring the Single-point mode, especially for scenes with a static subject, as this allows you to put this point of focus anywhere in the screen simply by clicking the OK button and then using the D-pad keys to move the white focus box around.
One further restriction to the faster shooting speeds is the memory buffer size, which limits how many shots you can shoot in one go before the camera has to stop to process all of the recorded information. Shooting at 60fps limits the number of consecutive images you can record to just twelve, regardless of whether you are shooting JPEGs (in either of the three quality levels), Raw or both simultaneously. At 30fps and 10fps the J1 can shoot 13 frames before coming to a halt. In the ‘regular’ 5fps Continuous setting, JPEG quality settings do make a difference though, with a maximum 23 consecutive images available at Fine setting, 33 images at Normal and 48 images when the J1 is set to Basic JPEG quality.
One aspect of the J1 that really impresses is the 3inch rear LCD monitor. While Nikon lists it as a 460k-dot monitor, it somehow appears sharper than this to our eyes. Perhaps it’s the backlit LCD monitor playing tricks on our eyes, but to us it looks more like a 921k-dot monitor. Either way, the screen is bright and colourful and offers plenty of pop.