Body and Design
Nikon has clearly been peering over Canon's shoulder in recent months because just as the P7000 looked suspiciously like the Powershot G12, the P300 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Powershot S95. This is no bad thing - we love both cameras' compact, metal bodies, and although it is slightly squarer than the S95, the P300 looks great, and feels nice to use. It is just the right size, too, to fit inside a shirt pocket.
Build quality is very high, and the same standard of construction applies to the main control points. The exposure mode dial has a positive movement with just enough friction at the detents to prevent accidental rotation, and the same goes for the top and rear control dials. The P300's flash is mechanically raised, by a switch on the side of the camera, and the zoom control is positioned on a collar around the shutter button.
In your hand
The P300 feels great in the hand. Unlike the Canon Powershot S95 it actually has a grip of sorts, in the form of a thin rubber strip on the front of the camera. Whilst far from 'substantial' it is better than nothing, and makes the P300 easier to use single-handed without the risk of your fingers slipping down the front of the camera. A small area of rubber on the rear of the P300 acts as a thumb grip, which also helps to make the camera more stable when used single-handed.
Overall handling comments
The P300 is a small camera, but very comfortable to use. Although we generally prefer front-mounted control dials (such as those found on the Ricoh GR Digital III and Canon Powershot G12) to rear or top-mounted, the control dials of the P300 are conveniently placed, and big enough to be useful for manual control. It is all too easy to mash the 4-way controller on the rear of the camera inadvertently when rotating the control dial, but the P300 is no worse in this respect than many of its competitors (and noticeably better than some, like the Canon Powershot G12). The control wheels themselves have clear detents, and move between them with enough friction to reduce the risk of accidental operation.
Handling is about more than just physical ergonomics though, and we're very pleased to report that the P300 is almost entirely free of the various glitches which afflict its stablemate the P7000. Whereas the P7000's on-screen interface is laggy and often responds unpredictably to control inputs, the P300 is in general pleasantly responsive. We're disappointed though that it lacks a quick menu of any sort. Apart from the dedicated controls on the 4-way controller, there is no way to configure the P300 for quick access to shooting settings. If you want to set ISO or white balance, for example, the only option is to head into the main menu system. In our opinion a filleted 'quick menu' of some sort, accessed via the 'OK' button would greatly improve the P300's general handling.
The control logic is somewhat different to that used on Nikon SLRs. The rear dial controls aperture in the A and M modes, while the top dial controls the shutter speed in M and S modes, and program shift in P. So far so good, but when you press the '+/-' button, things change unexpectedly. The top dial now controls exposure compensation by default (except in manual, when it's not available), but the rear dial is used to change its function, cycling through 'Hue', 'Vividness', 'ExposureComp', 'Exit' and 'Reset'. This means the behaviour of the dials is very consistent between exposure modes, but it isn't quite as simple and direct as the likes of the S95 or XZ-1. Also, to be perfectly honest, we really don't know why you would want to change Hue and Vividness on a shot-to-shot basis anyway (as opposed to, say, ISO or white balance).