VR (image stabilization)

The optical image stabilization system used on the Coolpix P3 is based on the VR (Vibration Reduction) lens-shift technology first seen on Nikon's professional SLR lenses, and offers two modes; standard and active. The difference (from what I can ascertain - Nikon's documentation isn't very clear) is that in standard mode the system disables stabilization in one direction (up/down or left/right) if it detects panning, whereas in active mode all movement (in any direction) is corrected for - this is certainly how the two modes work on the SLR lenses. In practice we found the two modes to be equally effective until the shutter speed dropped to more than 2 stops longer than the recommended minimum for the focal length in use (i.e. at less than 1/15th sec at the long end of the zoom), when the active mode was undoubtedly better.

With short zooms like this (max focal length 126mm equiv.) image stabilization is considerably less essential than with a 10x or 12x 'super zoom'. At anything over about 1/100th sec you're not going to suffer from camera shake a great deal. At the short end of the zoom it becomes a problem at around 1/15th sec (depending on how steady-handed you are), and we've yet to see a system that can fully correct at shutter speeds below about 1/4 sec, giving you at best a two stop advantage. That said, we found it perfectly possible to shoot at 1/8th sec at the long end of the zoom (a 3 stop advantage over non stabilized shooting) and - nine times out of ten - at 1/4 sec at the short end (a good 2 stops better than without the VR), so it's worth having.

If you take a couple of 'safety' shots when pushing the system hard (1/4th at 126mm for example), you'll usually get at least one 'keeper'. This is where Nikon's excellent 'Best Shot Selector' (which takes a series of shots and only saves the sharpest) proves its worth.

Although we've no definitive test for IS systems in real-world use, I found the P3's system to be pretty effective, though it is by no means foolproof (and the lack of a 'shoot only' option - as seen on Canon and Panasonic cameras - means it can't cope with extremes of shake as well).

The example below shows just how much difference VR makes when shooting at the long end of the zoom using a shutter speed a good three stops longer than would be needed for hand-held shooting without VR.

1/16th second, F5.3, hand-held, 126mm (equiv.)
VR (Active mode) VR off

Wi-fi connectivity

The P3 is still fairly unusual in offering wireless (Wi-Fi) connectivity (there is a non-Wi-Fi version, the P4, for about $40 less), though as is the case with all such compacts, the dream of 'shoot n send' wireless functionality is still far from reality.

In order to transfer images to your PC wirelessley you first have to load the software supplied onto the host computer and create a Wi-Fi profile that is transferred to the camera via a USB connection. This is a fairly straightforward process using the supplied setup utility - unless you have a non-standard Wi-Fi network or are using a Macintosh, in which case you'll have to change some settings manually.

Connection is either via a wireless access point (Infrastructure mode), if you have a home Wi-Fi network, or a direct camera-to-PC connection (Ad-Hoc mode) if you have a Wi-Fi enabled PC but no network, and you can configure the camera to print directly to any printer attached to the host PC. Nikon also sells a printer adaptor (Wireless Printer Adapter PD-10) for about $50 that attaches to the USB port of any pictbridge printer for wireless, computerless printing. What you can't do is connect to any network that hasn't been added to the camera using the setup utility (though you can store up to nine device profiles). What we'd love would be the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi network in Starbucks or at the airport and to be able to upload images to a remote server, but that's a few generations away yet...

The Wi-Fi system is fairly easy to set up (though the documentation isn't very helpful if things don't work - it took me a couple of hours to work out why it wasn't working with my network), and once up and running it works very well. The trouble is that it's slow; about 0.28 MB/s (so half an hour to download a full 512MB card), and it runs the camera battery down very quickly. It is so much faster - and easier - to buy a cheap USB 2.0 card reader (or just use the supplied USB cable) that I struggle to see why anyone would actually use the Wi-Fi function. I guess if your house is so big that it's a long walk to your PC (taking into account the 30m line-of-sight maximum range and remembering that the PC has to be powered up to receive the files) you might feasibly use it, but to be honest the main appeal has to be showing off to your mates, something that you will soon bore of. But maybe that's just me.

The Wireless Camera Setup Utility is fairly straightforward as long as your home network assigns IP addresses automatically (DHCP) - most do by default. There are only four steps involved in creating a profile for the camera (which must be attached via USB during this one-time process). If - as in my case - you have a more complex home network you may need to assign an IP address to the camera manually, and you'll need to enter any security information too (WEP keys etc).
Once set up turning the camera to Wi-Fi mode first lists the available saved profiles. Press the OK button and the camera will attempt to connect to the network.
Once connected you have several options for transferring images. Easy Transfer simply copies all the images on the card into a folder on your PC. You can also select which images you want to transfer. Click OK and - if everything has worked - the camera starts to transfer the pictures one by one.
In 'PC Mode' images are not sent to the computer, the screen simply changes to show it is connected... ...and the camera appears as a device on the host computer. You can now drag and drop images as you would if it were physically attached.