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July 2008
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Digital SLRs
Performance is high but can vary a lot

The back view of a digital SLR camera
Even the lowest-cost single-lens reflex cameras are faster and can handle most challenging conditions better than point-and-shoot cameras. But our latest tests still found real performance differences among the 16 models we tested for our latest Ratings of digital SLRs (available to subscribers only).

Basic leaders. Among basic SLRs, the top-rated Nikon D80, $900, stood out for its all-round performance, including excellent ability to capture a wide range of dark and light tones and the ability to minimize image flaws in low light at ISO settings up to 1600. Yet almost as impressive and far less expensive was the Olympus Evolt E-410, $450, which also maintained image quality up to ISO 1600. (The Evolt E-410 may be hard to find. A successor, the E-420, $500, was set to ship this spring.)

Rare excellence. Two advanced SLRs were alone in producing excellent images. The Nikon D300, $1,800, was by far the best SLR for shooting handheld in low light without a flash because of its ability to maintain image quality at ISO settings up to 3200. Both the D300 and the Canon EOS 40D Digital, $1,300, can produce images with exceptional tonal gradations and wide color ranges. With its low cost, the EOS 40D was our only Quick Pick (available to subscribers) for an advanced SLR.

A pair of low-light weaklings. Two SLRs with prices that belied their performance in low light were the basic Sigma SD14, $1,300, and the advanced Sony DSLR-A700, $1,400. They were able to minimize image flaws only up to a sensitivity of ISO 400. That's subpar for an SLR and lower than even two of the rated point-and-shoots. Also, the SD14's image quality was bested by several SLRs costing less than half as much.

Features trickle up. We've also noticed a continuing migration of features from point-and-shoots up to SLRs. The most conspicuous, live view, is now found on half of the tested SLRs. SLR newcomer Sony has made the live view feature on its 10-megapixel DSLR-A300, $700, perform more like that of a point-and-shoot by speeding up the camera's ability to autofocus when you compose on the LCD. We haven't tested the DSLR-A300.

Face detection, now widespread in point-and-shoots, has shown up in a couple of SLRs, including one rated model, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10. More SLRs are also using SD and SDHC memory cards. Even as SLRs become more like point-and-shoots, conspicuous functional differences remain between the two groups, such as image and viewfinder quality and body construction, which is why we score them differently.

SLR enhancements continue. One of our Quick Picks (available to subscribers), the basic Olympus Evolt E-510, has several metering systems, including two special spot meters. And systems for removing dust from internal sensors, features only SLRs need, have become far more common.

Every few weeks, it seems, a manufacturer tries to leapfrog the pack with a smaller, improved, higher-resolution SLR. Canon recently shipped the $800, 12-megapixel Rebel XSi, successor to the Rebel XTi, adding live view and the color and tone-enhancing capability found in the EOS 40D. Nikon recently expanded its basic SLR line with the $750, 10-megapixel D60, which has sensor-cleaning technology that its D40x lacks. We'll be testing both of these models soon.