Nikon D3100 vs Canon EOS 550D (Rebel Ti2)

The first full HD video shooting Nikon camera has arrived in the shape of the Nikon D3100. It may be just one up from the baby of the whole Nikon DSLR range, but packed with the latest technology and crammed into the smallest body Nikon has produced, it presents itself as a serious option over other cameras out there both from Nikon and, yes, from arch-rival Canon as well. So, how does it compare?

While the Canon 1000D might be the natural choice to line the D3100 up against, being the equivalent entry-level machine, the fact is that you can’t shoot video on it. So, as it stands, both on the shelves and on the Pocket-lint pages, it’s going to be the Nikon D3100 vs Canon EOS 550D aka the Rebel Ti2. This is the battle of the affordable HD shooters.

Image Sensor

Canon 550D
17.9MP CMOS, 1.6x crop

Nikon D3100
14.2MP CMOS, 1.5 x crop


For whatever reason, Canon DSLRs tends to have more megapixels to play with than its Nikon counterparts. Presumably, most professional photographers looking to blow their shots up to billboard size aren’t going to be opting for entry level cameras, so don’t be fooled into thinking that the Canon’s image sensor is necessarily preferably here. Both the 550D and the D3100 will give you enough resolution.

The only real difference is the size of the sensors themselves. While both are classed as APS-C - approximately two-thirds of the area that you can expose on any frame of 35mm film - technically the Nikon DX sensor is a touch bigger. What that means in real terms is that there’s the potential for a higher dynamic range with the D3100. So one might find that you get slightly better results on shots with a wider scope of exposure required. As it goes, Canon may have better processing power to take care of that problem anyway.

Processor

Canon 550D
DIGIC-4

Nikon D3100
EXPEED 2


There’s no real quantitative way to describe any differences between the two camera’s processors, largely because they’re highly proprietary and very different. It might be worth noting that the EXPEED 2 is brand new while the DIGIC-4 has been around since 2008, so perhaps there’s 2 years’ more technological advancement in the D3100. That said, the biggest change since the EXPEED is most like the addition of Full HD video processing. At the end of the day, both processors power much more hardcore DSLR models, so they should both easily suffice at this level anyway.

Burst

Canon 550D
3.7fps

Nikon D3100
3fps


The Nikon D3100 may be the little boy of the family, but it can still rattle them off at nearly the same speed as the Canon 550D. You’ll get a steady three frames each second if you hold your finger down on the trigger, but that’s pipped by the 3.7fps rate on the 550D - even if that top end stat is only good for 34 JPEGs or 6 RAW shots in a row.

Form

Canon 550D
129 × 98 × 62 mm, 530g

Nikon D3100
124 x 96 x 74.5mm, 505g


The D3100 is Nikon’s lightest ever camera and comes in just a little under the 550D with both of them loaded down by battery packs and memory cards. They're very similar in dimensions too and this isn't really an area to separate them.

ISO

Canon 550D
ISO 100–6,400 boost to 12,800

Nikon D3100
ISO 100–3,200 boost to 12,800


Again, it's slightly tricky to compare light sensitivity and ISO numbers given that we’re not going to know at what level the amount of noise in the resulting images starts to get noticeable. That said, the range and boost levels would certainly suggest that you’ll get better results with the 550D here, and that’s perhaps a hallmark of why it sits relatively higher in the Canon range than the D3100 does for Nikon.

Video

Canon 550D
1080p/24fps

Nikon D3100
1080p/24fps


The Nikon D3100 is the first of the Nikon DSLRs to record at 1080p, which is about time given that Canon’s been doing that trick for a while now. You can shoot continuous for up to 10 minutes at a time and it’ll record into MOV file at a reasonable frame rate of 24fps. You get a touch of in-camera editing and it’s got an HDMI connector to plug straight into your TV. It will autofocus, face track and apparently do so at quite some distance. Just a shame that the sound recording is in mono and there’s no place for an external mic.

The 550D is very similar at the top end allowing both 24 and 25fps recording to suit PAL and NTSC outputs. A good touch though is that you can drop the resolution to either 720p or 640 x 480 and capture motion better with a 50fps rate. It also has both USB 2.0 and HDMI for video output and this time there is space for an external mic - perhaps the killer app here. Both cameras have Live View mode for video shooting.

Display

Canon 550D
3” LCD with 1m pixels

Nikon D3100
3” LDC with 230k pixels


While both cameras have decent sized screens on the back, it’s clear that you’re going to get more clarity on the 550D with a far better pixel density on offer. That might not seem like a big issue, but it’s important to know that your shot’s perfectly in focus when you’ve taken it. There’s not a lot you can do once you’re back home and you find out it wasn’t sharp enough.

Auto Focus

Canon 550D
9-point AF

Nikon D3100
11-point AF


This doesn’t necessarily mean that the D3100 is better at AF than the Canon because Nikon’s system just might not be as good. However, should either spend too much time missing and hunting, then it’s certainly of benefit to have more AF points. Of course, it’s of little difference if you have your camera set to centre AF anyway.

Viewfinder

Canon 550D
95% of full frame coverage

Nikon D3100
95% of full frame coverage


Nothing to separate here. We’d be impressed to get a full viewfinder on a low-end DSLR.

 

Price

Canon 550D
£649.99

Nikon D3100
£499.99


The £150 difference in price between the two is quite considerable if you're just after a good all round entry-level DSLR that includes video. If that's all you need, then it's easy to see why a lot of people might opt for the Nikon D3100.

 

Conclusions

Naturally, there’s plenty more to these cameras than a spec sheet can tell us, and the spec sheets for DSLRs are about as long as you can get. Beyond the physicals, each camera is packed full of its manufacture's latest and greatest technologies which are usually equivalent even if not directly comparable.

For example while the D3100 has Nikon’s Active-D Lighting to level out the contrast in shots and provide accurate detail within both shadows and bright areas, the 550D uses Canon’s ALO. The new Nikon has Guide to give an approximation of setting changes and the effects they’ll have, and the Canon uses the similar CA system. Ultimately, you’ll find one suits you a little better.

But focusing on what we can see and measure more easily, it certainly looks as if the Nikon D3100 has plenty to get excited about. It’s small, it’s light, it has some reasonable power in there and, from our hands on, it certainly seems very neatly designed indeed. However, if you’re a customer trying to make the choice, the reason the Canon 550D costs that little bit more is because it just is that little bit better on paper. Areas like the ISO, video shooting capability and burst shooting demonstrate why it’s from a group of cameras just one step above.

Of course, the real test of the comparison will arrive when our review of the Nikon D3100 comes in (you can look at our verdict on the 550D now). Until then though, it seems a case of the Nikon D3100 as more the family model and the Canon 550D as the one you might not want to let the kids play with.

So, how does the Nikon D3100 look to you. Is it important for your DSLR to shoot HD video and, if so, is that missing external microphone a big deciding factor? Let us know in the comments



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