From movie modes to ISO ratings, these are the important features you should be considering if you're starting your research for a DSLR
Progress is a wonderful thing. 18 months ago very few SLRs had a movie mode or any usable high ISO capability. Certainly, none had articulating screens. Now, of course, you can get all three on a couple of bodies and at least the first two on most others.
The move to decently high ISO capabilities is particularly wonderful. In the past, anything shot above ISO1600 was unusable, even with high-end bodies. Yet most SLRs released in 2010 will shoot happily at ISO1600 with little noise. Combine that with ever-improving image quality in general and today's SLRs are a major step up from ones past.
Of course, not all new features bring nothing but great benefits. Movie mode in many SLRs is great in many instances. Some models, like the EOS 5D Mk II, give you broadcast-quality footage. But there are caveats.
You don't get usable autofocus, for one. Even the latest Sony Alpha A33 and A55, which use pellical (translucent) mirrors to allow camcorder-like speeds, are not ideal as you will still get focusing ring noise.
Many models also suffer from ‘Jellyvision' - that blurring you get while panning due to the idiosyncrasies of CMOS sensors. Oh, and colours can be very poorly rendered.
If you are willing to set up properly, using a tripod and pre-focus, you will probably be fine, just don't expect camcorder usability.
Articulating displays offer benefits, too. You can shoot from impossible locations and angles, and for video, they are essential. However, live view kills battery life and the extra space they take up means ergonomics suffer. Plus their cost can mean features are lost.
Before we finish, we will also point out the other major change in system cameras in the last year - the rise of hybrids. The benefits are obvious: SLR-like picture quality in a package half the size. Expandability is covered through lens adapters for many manufacturers, too. Check them out, as this sector of the market seems poised to grow both in size and popularity.
Which DSLR user are you?
Best for the interchangeable lens camera newbie
Samsung NX10 $899
Yes, a hybrid. But as we said before, hybrids now offer SLR-like quality in a tiny package. And Samsung's NX10 offers brilliant dynamic range and overall quality in most situations (it suffers a bit at night), expandability with its optional Pentax K-mount lens adapter, and DSLR-style ergonomics. All in a small package. The fact it only costs $900 at street price makes this all the sweeter.
Best for the serious amateur
Nikon D90 $1489
When you are ready to move up from a basic interchangeable lens camera, you won't get much better than Nikon's D90. Nikon's renowned dynamic range and low light performance, cracking overall image quality and 720p video makes this the step up camera of choice. Sadly, we were unable to get its D7000 replacement in before publication, so we do not know if it will be a worthy successor, but it certainly looks like it.
Best for the semi-pro/entry level PRC
Canon 5D Mk II $3599
You have a few years of experience, now it's time to get serious. Full frame bodies mean updating your lenses anyway, so which system to buy? We'd recommend Canon's fantastic 5D Mk II. It's not quite there in image quality compared to Nikon's D700, but it's not far off, and has better ergonomics, broadcast-quality 1080p video and no long exposure write time issues. For the newbie professional, you will not find better at this price.
Look for our guides to TVs, Blu-Ray players, desktop PCs, smartphones, tablets, DSLR and compact cameras, graphics cards, monitors and iPod docks in the January 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority.