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19th Mar 2010

Nikon DSLR’s in 2010

We are almost a quarter of the way through the year, the CES, PMA and WPPI trade shows have come and gone, and still nothing even remotely concrete pointing to any new DSLR’s coming from Nikon. So what should we expect this year?

Let’s start with Full Frame. The D3s is only a few months old, we don’t expect a D4 until the middle of 2011 at least. However the D3x turns 2 at the end of the year – a refresh in the form of a Nikon D3xs wouldn’t be a surprise at some point later this year. If Nikon have worked as hard on the D3x sensor as they did with the D3 sensor, then a noticeable ISO improvement and competent video would be in order. When might this be released? The D3x doesn’t turn 2 until December, so perhaps Photokina at the end of the year might be a good place to showcase it? Although in recent years Nikon has also timed their announcements well to steal thunder from Canon (for example the D90 coming out as the first video enabled DSLR right before the Canon 5D Mk II, or the D3s with its mega-ISO capability trumping the high-ISO abilities of Canons next generation flagship 1D Mark IV). Given a new flagship Canon 1Ds Mark IV is due any time between next week and later this year, timing a D3xs launch to Canon’s fits Nikon’s recent history. Either way, we’d be very surprised if we didn’t see an upgrade to the D3x before the end of 2010.

What about the D700? That also turns 2 years old this summer. We are pretty sure something will happen here during the summer months (anywhere from May to September would be out guess), but what? There are two basic approaches Nikon could take here, both have there advantages and disadvantages:

1) Given Nikon’s pattern over the past few years of maximizing their sensor investment by re-using sensors in lower end bodies, replacing the D700 with a D700s (with the sensor and video functionality from the D3s), and also launching a D700x with the D3x sensor fits. However we have heard noises that both the D700 had a negative impact on D3 sales, and there hasn’t been a D700x due to fear of the impact it would have on D3x sales. Now if the D3x is replaced with a D3xs, then having a D700x with the older D3x sensor would have much less of an impact, but a D700s would still cannibalize at least some of the D3s sales.
2) Replace the D700 with a D800 with a new sensor (likely 16-21 mp range). This stops impacting the D3 series sales as much (if you want speed and ISO you go with the D3s, if you want resolution then the D3xs, with the D800 being more of a “do both well but not nearly as well as the pro bodies” compromise). This adds cost by introducing a new sensor, but creates more separation between the pro and prosumer lines.

At this point in time, we wouldn’t want to put money on Nikon taking either path. The D700s/D700x approach allows Nikon to maximize their investment in existing sensors in line with their recent history, while a D800 approach helps differentiate from the pro lineup and gets them closer to a Canon 5D Mk II killer in one body.

What about a Full Frame Sensor in a D90 type body? Now that would be a surprise this year. Canon doesn’t have anything Full Frame below the 5D Mark II (Sony does, but hey…). In fact, Canon is still using crop sensors in their flagship 1D Mark IV, so we don’t see any reason why Nikon would push a Full Frame sensor into a cheaper body in the near future.

So we expect this to be a fairly big year for FX bodies – a D3xs and either a D700s/D700x pair or D800. But what about DX?

The prosumer D300s is still new, we don’t expect a D400 until 2011. The D90 however turns two later this year, and is due an update. This will likely come either in the form of a D90s (same sensor, better video with AF, possibly other improvements), or a new sensor in a D7000 (the “upper” range always starts with a 7 – the D700 as the full frame prosumer body, and the D70 as the first of the current “advanced consumer” line). We think a D90s is the more likely. Why? There are several reasons: (1) Sony and Nikon are very tightly linked in their sensor development for DX bodies, and we haven’t heard anything reliable yet about a new sensor. Presumably any new DX sensor would appear in a Sony A700 replacement first, then be developed further before being put in a Nikon body. (2) If Nikon does come out with a new sensor, it should be a big step forward (more resolution, better ISO, or both) or it’s not worth doing. Having a D90 type body with significantly better IQ than the D300s isn’t exactly going to enhance the Nikon line-up and make their prosumer customers happy – any new DX sensor we’d expect introduced in next years D400.

What about the consumer lines? Neither the D5000 or D3000 are very old. The D3000 uses the sensor that was introduced way back with the D200, so there is an argument for retiring that body early, but if the sales numbers are there we don’t expect any surprises here. So for DX bodies, we expect a fairly boring year, just a D90 update, most likely in the form of a D90s, with an outside chance of a D7000.

So it that it? Well there is one wild-card. There has been a lot of buzz in recent months about the hybrid or EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras like the Olympus PEN cameras. Various projections show this “better than compact cameras, but smaller, lighter and cheaper than DSLR’s” market segment is going to be very significant over the next few years. Sony has gone on record saying they will be making cameras for this target market. Canon & Nikon are sure to follow, and what better place to make a big splash than at Photokina in September? There are various patents filed (but patents don’t always mean products, just that Nikon are researching technologies), and Nikon has stated that such hybrid cameras will require a different mount, but we haven’t heard anything even remotely concrete here.

In summary, we expect the following for 2010:
1) D3xs to replace the D3x, adding video, and possibly ISO and other improvements.
2) D700 to be replaced by either a D700s/D700x combo or a higher resolution D800 with a new sensor (all options with video).
3) D90 to be replaced with D90s, with an outside chance of a new sensor in a D7000.
4) Remote (?) possibility of an EVIL camera announcement around Photokina in September.

2011 should be a much more interesting year, with the D4/D400 due, and a complete refresh of the consumer lineup in order (likely with EVIL cameras playing a big role).

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