The Nikon D40x is neither an upgrade for the 6-megapixel D40 model, nor a replacement for the D80. Instead, it sits slightly uncomfortably between the two models, further expanding Nikon's range of budget and enthusiast SLRs. Essentially it's a D80 sensor in a D40 body. A curious road for Nikon to have gone down and a confusing choice for the first-time buyer of a DSLR.
Examine the D40x and the only obvious difference between it and the D40 is the increased sensor resolution. The camera's design, controls and functions appear to be identical to Nikon's entry-level model in every other respect.
There's a substantial price difference of £200 for that extra resolution, so the D40x has a lot to prove. And we mustn't forget that one of the Nikon 40x's chief rivals, the Canon EOS 400D, is now selling for around £100 less than the D40x.
So, let's start with the picture quality, since the sensor's resolution will probably be one of the main reasons for anyone choosing the D40x over the D40. Are the images a really big improvement?
Well, the definition of the JPEGs from the D40x is definitely as good as anything we've seen from any 10-megapixel DSLR on the market, though the chromatic aberration that's sometimes shown by the 18-55mm kit lens, towards the edges of the frame, is a reminder that this is a camera that's definitely been built down to a price. So, yes, the pictures do have more definition, but it's unlikely to be very obvious in prints of A4 size or smaller.
The Nikon D40x manages to see off the Canon 400D on the definition front, but that's mainly because the Canon's JPEGs are oddly 'soft' (if you shoot RAW files, however, it becomes an entirely different matter).
The D40x's colour rendition is impressive. The colours are exceptionally rich, saturated and yet very natural looking. However, backlit images can lose saturation because the D40x attempts to expose for the shadows, and this can lead to some noticeable highlight blow-out in backlit or sidelit photos, but this is common problem with all digital cameras.
To get around this problem, you might want to adapt your exposure technique a little, but this is a situation where the D40x begins to show its limitations because of the fussy interface Nikon has designed. And it's not just the exposure adjustments that are fiddly - almost everything is, from ISO to white balance and drive modes.
For example, let's suppose you want to change the ISO setting. To do this, you first need to press the Info button on the top of the camera to wake up the display, then you have to press the 'i' button on the back to display and access the interactive menu system.
Once that's done, you need to use the up/down buttons to highlight the ISO setting, press the central OK button to open it, and then use the up/down and OK buttons again to choose your new ISO setting. Phew!
This is just crazy. Compare all that rigmarole to the Canon EOS 400D, for example, where you simply press the ISO button and turn the control wheel. The Canon requires just two, easy steps for something that the Nikon takes half a dozen steps to achieve.
The D40x can be configured so that the display is on all the time, though this will dent the otherwise impressive battery life, and you can opt for a Classic display mode that speeds things up, but only very slightly.
There is a configurable Fn button on the left side of the lens flange, but this can only operate one control at a time, so it doesn't really solve the underlying problem.
In most other respects, the D40x performs very well and feels good. The AF system is very simple - with only three focus points arranged horizontally. This isn't necessarily a particularly bad thing because cutting down on choice also cuts down on the complexity.
The AF is pretty quick in action and the Nikon's 3fps Continuous Shooting mode is adequate for most action sequences. However, sometimes the frame rate can drop as the AF tries to lock on to a subject that's moved; and sometimes the AF has a tendency to focus on the background instead. Here's where the lack of sophistication inherent in a three-point AF begins to show up.
Apart from the laboured control system, the D40x's handling is, in general, very good. The viewfinder is unusually large, bright and clear. The body, although small and compact, is quite easy to grip - unlike the EOS 400D.
However, a couple of niggles need pointing out. Like the D40, the D40x doesn't include a lens-focusing motor in the camera body, so you only get AF when using a lens with focusing motors built in. This means that some older Nikon lenses will offer manual focus only.
Another gripe is the way the number of remaining shots is reported. According to the display panel, our freshly formatted 1GB SD card had space for just 132 fine-quality JPEGs. In fact, most of our test shots averaged out at under 5MB each, suggesting that 200 shots would be nearer the mark.
The D40x is a compact and well-made camera that takes excellent photos, but its labyrinthine control system is surely far too slow for the kind of keen amateurs who are likely to spend £600 on a camera.
In this respect, the contrast between the D40x and the cheaper Canon EOS 400D verges on painful. We'd give the Nikon's JPEG images the edge in the quality stakes, but the Canon's controls and its speed of operation are in a different league.