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D4: is it worth it?

Nikon's next generation flagship camera, the D4, was introduced on January 6 2012 alongside a new 85mm 1.8. In what promises to be a banner year for Nikon with the introduction of the D4, the rumoured D800 and a several new lenses, the blogosphere and forums everywhere lit up with praise and criticism immediately after the announcement was official. A week on, the discussions are still as lively and spirited.

No one denies that the camera in itself addresses several gaps and issues, but for some, the new camera adds a new set of issues that make the camera a non-starter.

Issue #1: XQD cards

The D4, like the many other Nikon cameras, has two memory card slots. For working professionals, the two card slots are invaluable since it allows a single image to be written to two cards, thus providing immediate redundancy. The previous generation cameras used the CompactFlash (CF) standard, meaning, two CF cards could be used. The D4 takes that same concept, but instead of giving photographers two CF card slots, Nikon gave photographers a single CF slot alongside a single XQD card slot.

The issue for most is that the D4 is a "foot-in / foot-out" the door from a memory card and technology perspective. For those old enough, think back to when DVDs started to become popular. Manufacturers built joint DVD and VHS players to accommodate new DVD adopters who had a significant amount of VHS tapes. Eventually, VHS disappeared, and so did these bridge machines. The issue is somewhat similar for D4 users. No one denies that the CF standard will eventually be replaced by something better, but implementing a hybrid approach introduces a few issues for D2(h/hs/x/xs) or D3(s/x).

First, D4 users will need to purchase XQD cards. These cards are expensive, and at the time of writing, only Sony is supplying them. From a market perspective, through no fault of their own, Sony is a monopoly. A 16GB card will cost $130, a 32GB card will cost $230 and the card reader will cost $45. If I took this camera to Africa, I would need at minimum two 32GB cards, a single 16GB card and the card reader. Adding things up for Canadians living in Ontario, buying the D4 would require an additional outlay of roughly $700. Worst still, unless I purchase a second D4, the cards could not be used in any other camera, thus adding to the number of accessories to bring along any trip or working engagement.

Second, Nikon and Sony's marketing material goes on about how fast the card can read/write when compared to CF cards. Most of that is marketing BS in the here and now. For starters, the write speed of a first generation XQD card is slower than the 1000x Lexar CF card that was just announced a few days ago. Next, the biggest improvement from a write speed can be attributed to the D4's increased buffer size. According to Nikon's marketing material, a D3s can record 43 uncompressed 14BIT NEF files using CF cards (note: the test doesn't indicate which CF card was used). In the D4, that amount increases to 79 shots. That's a staggering 83% gain between models due to buffer size alone. Using a XQD card increases the amount to 105 shots, a additional gain of 33%. The gains will however materialize eventually, when XQD cards reach their full potential. But as this happens, users will once again have to purchase more XQD cards, rendering the initial investment of $700 moot. Hopefully by then, other manufacturers will have begun making these cards and other camera makers will begin using them in order to bring the price down.

Lastly, one technical issue that I've brought up several times has yet to be addressed by anyone. If a picture is recorded on both cards simultaneously in order to have redundancy, won't XQD write speeds be affected? If one card can write 105 uncompressed 14 bit NEF files and the other only 79, what happens to those 26 shots? Are they only recorded to the XQD card? Or does the camera just slow down after 79 shots. Something tells me it's the latter. So even when the new faster and more efficient XQD cards make it to market, D4 users will always be hampered by the CF card slot.

While I understand that Nikon wanted to "future proof" their camera, there was a better way of going about it in my opinion. Making both card slots XQD and including two or four XQD cards in the box (as well as the card reader) would have gone a long way to help their committed user-base. Yes, the purchase price would have been higher, but it would also help D4 users who will eventually upgrade or add the D5 to their arsenal.

As a side note, Canon's flagship camera, the 1DX, does not use XQD cards.

Issue #2: New battery

Japan passed a law recently banning open contacts on Lion batteries. Batteries used to power Nikon's past two flagship generations, the D2 and D3 series, use the same battery that is now banned. D4 buyers will therefore need to purchase at minimum one extra battery, each costing $200. Why do I say "at minimum"? The new battery (EN-EL 18) is actually less powerful than the D2/D3 battery (EN-EL4e). So D4 users may actually want to pick up at minimum two extra batteries, which would carry a cost of roughly $450.

While Nikon had no choice by to comply with Japanese law, one has to wonder why they simply didn't make the battery backwards compatible. Canon was able to make their flagship 1DX compatible with past batteries. Why not Nikon? I sincerely hope that Nikon had insurmountable engineering issues which prevented them from doing so.

If you add up the cost of the extra cards, the card reader and the new batteries needed to support the D4, you are now well over $1,000. You can easily get yourself to Africa from Canada on that amount. So for D3/D3s users, who already have an incredible low light machine, wouldn't a photography trip be more interesting than a D4?

Speaking of Africa, where you often have to jump on small prop planes, having the least amount of unnecessary equipment is important. Bringing along two big battery chargers is a compromise. The additional weight and space is annoying.

Issue #3: Connectivity

Nikon touts the D4's Ethernet port and also introduced the new WT-5 Wireless Transmitter. The transmitter will cost you $900. Yes, this little piece of plastic will cost you $900 before taxes. If you want to geotag your pictures, you'll also need to purchase a GP-1 GPS unit for $280.

What bugs me about all the WT-5 and the GP-1 is that Nikon still requires users to bolt on peripherals for functionality that is native on cheap point and shoot cameras and smartphones. This reminds me of the days when cameras were not integrated in mobile phones. Instead, an external camera had to be purchased and attached to the phone. That was 12 years ago. In 2012, one would think that Nikon could at the very least give us integrated GPS and Wifi, two ubiquitous technologies. I can't imagine myself running around Africa with all these things sticking out of my camera.

So what did Nikon get right?

Nikon got a lot of things right in the D4, and I hope that they make their way to all future cameras. First, they finally updated their firmware to fix the auto-ISO gap. Current users can select a maximum ISO value as well as a minimum shutter speed. The major flaw in Nikon's logic and the significant gap in functionality for end-users is when we use zoom lenses. When I use my 200-400 F4, if I want to use auto-ISO, I basically have no choice but to set the minimum shutter speed at 1/400. What this means in practice is that the D3s will select ISO 6400 in this scenario: 200mm, F4, SS 1/400. Of course, I'd rather be at ISO 3200 with SS 1/200. But auto-ISO, as implemented in my D3s, won't allow that. I'm not sure why it took Nikon so much time to implement auto-ISO this way, Canon has had it for a while and it seems like it's an easy firmware fix. Shame on Nikon if they don't update the D3/D700 to fix this bug.

Nikon also didn't venture into the megapixel game, and kept the increase small. While we haven't seen many high ISO samples yet, I doubt Nikon would take a step back in the low-light race since the D4 is there photojournalist / sports camera since fast shutter speeds and clean images at high ISOs are needed. To further enhance low-light functionality, the D4 also supports focusing with lenses with a maximum aperture of F8. This is of course wonderful for photographers who use tele-converters

The ergonomic updates are also welcomed. Moving the AF-On button on the portrait grip is fantastic. I'm not sure why they put it where they did on the D3 series. The extra thumbsticks to move the focus point is also welcomed, as is the virtual horizons in both portrait and landscape mode. And finally, the extra lump on the back should make the camera more comfortable when in portrait mode.

Nikon also made grade strides on the video front, but since I essentially don't use video, I can't comment on the quality of improvements. I have however noticed that most are pleased with the updates.

Finally, as a low-light camera, the illuminated buttons are also a welcomed addition. I've had to fiddle around on several occasions in dark rooms while shooting.

Wrap up

The D4 is a nice camera, but all in all, it's not for me as the D3s does what I need it to do. I can't get passed the XQD cards (I don't want to buy them now when Sony is the only manufacturer and when there are no significant improvements in write speeds), the battery issue (cost, weight, more gear etc) and the connectivity issue (is this the year 2000 or 2012?). For those who are purchasing them, I can only hope that you have calculated the return on your investment.


It's worth noting that both SanDisk and Lexar have no current plans on manufacturing XQD cards. As I noted above, this is potentially the worst possible news for D4 adopters seeing as Sony will be the single supplier of cards, thus allowing them to dictate price. D4 users better hope that there aren't any shortages or manufacturing problems / defects either with the cards since there are no alternate suppliers. Moreover, finding a CF card has become harder and harder in a brick and mortar store, imagine what finding a XQD card will be like?

Moreover, as documented in Rob Galbraith's interview with Nikon D4 engineer Toshiaki Akagi, Nikon does not know which companies will be manufacturing XQD cards, other than Sony. The specific quote by Toshiaki reads: "At this moment we don't know which companies will be making XQD, other than Sony".