Make no mistake about it, the low / mid-range DSLR battle of early 2009 is on. Just over a month ago, Canon shook up the entry-level DSLR game with a shooter that packed a 1080p video mode, a 15.1 megapixel sensor and a price tag well below the magical $1,000 mark. Right around a fortnight later, Nikon not-at-all-coincidentally issued a new shooter in its own range, one that was no doubt built to rival the previously mentioned EOS Rebel T1i. Just this week, both of these bad boys showed up on our doorstep, and we've spent every waking minute since mashing buttons and capturing memories in order to give you our take on the pair. Care to hear more? Jump on past the break... and be sure to leave your fanboy suit at the door.
Canon EOS Rebel T1i hands-onSee all photos
If you've held the XSi or XTi, you've held the T1i. It checks in a wee bit smaller and lighter than the D5000 (in case you weren't aware, we'll be doing that with some frequency throughout), though it doesn't feel "cheaper." In fact, we'd argue that the T1i feels a bit more "professional" (as in, sturdy, solid and less like a toy) than the D5000. More rubberized grips were in place, the whole body felt exceptionally rigid and one-handed operation is totally feasible thanks to the left-aligned rear LCD monitor.
As with the D5000, Canon has also opted to not include a top-mounted LCD. In other words, you'll be looking at that back panel alone if interested in checking out shutter speed, white balance, RSS feeds (kidding, but we wish we weren't), etc. As for the button layout, that's a mixed bag. In most aspects, we greatly prefer the button layout on the T1i over that on the D5000; the dedicated ISO button makes adjusting levels whilst shooting in low light a breeze, and both the Menu and Display buttons are conveniently placed just above the rear LCD -- right where you thumb naturally falls.
That said, we still found ourselves detesting the teeny, tiny Record button for firing up movies (we greatly prefer the Live View to Record button on the D90 / D5000, though that's totally subjective). We also found the click wheel (used to shuffling through shutter speeds and the like) placement on the D5000 to be far easier to reach than the top-mounted wheel on the T1i. Additionally, the actual button used to snap a picture just feels too shallow and small for our tastes. C'mon Canon -- get a man-sized depressor on this thing, won'tcha? Finally, we're no fans of the mode dial, or more specifically, its inability to shuffle around 360 degrees. On the D5000, users can spin it entirely around in both directions; on the T1i, users can only spin it one way for a limited distance, and afterwards you'll have to back your way into the preferred setting. Petty, but notable. All in all we've got about as many likes as dislikes when it comes to buttons, but we can't help but note that the pros outweigh the cons (read: nuisances).
Canon EOS Rebel T1i vs. Nikon D5000... fight!See all photos
Make no mistake, the T1i's display is far less interesting than the Vari-angle monitor that's on the D5000. But in most every way, it's better. It's bigger (3.0-inches diagonally versus 2.7-inches on the D5000), it boasts a higher resolution (920,000 dots versus 230,000 dots on the D5000) and it's better positioned (left-aligned versus center-aligned on the D5000). 'Course, you can change that alignment quite easily on Nikon's offering, but if we're talking default positions, the T1i takes the gold here. The actual screen quality on the T1i is good, but it's certainly not as bright, sharp or crisp as the monitor on the D5000 (and D90, for that matter). Furthermore, the GUI on the T1i just isn't as visually stunning as the one on the D5000, though it does serve the purpose after you've digested a few chapters of the owner's manual.
So, we just know you're wondering which display we prefer. If we're being totally candid, we'd take the T1i's panel in 99 percent of scenarios. As many has recognized, the articulating display just isn't that useful in the vast majority of situations. It's cute, it's intriguing and it's different, but we just didn't find ourselves pulling it out all that often. Yeah, you can chalk that up to our distaste of Nikon's Live View implementation and the fact that we don't generally use our DSLR as a camcorder, but if you find yourself in that same camp, you too would probably find that Vari-angle monitor sat flush against the body most of the time.
What is useful, however, is the ability to really see the shot you just took on the rear of your camera, and nothing helps out more with giving you clear views than sheer resolution. Which, as we've pointed out already, is provided on the T1i's high-res screen. The bottom line? Articulating displays, at least on DSLRs, are overrated. Sorry, but it's true.
Image and video quality
With a sensor borrowed from the heralded 50D, it's easy to understand why the T1i takes gorgeous shots. Indeed, we were thoroughly impressed with the camera's shooting abilities in pretty much every respect. Inside, outside, you name it -- the T1i delivered shots that far exceeded our expectations for a camera at this price point. The ISO 12,800 option -- while largely unimportant due to the remarkable amount of grain it adds -- is still a feature we appreciated having. After all, a shot with loads of noise is better than no shot at all, right?
Canon EOS Rebel T1i and Nikon D5000 ISO comparisonsSee all photos
As you can see in the gallery below, the D5000 and T1i measured up pretty well against each other in terms of image quality. Indeed, we found it exceptionally tough to definitely say that we preferred the output of one over the other in every single shot and scenario. In certain lighting conditions, we found ourselves more partial to the T1i; in others, the D5000. At the end of the day, it's probably not the image quality that'll make this decision for you -- both cameras simply excel in producing beautiful shots.
Canon EOS Rebel T1i vs. Nikon D5000 sample imagesSee all photos
Now, onto video. On paper, this one's easily an area where the T1i should dominate... right? Unfortunately, the T1i's 1080p movie mode carries along an unorthodox (ad unappreciated) 20fps setting, which is obviously nowhere close to the more widely accepted 24fps and 30fps standards. The 720p mode does do 30fps, but we couldn't but point out that the Full HD isn't quite as luxurious as advertised. Much like the D5000, the T1i also has a limit on capturing clips. With the D5000, there's a five minute per-clip maximum at 720p. On Canon's shooter, there's a 4GB per-clip ceiling, which roughly equates to 18 minutes of 720p footage or 12 minutes of 1080p. Either way, the time limit isn't nearly as strict on the T1i as it is on the D5000.
Oh, the quality? We know the Nikonians hate to hear it, but the Canon takes the cake here -- for two reasons, really. First off, at least the T1i has a 1080p mode, albeit a hamstrung one. When played back on a PC monitor, the output was definitely striking, as was the 720p footage. Secondly, the T1i doesn't exhibit the infamous "jelly effect" nearly as bad as does the D5000. Sure, there's a certain amount of wobble that's capture while walking as flat-footed as possible, but it's still far more tolerable than capturing that same walk with the D5000 (or D90, really). Also, we tended to lose focus a lot less with Canon's cam, and unlike either of Nikon's video-capable DSLRs, at least the T1i has a way (one that's admittedly clunky) to refocus automatically. Before starting a clip, the T1i instructs you to hold the "*" button to get the shot in focus; once you (or your subjects) begin to move, you can simply mash that button again to bring things back into focus without you having to touch the focus ring. We know, professional videographers will scoff at such a notion, but the novice born with only two hands and half a brain, it's a clever shortcut that gets the job done in most situations. Have a look at the clips below to see precisely what we mean.
Read - Unedited Nikon D5000 720p clip, leisurely walk
Read - Unedited Canon EOS Rebel T1i 1080p (20fps) clip, leisurely walk
Read - Unedited Canon EOS Rebel T1i 720p (30fps) clip, backyard / trees
As we close this section, we should point out that the 18-55mm IS lens bundled in the T1i kit is the Canon equivalent to the 18-55mm VR lens that Nikon tosses in the the D5000 kit. Take it from us -- buy the body only. The kit lens just doesn't have much usefulness in the grand scheme of things, and even an 18-105mm or similar would be entirely more flexible as an all-around option. Trust us, once you get this camera (or any DSLR, really), you'll quickly forget all about the kit lens once you splurge on a few nicer pieces of glass. That's not to say the kit lenses won't get the job done for novices, just that you should do a bit of lens research before selecting the kit over the body alone.
Honestly, we could debate the merits of the D5000 and T1i for days based on specs alone; in some areas, the T1i appears superior, while the D5000 looks like the champ in others. But really, it's about more than numbers and marketing hoopla. It's about "the feel," it's about the features and it's about the value proposition. In case you haven't noticed, we actually compared the T1i to the higher-end D90 on a number of occasions throughout this piece, and for good reason. Somehow, Canon has managed to actually produce a camera that actually rivals a Nikon model that's supposedly one rung up on the ladder of DSLRs. We know, all the marketing suits are insisting that the T1i is really the D5000's main competitor, but frankly, even the D90 should be on red alert.
After using the T1i alongside the D5000, one thing became exceptionally clear to us: the T1i just feels and acts more like a professional camera than does the D5000. It's more rigid, the grips are better built, there's more flexibility due to a higher ISO ceiling and a few more megapixels (we know, we know...), and the video mode is marginally decent -- which is really saying something in the fledgling world of video-capable DSLRs. In terms of image quality, you're really splitting hairs. Both cameras deliver stunning shots for the money, and both are sure to impress their respective buyers. If you're already invested in one brand or the other with lenses and accessories, neither the D5000 nor the T1i offers anything mind-numbing enough to completely derail yourself and hop over to the ambiguous "dark side," but for those brand new to the arena with nothing to lose, it'll be mighty hard to turn down Canon's latest $800 body. In this price range, the only camera we like better than the T1i is Nikon's D90, which is currently streeting for around $90 more (body only) than the T1i's MSRP (body only, also).
We know, you probably zoomed down here hoping for infinite wisdom, an epiphany or a combination of the two, but the sad (happy?) truth is that the "entry-level" DSLR realm is cramped, and we haven't even begun to mix in options from Sony, Pentax and the rest of the gang. If you've somehow narrowed your options down to the D5000 or T1i, spend the extra bones and snag the T1i unless you've got some Nikon-branded accessories weighing you down. You'll appreciate the superior fit and finish, and the 1080p movie mode won't hurt. Oh, and believe us -- you won't miss that articulating display. If you don't mind spending a touch more, we still feel the far more rugged D90 is the way to go when you reach that $900 level. Or, you could just reignite your love affair with that dusty old Holga of yours and forget you were even caught up in this whole "digital" scandal to begin with.