Nikon's Coolpix L20 represents one of the best options we've seen in a growing category of cameras: very affordable, easy-to-use point-and-shoots with surprisingly stellar image quality and a bit of fashion sense.

The Nikon Coolpix L20 clocks in at just £129, but its image quality surpassed some much more expensive cameras in our jury evaluations. In fact, it netted the best image quality score of any point-and-shoot camera we've looked at so far in 2009 - very impressive for a bargain-bin, AA-battery-powered camera.

Although the 10-megapixel Nikon Coolpix L20's image stabilisation system is software-based, it did a great job of capturing clear, unblurred images - even when we shook it around vigorously while taking a photo or zoomed in to the maximum capacity of its 3.6X optical-zoom (38mm to 136mm) lens. Images were surprisingly clear and sharp for a nonmechanical image stabilisation system.

The deep red Nikon Coolpix L20 we tested had a lacquered plastic finish that one coworker likened to his wife's nail polish. The colour looks sharp, and the lacquered effect feels nice in the hand. Even though it looks slick (in both the literal and aesthetic senses of the word), we were able to operate the camera with wet hands without it getting slippery.

The back of the Nikon Coolpix L20 is dominated by a huge, 3in-diagonal LCD screen, which makes composing shots and reviewing them a nicer experience than it is with most other bargain cameras. Several buttons - on/off, shutter, and playback plus a button for switching among the movie and still modes and the access to the 16 scene modes - are on the top of the camera.

Rather than a ring around the shutter, the Nikon Coolpix L20 uses a wide/tight zoom bar that's placed on the back of the camera where your right thumb would normally rest. It's easily operated and comfortable to use thanks to a grooved indentation for the thumb, but it's something to think about before buying if you prefer a ring-around-the-shutter-button approach to zooming.

A nice extra - and one that's pretty rare on point-and-shoots of any price - is a capability to zoom in and out while the Nikon Coolpix L20 is in movie mode. The Coolpix L20 captures 640-by-480 AVI clips at 30 frames per second (with the option of knocking the resolution down to 320-by-240 at either 30 or 15 fps).

In oursubjective evaluations, the Nikon Coolpix L20 outshone all other cameras in the sub-£200 price range in terms of overall image quality. It earned a lower score than some competitors due to image distortion, but was still among the best we tested in color accuracy and exposure quality.

Battery life is something of a weak spot, but not terrible: the Nikon Coolpix L20 fired off 230 shots before its AA batteries needed to be replaced, significantly short of the 300-plus shots many competing point-and-shoots offer.

The remaining buttons on the back are standard issue: a dedicated menu button; a dedicated delete button; and a round pad (the "multi-selector") to navigate menu functions and turn on the timer, the flash, and the macro mode, and adjust exposure compensation.

You don't get full manual controls - not surprising in a camera of this price - but also no manual ISO controls. The ISO automatically boosts in low-light settings when you have the flash turned off, but you can't select specific ISO sensitivity levels in the camera. This is definitely an entry-level model with an emphasis on ease of use.

NEXT PAGE: nifty features

Nikon's Coolpix L20 represents one of the best options we've seen in a growing category of cameras: very affordable, easy-to-use point-and-shoots with surprisingly stellar image quality and a bit of fashion sense.

Easy to use it certainly is, but there are a few nifty features in the mix. Along with 16 scene modes and an Easy Auto mode that automatically selects the ideal mode based on the shooting environment, the Nikon Coolpix L20 has a "Blink Warning" feature that scans photos immediately after they're taken and alerts you if someone in the shot blinked. That way, you can choose whether to keep that embarrassing photo of your friend with his eyes closed.

Also nice for a camera at this price is a panorama-assist mode, which guides you through the process of shooting panoramic images by keeping the ghosted edge of the last photo you shot visible while you shoot subsequent photos. The ArcSoft Panorama Maker 4 software bundled with the Nikon Coolpix L20 as part of the camera's photo-management suite does a great job of stitching things together from there, and you can even create 360-degree panoramas very easily.

The other software included with the Nikon Coolpix L20's CD-ROM-installed suite is useful but nothing special; the Nikon Transfer app lets you transfer and manage photos from the camera, edit embedded photo info, and upload photos to Nikon's My Picturetown sharing service.

Nikon Coolpix L20: Specs

  • 10.0 megapixel resolution
  • NIKKOR 3.6x zoom lens
  • 2x anti-blur technologies
  • Smart portrait system and Scene Auto Selector
  • 3-inch LCD monitor
  • High ISO (1600)
  • Advanced Face Priority AF with in-camera Red-eye Fix
  • Movie recording with sound
  • 97x29x61mm
  • 135g
  • 10.0 megapixel resolution
  • NIKKOR 3.6x zoom lens
  • 2x anti-blur technologies
  • Smart portrait system and Scene Auto Selector
  • 3-inch LCD monitor
  • High ISO (1600)
  • Advanced Face Priority AF with in-camera Red-eye Fix
  • Movie recording with sound
  • 97x29x61mm
  • 135g

OUR VERDICT

All in all, the Nikon Coolpix L20 is a very affordable camera that performed very well in our image tests. For value, ease of use, and eye-catching looks, it's one of the best bargain point-and-shoots we've seen so far in 2009. Don't expect the manual controls you'd get with slightly more expensive cameras, but do consider the Nikon Coolpix L20 as a great option for beginners and casual night-on-the-town photographers.

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