Here we take a look at the overall build quality, handling, and user interface of each camera. We will evaluate the lenses separately on the next page.
The build quality of the Canon Rebel T4i / 650D feels much cheaper than the Nikon D5100 or the Pentax K-30. The scrollwheel is loud and can be hard to turn, the rear buttons feel flimsy, and the overall build seems "plasticky." With that said, the Canon is easier to hold than the Nikon, so we won't be making a big deal of its build quality.
Each of the three cameras has a much different button layout, and in our opinion, the Canon's layout is less intuitive than that of the Nikon or the Pentax. For example, the same button that enables live view in a still shooting mode is used to start recording video in movie mode. The movie mode switch is easy to get to, but it does make it possible to turn off the camera on accident when trying to exit movie mode. There is, however, a dedicated ISO button, and quick access to white balance, drive mode, and AF settings (which the Nikon lacks). There's also an IR sensor on the front of the camera, but no Fn button.
Like the Nikon, the Canon has an articulating LCD screen. Technically speaking, it has a slightly higher resolution than that of the other two cameras, but it is still in the VGA ballpark (~640x480 pixels). Camera manufacturers generally report LCD resolutions in terms of "dots", which we believe is not only misleading due to its uni-dimensionality, but also a poor excuse for advertising bigger numbers. But, for the sake of completeness, the Canon's LCD has 1040 thousand dots, while the other cameras have 921 thousand.
Technical specifications aside, the big thing here is that the Canon actually has a touch-screen. This can make it easier to configure settings, but more importantly, it allows you to select a focus point doing live view, or even take a photo by tapping on the location where you want the camera to focus.
Thanks to its latest-generation DIGIC 5 image processor, the Canon also has great playback performance (though the Nikon's is slightly better) and minimal latency in live view.
If there's anything to complain about apart from the plasticky build quality, it would be the small size of the buttons on the back of the camera, and their close proximity to each other.
The Nikon D5100 is a rather compact camera. It has a solid build quality with a wide array of buttons to make it easy to access all of its different functions. Live view is easily accessible using the switch attached to the mode selection dial, and video recording can be initiated with a press of a button. It has a single rear control wheel which is snappy and easy to turn. On the front of the camera you'll find an IR port and a dedicated AF assist light, which the Canon lacks. The right side houses a customizable Fx button which can be mapped to control image quality, ISO, active-D lighting, or white balance. The pop-up flash mechanism is controlled electronically, meaning that if you're in green mode, the flash will pop up on its own if the camera thinks it is needed. Like on all Nikon cameras, the lens mounts "the wrong way" (i.e you turn it counterclockwise to tighten).
On the back you'll find an articulating LCD screen, which comes in very handy for shooting video or when it isn't conveinent to be looking through the viewfinder (i.e. when shooting something close to the ground).
One novel feature that the D5100 has is an interactive help system. For example, if there is no card in the camera, a question mark will flash on the status screen, and further information is shown when you press the help button (located in the lower-right corner of the camera). In this particular case, you are told that if you want the shutter to fire when there's no card in the camera, you have to set a custom function. Similarly, this icon will flash if the camera thinks that your photos won't turn out well due to poor lighting conditions, and that the flash or a tripod should be used. The help screens on the Canon and Pentax are nowhere near as novice-friendly.
There were many other things that we liked in terms of handling: contents of the display rotate based on orientation, meaning that text on the status screen won't appear sideways when you're shooting verticals. The playback mode is lightning-fast; there is no waiting for images to load. There is minimal latency in live view, meaning that what you see is usually what you get. Finally, there is a comprehensive info screen (accessed via the info button) which lets you control just about every shooting parameter that the camera has to offer.
On the other hand, the D5100 lacks dedicated buttons to change common settings such as ISO (your only choice would be to use the Fn button for this purpose), and the 4-way selector does not quickly let you change settings as on the Canon and Pentax.
Our main complaint about the Nikon is its grip, which is way too small, making the camera difficult to hold compared to the other two. Despite the fact that the D5100 has the now-superceded EXPEED-2 impage processor, we had no complaints whatosever with respect to menu or live view peformance. A higher framerate wouldn't turn, though!
The Pentax K-30, unlike the other two cameras, is fully weather-sealed. It also has a massive grip which makes it much easier to hold than its rivals. The weather sealing does make it about 10% heavier, but this is made up by the fact that the camera feels very tough and sturdy.
Another advantage of the K-30 is its viewfinder: it is bigger and brighter than that of the other cameras, and uses a pentaprism rather than a pentamirror.
Like the Nikon, the K-30 has a dedicated AF assist light, an IR port, a flash button, and a customizable button on the front. In addition to this, however, it also has a mechanical AF switch which lets you quickly switch between normal autofocus, continuous autofocus, or manual focus (the latter is a necessity, since many autofocus Pentax lenses, such as the kit lens, have no AF/MF switch).
One big differnce between the K-30 and the other cameras is that the pop-up flash is not electronically controlled; the button is mechanical, meaning that the flash will not fire unless you yourself pop it up first. Advanced users will prefer this sort of behaviour, but for novices, this means that the K-30 may sometimes fail to get the best picture possible. Pentax must have felt that users opting for the K-30 will prefer the more advanced approach to flash, as the Pentax K-r (most recent, now-discontinued intro-level model) and its predecessors had electronically-controlled flash mechanisms just like the D5100 and T4i.
Another difference lies in the shooting modes. In addition to offering Sv and TAv (you set the ISO, camera sets the rest; you set the shutter speed and aperture, camera sets the ISO, respectively), the K-30 has Pentax's Hyper Program feature, which allows you to change both the shutter speed and aperture in P mode simply by turning the corresponding e-dial. You return to the main program line by pressing the green button. This approach saves you from having to change modes in order to dial in a custom shutter speed or aperture.
You have to use the mode dial in order to get to the K-30's movie mode. While this isn't quite as convenient as on the Canon or Nikon, we find it to be acceptable, as the mode dial is easy to turn and always withing reach. Had it employed a locking mechanism, it would have been a much different story! Given how easy Pentax has made changing the shutter speed and aperture while shooting, however, they certainly have room for improvement with respect to their video controls.
Pentax didn't follow suit with the articulating LCD screen, and on the back of the K-30, you'll find a conventional display. A tilting screen is something that many Pentax users have been asking for for a while, and we hope that Pentax implements one soon in a comparable model.
The Pentax partially makes up for this by having very large buttons compared to the other cameras.
Unfortunately, however, the K-30's live view performance is not on par with that of the other cameras. In low light, the framerate can sink to the point where it feels the camera is frozen, especially if focus peaking (a feature which the Canon has but the Nikon lacks) is enabled. There is also some noticeable latency, though it's much lower than on previous Pentax DSLRs. In playback mode, images also load much quicker than on previous Pentax DSLRs (thanks to the new PRIME M processor), but the other two cameras still have the K-30 beaten in this respect.
Despite not having and articulating LCD screen and not doing as well in live view, our main complaint about the K-30's usability lies elsewhere. The live view button, unlike on any other Pentax DSLR, has been moved to the left side of the camera. This makes it impossible to switch to live view when holding the camera with just one hand, which can be very disadvantageous when you're trying to photograph something while standing in a crowd, for instance.
There's one other minor issue with the construction of the K-30: we find the elongated tip of the prism housing to be a nuisance, as it makes it harder to remove lenses. Thanks to the K-30 cross-sections showcased at Photokina, we leanred that this elongation was nothing more than a design decision.
While the Nikon D5100 and the Canon T4i are well-rounded cameras, the Pentax K-30 makes some compromises: it offers significantly better build quality and ergonomics, as well as weather sealing, while not being as high-tech with respect to the screen and live view/playback mode.
None of the three cameras are perfect; they all have their pros and cons. While the Nikon has great help screens and an articulating LCD, some settings may be hard to get to, and it's hard to hold. The Canon has more external controls and a touch screen, but the button layout isn't as intuitive as on the other cameras, and the build quality isn't as good. The K-30 is well-built with big buttons and an intuitive interface, but the live view button and video modes are more difficult to get to, and it has a traditional LCD screen.
Would most users be able to notice a difference between the playback/live view performance of the K-30 and the other two cameras? We do believe they would, but probably not unless the issue was explicitly broought up, which is why we don't think this is a deal-breaker for the Pentax unless the user is very demanding.