In the battle for best beginner digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i just narrowly loses to the newer Nikon D3200 (*Est. $650 with kit lens). Both shoot top-notch photos and HD video in tests. More megapixels and a few nifty features like a novice-friendly Guide Mode nudge the Nikon over the top, but the Canon boasts some extras you won't find on the Nikon, including a swiveling LCD screen and exposure bracketing.
Swivel screen lets you see from all angles. A side-hinged, tilt-and-swivel LCD screen is one of the Canon T3i's most helpful features, reviews say. No more craning to see the screen when the camera's on a tripod or you hold it at an odd angle like over the heads of a crowd, and you can shoot video without holding the camera right in front of your face. The Nikon D3200 doesn't have a swivel screen, although the older D5100 (*Est. $650 with kit lens) does.
The EOS Rebel T3i doesn't have the D3200's helpful Guide Mode, however, which walks beginners through the camera's various features. Still, plenty of owners at Amazon.com find the T3i simple to use, and more than 400 users give the camera nearly perfect ratings.
"This is a wonderful, easy-to-use camera," one owner writes. "I personally hate reading instructions and with this camera I didn't really need to." Another says, "This is my first DSLR, and I absolutely love it. As a complete beginner, I love that it has easy presets yet makes the more advanced features easy to navigate."
Overall, testers find the Canon T3i lightweight, comfortable and intuitive -- "an attractive blend of ease-of-use and fine control," says TJ Donegan at DigitalCameraInfo.com. A couple of experts say the optical viewfinder is a little tight, with less magnification than others in its class, but you can always frame your shot in Live View on the LCD screen. Reviewers call that screen terrific, bright and sharp, but as with most budget DSLRs, autofocus works slowly that way.
Outstanding image quality, on par with the Nikon D3200. "Still images from the Canon T3i are stunning," says Shawn Barnett at Imaging-Resource.com, and other experts agree. "Excellent image quality" even in dim light, say the equally picky reviewers at DPReview.com.
The T3i's 18-megapixel compact sensor is similar to that on the pricier Canon EOS 7D (*Est. $1,500 body only). You could opt for high-def bragging rights with the new 24-megapixel Nikon D3200, but critics say your photos won't necessarily look any better. In side-by-side tests at Imaging-Resource.com, both cameras capture similar levels of detail.
In addition, both are similarly quick. The Canon T3i "starts up as soon as you flip the power switch, so you can take photos instantly," says Jeff Keller at DCResource.com. Although autofocus is sluggish if you frame your shot on the LCD screen, it's snappy if you look through the optical viewfinder. "Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal," Keller adds. The T3i can burst-shoot 3.7 frames per second (fps), just behind the 4-fps D3200.
As for video, both the EOS Rebel T3i and Nikon D3200 can shoot in full 1,080p HD, and reviews say the footage looks terrific. The Canon offers full manual exposure control and manual autofocus but no continuous autofocus, like the Nikon. However, experts say all budget DSLRs are slow and noisy when it comes to autofocusing during movies, and they're just not as easy or effective as a dedicated camcorder.
Battery life is rated at 550 shots per charge, on par with the D3200.
Plastic, but solid. Like other budget-priced DSLRs, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i shaves costs by using a mostly plastic body. Critics say that's okay because it still feels sturdy.
"There's a stainless steel frame on the inside," says DCResource.com's Keller. "That gives it a fairly solid feel, and that goes for all of the camera's ports and doors. One thing I don't like about the finish on the camera is that it tends to scratch very easily, leaving a white residue behind. Thankfully, you can just wipe it away."
The plastic body has an upside, too: lighter weight. "The camera is a lot lighter than the Canon metal-bodied cameras, and has survived a couple of nasty falls with no damage," says one T3i owner at Amazon.com.
Inherits features from Canon's pricier EOS 7D. The T3i offers "just about every feature we've been longing for in a sub-$1,000 camera," say reviewers at Imaging-Resource.com. It shares a laundry list of extras with the much more expensive Canon EOS 7D, including the same metering system, ISO and exposure compensation range, which help account for the T3i's stellar image quality. It gets the same advanced Movie Mode features, too, and an external microphone jack.
In this arena the EOS Rebel T3i is pretty comparable to the Nikon D3200, although the Nikon lacks the Canon's swiveling screen and exposure bracketing. You can set the T3i to shoot three photos -- one at a normal exposure, one slightly lower and one slightly higher -- in case you don't like the way the normal exposure turns out.
Review Credibility: Very Good Although it doesn't break any new ground, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i is "an impressive camera for the money and it's hard not to imagine owners loving theirs," these experts conclude after exhaustive testing.
Review: Canon Rebel T3i/EOS 600D Review, Richard Butler and Andy Westlake, March 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good After a thorough evaluation, Donegan recommends the Canon EOS Rebel T3i with some reservations about its kit lens quality, menu organization and slow autofocus in live view. When the Nikon D5100 appears a few months later for essentially the same price, Donegan prefers it.
Review: Canon EOS Rebel T3i , TJ Donegan, April 20, 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good Canon offers several excellent cameras in this price range, but the EOS Rebel T3i is "the best compromise," experts here decide. This extensive review includes in-the-field shots including a family zoo trip and a dimly lit kindergarten concert, and compares the T3i to several rivals in lab tests.
Review: Canon EOS Rebel T3i (EOS 600D), Shawn Barnett, Dave Etchells, Zig Weidelich and Mike Tomkins, Aug. 11, 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good After a full test, Keller recommends the Canon EOS Rebel T3i as a top choice for beginners. However, he also likes the newer Nikon D5100, and in that later review he notes a few ways that the Nikon beats the Canon, including low-light shooting.
Review: DCRP Canon EOS Rebel T3i Review, Jeff Keller, April 26, 2011
Review Credibility: Very Good More than 440 owners review the Canon EOS Rebel T3i here, and about 90 percent of them give it 4 stars out of 5 or a perfect 5 stars. Particularly helpful are the lengthy reviews -- by both camera enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts -- detailing what they like and dislike about the T3i.
Review: Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012