I wrote an updated review for Amazon's sister site DP Review and feel it's a more well-rounded one, now that I've used the lens quite a lot, now. Instead of replacing the original, which some found useful, I've left this as it was, at the end.
I shoot music bands and soloists in dark pubs for the local paper and for the artists themselves, often with no extra lighting and I don't use flash. Rather than use my heavy, very obvious and slower 70-200mm f2.8 Sigma, I've got this gem. I almost always shoot at f1.8, where it's sharp (TOO sharp for actual portraiture) and the resulting bokeh is pleasing and deals with background details (dartboards, TVs, switches, menus!!).
On my D700 it's 85mm and on my D7000 it's 127mm, a really useful focal length. At max aperture, combined with both these camera's high top iso's, you can literally get a result out of near darkness.
When you've been manhandling a heavy D700 for several hours at a Festival, the lightness of this lens is a revelation, but still strong enough to pick up that combo by the lens. The hood is good and deep and fits much better than many Nikon's, which can be prone to being knocked off (easy in pubs). The excellent handling means I can get down to 1/30 sec, without blur.
The SWM is good, quick and near silent. A model or quiet piece of live music (in a church?) doesn't want noise from a lens motor! I'll often use MF though, as it's still not infallible and no system can latch onto low contrast and dark bits and the ring is a good size and the mode is easily switchable.
Relatively good value - when compared to the f1.4G and the still evergreen 'D' model that still sells well and is quite pricey secondhand (my original choice).
I don't mind the all plastics - it won't go white-water rafting or be dropped out of planes as I skydive (I don't do either, actually).
Problems: You cannot attach a teleconverter, as the rear element is flush with the back flange.
I think of Nikkor lenses (I still use a couple from the early 70s) as lasting forever - the supposed in-built 10 year lifetime span both worries and disappoints me, a bit.
My review primarily examines the reasons for my choice of this latest "G" series version of a very popular lens.
Let's get the quality issue out of the way - this is a Nikon Nikkor prime lens, with a fast, but not the fast-est maximum aperture. Of course it will be sharp at f1.8, even better at f2.8 and by f4.5-5.6, will be able to cut diamonds. That's a given - Nikon would be laughed off the planet, if it didn't.
I regularly use a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 Apo, which for many would be a dream lens - and is quite adequate at full aperture, too, thank-you. It's great for a walkabout zoom at night at outdoor festivals and carnivals and such.
Now, I know a lot of local musicians and often photograph them in the dingiest, most badly lit places possible. Their lighting is for 'mood', definitely not for photographers! Now, I - and we - can always tell when a stranger photographer (press) encroaches into our domain, as they'll have the biggest kit that money can buy - and then, with another camera, just in case.
I now want to be more discreet and also, to enjoy the music more, instead of wrestling with my 1.4kg, 20cm long 70-200mm monster. Sure, you get variable focal length but that will always impose a compromise into any lens design.
Take the 85mm focal length, on my Nikon D700, a short telephoto and on my D7000, an equivalent of 127.5mm. I worked out, from my metadata, that a very high percentage of my pictures of solo musicians were taken around the 120-130mm mark. There was a real reason why the 135mm prime lens of old was considered an essential purchase, along with the 28mm, after the standard 50mm. A head/shoulders portrait of someone in a large room at a comfortable distance falls within that focal range; sure I've got my fast Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 HSM as well, for photos of the band, but rarely would I need longer than the 85mm at the long end - and the Nikkor would easily stand cropping, if need be, in any case.
I bought an old manual focus Nikkor 135mm f2 on a well known auction site and soon became addicted to this maximum aperture and used it a lot, except with the D7000, it equates to 202mm, which means one has to almost go outside the building to fit anything in! Instead of buying either a brand new 135mm f2 A/F, at about a grand, or an 85mm 1.4 (about the same) I've just bought this 85mm f1.8 'G'. Still fast, but highly usable and with Silent Wave Motor (SWM) AF, for just over one third of the cost of either of those others.
Why the new "G"? It does take larger filters - 67mm, instead of 62mm, but few use colour temperature filters these days, anyway - and as many decry, has a lot more plastic 'padding' on it.
Secondhand, a very good condition "D" is still so popular, you're looking at £260, easily, with a new one (one of the very few Nikkor lenses Nikon still sell alongside its 'update') being not a huge amount more. IF you're buying brand new, the 'G', again, IF, you shop around, is about that difference again, on top of a new 'D'.
Now, to that extra padding and bulk - I've got big hands and am used to handling a big 70-200mm for a day and so, I actually prefer something less dinky. From what I've read, the extra plastic girth actually provides better protection to the SWM motor (cheaper Nikon bodies have no compatibility problems with this lens) and to the glassware. Nikon also say that the lens has a weather-sealed rubber lens mount.
SWM - Anybody who's regularly used any lens with SWM, or, for an example, Sigma's alternative - HSM (Hypersonic Motor) - will know how these almost magically flit the focus between closest and infinity in an instant - and silently. If, you've got a nervous sitter, or a pet, or a hushed concert hall, would you rather have a (in comparison) a conventional whirring, noisy AF motor, or silence? If there's ever any lens where the extra cost and virtue of SWM over that of the 'ordinary', it must be this one.
Which brings it down to value for money. It's fast, but not the fastest. It's useful, if you have need of one. It could be a breadwinner, if that's your market. It's quality, though made in China, the gold embellishments and 'crinkled' black casing feel assuring and the lens hood is a good size and decently made. The handling is exemplary, manual focus is light, but with resistance, the size/weight ratio ideal, for me. Mine cost me exactly the same as my very old, horrendously stiff manually focussing 135mm f2, which IS made like they made tanks and Volvo estate cars and will probably outlive me - but this is 2012, SWM is genius and Nikon have updated an old favourite, very successfully, in my opinion.
In use - the lens IS sharp, very sharp, even wide open. A professional portrait photographer friend described (I lent it to her) its defining powers as "cruel" on the human face, even at f1.8, which at least means the sharpness is there in the first place. She doesn't follow equipment trends but thought the lens cost was about double what it actually is. The only reason why she's not ordering one is because she only uses DX format and likes to be intimate with her subjects and prefers a standard 32mm prime lens.
Technical reviews have stated that the lens' performance dips from f11 on, with the smallest aperture, f16, faring worst, due to diffraction. I used it at that, as I needed the depth of field and for all intents and purposes, it's still fine.
Handling - on either the D700, or D7000, the lens is the perfect size and the focussing ring falls naturally to hand. Its light weight does not lower the feeling of quality it does not feel cheap or flimsy. In the field, the AF goes from nearest to furthest focus in a fraction of a second and swiftly and easily finds its subject.
All in all - a lovely lens that is causing quite a stir among my photographic friends. Sure, it's not the f1.4, but IS the price of a Nikon flashgun, or a Nikkor 70-300mm VR zoom and not the cost of a new D300S body. I'm not saying that the half stop less won't make much difference, but for most it probably won't much, certainly not as much as the cost disparity.