BUILD AND DESIGN
With a rugged-yet-lightweight (6.3oz) build, the Nikon Coolpix AW100 is not only waterproof, but also shock resistant from 1.5 meters (5 feet) and can withstand weather as low as -10 C (14 F). Additional features like an onboard GPS for geo tagging pics make this 16 megapixel shooter an attractive offering for the worldly adventurer, at least on paper.
At 4.4 x 2.6 x 0.9 in, the Coolpix AW100 has a fairly simple design, so it's definitely not as flashy or contoured as some of its competitors. It has a rectangular and dense plastic body with rounded corners and flat sides. Visually, the only aspect that lends itself to being waterproof is the battery/memory card chamber on the side. The compartment is concealed by a door that requires the user to simultaneously press a button and turn a knob to open seals it (not easy for those wearing gloves or mittens). Inside are the battery compartment and the memory card slot, as well as an HDMI and A/V out port. These sensitive areas are protected by a piece of yellow rubber that seals them from water.
The opposite side contains just one button that acts as both the World Map display button and the Action button for motion controls, which come in handy when wearing gloves or operating the camera underwater. The bottom of the camera has just the tripod socket and the top has only a square recessed power button and a textured shutter button, along with a built-in GPS antenna.
The facade is flat and not intimidating. Looking straight on at the AW100, the square shaped, slightly recessed lens is on the right and the flash is on the left, out of the way of errant finger placement. There is also a very small circle that serves a large purpose... actually, three large purposes: it's the self-timer lamp, AF-assist illuminator and the movie mode illuminator. The microphone and stereo speakers are housed in front as well.
The rear of the camera is dominated mostly by the 3.0-inch LCD screen, but there is ample room for control buttons large enough to operate with precision using just a thumb. The top right contains a flash lamp, underneath are the zoom buttons followed by the movie record button. Below that are the main controls, the shooting mode and playback button and the multi selector that also serves as a timer button (left), flash button (top), exposure compensation button (right), macro mode button (bottom) and an OK button in the center. Under that multi selector are the menu and trash buttons.
Ergonomics and Controls
As mentioned above, the AW100 has a very flat simple design, which is great when you want to lay it down for a self-portrait without it rocking around and falling over; however, it is not ideal when it comes to gripping the camera. Many other waterproof cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 and the Casio EX-G1, have a contoured grip that is more comfortable and secure. Considering Nikon intended the AW100 to be used with one hand in many circumstances, it's odd they didn't incorporate a more grip-friendly design.
The mostly plastic build is another mystery, considering it gets rather slippery when wet, a few rubber grips would be helpful in keeping a sturdy grasp on the camera. That said, Nikon was nice enough to include a thick strap.
The buttons are easy to press and the camera responds accordingly. They are also laid out logically and intuitively. However, one of the unique features of the AW100 is that you don't always have to use the buttons. Action Control is a feature that when turned on in the Setup menu, allows the user to activate certain functions by moving the camera from front to back or by tilting it up and down.
After hitting the Action button on the left, the user can tilt the camera and choose from Scene Mode, Start Movie Recording, Playback Images, and GPS options all with a slight flick of the wrist. It should be second nature for anyone familiar with Wii remotes. For those who are concerned that an accidental tilt or shift will errantly open menus, fear not, there are settings ranging from low to high that adjust the sensitivity of the action controls.
This feature actually works better than expected, but it might be tough to press the Action button with thick gloves on. The Action button itself is also somewhat confusing because it looks like it is a two-function rocker, but it is actually just one button that serves one purpose at a time, either accessing the World Map or starting Action control.
Menus and Modes
For a point and shoot, the AW100 has a rather deep menu system. It isn't difficult to figure out, but it is not intuitively laid out, and menu items are dispersed into two distinct categories. In addition, the Quick Guide booklet is useless and contains no detailed information on the modes. In fact, the AW100 manual is only available on a packaged CD-ROM.
The multi selector easily controls all of the menu functions. The shooting menu is split up into three categories, Shooting, Movie, and Setup. It is here that the user can control camera settings such as White Balance, ISO, and Auto Focus, however, these can only be controlled while the camera is in "Auto Mode," which is definitely counterintuitive. There is also an "Easy Auto Mode" that, when on, automates most picture controls.
The green camera button (shooting mode button) acts as a shortcut to access other settings like Scene Modes, Special Effects, and Smart Portrait. There are 19 different Scenes to choose from, and most are standard, but the AW100 offers some new ones such as "Backlighting" that enables an HDR setting, which assists in bringing out shadow and highlight detail. However, I found the built-in flash to be more effective in achieving the same look, sans HDR. Other unique scene modes include "Panorama," which works very well for, well, panoramas, and "Underwater," which keeps the shutter open longer.
The Playback menu has some interesting features worth noting, mainly in-camera editing like "Glamour retouch," "Quick retouch," "D-lighting" and "Filter effects." The "Filter effects" offers a fisheye option that is fun, but not particularly useful. Missing from the menu options is a histogram and the ability to shoot in RAW format, which shouldn't bother the casual user too much.
The AW100 also has a "Map menu" for GPS settings, though setting it up is also not intuitive, especially if the Action Control button is activated.
The AW100 features a 3.0-inch, 460k-dot, wide viewing angle TFT LCD monitor with anti-reflection coating and five-level brightness adjustment, meaning it does a slightly better job cutting through glare than the average point and shoot. We measured a peak brightness of 375 nits and an overall contrast ratio of 815:1 in our lab test.
It has accurate color representation and viewing is smooth and fluid, but a little jumpier in low light. It is particularly smooth when shooting a panorama or video. There is no viewfinder other than the LCD, which is becoming more common. The display settings, or "Monitor" settings as it's referred to in the camera, allow the user to turn info on and off as well as view a framing grid for better composition.
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