Consumers have shown that they really like compact digital cameras that combine the ease of a point and shoot with the feature set of a DSLR. They like larger sensors, enhanced performance, better image quality, and the abilty to swap lenses. The new Nikon 1 AW1 meets this consumer criteria. The AW1 is a waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera); a relatively new type of camera. In fact, the AW1 just might be the most versatile "Extreme Sports" camera (at this price point) currently available. Check out our "first look" images here.
Build And Design
The Nikon 1 AW1 is essentially a Nikon 1 J3 on steroids. It is an attractive camera, but it doesn't look like a compact P&S digicam and it doesn't look much like a DSLR either. It does, however, look a bit like the rangefinder cameras from another era and it seems to be built to old-school standards. The metal-alloy frame/Stainless steel top/front panels, and Polycarbonate body shell construction feels robust and substantial, but it doesn't feel too heavy. The AW1 isn't really pocketable (at least not with the zoom lens attached), but the included neck strap will keep this camera both close and relatively secure. The AW1 is waterproof to 49 feet (15 meters), dustproof, designed to withstand a 6.6 feet (2 meters) drop onto a hard surface, and it's freeze-proofed down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Centigrade).
The AW1 should make its broad target demographic very happy. Some old timers are already calling the AW1 the legitimate successor to Nikon's legendary Nikonos series of underwater 35mm cameras from the sixties. Fortunately, the AW1 is not a latter day Nikonos. Those old Nikonos cameras were notoriously difficult to operate and ridiculously slow to load. Although the Nikonos cameras could be taken down to 164 feet (50 meters), the AW1 can only go down to 49 feet (15 meters). But Nikonos cameras were never shockproof, freeze-proof, or easy to use.
The AW1 also provides 14 megapixel resolution. It allows for both JPEG and RAW image capture formats. The AW1 also has a 3.0 inch (7.5 centimeters) 921k TFT LCD monitor. It records HD video at 1920 x 1080p @ 60 fps (and other resolutions and frame rates) with stereo audio. The AW1 is available (with matching color lenses) in black, white, and silver versions. Nikon offers protective skins at an extra cost. I've seen pictures of the bio-hazzard orange skin and it looks pretty cool and does appear to offer a bit of additional protection.
The Nikon 1 AW1 is currently available for pre-order with the kit lens from $800-$1000 depending on the seller.
Ergonomics and Controls
I've always loved compact cameras, but small cameras present some limitations that are very difficult to overcome. The AW1's designers did a wonderful job on control placement. The AW1's controls (for the most part) are logically placed and easily accessed, for right-handed shooters. Here's an example of that thoughtful design philosophy. The AW1's video start/stop button is on the camera's top deck, right next to the shutter button. This placement makes it easier to access this control underwater or if the user is wearing gloves. Here's another example, the exposure compensation function is on the compass switch, directly connected to an easy to use scale that is controlled by the compass switch's rotary jog dial and (this is very important) the AW1 forgets all exposure compensation settings the moment the camera is turned off--so no ugly surprises the next time you use the camera.
What I consider the AW1's most egregious controls design misstep is the action mode button (which provides a short cut to the AW1's creative shooting modes) located immediately to the right of the thumb rest on the camera's rear deck. Push this button and a crescent shaped scale appears. Tilt the camera while holding the button in and the indicator moves from selection to selection. When you highlight the mode you want, release the button and the shooting mode is changed. Here's the problem...this button is situated directly to the right of the thumb rest, which means that it can be activated accidentally when holding the camera. This could easily cost the shooter a killer shot. Since I've already highlighted the thumb rest on the back of the camera, I'm going to mention one of my other pet peeves with the AW1--the finger rail grip. I would have preferred a real hand-grip, even a skinny shallow one. This camera was designed specifically for use in extreme environments where the user might be wearing gloves, or riding in an easily rocked Kayak or canoe, or sitting astride a precariously balanced mountain bike. This means the AW1's minimalist finger rail grip/thumb rest combo is going to provide very little security against dropping this smooth surfaced camera. Don't get me wrong. There is no such thing as a perfect camera, but if Nikon's product development folks move the action shooting mode button and add a small hand-grip to the AW2, that camera will be two steps closer to perfect. Here's another step I'd like to see--the Nikon 1 AW1 most obvious omission is a dedicated shooting mode dial--having to enable the menu to select a shooting mode is time consuming, less precise, and occasionally awkward. How about a real mode dial on the AW2?
Menus and Modes
The AW1 features a very simplified menu system. The icon driven menu was designed specifically for ease of use since the shooter might well be ten meters below the surface of the ocean, sitting in a wave rocked kayak, wearing gloves, or perched precariously on skis on the slopes of a snow covered mountain.
The AW1's shooting modes include:
Motion Snapshot: Users capture a JPEG still image combined with a 1-second video clip. The AW1 then stretches that video clip to a 2.5-second slow motion video file.
Auto: Just point and shoot. No user input.
Creative: Provides a selection of shooting mode options including: Program, shutter priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, underwater, night landscape, night portrait, backlighting, easy panorama, soft, miniature effect, and selective color.
Advanced Movie Mode: Custom camera settings for video capture.
The AW1 features a large bright 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 921K resolution. The wide-viewing angle TFT LCD monitor is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid. The default info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences. Here's the bottom line on the AW1's LCD monitor--WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) the colors you see on the screen are the colors the AW1 records.
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