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Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review: Coolpix Gets Tough
by Kimberly Hallen -  12/29/2011

Since smartphones today can take impressive photos with ease, camera manufacturers are forced to come up with additional features that entice consumers to shell out an extra two to three hundred dollars for a point and shoot camera.


Enter Nikon's new addition to their Coolpix line, the Nikon Coolpix AW100. It offers the one thing that smartphones are seriously lacking: adventure. Smartphones simply can't cut it when it comes to outdoor recreation -- a few drops of water and you've voided your warranty. The Nikon AW100, however, invites you to frolic in the waves and capture every moment of your wet n' wild (and cold) adventure. With waterproofing up to 10 meters (33 feet) deep for 60 minutes, Nikon is hoping its hardy offering is enough to keep prospective photographers from going full smartphone for their shooting needs.

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.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image

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.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image

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.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image

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.

Display
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.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image

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.

PERFORMANCE

The overall performance of the Nikon AW100 leaves a good impression. It does what it claims it can do, and in some cases, like the GPS function and Action Control, surprisingly well. What it lacks in image quality and battery performance (more on that later), it makes up for with ruggedness, convenience and practicality.

Shooting Performance
For a camera designed for those with an adventurous "need to capture the moment fast" kind of lifestyle, the AW100 performs up to par. One major benefit that might be overlooked is how quickly the camera turns on and is ready to shoot. Many other point and shoots take their sweet time booting up, but the AW100 is ready to go almost as soon as you press the ON button.

Another surprising feature is its ability to capture sharp photos taken with a long exposure. In the dark shooting modes like "Night Portrait" and "Night Landscape," the ambient light exposures are well lit and not as blurry as one might expect at slow shutter speeds like ? and ?. The auto focus is quick in low light situations as well.

The macro shooting mode allows the camera to get surprisingly close (centimeters, not inches) to the subject while still being able to focus quickly and capture a clear, sharp image. One of the best functioning features on the AW100 is the image stabilization. The vibration reduction, or "VR," works better than most point and shoots and is probably one of the main reasons why shooting in low light is so effective.


Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix AW100 0.01
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 0.01
Panasonic Lumix FH7 0.02
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 0.21
Panasonic Lumix FH7 0.22
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 0.32
Nikon Coolpix AW100 0.50


Continuous Shooting

Digital Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot TX100 10 11.4
Nikon Coolpix AW100 3 8.5
Panasonic Lumix FH7 1.2
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS 12 0.8

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The AW100 continuous shooting mode is also notable, and Nikon claims it can shoot 7.1 frames per second and can fire them off in three or eight shot bursts. Operation is simple and faster than one would expect from a point and shoot, but far slower than a DSLR. The "BSS" continuous option is interesting, and it stands for "Best Shot Selector." When the shutter button is held down in this mode, ten shots are fired off and the camera chooses the best one (the one with the most details). More often than not, it actually worked to my liking, though I'm wary of having any camera or computer select my "best shot."

It's not all great news, however. The EN-EL12 rechargeable lithium battery will drain slowly as long as the camera is only being used as a simple point shoot. As soon as features like video, panorama, HDR and continuous shooting are introduced, the battery drains very quickly and without much warning - and good luck finding a spot to charge it on the mountain top. In addition, the "Smart Portrait" face detection mode is irritating and too slow to be useful.

Lens Performance
Nikon lenses are quality pieces of glass, and the AW100, although just a point and shoot, is no exception. The 5x Wide Angle Zoom Nikkor ED glass lens (35mm equivalent of 28-140mm) outperforms most point and shoot lenses with its ability to maintain image clarity even when zoomed out all the way. The camera ships with a 40.5mm adapter that can be used with filters (sold separately) to enhance tonality. Unfortunately, the camera does not offer any kind of lens protection when not in use, leaving the lens susceptible to fingerprints and scratches from dirt and sand. It's a glaring omission, considering the camera's intended user. I also experienced an unusual amount of lens flare while shooting at night, even though it handled chromatic aberration well.

The flash is mediocre at best, and it appears extremely bright indoors (to the subject, at least) but it doesn't travel very far and struggles to evenly illuminate an entire subject.

Video Quality
Shooting video with the AW100 is a breeze thanks to a quick button on the back. Users don't have to switch modes to record movies.

Video can be shot in full 1080p HD and the front of the camera is equipped with a stereo microphone that picks up sound rather well. Some of my hand movements while holding the camera were recorded rather loudly, something to be wary of, yet the optical zoom, which is enabled during recording, wasn't audible. High speed shooting is also available, along with slow motion, however, these features impair image quality. Filter effects can be applied here as well.

Image Quality
With 16 megapixels and a CMOS sensor, the AW100 offers impressive resolution, with a sharpness close to that of a DSLR. This is attributed not only to the camera's quality lens but also the in-camera contrast and edge enhancement. Auto white balance is generally reliable, aside from shooting a bit warm under indoor incandescent lights.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Special effect options like, "Soft," "Nostalgic Sepia," "High-Contrast Monochrome," "High Key," "Low Key," and "Selective Color" are available and easily accessible in shooting mode. The results are not as cheesy as you'd expect from a point and shoot, at least not from all the effects (there is no hope for "Soft" on any camera, it's always cheesy). For example, "High Contrast Monochrome" yields a decent black and white.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image

Retouching features area also available, but the results aren't noticeably pleasing. Default color reproduction is neutral without much in-camera saturation. Some may find it a bit flat and dull, especially as ISO is raised to compensate in dim lighting conditions.

And that brings us to our array of studio test images. In these and other images captured in the field, there was a lot of visible noise at ISO 400 and over. In some situations, noise is apparent even at ISO 200. Shots taken at ISO 1600 and above (it goes up to 3200) are barely usable.

Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 125
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 125, 100% crop
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 200
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon AW100 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images

Nikon AW100 Sample Image Nikon AW100 Sample Image
Nikon AW100 Sample Image Nikon AW100 Sample Image
Nikon AW100 Sample Image Nikon AW100 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS

For those leading an adventurous life wishing to record it using a camera that can keep up as well as hold up, the Nikon Coolpix AW100 is a fine choice. What it is lacking in the noise-to-signal department, in somewhat flat colors and battery retention it makes up for with convenience, ease-of-use, versatility and overall fun.


Until smartphones are waterproof, this camera is the one to use during outdoor activity.

Pros:

Cons: