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Nikon 1 AW1 Review: Waterproof Trailblazer
by Howard Creech -  12/20/2013

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.

Display/Viewfinder

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.



Performance

In general, the AW1 is pretty quick.  From 'off' to first picture capture is about 1.5-2.0 seconds. I did notice a very brief lag (about 1/4 to 1/2 of a second) when pushing the start/stop video button, before video capture actually begins or ends. The AW1 is capable of producing consistently very good to excellent still images and very good to excellent HD video, and performance was dependably competitive with (equal to or better than) MILC's from other manufacturers at this price point and better than any underwater/all weather/extreme sports digital camera that I have used to date. 


Shooting Performance
The AW1 features a Hybrid TTL (phase-detection/contrast-detection) AF system and captures images and video via its 13.2 mm x 8.8 mm (Nikon CX format) CMOS sensor.

The AW1 saves images and video clips to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards (including MicroSD with SD adaptor) and provides the ability to save images in either JPEG or RAW formats.

The AW1's built-in flash (the camera doesn't feature a hot shoe) is located on the left side (from the rear) of the top deck and a pop-up mechanism raises the flash slightly above the lens axis, so redeye will probably be less of a problem. Here's where things get interesting (especially for an underwater/all weather/extreme sports camera). The AW1's pop-up flash is on a jointed arm that lends itself to easy bounce lighting - simply calculate your bounce distance and hold the flash at the proper angle with the index finger of your left hand (while gripping the camera with your other three fingers and thumb). This feature substantially increases the AW1's general-use camera capabilities and subtracts nothing from its extreme environment camera capabilities. This means you can shoot reef fish underwater in the morning and bounce-lit portraits indoors in the afternoon. 

Nikon claims the AW1 is good for up to 220 exposures with a fully charged EN-EL20 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The battery charges outside the camera with the supplied charger and requires about two to three hours for a full charge. Based on my experiences with the AW1, I'd say 220 exposures is a conservative estimate. I used the camera heavily for two weeks and only charged it twice. While the 220 exposures is well below the 480 exposures claimed by Sony for their NEX-3n (I found the NEX-3n was actually only good for about 350 exposures), I would guess the AW1 is actually good for about 250 exposures.   

Lens Performance
Currently there are only two underwater capable lenses available for the AW1 - the standard 11mm-27.5mm kit zoom (30mm-74mm equivalent) and a slightly faster (f2.8) 10mm (27mm equivalent) prime lens. Other Nikon 1 lenses can be mounted on the AW1, but they render the AW1's special features (waterproof, shockproof, and freeze-proof) useless. AW1 lenses can't be mounted on other Nikon 1 cameras.


The Nikon 1 AW1 is sold in two kit packages.  The standard kit is the camera and the 11mm-27.5mm zoom lens with a f3.5-f5.6 aperture. The second kit includes both the zoom and the 10mm prime lens with the camera. The kit zoom did show some very minor corner softness, but center sharpness is impressively good.  In fact those graduating from P&S digicams will be impressed with just how much difference there is in basic optical quality between most P&S zooms and any decent interchangeable zoom.  

Video Quality
The AW1 records HD video at 1920 x 1080p @ 60 fps (and other resolutions and frame rates) with stereo audio.  Video clips are sharp, fluid, and hue correct.  

 
Image Quality
The AW1's default images show very neutral hue accurate colors, balanced contrast, and impressive overall sharpness. Image quality is dependably excellent outdoors in good light and slightly better than average indoors. Shadow detail capture is better than expected and highlight detail capture is noticeably better than average for cameras in this class.

The kit zoom's f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than fast enough for most outdoor venues. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel and pincushion distortion are visible, but appear to be well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate and neutral. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but color fringing is occasionally visible in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. There is also a slight tendency toward minor overexposure, in all auto modes, but this problem is easily managed by either selecting a smaller F-stop after switching to Aperture Preferred mode or utilizing the AW1's exposure compensation function in Program mode to better manage ambient lighting. High ISO images tend to be on the grainy side. This could pose a problem for those photographing underwater in darker areas without a flash.

My final word on the AW1's image quality is an observation. I expected the colors from this camera to be oversaturated (more intense than they are in real life) because everybody loves those traditional (National Geographic style) bright and colorful pictures of reef fish. I like neutral colors because often oversaturated colors provide a fakey wet paint look. Kudos to Nikon's product development folks for not sacrificing the possibility of shooting great portraits or expansive landscapes above water to make clown fish look more colorful underwater.

Sample Images


Conclusion

Bridge cameras are supposed to "bridge" the gap between two different types of camera. The AW1 ups the ante significantly and tries to bridge the gap between three different types of camera - compact enthusiast P&S digicams, interchangeable lens cameras, and underwater/all weather/extreme sports cameras. The first generation AW1 was designed specifically to meet the needs of an active lifestyle demographic and this camera will almost certainly find an enthusiastic audience among divers, extreme sports fans, backpacking travelers, and serious shooters looking for a compact camera with lots of creative and extreme environment potential. While the AW1 does have a couple of blemishes, it will easily and dependably meet the needs of its target audience. I am really looking forward to trying out the Nikon 1 AW2 (whenever it becomes available). This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. DCR editor Laura Hicks has created an informative AW1 "preview" video (located in the video section of this review) and I suggest you watch it if you are considering purchasing this camera.

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