If you're into outdoor pursuits or extreme sports and are looking for a camera that can cope with a few knocks, record your adventures and live to tell the tale, then the Nikon AW100 – or something very much like it – is exactly the kind of camera you should be looking at.
The AW100 is Nikon's first stab at a ruggedised compact and, as such, is waterproofed to 10metres, shock-proofed from drops of up to 1.5metres and freeze-proofed down to 10°C. In addition the camera also benefits from GPS functionality, a digital compass and a built-in world map. Not that you'd want to rely on the AW100 to try and navigate your way out of the wilderness Bear Grylls-style with it, although it can be used to geotag images and document your travels with via Nikon’s ViewNX2 software that is supplied in the box.
Other notable highlights include a one-touch 180°/360° Panoramic mode; a useful Macro mode that allows you to focus as close as 1cm away from your subject; built-in Vibration Reduction anti-blur technology to minimise the effects of camera shake at slower shutter speeds; 1080/30p Full HD movie recording with stereo sound; a number of high-speed movie capture modes that play back in slow motion; a range of digital filter effects that can be applied to your images post-capture (but not at the point of capture); a sensitivity range of ISO 125 to 3200; and, last but not least, a bright 3in/460k-dot LCD monitor.
While the AW100 looks pretty good on paper, the ruggedised or 'tough' compact market is especially competitive at the moment with all of the major manufactures offering their own models, most of which also come with solid feature sets and the same bullet-proof construction. So what's the AW100 got to make it stand out from the crowd?
Well, as far as the basic ruggedised elements go the AW100 is pretty much on a par with most of its main rivals. Granted, the Lumix FT4 and Olympus TG-820 are both shock-proofed to 2m rather than 1.5m, and in addition the TG-820 is also ‘crush-proof' to a claimed 100kg while the FT4 is able to dive slightly deeper to 12m. However, these small advantages aside, the AW100 is certainly tough enough to cope with the kind of situations that would break most regular compacts – if you're looking for a camera specifically to take white-water rafting or snowboarding, then the AW100 is most definitely up to the task.
Picking it up for the first time, it certainly feels solid enough. The outer shell is primarily from tough-impact plastic, with the front protected by a shiny metallic plate that's available in a variety of colours – orange, black, blue and a rather fetching camouflage number. The battery/memory card compartment also houses the camera's HDMI and USB connectivity ports and is located on the side of the camera. This is internally sealed against water penetration with the latch held in place via a dual-action lock. To open it you'll need to push the button in the middle of the dial and then rotate it.
The 5x optical zoom uses a folded-lens design which essentially means that it is housed entirely within the camera body and protected from the elements by a window of toughened glass. While out testing our review sample we did find that immersing the AW100 in very cold water (the north Atlantic ocean in late June!) after using it an air temperature of around 17degrees caused the lens to fog up. Once fogged it took a few minutes to de-fog during which time the camera was unable to focus. In warmer water this won’t be an issue at all though.
The 5x zoom offers the 35mm focal range equivalent of 28-140mm, with an f/3.9 maximum aperture available at 28mm, rising incrementally to f/4.8 at 140mm. This makes the AW100 slightly faster at its telephoto extreme than the Lumix FT4 and the Olympus TG-820, both of which offer a maximum aperture of f/5.9 at 140mm. Minimum focus distance varies from 50cm at 28mm to 1m at 140mm, however there's also the option to engage a Macro mode, which brings the minimum focus distance down to 1cm at 28mm and also produces very good results.
Shooting modes are all of the fully-automatic point-and-shoot variety, with the AW100 offering a super-simplified Easy Auto mode, a regular Auto mode, 19 individual Scene modes, a Smart Portrait mode, and last but not least a small number of Special Effects options including Sepia, High-contrast Monochrome, High-key and Low-key. If you want to give your images a digital filter makeover, then you'll need to do so from the Playback menu as you can't choose any effects at the point of capture.
Options to change key shooting settings are pretty limited, with options few and far between at the best of times. The standard Auto mode does give you access to ISO and White Balance settings alongside AF-area and AF mode controls, but switch the camera into Easy Auto mode and the only choice you'll get is the recorded image size.
Speaking of image sizes, the AW100 uses a 1/2.3in backlit CMOS sensor that produces 16MP of effective resolution. Quite whether this much resolution is really necessary is debatable, although you do have the option to reduce it to 12, 8, 5, or 3MB. Alternatively, you can also opt to shoot at ‘PC' resolution (1024 x 768 pixels), VGA quality or in 16:9 at 12MP.
The top Full HD movie recording setting of 1080/30p is supported by a 720/30p HD option, with the easy-to-edit iFrame (960 X 540 pixels) format also offered. In addition, the AW100 also offers a number of high-speed recording options including (but not limited to) 60fps at 720p and 240fps at 320 x 240. If you're looking to capture ‘gnarley' tricks, whether in the sea or in the mountains then the AW100's high-speed movie mode almost certainly has a setting you'll find useful.