The AW100 isn't designed to be complicated, rather it's deliberately designed to be easy to use. While the simplified and streamlined menus certainly help out in this respect we did find the buttons on the back of the camera to be a bit too small and closely packed together. The zoom rocker control in particular would benefit from being bigger and more pronounced; using fingers isn't too much of a problem, but if you're wearing gloves then the AW100 would undoubtedly be a bit fiddly to operate in the regular way.
Thankfully, Nikon has addressed this to some extent with the Action Bar control. This comes in the form of a large, elongated button located on the opposite side of the camera from the memory card compartment. Depending on how you've set the camera up, pressing this bar either displays the built-in World Map or puts the camera into Action Control mode. While the former is fairly self-explanatory, the later basically enables you to scroll through the various exposure mode options, initiate movie recording and put the camera into playback mode simply by flicking the camera forwards and backwards, with any subsequent presses of the Action Bar confirming your selection.
There are three 'flick' sensitivity settings to choose from. Initially it can all feel a bit hit and miss, but with a bit of practice use of the Action Control soon clicks into place and becomes relatively intuitive. If you're shooting still images then you'll still need to use the shutter button to record an image although thankfully this is one of the larger and more prominent buttons on the camera. All in all the Control Bar is a pretty useful addition that goes some way to making up for the slight awkwardness of most of the other buttons. Whether it’s enough to ensure that gloved snappers can shoot without having to remove their mitts remains to be seen though.
In terms of general performance, the AW100 is a bit of a mixed bag in that processing speeds are a little on the slow side whereas autofocus performance is quite good. Start-up time – from flicking the power on to having your subject in focus with the camera ready to shoot – takes around 2.5seconds, which isn't too bad at all for a compact.
In addition to Single-shot drive mode, the AW100 also offers a 1.5fps 'Slow' continuous dive mode alongside a 3fps 'High' option. Used in Single-shot drive mode the AW100 is particularly slow, with full-res JPEGs taking around 2.5secs each to process, during which time the camera cannot be used. In ‘Low’ mode we managed to shoot 15 full-res JPEG inside 10secs with no slowdown, but at the 3fps ‘High’ setting we managed only three consecutive frames before the camera stopped shooting. The AW100 also offers a Best Shot Selector that rather failed to convince us if truth be told and a Multi-shot 16 that displays all 16 images at once in four rows of four.
In contrast to the AW100’s less than speedy processing times, autofocus performance is actually pretty good. Used outdoor in daylight focus is all but instant, and with only a small amount of shutter lag too. Indoors under artificial lighting presents no great issues either, just so long as light in is moderately good supply. When light levels do drop autofocus becomes much more reliable at the wideangle end of the focal range; extending the zoom to its telephoto extremes results in longer focus times. In dark and very dimly lit rooms the AW100 will almost certainly need to use its AF Assist light, although this isn’t in any way unusual. Battery performance is pretty good, just so long as you keep the GPS switched off – we managed over 250 images on a single of charge, with plenty of time spent reviewing images and studying the menus. The GPS, while quite quick to latch on to passing satellites and accurate too, does drain the battery quite a bit faster.
One area where the AW100 does have a slight edge over many of its rivals – at least when shooting outdoors – is in overall image quality. Used in either Easy or standard Automatic mode the AW100 consistently delivers strong, punchy images with vibrant colour and good levels of contrast. Inspecting the AW100’s images up close at 100% does reveal that some fairly aggressive processing has taken place, along with some fairly heavy-handed sharpening. However, view your images on a regular 21in desktop monitor or a 15in laptop screen, or as a 6x4 print and they’ll generally look great – full of colour and contrast and with what appears to be a more than generous dynamic range for a compact of this type.
For a folded lens design, the AW100’s optic is pretty sharp too. At least with relatively close subjects shot at or around the wideangle setting. Images taken at or around 140mm do tend to be a bit more hit and miss with some coming out noticeably softer despite the best efforts of Nikon's Vibration Control image stabilisation technology. Still, for such a small folded-lens optic, overall sharpness isn’t bad at all and certainly on par with what we’ve seen from rival tough compacts that use the same kind of lens design.
Light metering is generally pretty accurate, although there are occasions where images can come out a bit underexposed. Unfortunately though the same cannot be said for Automatic White Balance (AWB) metering. Used outside the AWB works fine, delivering images that are generally pretty much spot on. Indoors, however, and it’s a different story altogether with the AW100 easily fooled by mixed lighting sources and also by any colour casts from painted walls and lamps/lightshades. In standard Auto mode this isn’t really a problem as you can manually set the WB to ‘incandescent’, however in the Easy Auto mode there’s no way to do this, which often results in images having an unpleasant orange hue to them.
ISO performance is much better though, indeed some of the best we’ve yet seen from a tough compact. At the lowest setting of ISO 125 images are clean and free of noise. Between 200 and 400 there is the merest hint of noise, although you'll be hard pressed to spot it at smaller image sizes. Into the mid-range at IS0 800 and ISO 1600 noise becomes more noticeable, although this doesn’t prevent the AW100 from taking perfectly usable images. The top setting of ISO 3200 does show quite a marked drop in quality with a loss of saturation too, although we have to say that we’ve seen far worse at this setting.
The Nikon Coolpix AW100 is one of the better ruggedised ‘tough’ compacts currently on the market. Well-featured and generally easy to use, the only real criticism we have with the camera’s design is with the small, tightly packed buttons. Otherwise, it’s a highly likeable and well-featured little camera that delivers consistently solid image quality – only slightly let down by WB issues under artificial lighting. If you’re an outdoors enthusiast looking for a small all-weather compact that can withstand a few knocks then the AW100 is well worth a closer look.