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Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review

Pros

  • Tough enough to take anywhere
  • Uncomplicated and easy to use
  • Delivers excellent image quality outdoors
  • Slow-motion video capture and Panoramic modes

Cons

  • Buttons a bit small and tightly clustered
  • Auto White Balance easily fooled under artificial lighting

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £230.00
  • Waterproof to 10m, Shock-proof to 1.5m, freeze-proof to -10°C
  • 1/2.3inch 16MP backlit CMOS sensor
  • 5x optical zoom (28-140mm in 35mm terms)
  • ISO 125 - 3200
  • 1080/30p Full HD Movie recording

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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 11
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?
Nikon Coolpix AW100 15
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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 3
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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 5
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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 9

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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100
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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 7
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 6×4 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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 17
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.

Verdict
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.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 13

Nikon AW100 ISO 125
ISO 125

Nikon AW100 ISO 200
ISO ISO 200

Nikon AW100 ISO 400
ISO 400

Nikon AW100 ISO 800
ISO 800

Nikon AW100 ISO 1600
ISO 1600

Nikon AW100 ISO 3200
ISO 3200

Nikon AW100 sample image 3
1/800sec @ f/3.9, ISO 125, 28mm, AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image 4
1/400sec @ f/4.8, ISO 125, 140mm, AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image 2
1/640sec @ f/3.9, ISO 125, 28mm, AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image
1/320sec @ f/4, ISO 125, 40mm, AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image
1/1000sec @ f/3.9, ISO 125, 35mm, AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image
1/400sec @ f/3.9, ISO 125, 28mm (Macro), AWB

Nikon AW100 sample image 1
1/1600sec @ f/4.1, ISO 400, 50mm, AWB (Multi-shot 16 mode)

Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Value 8
  • Design & Features 8
  • Image Quality 8
  • Build Quality 9

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