Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review
The Coolpix AW100 is a rugged waterproof ultra-compact. As Nikon's first waterproof digital camera, the AW100 goes all-in with a maximum underwater depth of 10m (33'), a shockproof constructions to 1.5m (5') drops and a built-in GPS. Images and 1080p HD video are provided by a CMOS sensor with 16 megapixels and a 5X wide-angle optical zoom lens with image stabilization, called VR by Nikon.
This digital camera is meant for the adventurous. The AW100 features a world-map and digital compass to complement the built-in GPS. The world map includes points of interest which are displayed as you go along and tagged in photos. In addition to its underwater use and shockproof construction, this camera is freezeproof to -10C (14F) for use in glacial weather.
Like almost every rugged camera, the Nikon Coolpix AW100 uses a folded-optics lens to keep it from extending out. This gives it a pocket-friendly size too. It has a sharp 3" LCD with 460K pixels for framing and reviewing images or videos. Functioning of the AW100 is point-and-shoot except for white-balance which includes a custom option.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 Features
- 16 Megapixels High-Speed CMOS sensor
- ISO 125 to 3200 sensitivity range
- 1/1500s to 1s shutter-speed range
- 5X stabilized optical zoom, equivalent to 28-140mm, F/3.9-4.8
- ±2 Exposure-Compensation, in 1/3 EV steps
- Automatic, Custom and 5 Preset White-Balance
- Single-shot, Continuous, BSS and Multishot Drive modes
- 7.1 FPS Continuous Drive, Maximum 3 frames
- 2s, 10s and Smile Self-Timers
- Focus Drive: Single-Shot or Continuous
- Focus Area: Auto, Manual, Center, Face-Detection and Subject-Tracking
- Auto, Redeye, Off, On and Slow-Sync Flash modes
- Autofocus-assist lamp
- 1920x1080 @ 30 FPS 1080p HD Video capture
- 640x480 @ 120 FPS & 320x240 @ 240 FPS High-Speed video
- 1920x1080 @ 15 FPS Slow-Motion video
- Stereo Sound with Optional Wind-Filter
- 3" LCD with 460K Pixels
- Waterproof to 10m up to 60 minutes
- Shockproof to 1.5m
- Freezeproof to -10C
- GPS with digital compass plus world-map and points of interest
- Secure Digital Extended Capacity (SDXC)
- Lithium-Ion Battery
Capability - What can it do?
The Nikon Coolpix AW100 is one of the toughest cameras around. It can be used for swimming and snorkeling at depth down to 10m for a duration of one hour. Its freezeproof construction lets it stand temperatures down to -10C (14F) which is good enough to use while skiing, snow-boarding or skating. The user manual notes that waterproof operation is certified down to 0C (32F), so swimming in ice is out of the question! Its durable body is designed to withstand 1.5m (5') drops onto 5cm (2") thick plywood, so it should stand occasional drops too.
Adventure travel can mean tough conditions but also fast-paced action which the AW100 is meant to handle well too thanks to a high-speed CMOS sensor. The one used in this digital camera can shoot continuously at 7.1 FPS as well as capture video between 15 and 240 FPS, depending on the resolution. This includes full 1080p HD resolution at 30 FPS and a 15 FPS version which speeds up action by 2X when played. Conversely, 320x240 @ 240 FPS and 640x480 @ 120 FPS videos are respectively playback 8X and 4X slower than reality.
The AW100 also provides adventurous photographer with a built-in world map and digital compass to find your way off the beaten path. A built-in GPS system automatically geotags photographs as they are taken. This digital camera automatically displays the names of points-of-interests from an internal database as you arrive there.
The 16 megapixels CMOS sensor has an ISO sensitivity range of 125 to 3200. At the lower settings, this is suitable for making rather large prints. As usual, the higher ISO, the smaller the maximum print size. However, starting with such high resolution, the AW100 can manage usable prints at relatively high sensitivities too. More details on this in the Performance section further down in this review.
As all rugged digital cameras, the Nikon Coolpix AW100 is strictly a point-and-shoot model. It provides generic and scene-specific exposure modes. The only control over exposure is ±2 stops of Exposure-Compensation. Thankfully, white-balance is selectable between Auto, 5 presets and a custom option. The shutter-speed range is narrow with a top-speed of 1/1500th which can freeze action for most non-motorized sports. On the slow side, the maximum of 1s is very limited for night photography.
The folded-optics lens has a 5X optical zoom range equivalent to 28-140mm in 35mm terms. The aperture varies from F/3.9 at the wide-end to F/4.8 at the tele-end. It is not adjustable though and smaller apertures are simulated via a 2 stop ND-filter, so depth-of-field is fixed by the focal-length and focus-distance. Speaking of focus-distance, the AW100 can get as close as 1cm (0.4") at the wide-end which makes for some up-close macros.
The last two tricks of the AW100 are its Action-Control and Movie-Light. Action-Control allows you to change camera modes by shaking the camera, in case you are having trouble pressing the buttons with gloves on. Movie-Light uses the AF-Assist beam continuously while recording video to illuminate the scene. This can help particularly with high-speed video modes which require fast shutter-speeds.
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The AW100 is nearly rectangular with some protrusions on the sides and on top. This makes it difficult to hold securely, which is generally the case for ultra-compact cameras. However, while other ultra-compact use a wrist-strap, Nikon recognized that this would not be suitable for use in action and provided this rugged camera with a light-weight neck-strap.
A standard two-stage shutter-release with a soft halfway point is found at the top of the camera. The camera starts focusing when the shutter is pressed and generally locks on the half-press a fraction of a second later. The zoom controller is responsive and moves the lens across its range extremely quietly but a little slowly. There are 19 steps in the 5X optical zoom range which allows for more precise framing than most fixed-lens cameras.
On the top of the camera, to the left of the shutter-release, is a small recessed power-switch. This prevents accidentally turning the camera on but makes it difficult to do so while using gloves. A small protrusion further left presumable houses the built-in GPS. The bump to the left of the GPS is the top of the lens opening.
The left side of the camera has a large flat button. This one serves to show the world-map or to activate the Action-Control, depending on an option in the Setup menu. Once Action-Control is activated, the camera can be shaked up-and-down to change modes.
The right side of the camera has a locking dial used to open the only compartment door on the AW100. This one is very well sealed with a soft rubber lining to block water from entering. Behind the door is a standard SDXC memory slot, a battery latched compartment, plus a Mini-HDMI Type-C and Mini-USB connectors.
The back of the Nikon Coolpix AW100 is dominated by a nice 3" LCD with 460K pixels. This one is bright and sharp with good visibility in bright light. It does get rather dim in low-light though. To the right of the LCD is a good number of buttons for such a small camera. In fact, there is barely any space left to rest your thumb, save for 6 protruding dots.
The top control on the back is a standard zoom rocker. Just below is the video record button. This is the only way to record video since there is no video mode in this camera. As usual, this makes setup framing for HD video impossible and adds a 1s delay before recording starts. Stopping is instant though. Below that is another rocker which toggles between Shooting and Playback. In Shooting mode, pressing the Shooting side shows a the mode selection screen which has a whopping 28 options.
None of those 28 modes is manual but there is a sophisticated Panorama mode. It gives two possibilities:
- Easy Panorama, available in 180° and 360° version, automatically generates a panorama right in the camera from a sweeping motion. Resulting panoramas are low-resolution but reasonable from a distance.
- Panorama Assist, the more standard panorama mode, helps align images to stitch a panorama by computer later. Read this simple Panorama Photo Tutorial to find out how.
Further down is a square 4-way controller with central OK button. Each direction is assigned a useful function:
- UP: Flash mode, selects between Auto, Redeye, Off, On or Slow-Sync.
- Right: Activates EC which is then adjusted with the vertical directions.
- Down: Toggles Macro mode. Just like Flash mode but unlike EC, OK must be pressed to accept confirm.
- Left: Selects between immediate release and a self-timer, either 2s or 10s. There is also a smile timer which is available in Smart-Portrait mode only. The only frustrating aspect here is that self-timers reset after each use.
The lowest button is another rocker which activates the menu on one side and deletes files on the other. In capture mode, the Delete button prompts for deletion of the last captured file. The AW100 has a short and simple menu system which is easy to navigate. One must use it to set White-Balance, ISO, AF-Area, AF-Mode and more.
Given its automatic functionality, this digital camera is straight-forwards to use and quite simple. As a camera for use during adventurous activities, it makes a lot of sense to design it this way. The bottom of the camera features a plastic tripod mount is neither aligned with the center of the lens nor the center of gravity of the camera.
The only issue with usability for this camera is that the displayed preview is innacurate, particularly in low-light where the image appears much dimmer than the results. This makes it very hard to judge exposure and to know how much EC to apply.
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
This rugged camera produces 16 megapixels images throughout its entire sensitivity range. This is sufficient to make nice 12"x16" prints. Typically, 16 MP would be enough for even larger output but there is softness due to noise-reduction even at base ISO. This is most likely due to the high pixel-density of the small sensor used in the AW100.
Both ISO 125 and 200 are very similar and produce images with a slight amount of noise. Softness is also visible but depends on lighting conditions since it is induced by noise-reduction. In good lighting, as shown in the outdoor crops page, softness is minimal. The same camera shows much more softness in low light, as can be seen in the indoor crops page. ISO 400 is a bit noisier but medium sized prints, say 9"x12", still look good.
ISO 800 and 1600 medium prints are usable but clearly noisy. Reducing such high ISO images to a small size makes them look much better. Even ISO 3200 images are usable for small 4"x6" prints. While one sees the noise very clearly at those sensitivity when looking at 100% magnification, having 16 megapixels of resolutions makes it easy to scale the noise down to much less disturbing levels.
Color accuracy is reasonable with slightly too much red, resulting in warmer colors than reality. There is also a bit of oversaturation but nothing too disturbing. White-balance handles natural and artificial lighting rather well. For difficult and mixed lighting cases, the AW100 supports custom white-balance which is spot-on. Dynamic range is on the narrow side which produces more contrasty images but clips both highlights and shadows a little more than usual.
The metering system is tuned to produce a bright exposure. This unfortunately means over-exposing more often than needed, usually be 2/3 or 1 EV. This approach allows the AW100 to produce more recognizable subjects when surrounding areas are brighter but those get blown out. It rarely under-exposes except for high-key subjects.
One again, Nikon managed to create a very low distortion folded-optics lens for this Coolpix. There is a barely noticeable amount of pincushion distortion at wide angle, which disappears quickly zooming in. Note this is highly unusual and that most lenses show barrel distortion at wide-angle and pincushion at telephoto.
There are two downsides to this lens. One is a slow maximum aperture of F/3.9 at wide-angle which drops to F/4.8 at telephoto which is actually inline with similar lenses. The other is strong edge softness that eats up a sizable region near wide-angle. The softness diminishes after zooming in but remains noticeable. Keep in mind that, just like noise, softness is less visible in small prints.
The performance of the Nikon Coolpix AW100 can characterized by the following measurements:
- Power On: 1½s, which is quite good
- Focus: ½s, faster than average for an ultra-compact
- Shutter-lag: ¼s, about average
- Shot-to-Shot: 2s, about average
- Playback mode: Instant
- Capture mode: 1¼s, on the slow side
- Power Off: Instant
This is a reasonable performance for an ultra-compact. Considering the top continuous speed is 7.1 FPS at full-resolution, it is a mystery what is holding up the shot-to-shot speed. The final number of the AW100 is a battery-life of 250 shots-per-charge. This is average for a modern camera but runs down quickly if you review images often or enable the built-in GPS.
Speaking of the built-in GPS, the one in the AW100 is reasonably accurate and locks much faster than any other one previously reviewed here. It seems to lock in just a few seconds outdoors and even manages in some covered locations. Enabling the location database which shows the closest and gives confidence that it has locked within the vicinity. Keep in mind when reviewing images that the tagged location is where the camera took the photo and not that of the subject.
The AW100 has extensive movie capabilities with resolutions from 320x240 to 1920x1080 and frame rates from 15 to 240 FPS. A built-in microphone records stereo sound with normal-speed videos. Since there is not dedicated video mode, the camera is unprepared for shooting video and there is a 1s delay at the start of the recording. Additionally, when recording in a different aspect ratio such as 16:9 of HD video, it is impossible to correctly set up framing before filming.
The Nikon Coolpix AW100 brings a rugged waterproof ultra-compact to Nikon's lineup of digital cameras. The AW100 can survive depths down to 10m, 1.5m drops and -10C temperatures. It is about as tough it gets yet remains ultra-compact and performs well compared to similar offerings. The GPS, world-map and compass add to its appeal as an outdoors camera.
With a folded-optics lens in a compact body and high-resolution sensor, cameras have to compromise in some way. If you do not need such construction, the same price can get you a camera with superior image quality such as the excellent Nikon Coolpix P7000
Nikon Coolpix P7000. Accepting that compromise, it is good to hear that the AW100 actually offers great image quality among rugged digital cameras. Noise levels are a little high as is noise-reduction softness but those are not easily seen in common print sizes up to ISO 800. Metering is probably the major downside, since more EC adjustments are needed than usual.
The interface of the AW100 is simple and intuitive to use. There is no mode-dial, so changing modes is slow but they are all flavors of automatic. To help when wearing gloves, Nikon introduced an Action-Control which selects a mode by shaking the camera rather than using the menu.
The bottom line is that this rugged waterproof camera performs well for its class. It is an easy choice for snorkeling, skiing and other outdoors activity, from warm oceans to cold mountains, the AW100 will take it!
Nikon AW100 Facts
Ultra-Compact digital camera
|16 Megapixels Ultra Compact||ISO 125-3200|
|5X Wide Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/1500-1s|
|Built-in Stabilization||Custom white-balance|
|Waterproof to 10m||Lithium-Ion|
|Weatherproof down to -10C||Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
|7.1 FPS Drive, 3 Images||Internal Memory|
|1920x1080 @ 30 FPS Video Recording|
|3" LCD 460K Pixels|
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