Nikon Coolpix AW100 review

Pros

  • Build quality
  • Price
  • Performance

Cons

  • Fiddly controls
  • Useless GPS
  • Image quality

Most of the major camera manufacturers now have an all-weather "adventure" camera in their product ranges. We’ve looked at a couple of them recently, specifically the Pentax Optio WG2 and the Panasonic Lumix FT4. Nikon was a latecomer to the field and has only one adventure camera in its line-up so far, the Coolpix AW100, which I’ve been putting through its paces for the past couple of weeks.

In terms of price point, the AW100 is more or less in in the middle of the market for adventure cameras. It’s currently selling for around £215, which makes it cheaper than the Panasonic FT4 (£234), the Canon D20 (£260) and the Olympus Tough TG-820 (£220) and TG-1 (£300), but more expensive than the Pentax WG2 (£210), the Fuji XP50 (£115) and the Olympus Tough TG-320 (£110).

Design and features

In terms of overall design the AW100 bears a superficial resemblance to a number of its immediate rivals, particularly several models from the Olympus Tough range and the aforementioned Panasonic FT4. However Nikon has eschewed the usual macho posturing of exposed bolt heads and sharp crease lines in favour of a more rounded body design.

The AW100 is about average in its survivability. It can withstand water depths of 10m, falls from 1.5m and temperatures down to minus 10 centigrade. The current leaders in this department are the Olympus TG-1 and the Panasonic FT4, both of which can dive to 12m and fall from 2m, so the Nikon isn’t far behind.

Of the various camera manufacturers making adventure cameras, only Canon seems to have realised that many outdoor activities involving water and low temperatures also involve the wearing of gloves, and has equipped its cameras with large, well-spaced controls. The controls on the AW100 are small and fiddly even by the standards of a conventional compact, and are impossible to operate with gloves on. Several of the controls are nasty little plastic rocker switches and the square D-pad with its tiny central OK button is equally unpleasant. The only button that’s easy to use is the shutter button, so if you’re planning to use the camera while wearing a wetsuit or skiing outfit you’d better make sure you’ve got it set up the way you want it before you go out.

One feature that does set the AW100 apart from most of its peers is the inclusion of a GPS receiver, for automatic location recording and geotagging, and an electronic compass to record direction. It even includes a world map so you can find out where you are, possibly in case you’re kidnapped on your SAS mission and dumped on a remote island or something. As I’ve previously reported, I don’t think much of in-camera GPS, and the AW100 has done nothing to change my opinion. Despite using the camera predominantly outdoors on a couple of kayak trips and a hike on Dartmoor, it didn’t once succeed in getting a GPS signal, and never recorded its position. The built-in compass did record the direction, but not in any recognisable format, so that wasn’t a lot of use either. By way of a comparison, the GPS in my phone succeeded in finding my location from the same places without any difficulty.

Performance

Apart from the disappointing GPS system, the AW100’s overall performance is very good. It can start up and take a picture in approximately three seconds, and in single shot mode it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.7 seconds, which is quite fast for a compact camera. Like most Nikon compacts the AW100 has a range of continuous shooting modes. In Continuous H mode it can shoot at 7.1fps, but only for three frames, which seems a little pointless to me. In Continuous L mode it can shoot seven frames at just over a frame a second, but then even with a fast memory card it slows down to a frame every two seconds, but will keep this up until the card is full.

The autofocus system is excellent, as we’ve come to expect from Nikon. It focuses quickly and accurately in almost all lighting conditions, and even in darkness it has a good AF assist lamp with a range of several metres.

Despite the usually power-hungry GPS system, or perhaps because it didn’t work at all, the battery duration seems to be excellent. Nikon’s official specifications claim 250 shots on a charge, and my results bear this out.

Image quality

The AW100 is equipped with a small 1/2.3in 16-megapixel sensor, the same one as found in many of Nikon’s current range of compacts, and the image processor is presumably also the same, which unfortunately doesn’t bode well for the cameras that share it. The AW100’s image quality is, sadly, not particularly good.

The optical quality is reduced by shooting through a glass screen which is prone to picking up dirt, and there seems to be a slight problem with vignetting, causing the corners of the frame to be darker than the centre. There is visible image noise even at the lowest ISO setting, images look over-processed and over-sharpened, and the general level of detail is rather poor for a 16-megapixel camera. Colour rendition is reasonably good, as is exposure in average conditions, but dynamic range is quite limited, as is usually the case. The AW100 does have an in-camera HDR feature which can help in very high contrast situations, but the results are not particularly good. All in all, the Nikon Aw100 is a bit of a disappointment.

Verdict

The CoolPix AW100 is a bit of a disappointment, especially given the high standards one usually expects from Nikon. Although its build quality and all-weather credentials are up to the expected standard, its performance is adequate and its autofocus system is very good, the fiddly controls, lacklustre image quality and hopeless GPS system are a big let-down. There are better adventure cameras on the market for about the same price.

As usual the ISO test shots are shot under tungsten studio lights, using manual pre-set white balance and +0.6 exposure compensation. This is the full frame at 125 ISO. Download the full size image.

f/4.4, 1/13th, 125 ISO. Even at the lowest ISO setting there is visible noise in the green area, and jagged diagonal edges.

f/4.4, 1/15th, 200 ISO. Noise is significantly increased at 200 ISO. This isn’t looking good so far…

f/4.4, 1/30th, 400 ISO. There’s another increase in noise as we move up to 400 ISO, although at least colour rendition is still consistent.

f/4.4, 1/60th, 800 ISO. The noise reduction has kicked in at 800 ISO, softening the image and wiping out fine detail.

f/4.4, 1/125th, 1600 ISO. The image quality is really falling to pieces at 1600 ISO, with colour distortion, blurred detail and lots of noise.

f/4.4, 1/250th, 3200 ISO. At the highest ISO setting we’re into cheap webcam territory, with blotchy colour, spurious artefacts and blurred edges. This is very poor even by small compact standards.

Here’s my usual detail shot of the 15th century carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter.

Here’s a full-resolution crop of the picture above. Although 16 megapixels should record lots of detail, the heavy-handed processing has ruined it.

The lens produces slight pincushion distortion at the wide-angle end, and you can see some nasty blurring in the upper left corner.

The centre of the frame is reasonably sharp at least, although there are signs of over-sharpening.

Here’s a closer look at that upper left corner. It’s badly blurred by lens distortion.

In normal mode the dynamic range is limited, with little shadow detail and burned-out highlights. Download the full size image.

The Active D-Lighting setting improves shadow detail, but the result looks flat and lacking in contrast. Download the full size image.

The AW100 has in-camera HDR capability, but the results are not very good. Download the full size image.

The wide-angle end of the zoom range is equivalent to 28mm. Download the full size image.

The telephoto end of the zoom range is equivalent to 140mm. Download the full size image.

Colour rendition isn’t bad, and this flowerbed was in shadow at the time, but the colours are a bit undersaturated in standard mode. Download the full size image.

The AW100 is waterproof enough for most outdoor activities, but the fiddly controls are impossible to use while wearing wetsuit gloves. Download the full size image.

Abandoned trawlers waiting to be scrapped, near Appledore in north Devon. Download the full size image.

Manufacturer

Nikon

Model

Coolpix AW100

Image sensor

1/2.3 RGB CMOS, 16-megapixels

Max. resolution

4,608 x 3,456 pixels

Zoom

5x optical, 4x digital

Focal length (35mm)

5 – 25mm (28 – 140mm equiv.)

Maximum aperture

f/3.9 – f/4.8

Shutter speeds

4s – 1/500th sec

Auto-Focus

TTL contrast detection

Manual focus

N/A

Exposure control

Automatic

Exposure metering

Automatic

Image stabilisation

Optical, lens shift

ISO range

ISO 125 - 3200

LCD monitor

7.5cm (3in)

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

Wide: 0.3 – 3.5m, Tele 0.5 – 2.2m

Drive modes

Single, Cont. H, Cont. L, BSS, Multi-shot 16

Image formats

JPEG

Video

Full HD 1080p: 1,920 x 1,080 (30fps)

Memory card slot

SD, SDHC, SDXC

Supplied memory

83MB internal

Battery

1,050 mAh, 250 shots

Ports

USB 2.0, mini HDMI

Dimensions (W x H x D)

110.1 x 64.9 x 22.8mm

Weight (body only)

178g

Accessories

Wrist strap, Cables, Charger, Software CD

Software

ViewNX 2

Warranty

12 months (plus extra 12 months on registration)