Cameras

Nikon Coolpix AW100 Digital Camera Review

Nikon's new AW100 isn't perfect, but it's the best toughcam of 2011.

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Introduction

2011 has been a big year for rugged cameras and Nikon aims to best them all with its new Coolpix AW100. Depending on what kind of adventurer you are, Nikon may have succeeded. The Coolpix AW100 distinguishes itself with an integrated GPS transceiver and detailed, in-camera mapping software. With an armored body made to withstand various degrees of cold, wet, and shock, this camera is adventure-ready, through and through.

The AW100 has absorbed the features and technologies of its competitors, and though it hasn't quite perfected each offering, it has certainly ushered in some noteworthy advancements. What Pentax tried to accomplish with the WG-1's GPS transceiver, Nikon actually achieved with the AW100. Sony's efforts to meld form and function with their TX10 seems to have influenced the hardy but stylish look of the AW100, which hints at a purpose-built chassis without looking like a toy. Finally, the Panasonic TS3's troubles with sharpness are altogether absent from the AW100, which benefits from a razor sharp, expertly manufactured lens.

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Design & Usability

A compact companion fit for adventure

The AW100's high quality 3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD benefits from bright, accurate colors, a wide viewing angle, and only moderate reflectivity to aid outdoor shooting. This Coolpix has plenty of reasons to boast—5x optical zoom, 250-shot rechargeable lithium battery, 40.5mm filter adapter and more—but its main selling point is the armored body. This camera is waterproof down to 33 feet, shockproof from a 5-foot drop, freezeproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and dust-proof as well. A few cameras in 2012 have improved on these numbers, but the AW100 is still among the very best in the class.

Its small buttons definitely pose a problem.

The overall handling of this Nikon is better than average for a compact camera, thanks to its easy-to-reach zoom and its ergonomic thumb rest, but its small buttons definitely pose a problem. It's not that we don't like the buttons—in fact they have outstanding tactile feedback—it's just hard to believe that someone could easily operate them underwater, since these keys are what we'd typically find in a non-waterproof ultracompact. Lastly, though navigation within the tab-based menu system is quick, some options seem to have been left out for the sake of simplicity. Metering, for example, is not user-configurable. We appreciate how image, movie, and setup options have been split into separate sections, but some of those sections seem to be unnecessarily limited.

Features

Shooting underwater is just one of many exciting features that this AW100 has to offer.

Would you believe this camera's GPS actually works? Geo-tagging is a largely dysfunctional addition to the industry and the AW100's GPS is a shining exception, featuring an electronic compass, advanced mapping software with points of interest, and an antenna that even works indoors from time to time.

The AW100 is a Full HD 1080p device too, equipped with stereo microphones and the ability to record H.264 video for up to 29 minutes. Though the Sony TX10 and the Panasonic TS3 have stronger sharpness, the AW100's high resolution, relatively impressive color score, and ultra high-speed shooting capability of 240 frames per second put it among the best in the class in video capture.

Owners will also benefit from editing capabilities such as retouch, dynamic range enhancement, and filter effects.

Features extend even further with a suite of shooting modes that's above-average for this class. Users will find Easy auto mode, Scene modes, Effect modes, Smart portrait mode, and Auto mode (which stands in for Program), plus 19 scene modes. The majority are old favorites (such as Sports and Sunset), though we feel like Underwater is perhaps the most anticipated. Effect mode options are few and unexciting, but there is a sizable array of continuous shooting and drive mode options. Apart from basics like rotate, resize, crop, and copy, owners will also benefit from editing capabilities such as retouch, dynamic range enhancement, and filter effects.

Performance

Performance is excellent in some settings and disappointing in others.

Color accuracy performance is fine, but not great. The AW100 does not offer any disparate color modes to choose from. We wouldn't usually mind that kind of oversight, but a more accurate mode is sorely missed here; we're guessing that the gamut has been deliberately altered for outdoor nature shooting. Greens have been altered with trees in mind, blues for sky, and yellows for bright skin. That's hardly a drawback considering the camera's audience, but we would've liked an additional, more accurate color mode for general use.

With regard to picture quality, unwanted image noise is a bit of a problem for the AW100. Even at the minimum ISO, noise levels begin to subtly pollute the image. Ideally, a high performance camera may not cross that level until ISO 800 or more, but in this case noise is perceptible as early as ISO 200. At ISO 800, the smoothing software kicks in to soften grainy images, but it does so at the expense of crisp edges and proper saturation, which is particularly problematic for landscape photographs. By ISO 1600, most shots are unusable, which means its highest 3200 ISO setting is pretty much good for nothing.

The Nikon AW100 is the sharpest toughcam we've tested this year.

The Coolpix may struggle a bit with grainy images here and there, but it excels insofar as resolution and image stabilization are concerned. Thanks to an expertly-crafted lens, resolution is the main area in which the AW100 will set itself apart from the pack. In fact, the Nikon AW100 is the sharpest toughcam we've tested this year. The pros aren't without their cons though: While shapes and corners are crystal clear, distracting haloing (bright, unwanted white or dark lines that border areas of high contrast) from software enhancements can sometimes occur too. The AW100 impressed us with its image stabilization. We tested the vibration reduction mode and image sharpness improved by a notable 65 percent.

Conclusion

The Coolpix rises above the pack for 2011

Outfitted to withstand water, cold, dust, and shock, this Coolpix is a fit companion for an adventure—even an underwater adventure. Its lens is the sharpest of any toughcam we tested in 2011. It can capture high-quality video, it can effectively stabilize images with a vibration reduction mode, and it can accurately map images using its integrated GPS transceiver.

Of course, there's still plenty of room for improvement; color accuracy could be better, haloing and edge enhancements detract from image quality sometimes, and certain ISOs produce grainy pictures. Nevertheless, the Coolpix AW100 still ranks among the best of this year's rugged cameras, thanks almost entirely to the lens.

The result is sharp pictures and high-quality 1080p video capability to go with rapid shooting, a GPS suite that actually works, and a variety of scene modes, picture effects, and in-camera editing options. Everything came together to place this Coolpix AW100 at the top of our 2011 list. 2012 has proven a tougher year, but the AW100 is still among the best waterproof cameras on the market. Depending on your needs, there may be reason to purchase a more stylish toughcam like the Sony TX10, or something more suited to macro shooting like the Pentax WG-1, but for most adventure-seeking photographers, it's hard to go wrong with the Nikon Coolpix AW100.

Comparisons

Panasonic TS4 Vs. Nikon AW100

Check out our 7-camera waterproof shootout to see how the year's best tough-cams compare.

Science Introduction

Though the AW100 is this year's best toughcam and an easy recommendation, it has its share of problems. We used a set of tests to evaluate this model's performance in terms of color, noise, sharpness, and much more.

Color

This gamut may have been deliberately altered for outdoor use, resulting in average color performance.

Color accuracy performance is good, but not great. In our test where anything below 3.0 is strong, the AW100 returned an error rating of 3.4. Not bad, but very poor yellows, greens, and blues prevent this camera from ranking higher than it does. Saturation is almost perfect, however—off by only a fraction of a percent.

Unfortunately, the AW100 does not offer any disparate color modes to choose from, and while we usually don't mind, a more accurate mode is sorely missed here. Nikon has proven they can deliver an accurate sensor when they want to, and given the specificity of which colors are inaccurate (greens for trees, blues for the sky, and yellows for bright skin), we're guessing that the gamut has been deliberately altered for outdoor nature shooting. That's hardly a drawback considering the camera's audience, but we would've liked an additional, more accurate color mode for general use.

Noise

Image noise sometimes pollutes shots, even at relatively low ISO levels.

Unwanted image noise is a bit of a problem for the AW100. At the minimum ISO, noise levels already start off pretty close to 1%. Ideally, a high performance camera may not cross that level until ISO 800 or more. But in this case, noise is perceptible as early as ISO 200, and rises steadily up through ISO 800, at which time the smoothing software kicks in. Noise reduction pushes artifacting back down to around 1%, but does so at the expense of crisp edges and proper saturation. By ISO 1600, most shots aren't usable.

Both noise performance and the behavior of noise reduction software are similar in low light. Noise only increased by an insignificant 0.07% in our 60 lux test, and once again smoothing software seemed to take off at ISO 800.

The AW100's ISO range extends from 125 to 3200, though some of them are unusable. You might get away with one or two lucky shots at ISO 1600, but 3200 is a dull, smudged, artifacted mess. At least all ISO levels are full resolution.

Sharpness

The AW100 features a brilliant lens, but haloing distracts.

Thanks to an expertly-crafted lens, resolution is the main area in which the AW100 will set itself apart from the pack. The pro's aren't without their con's though. While part of these scores can be attributed to hardware quality, the AW100 relies heavily on edge and contrast enhancement, resulting in images that are sometimes affected by distracting haloing.

Notably, the Nikon AW100 is the sharpest toughcam we've tested this year. At times, it registers upwards of 2400 MTF50 units of detail, and much of that sharpness is retained even near the edges of the frame. Shapes and corners are crystal clear, save for a bit of the previously mentioned haloing effect. In close-up crops of our testing chart, you can see bright white and dark black lines that border areas of high contrast. Those are the side-effects of sharpness and contrast enhancement, and can become distracting in high detail scenes.

Scores are exaggerated by reliance on default software enhancement, but the AW100 is certainly deserving of this comparison group's top sharpness honors.

Other Tests

Only the Sony TX10 offers better chromatic aberration performance than the AW100. Fringing, when it occurs, does so at a variety of wavelengths (colors), creating purple and yellow fringing at the corners of the frame. Fortunately, the effect is minimal and is typically restricted to middle and far focal lengths.

The AW100's lens-shift image stabilization is one of the finest examples we've tested this year, and produced the best scores of among the competition. In our precision shake test, image sharpness improved by 65% with vibration reduction active. The camera supports two VR options: On, and "On (Hybrid)." The non-hybrid version scored better in the lab.

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