Nikon Coolpix AW110 review

The rugged Nikon Coolpix AW110 is a modest update to its predecessor, the AW100. It can go deeper underwater and adds Wi-Fi, but still suffers at high ISO settings.
Photo of Nikon Coolpix AW110

The Nikon Coolpix AW110 ($349.95 direct) is the follow-up to the AW100, a tough compact that won our Editors’ Choice award when we reviewed it back in late 2011. The 16-megapixel AW110 improves upon the earlier model in small ways, including an improved underwater depth rating and built-in Wi-Fi, but it’s not a drastically different camera. Other tough cams have added wider-aperture lenses, macro LED lights, and other features that make the category a bit more competitive. Our Editors’ Choice rugged compact is one of those, the Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS; it’s only $30 more than the Nikon, and packs an f/2 lens that makes it a more versatile low-light shooter.

Design and Features
The AW110 follows the traditional tough camera design scheme. The lens is an internal zoom design, located in the top corner of the body. The camera itself measures 2.6 by 4.4 by 1 inch and weighs 6.9 ounces. Its tough exterior can survive drops from a 6.6-foot height, can operate in temperatures as low as 14°F, and is rated for use in depths of water up to 59 feet. It’s not as stylized as the Canon PowerShot  D20, a tough camera with rounded corners and a wavy two-tone color scheme. The Canon is a bit bigger at 2.8 by 4.4 by 1.1 inches, and heavier at 8 ounces. Our AW110 review unit was orange, but the camera is also available in black, blue, and camouflage color schemes.

The lens is a 5x design that covers a 28-140mm (35mm equivalent) focal range. The aperture starts at f/3.3 and narrows to f/4.8 when zoomed all the way in, but Nikon does include optical image stabilization to help steady shots in lower light. It’s no match in terms of light gathering when compared with faster lenses like the 25-100mm f/2-4.9 lens found on the Pentax WG-3 GPS. The 28mm design is plenty wide when you’re shooting on dry land, but underwater photographers understand that shooting through water narrows the field of view of a lens. What the AW110 is missing in wide-angle coverage it makes up for in its macro capability; it can focus on objects a centimeter away at the 28mm zoom setting; the Pentax requires the lens to be zoomed to its midpoint in order to focus that close.

The rear 3-inch OLED display is quite sharp at 610k dots, and it has an adjustable brightness setting so you can more easily use it in sunny conditions. It’s an upgrade over the 460k-dot display found in the AW100 and the Olympus TG-830.

To the right of the display you’ll find the majority of the camera’s controls. There’s a zoom rocker, a movie button, and controls to adjust the flash output, set the self-timer, adjust exposure compensation, and enable macro shooting. A Scene button lets you change the shooting mode; but you’re limited to a few different automatic modes. Experienced photographers will likely be turned off by the lack of manual shooting controls. This is pretty standard for rugged cameras; of the models we’ve tested, the Olympus TG-2 is the only one with an aperture priority setting.

The Action button, which first appeared on the AW100, carries over to the AW110. It’s located on the left side of the camera and lets you change shooting modes quickly. Giving it a tap brings up an overlay menu that allows you to change the current scene mode, start movie recording, play images, or view your location on the built-in world map. You can shake the camera to move from option to option, and a full press of the Action button confirms your choice. It’s a unique feature that will appeal to rock climbers and hikers who aren’t able to use two hands to change settings before taking a photo.

Both GPS and Wi-Fi are integrated here. The GPS module adds your location information to photos; it took a couple minutes to lock onto a signal, but updated pretty quickly after that in my tests. You can transfer photos from the AW110 to an iOS or Android device using the free Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility app. The camera acts as a hotspot which you can connect to using your device. Transferring images is easy, and you have the option of moving full-size, 1.5-megapixel, or 0.3-megapixel photos. Transferring a 1.5-megapixel image takes about 5 seconds. The app also lets you use your phone or tablet as a remote viewfinder where you can adjust the zoom settings and take photos, which are automatically transferred over.

Performance and Conclusions
The AW110 is a bit slow to start and shoot, requiring 2.4 seconds on average, but it’s quite responsive once it’s powered up. The shutter lag is just 0.05-second, so there’s virtually no delay between button press and photo capture. The AW110 can grab a 5-shot burst at 6 frames per second, but it does require about 7.4 seconds to write those photos to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card. That’s not quite as good as the Olympus TG-2; which only requires 0.9-second to start and shoot, and its shutter lag is just a bit longer at 0.1-second. It’s a tad bit slower at 5.3 frames per second, but it can keep that pace for an impressive 50 shots.

The sharpness of the AW110′s lens is  is impressive, though its performance does suffer at the image edges. I used Imatest to see how well it captured our SFRPlus test chart using a center-weighted scoring method. It scores 2,836 lines per picture height on the test, which blows away the 1,800 lines that we require for a sharp image. The center score tops 3,500 lines, and the surrounding areas of the frame still hit 2,400 lines. But quality falls off at the edges, where I only saw 1,375 lines. Edge sharpness is a concern with most tough cameras, due to the design compromises that are required to achieve the internal zoom design. The Canon PowerShot D20 manages 1,975 lines using the center-weighted test, but its edges are also soft at 1,359 lines.

Imatest was also used to check how the AW110 performs at high ISO settings, which are often required for low-light and underwater photography. The camera is able to keep image noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 800; this is a good result, but not as impressive as the Olympus TG-2, which controls noise through ISO 1600. When you add in the TG-2′s wide-aperture lens, it’s a more impressive low-light shooter. The AW110 does lose some detail at ISO 800 when compared to its base setting of ISO 125, but images are still quite useable there; but if you push the camera to ISO 1600, image quality drops off quickly. We viewed photos on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display to evaluate image quality at different ISO settings.

Video is captured at 1080p30 quality in QuickTime format. The footage is quite sharp, and the camera does a good job reacquiring focus as the scene changes. You can zoom in and out while recording, and while there’s some faint noise of the lens moving on the soundtrack, it’s not overwhelming. The only real knock on the quality is that some evidence of the rolling shutter effect can be seen during quick pans; this causes the bottom of the frame to advance more quickly than the top, which gives the footage a bit of “rubber pencil” effect. A micro HDMI and a proprietary USB port protected by a sealed, locking door; the SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot is also accessible via that door.

The Nikon Coolpix AW110 is a better camera than the AW100, but we’re awarding it a slightly lower rating. Rugged cameras have gotten better over the past couple years; our Editors’ Choice Olympus TG-2 is a perfect example with its wide-aperture lens and macro LED lighting, and the Pentax WG-3 GPS also offers those features. The AW110 is a solid camera for outdoor shooting, and it sets itself apart from the crowed with built-in Wi-Fi, but if you frequent the depths of the ocean, you’ll be better served with the wider-angle lens and the superior high ISO performance offered by the TG-2. If rough-and-tumble, above-water, daylight shooting is your primary concern in a rugged camera, though, you may find the AW110 suits all of your needs.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.6 x 4.4 x 1 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, micro HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.17 seconds
LCD dots 610000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 3200
Type Compact
GPS Yes
Optical Zoom 5 x
Boot time 2.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 28 mm
Weight 6.9 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 59 feet
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 2836
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 140 mm
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 1/2.3" (6.2 x 4.6mm) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The rugged Nikon Coolpix AW110 is a modest update to its predecessor, the AW100. It can go deeper under water and adds Wi-Fi, but still suffers at high ISO settings.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc