Nikon came late to the rugged compact camera party, but its first entry, the Coolpix AW100, arrived prepared to handle some fairly rough treatment. It's rated to be waterproof down to 33 feet, shockproof to 5 feet, and freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like all rugged cameras, it has limitations as to what it can actually survive, and Nikon is more upfront about that than most manufacturers.
To go along with its durability, there's a built-in GPS receiver for geotagging your photos, an electronic compass, and Action Control (which is very similar to Olympus' Tap Control), which lets you change settings by tapping the sides of the camera or shaking it.
The rest of the features and shooting options are similar to what you'd find on other higher-end Coolpix cameras, so all in all, it's a pretty good rugged compact. But, much like the AW100's ruggedness, the rest of the camera has some limitations, too, that might make you think twice about picking one up.
If you're considering a rugged compact to take diving, the Nikon Coolpix AW100 is probably not the one you want. While it's capable of taking some very good photos when you have plenty of light, its small maximum aperture requires you to use either higher ISOs or slow shutter speeds to get a shot with less light; for better or worse, the camera regularly goes with the latter.
Overall, the AW100's photos are best suited for prints up to 8x10 inches or Web use without a lot of enlarging or cropping. When viewed at 100 percent, there are visible artifacts and noise even at its lowest sensitivity of ISO 125. Subjects look soft, too (not unusual for rugged cameras), and could stand some post-shoot sharpening.
As you move up in sensitivity, photos get softer and softer, and color quality starts to deteriorate. At and above ISO 800, subjects look flat with muted colors. Basically, this camera's high-ISO photos aren't great and coupled with its slow lens, it's hard to recommend it for use in low light.
That said, if you're more of a snorkeler or pool denizen, or want a rugged camera for snow or offroad sports, it can take some very good photos. You can read more about picture quality in the slideshow above.
Movie quality is also decent, though again, the more light you have the better things will look. The AF assist lamp can be turned on and used to brighten close subjects. The zoom lens does work while recording; you won't hear it move necessarily, but you will hear the press and release of the zoom rocker. Also, if you turn on the continuous AF function, you may hear the camera focusing in your movie.
In our lab tests, the AW100 was a pretty fast camera. It goes from off to first shot in less than a second and has a very low shutter lag of 0.2 second in bright lighting, which increases to 0.5 second in low light. Shot-to-shot times are a little more average, but still good at 1.6 seconds without flash and 1.9 seconds with. The camera's full-resolution continuous burst is capable of 7.1 frames per second, though it can only do it for three shots and takes several seconds before it's ready to shoot again.
The camera generally performed the same in anecdotal testing, however it did occasionally have problems focusing. Several times during testing I was greeted with an "Initializing lens. Cannot focus." error that basically locked down the camera until it recovered. Also, when shooting in macro mode from time to time, the camera would say it was focused on my subject, but actually wouldn't be.
Design and features
The AW100 certainly looks the part of a rugged point-and-shoot, but it's not overdone. You can tell it's different, but it doesn't stick out. Aside from the large knob on the right side and the long button on the left (more on those in a bit), all the controls are pretty typical of what you'd find on Nikon's other Coolpix models. However, the buttons are small and tightly spaced, which can result in some accidental presses. Also, the buttons feel very spongy and were occasionally unresponsive, likely because of the waterproofing below them. The body is kind of slippery, too, especially when wet, and there's nothing really to grip on to.
On the right side of the camera is a single door protecting the battery, card slot, Mini-HDMI port, and Micro-USB port. Having everything under one door limits access points for water and the door has a nice big seal on it as well as a lock that requires you to push in a button while turning a knob, so it's fairly secure. I say fairly because if you for some reason forget to turn the knob all the way till you hear the button click, the door can be closed but not locked.
Another sticking point for me is that the battery is charged with an external adapter. Normally, this doesn't bother me, but for a rugged camera to require an outlet and charger is silly. If it charged over USB you'd have other options for refilling your battery. If you're considering the AW100 for a trip where you won't have an outlet for awhile, you'll want to bring an extra battery or two.