Nikon Coolpix A review: A good but pricey enthusiast compact

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The Good The Nikon Coolpix A produces the excellent photos you'd expect from a large sensor, and the camera is well built with a streamlined, if somewhat point-and-shoot-like, design.

The Bad For the price, it needs to deliver a little more, such as a viewfinder; aspects of its performance could be better.

The Bottom Line If you're very picky about photo quality and prefer autofocus to manual -- but don't care about a viewfinder -- the Nikon Coolpix A is probably worth the money. Otherwise, wait for the price to drop.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

Nikon follows Leica and Fujifilm in delivering a fixed-focal-length lens model with an APS-C sensor, and as I suspected when I first saw it, this camera has a couple of weaknesses given its almost $1,100 price. While it delivers great photos and reasonable performance, the feature set and design leave it in a sort of competitive limbo.

The trend toward larger sensor sizes is important, because all things being equal, larger sensors tend to deliver better quality, and manufacturers tend to surround them with higher quality parts. But the cameras are also necessarily larger and equipped with fixed-focal length, rather than zoom lenses (for better optics). At their higher prices, though, many people find that a camera with a medium-size sensor costing hundreds less is good enough.

Relative sensor sizes for enthusiast compacts
Relative sensor sizes Lori Grunin/CNET

(Aside: The Coolpix A is terribly named. "A" is an ignored word in search engines, which means when you search on "Nikon Coolpix A" without quotation marks it returns results for all Coolpix cameras. So always use quotation marks when searching for it. It's the most SEO-unfriendly name since the Pentax *ist.)

Image quality
Images from the Coolpix A look great. JPEGs are very clean up through ISO 800; there's a noticeable sharpness difference between ISO 800 and ISO 1600. ISO 3200 is usable, especially if you shoot raw, but I wouldn't recommend going higher than that unless you're willing to make some compromises with respect to graininess.

The lens is extremely sharp in center for f2.8 through f8 and reasonable up through f16, but unsurprisingly soft at f22. Edge sharpness isn't quite as good; it's OK at f8 but not great at any other aperture. Its seven-bladed aperture delivers nice bokeh at f2.8, but when you stop it down a little bit. it becomes unattractively polygonal.

Exposures are consistent with no surprises. Colors render accurately, and the default color settings are very good. The Standard Picture Control boosts saturation, but not enough to shift the hues, though the higher contrast does clip the shadows a bit. The Neutral setting has lower contrast and saturation, but doesn't look flat the way you'll frequently see with neutral presets.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

While video looks fine for short vacation-type clips, there are lots of edge artifacts and more clipping than I like in the shadows and highlights, plus, of course, there's a need for some form of external stabilization as there's none in-camera.

The camera's performance ranks as typical for this class of camera -- that means a mixture of adequate and annoying. For some inexplicable reason, Nikon defaults the Coolpix A's JPEG settings to Normal (1:8) compression instead of Fine (1:4); there doesn't seem to be any performance differential between the two settings for both individual stills and burst, so I'm reporting the results for Fine (which is the setting you should be using anyway, if you're shooting JPEG).

It takes about 1.6 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot, and about 0.7 second to focus, expose, and shoot under either bright or dim conditions. All are comparable to its competitors, as all of them have lenses and AF systems that hunt or drive slowly. Its shot-to-shot time is very good though -- 0.2 second for JPEG and 0.3-second for raw -- in part because the lens doesn't reset to some home position after shooting. It rises to 1 second on average with flash enabled, but it varies wildly (my results ranged from 0.9 second to 2.15 seconds).

The camera also has zippy burst shooting. It can run for at least 30 frames (with a fast 95MB/sec card) for JPEG at about 4.1fps; raw burst slows from 4.2fps at 17 shots, which is a really nice buffer for a camera in this class.

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