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Nikon Coolpix A review: A good but pricey enthusiast compact

Nikon's first APS-C compact produces great images, but for $1,100 it falls short of other expectations.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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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.

Nikon Coolpix A (Black)
7.5

Nikon Coolpix A

The Good

The <b>Nikon Coolpix A</b> 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.

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.

Nikon Coolpix A photo samples (pictures)

See all photos

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.

Performance
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.

LCD visibility in bright sunlight is reasonably good, but still, I wish it had a viewfinder. Plus, the battery has a relatively short life.

Shooting speed, in seconds
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100
2.1
0.2
0.2
0.3
0.3

Fujifilm X100S
1.5
1
1
0.7
0.6

Nikon Coolpix A
1.6
0.3
0.2
0.7
0.7

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
2.3
0.3
0.3
0.7
0.7

Typical continuous-shooting speed (frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Design and features
Though it's all metal and well built, shooting with the Coolpix A feels very much like a typical point-and-shoot. In fact, the biggest part of the experience was surprise. The first time I was out with it, I was convinced that everything would be poorly exposed and out of focus; I was completely surprised upon downloading the photos to see they were sharp, in focus, and technically quite good.

The grip is a small, raised strip inset from the side. In conjunction with a small, rubberized thumb rest on the back, there's sufficient leverage for single-handed operation.

Despite incorporating a 28mm-equivalent, fixed-focal-length lens, the Coolpix A extends and collapses the lens like a zoom. Although that adds some performance overhead, the trade-off is an integrated lens cover; that's a nice change from models like the X100S.

On the camera top is a standard mode dial with the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, plus two user settings slots, along with an adjustment dial. Though Movie is also a separate mode, you get to it in the Drive Mode menu instead of via the dial. Neither is a terribly convenient place. The popup flash is a fairly unimpressive fixed (as opposed to tilting) version.

There are two programmable buttons, one on the front and one on the back; the latter defaults to ISO senstivity setting. Sarah Tew/CNET

The back has a fairly typical layout, with an "i" button to bring up access to frequently-used settings. The multi selector dial is quite nice and easy to control precisely, but seems underutilized; disappointingly, the navigation buttons can't be programmed for direct feature access.

As you'd expect, there's a lens ring for manual focusing which feels reasonably precise for a servoelectronic operator. Though you can call up a magnification window, there's no manual focus peaking.

You select focus modes via a switch on the side. Sarah Tew/CNET

I like the placement of the three-position switch for selecting focus modes, but find it requires concentration to get to the middle position (macro) without sliding past.

Fujifilm X100S Leica X2 Nikon Coolpix A Sony Cyber-shot DSC- RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC- RX100
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.3MP X-Trans CMOS II 16.2MP CCD 16.2MP CMOS 24.3MP Exmor CMOS 20.2MP Exmor CMOS
23.6 x 15.8mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 23.6 x 15.7mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 1-inch
(13.2 x 8.8mm)
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (exp)/200 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12500 ISO 100 - ISO 3200/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp) / ISO 100 - ISO 51200 / ISO 102400 (exp, via multishot NR) ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Lens
(35mm-equivalent focal-length multiplier)
35mm
f2
1.5x
24mm
f2.8
1x
28mm
f2.8
35mm
f2
1x
28 - 100mm
f1.8-4.9
3.6x
Closest focus (inches) 3.9 11.8 4 7.9 1.9
Continuous shooting 6fps
31 JPEG/ n/a raw
(burst available only with focus and exposure fixed at first frame)
5fps
8 frames
(raw + JPEG)
4fps
n/a
2.5fps
(5 fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
2.5fps
(10fps with fixed exposure)
n/a
Viewfinder Hybrid
Reverse Galilean
90 percent coverage
EVF
0.48-inch/ 2,360,000 dots
100 percent coverage
Optional
EVF

Tilting LCD
n/a
($449.00 est.)
Optional
Reverse Galilean
($449.96)
Optional
Reverse Galilean
Zeiss
n/a
($599.99)
EVF

Tilting OLED
0.5-inch/ 2,359,000 dots
100 percent coverage
($404.99)
None
Autofocus n/a
Contrast AF
11-area
Contrast AF
n/a
Contrast AF
25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Metering 256 zones n/a n/a n/a n/a
Shutter 20 - 1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 minutes 30 - 1/2,000 sec 30 - 1/2,000 sec; bulb 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes No
LCD 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
2.7-inch
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
(plus another set of white dots for brightness)
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
Image stabilization None None None Electronic (movie only) Optical
Video
(best quality)
1080/60p/ 30p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
None 1080/30p/ 25p/24p (max 18Mbps)
H.264 QuickTime MOV
Stereo
AVCHD: 1080/60p/ 50p @ 28Mbps; 1080/60i/ 50i @ 24, 17Mbps; 1080/24p/ 25p @ 24, 17Mbps
stereo
AVCHD:
1080/60p/ 50p
stereo
Manual iris and shutter in video Iris only n/a Yes Yes Yes
Optical zoom while recording n/a n/a n/a n/a Yes
External mic support No n/a Optional
(with WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter)
Yes No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 330 shots 450 shots 230 shots 270 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 5.0 x 2.9 x 2.1 4.9 x 2.7 x 2.0 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.6 4.5 x 2.6 x 2.8 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.4
Weight (ounces) 15.5 12.2 (est.) 10.5 17.6 8.5 (est.)
Mfr. Price $1,299.95 $1,995 (est) $1,099.95 $2,799 $649.99
Availability March 2013 August 2012 March 2013 November 2012 July 2012

The camera's feature set ranks as sufficient, but not outstanding. It does have an intervalometer, a Nikon-standard feature that few other manufacturers ever include (off the top of my head, only Pentax does). While it offers bracketing up to two stops in 1/3-stop increments, it's only for three shots. There are no live special effects, only post-processing effects, no panorama (not even a panorama assist), and no built-in neutral density filter. As with its compeitors, there's a bayonet mount for add-ons, though it looks like the only currently available lens accessory is a lens hood.

Conclusion
While the Nikon Coolpix A delivers excellent images and is a fine camera, unless you're a real pixel-peeper I'm not sure it's sufficiently better to merit a $400 premium over the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 for a lot of folks. The Fujifilm X100S at least offers a great viewfinder and unique manual-shooting experience that makes it stand out for the not-insubstantial price difference. I'd watch for the price to come down on this one.

Nikon Coolpix A (Black)
7.5

Nikon Coolpix A

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 8