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Nikon Coolpix AW120 review

Highs

  • Terrific all-rugged body
  • Wi-Fi
  • GPS, built-in maps
  • Simple to operate

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 0

Lows

  • Basic point-and-shoot quality
  • No non-automatic modes
  • Mic picks up lens movement noise
  • Stiff buttons
The Nikon Coolpix AW120 isn’t for everyone. It’s for holidaymakers looking for an easy-to-use tough camera that will accompany them into the pool or ocean.

As folks head out for their holidays, chances are they’ll be using their smartphones (or, gasp, tablets) to snap their vacation photos. Here’s why that’s not ideal. Convenience aside, you can’t properly zoom in onto things from afar and expect good results. It’s also a bad idea to bring them poolside, onto the beach, or into the water. And, you’ll want something a bit more flexible, photographically, to capture all those memories.

Okay, we’re starting to sound like a camera ad for why smartphones suck (they don’t), but when it comes to travel, a good-old-fashion camera is still a great tool. When it comes to ideal vacation cameras, you can go for a long-zoom model or one that’s tough as nails. Nikon fulfills both: You can pick a long-zoom compact (Coolpix S9700) or mega-zoom (Coolpix P600) if you enjoy walking around cities or visiting national parks, or a rugged, all-weather camera like its Coolpix AW120 ($350). Whether you’re snorkeling in the tropics or diving into the backyard pool, or walking around a snowy, cold terrain, you don’t have to worry about exposing this compact to the elements.

Features and design

The AW120 and S9700 seem to have been crafted from the same mold. While the latter has a 30x zoom lens and advanced-level shooting options, the AW120 skews toward simplicity but with a brawny body (waterproof down to 59 feet, shockproof up to 6.6 feet, and freeze-proof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). Both cameras share the same 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, 3-inch OLED display (921K dots), ISO range of 125-1,600 (up to 3,200 and 6,400 in auto mode), continuous shooting speed (five shots at 6.9 frames per second, at full resolution), contrast-detect autofocus system up to Full HD 1080/30p video capture, Wi-Fi, and GPS. (The S9700 has a faster shutter speed). Even the battery is the same. While similar, both cameras cater to different needs.

The AW120 is a completely automatic camera…you can’t make any fine adjustments.

A better comparison would be to the AW120’s predecessor, the Coolpix AW110. Features and design wise, it’s nearly identical except the AW120, at 4.4 x 2.6 x 1 inches and 7.5 ounces, is a tad taller and heavier, but we’re talking a few millimeters and grams – nothing significant. The difference is that the AW120 has a faster 5x optical zoom lens (f/2.8-4.9, versus f/3.9-4.8 in the AW110) that’s also wider (24-120mm). It also has a faster continuous shooting, and Nikon added its Dynamic Fine Zoom (DFZ) with Hybrid Vibration Reduction (software and hardware optical image stabilization) feature that maintains high image quality in the first 2x of digital zoom. Wi-Fi and GPS menus and shooting modes have been enhanced, but both cameras are relatively similar. Color options have changed, and there’s a new slick camouflage version; we tested an all-black model, but there’s also blue and orange.

The AW120 is a completely automatic camera. There’s a Smart Auto mode where the camera makes all the decisions, and regular auto mode that lets you make some minor adjustments, such as ISO and white balance. Other than exposure compensation, you can’t make any fine adjustments. The rest of the modes include scene, creative filters, and Smart Portrait (automatically takes a photo when a smile is detected), but these are all automatic. If you think about it, having limited modes makes sense for a camera like this. When you’re underwater or hang-gliding, for example, do you really want to mess around with camera settings? If you do, then this camera isn’t for you; you may want to look at more advanced cameras with an underwater housing option, or something like Nikon’s AW1.

As we’ve mentioned in our S9700 review, Nikon’s Coolpix menus and user interface are rudimentary yet cumbersome to navigate. It’s actually even more difficult in the AW120. To make any adjustments you’ll need to go through the Menu function and scroll through the menus and submenus. To make things worse, there’s no circular scroll wheel like the one in the S9700, and the buttons are very stiff, which require extra effort to press down. This is because all the buttons are sealed to protect the inside from the elements, but it means it’ll take you slightly longer to go through menus. The AW120 has some extra onscreen info that’s relevant to the camera, such as an altimeter/depth gauge, compass, and location info.

A feature retained from the AW110 is Action button on the side of the camera. When pressed, you can perform certain functions by shaking the camera, like changing the shooting mode or enabling video recording. If you’re on dry land, it’s not particularly useful, but we can see how it could come in handy when you’re swimming underwater.

Because there’s no lens to extend, the camera starts up very fast.

Our comment about Nikon’s Wi-Fi implementation and OLED screen in the S9700 remains the same. The Wi-Fi is fairly basic, as the only thing you can do is pair it with a smartphone or tablet (via the Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility app for iOS and Android). It’s not feature-rich like what Samsung and Sony (or even Canon) are doing, but the plus for Nikon is that it works really well. Once you find the camera after scanning for available Wi-Fi networks with your smart device, the two pairs fairly quickly. With the app, you can browse the photos taken or remotely control the camera (you can’t remotely shoot videos, and zooming is choppy). We discovered you can’t review or transfer videos, and you’ll need to save a photo to your phone’s camera roll before you can upload it. But, it works, and we had no issues establishing a connection. (Something we noticed is that the camera disables Wi-Fi when battery runs low, as a way to preserve whatever battery is left.). There’s no Wi-Fi button, so you’ll need to drill through the menus to activate the function. As for the display, it’s bright enough that will satisfy most users, and viewable under sunlight. But the color is a bit dull, unlike the crisp OLED screens we’ve seen from Sony or Samsung.

On the side of the camera, next to the Action button, is the Map button. Because there’s GPS built into the camera, you can enable geotagging on your photos. After pressing the button, you can view a map of where you are. If your photos have been tagged, pressing the button during playback will show you the locations of where your photos were taken. You can also enable points of interest (POI) and find businesses, museums, landmarks, etc. on the map. It’s not comparable to maps on a smartphone, but it doesn’t require Wi-Fi or cellular. Because the LCD isn’t a touchscreen display, it’s harder to navigate. Still, for a camera like this, GPS geotagging is useful.

Nikon Coolpix AW120 side open

Design wise it’s fairly simple and buttons are kept to a minimum. The lens is sealed behind glass, so nothing protrudes out – keeping the camera compact. On the front are the flash and a bright-white AF-assist lamp. Besides the LCD on the back, there are basic camera buttons and a zoom toggle that’s right above the thumb rest. On the right is a water-sealed compartment where you’ll find the battery, SD card slot, and Micro HDMI and Mini USB ports.

The battery is rated at 350 shots, which is fine for normal use and will get you about two days before recharging. However, if you used it like we did – GPS enabled and frequent Wi-Fi pairings – you may get a day’s worth of shooting at best. Just be sure to recharge before you go to bed. And, the battery charges within the camera, so you’ll need to plug the entire thing into the outlet.

What’s in the box

Other than the camera, you get a strap, USB cable, battery, an AC adapter, and a cleaning brush. Since the battery charges in-camera, there’s no battery charger. There’s a basic guide to get you started, but the full user’s manual, as well as software, can be downloaded from Nikon’s website.

Warranty

Nikon includes a one-year limited warranty. It also offers a two-year extended service coverage in select states, for an additional fee.

Performance and use

Take away the AW120’s rugged features and you’ll be left with a simple point-and-shoot. Because it’s an automatic camera, it’s not difficult to operate. Once you figure out the convoluted menu system, you’ll get used to it. You’ll need to make some settings adjustments, such as whether you want GPS enabled, but these are mainly one-time changes that most users will make.

Despite the compact size, the AW120 is a bit heft and thick, but it gives your hand a good solid hold. In our hand, the shutter button and zoom toggle are well placed where our index finger and thumb could easily reach them. In fact, having the zoom toggle on the back, instead of surrounding the shutter or next to it, gave us better control of the camera. As mentioned, the buttons are really stiff, so at times it feels like we have to put in extra effort to push them.

Because there’s no lens to extend, the camera starts up very fast. But unlike a traditional lens, zooming takes a bit longer. In bright or proper lighting, the autofocus is snappy. Despite Nikon’s claim of low-light performance, the AW120, like all compact cameras, will stumble to lock focus in the dark. The white AF-assist lamp is bright, which is good for helping the sensor focus, bad for your subject’s eyes.

Despite claim of good low-light performance, this camera can’t handle the dark.

Now, the camera uses a 1/2.3-inch sensor, which is typical for compact point-and-shoots but small. With that in mind, we set our expectations realistically and were willing to cut the camera some slack. We don’t expect DSLR quality, but it should still be good – after all, based on what we said in the intro, you want good quality images if you’re going to carry two devices (smartphone and camera) while on vacation. As we say, sharing your images in onscreen sizes or printing them in small or medium sizes will be fine. With this in mind, image quality is good, with nice colors. But pump the photos up to actual size, and you’ll notice that the edges aren’t sharp, some even-level noise, and loss of details – nothing detrimental, but not crisp. It’s not a fast camera, so don’t expect to capture fast-moving objects and expect perfection every time. As for ISO performance, you’re fine up to 600, but push it any higher and you’ll see noise really creep in, and in low light the images will fall apart; with the camera on a tripod, we noticed noise and washed-out colors even at ISO 125 in our photos of the Manhattan skyline, shot from a rooftop five miles away. Even with ample light before dusk, we noticed noise in our photos at ISO 800, but still perfectly usable. In well-lit situations, keep it at 400 or below. Whatever Nikon might say about low-light performance, this camera can’t handle situations where there just isn’t enough light. For the camera’s target user, we think they’ll be happy with the camera’s overall image quality. Enthusiasts will have quibbles.

As for movies, it’s decent. The videos we took were smooth and had good coloring. Audio could have been better. If you listen carefully, you will hear the mic record the lens moving, even though there’s no extending lens; there is lens movement behind the glass, and the mic was able to capture the sound. We also noticed that the camera has difficulty with focusing when we zoomed in onto things. Our tip: Avoid using the zoom altogether. You can snap photos while you’re recording, in case you see something you want a photo of.

Since our managers refused to sign off on the trips to the Bahamas and Iceland in order for us to test the camera’s ruggedness, we did our best with in-home methods. We took the camera into the shower, dunked it into a deep-enough makeshift pool, and tossed it in the freezer and left it there for a couple hours. Brilliantly, the camera ably withstood all those conditions. The AW120 operated like normal. We opened the sealed compartment, where the battery lives, to check if moisture had seeped in, and it was nice and dry. The only issue we encountered was after pulling the camera out of the freezer: the camera started up normal despite being ice cold, but it was obvious that condensation had formed around the lens, as the photos we took were blurry and soft around the edges. After giving it some time to warm up, it was back to normal.

Conclusion

When it comes to image quality, there are cameras that will perform better than the AW120. It’s an easy, basic camera that takes good photos that will satisfy its intended user. However, there are smartphones that take photos that are just as good. But what’s appealing here are the rugged features. Being able to take it into a pool or ocean, or into the rain, is a unique feature that makes it a standout. If your vacations will include plenty of sand and water, or rain and ice, it’s a nice camera to have. But for more pedestrian activities, you’re better off with something else. It’s not a camera we’ll recommend to everyone, but there’s a group of holidaymakers who would love something like this.

Note that there are plenty of other strong (and stronger) all-weather cameras from other manufacturers, and $350 is a lot of money to spend on a basic point-and-shoot. If you want to save $100 and don’t mind slightly older features, take a look at the AW110, which is a nearly identical camera with the same rugged specs. For those who don’t need a camera as rugged, check out Nikon’s affordable Coolpix S31.

Highs

  • Terrific all-rugged body
  • Wi-Fi
  • GPS, built-in maps
  • Simple to operate

Lows

  • Basic point-and-shoot quality
  • No non-automatic modes
  • Mic picks up lens movement noise
  • Stiff buttons

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