Nikon Coolpix AW120 review

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.
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.
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.

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

DT Editors' Rating

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
Product Review

Rylo is the 360 camera that finally makes 360 video useful

The Rylo puts a new spin on 360 video by focusing on flat, fixed-frame output. It can’t quite replace your action camera or camcorder, but it shows a glimmer of what the future of consumer video could be.
Photography

Full frame or 4K for less than $1K? These 4 older cameras still have a lot to offer

Looking for a great camera deal? Sometimes, you might be better off buying one that's a few years -- last generation's professional models may not cost much more than today's entry-level models.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2018

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Product Review

With the Z7, Nikon gives DSLR holdouts the mirrorless wonder they've waited for

Nikon’s long awaited full-frame mirrorless cameras are here, and the Z7 is the new flagship model. But does it stand up to the company's DSLR pedigree, and, more importantly, does it have what it takes to compete with the likes of Sony?
Photography

Flickr just expanded Pro tools — but free users may have to delete some photos

If you have more than 1,000 photos on a free Flickr account, you might want to decide which to delete . Flickr announced some changes following an acquisition by SmugMug, including a new way to calculate the free account storage limit.
Photography

Premiere Pro A.I. plug-in for Adobe paints your videos in the style of van Gogh

CyberLink is bringing its suite of artificial intelligence-based video effects directly to Adobe users as a plug-in for Premiere Pro. The A.I. Style video plug-in "redraws" video in the styles of artists like Vincent van Gogh.
Product Review

Airselfie 2 may as well be a GoPro stapled to a drunk hummingbird

On paper, the Airselfie 2 is marketed as flying photographer that fits in your pocket and snaps selfies from the sky. Unfortunately it’s more like a HandiCam controlled by a swarm of intoxicated bumblebees
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Photography

Photography News: Flickr keeping Creative Commons photos, ONA gets colorful

Flickr has confirmed it's saving all Creative Commons images, ONA has released a new capsule collection in partnership with Passion Passport and 7Artisans has launched a new drone-specific 35mm f/5.6 lens.
Photography

Get your Sagan on with 60 awe-inspiring photos of the final frontier

Few things instill a sense of wonder quite like the final frontier. The best space photos show off the beauty of Earth, our solar system, and the far corners of the universe. Here are our current favorites.
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Mobile

Which smartphone has the best camera? We found the sharpest shooters

They say that the best camera is always the one you have with you and that makes your smartphone camera very important indeed. Join us for a closer look at the best camera phones available right now.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Smart Home

Picture this: The Aura packs thousands of photos in a single frame (for a price)

Are you one of those people who miss the good old days of flipping through photo albums to see each and every favorite photo? If so, you might love the Aura digital photo frame. We tested the device and came away impressed.