“Limitations of Nikon’s KeyMission 170 keeps it from reigning the action cam mountain.”
- 4K video
- Dedicated photo and video buttons
- Easy menu system
- Electronic image stabilization
- Rugged, waterproof body
- Auto-off can’t be disabled
- Limited number of video settings
- Few manual controls
- Stabilization not available in 4K
On paper, the Nikon KeyMission 170 certainly has the makings of a great action cam: 4K video, built-in electronic image stabilization, and a rugged, waterproof body. At $400, it’s exactly the same price as the GoPro Hero5 Black, our top action cam pick, so the question is, can Nikon beat the reigning champ? When we put it through various activities for our Nikon KeyMission 170 review, we found that it has interesting features that give the camera its own identity, instead of being just a “me too” product. However, it doesn’t offer enough to outshine the competition.
Built for action
The KeyMission series consists of three “action” models, the KeyMission 80, the KeyMission 360, and KeyMission 170. The KeyMission 80 is a unique life-logging-style wearable camera, while the KeyMission 360 is Nikon’s first 360-degree camera. The KeyMission 170, with its single-lens design, is the most action cam-like of the three.
Built to be rugged without the need for a protective housing, the KeyMission 170 can dive down to 33 feet underwater, or be dropped from about six feet. Its tough plastic exterior houses a barrel-shaped lens assembly, and sports the same mottled finish that has graced nearly every Nikon SLR. In this case, it’s a 170-degree wide-angle lens – hence the name. A removable mini-hood lens protector with the “Nikkor” mark emblazoned on it gives the impression that it’s the same type of glass used by the venerable DSLRs (it’s not). Overall, the KeyMission 170 feels rock-solid in your hand.
Two buttons sit atop the unit. The one above the lens starts/stops video recording, while the second button is the photo shutter release. Both buttons can power the camera up with a short press, but only the video button can turn it off, with a long press.
Having two different shutter buttons might seem redundant, but it makes sense in an action cam. Being able to switch between video and still capture just by pressing a different button – instead of having to drill through menus — is so handy, and frankly, we’re amazed that it’s not on every action cam. With that said, it’s easy to inadvertently press a button and start recording unwanted footage, so if this happens to you frequently, you may want to disable the auto-capture function.
There’s a dual-latched door on the side for accessing the camera’s 1,050mAh battery, the MicroSD card slot, Micro USB port, and Micro HDMI port. On the underside, you’ll find a 3/4-inch thread, suitable for mounting the KeyMission to a tripod or to the included ball-and-socket base plate, as well as KeyMission accessories. Unlike GoPros, you don’t need to put it inside a frame or housing first.
The KeyMission 170 is operated via five physical buttons and a non-touch LCD. In addition to the aforementioned shutter/record buttons, there are two navigation keys and an OK button next to the LCD. This simple layout makes it easy to operate the camera, whether fully submerged in water or not. Even when placed in the optional WP-AA1 dive housing, all five buttons on the camera are fully accessible. The LCD is relatively small at 1.5 inches – the GoPro Hero5 Black has a 33-percent larger screen at 2 inches, and it has touch capability.
The KeyMission’s smaller LCD is just fine for 90 percent of what you’ll be doing with an action cam.
Would a bigger, touch-enabled screen be better? Yes, especially for advanced functions like in-camera video editing and settings adjustments. But it’s not a deal-breaker: When you consider that older GoPros didn’t have screens at all, and the current Sony FDR-X3000 also doesn’t have one, we’d say the KeyMission’s smaller LCD is just fine for 90 percent of what you’ll be doing with an action cam: Composing, shooting, and playing back shots.
But one feature that the KeyMission 170 lacks is voice control, which you will find in the new models from GoPro and Garmin. There’s something very handy about activating a camera by shouting at it, especially when your hands are full, as they tend to be when you’re active.
It’s also worth noting that Nikon has borrowed onscreen menus from its DSLRs for the KeyMission cams. They are simple to navigate, and easy to read in all lighting conditions. Changes are instant, and the menu hierarchy is logically laid out.
Simplified video choices
Video resolution and frame rate options are limited: 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (4K UHD) at 30 frames per second (fps); 1,920 x 1,080 at 60 fps; or 1920 x 1080 at 30 fps (the last two being Full HD). There are also two high-speed modes, which plays back in slow motion: 1920 x 1080 at 4x speed, or 1280 x 720 (HD) at 8x speed. For folks who simply want to shoot their skiing or surfing exploits, and don’t need a ton of resolution choices, this is good – it keeps things nice and simple. For more demanding users, it is limiting, especially when compared to the Hero5 Black’s buffet of resolution options. Granted, the KeyMission 170 is probably sufficient for most applications, but for the list price, we think it would be better served with more shooting options, not fewer.
If you’ve watched action cam footage, then you’ve seen how jarring it can be. Many flagship action cams now offer electronic image stabilization (EIS), which employs software to stead a video. The KeyMission 170 has it (Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction, or VR), and it’s effective at smoothing out all but the biggest bumps in your recordings. We turned it on and off while skateboarding, running, and riding a motorcycle, and in all cases it delivered significantly smoother video with the function enabled.
We recommend keeping it turned on unless you’re using stabilization hardware, like a tripod or motorized gimbal. The downside of EIS is that it requires more pixels than the resolution you’re shooting at, meaning that if you’re in 4K, you can’t stabilize it.
This is where the Hero5’s additional resolutions come in handy. The KeyMission’s top stabilized video setting is 1080/60, while the GoPro can do fully stabilized video at 2,704 x 1,520 at 60, 48, or 24 (2.7K).
With Nikon’s reputation in DSLRs, we expected to find advanced settings like exposure, ISO, white balance, etc. The KeyMission does indeed offer exposure compensation that can be adjusted from -2.0 to +2.0 (in ⅓ increments), and four different white balance choices (or the camera’s auto mode), but that’s it. The camera is capable of ISO settings of 100-1600, but these can’t be set manually, and the same goes for shutter speed.
We were a little surprised by the lack of color vibrancy.
The Hero5 Black’s Protune option, by comparison, gives you the same exposure control, but then ups the ante by adding two additional temperatures for white balance, and manual control of either ISO (which goes as high as 6400 for video), or shutter speed, depending on your needs.
It also outdoes the KeyMission when it comes to formats. Nikon limits the KeyMission 170 to JPEG photos, and doesn’t offer the ability to shoot HDR. The Hero5 Black can do HDR (or WDR, as it calls them) in JPEG format, or it can shoot RAW and JPEG simultaneously when not in WDR mode.
Quality and color
In 4K mode, the KeyMission 170 delivers plenty of detail. We took it scuba diving using the optional $59 WP-AA1 underwater housing, and found that the extra realism over 1080p was outstanding. Appreciating coral formations — especially soft coral, like fans and sponges — is often about the little things, and having the extra resolution of a 4K file lets you re-live a dive (or show those who weren’t fortunate enough to be there) with amazing fidelity. Edges of objects are crisp, and subtle patterns and textures emerge that you simply can’t see as clearly in Full HD.
However, we were surprised by the lack of color vibrancy. With the KeyMission set to underwater mode in the Shooting Options menu, the camera appears to filter out reds, not helped to preserve them. In one instance, while shooting at the same depth with a GoPro Hero4 Silver, the KeyMission does a noticeably poorer job capturing bright colors.
Speaking of going underwater, Nikon gets top marks for its underwater housing. The one thing you can’t do at 80 feet is swap battery, so the WP-AA1 includes a cartridge for adding a second battery, doubling your recording time. The result is a much bulkier package than taking a GoPro beneath the waves, but the tradeoff is worth it, as it allows you to film underwater longer.
What a turn-off
We have one major gripe with how Nikon programmed the KeyMission 170: The camera’s auto-off setting can be adjusted, but not disabled. The longest interval is 5 minutes, which means that if you’re participating in an activity (like scuba diving) where there is nothing capture-worthy for long periods of time, you might miss that opportune shot that finally appears – simply because the camera had turned off.
Unlike the GoPro Hero5 Black, which can be set to stay on constantly until the battery dies, you need to re-awaken the KeyMission with a long-press on either the video or still buttons — only then can you press one of these buttons again to start recording or take a photo. By that time, you may well have missed the moment. Preserving battery life is important, but not at the expense of being able to get a shot quickly. This needs to be addressed in a future firmware release.
Though Nikon’s KeyMission software for MacOS and Windows barely qualifies as a utility — it’s good for transferring and making minor tweaks to photos and videos — its app for iOS and Android is excellent. Thanks to the camera’s dual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, the app can communicate over either protocol, though options like live-view are restricted to Wi-Fi. With a Bluetooth connection, or what Nikon calls Snapbridge, the camera maintains a constant connection with a phone, as well as transferring smaller versions of content that are idea for social media.
In addition, all of the camera’s functions and calibrations are easily accessible through the simple menus. The only slightly complicating factor is that switching between the app and the included remote control must be accomplished using a menu on the camera — it’s not automatic and you can’t use both simultaneously.
Included with the KeyMission 170 are a remote control, an adjustable ball-joint mount, and two adhesive base plates that the mount can attach to. We really like the remote, with its dedicated video and still buttons (which mirror the camera’s physical controls) and a customizable function button; it’s a way better option than using the iOS or Android app. We only wish Nikon had seen fit to include a strap or wrist lanyard for it.
The ball mount is proof that Nikon has been trying to improve on GoPro’s formula and in this instance, it works: Unlike the standard GoPro tongue-and-groove mount, Nikon’s ball mount gives nearly complete freedom of angle. You can spin the camera 360-degrees, and thus choose the exact amount of tilt you need. It would have been nice if Nikon had integrated a level into the mount’s baseplate, but now we’re just nit picking.
We are a little sad that Nikon decided to use its own sliding latch design for the mount and the base-plates. Given the huge assortment of GoPro accessories, it would have made more sense for the KeyMission to have a compatible mount.
All new Nikon cameras include a one-year limited warranty. You may be able to buy an extended two-year warranty depending on where you live.
We are still puzzled by why Nikon decided to enter a crowded category like action cams, rather than investing in emerging tech. But if you’re going to do it, you should make big splash, right? Unfortunately, while the KeyMission 170 is a good product, it’s not a game changer – there are several great action cams already on the market. Its high price tag doesn’t help its cause, either.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes. Because the GoPro Hero5 Black is the same price as the Nikon KeyMission 170, it is not only the most obvious competitor dollar-for-dollar, it’s also a superior camera. There are only three areas that the Nikon comes out on top: The dedicated buttons for videos and stills, the integrated tripod thread, and the included remote control. While these are all good features, they aren’t enough to outperform the action cam king.
How long will it last?
Nikon products are generally very well made and built to last. The KeyMission 170 is no exception. We think it will likely outlast many other action cams from a ruggedness point of view, although we aren’t as confident that Nikon will continue to support it with firmware and software updates on a long-term basis, especially if sales are disappointing.
Should you buy it?
No, especially not at its $400 price (if you find it at $250 or less, then maybe). Even if the GoPro Hero5 Black didn’t exist, the KeyMission 170 has a lot of stronger competition. But there’s simply no getting around the fact that the Hero5 Black is a more powerful and customizable camera for the same price. We’re also giving considerable weight to the extraordinary eco-system of third party accessories that has grown up around the GoPro product line — you won’t find nearly as many (and maybe none) options for the KeyMission.
The KeyMission 170 is a capable action cam and won’t disappoint with either its recorded footage or operation. While it’s good, it doesn’t bring enough to the table.
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