Nikon's underwater camera doesn't look particularly seductive at first glance. It's a stocky, boxy kind of camera that looks decidedly rough and ready. It's a far cry from the sophisticated, stylish contours of Sony's TX30. It's safe to say that the Coolpix AW110 is hedging its bets on a sportier kind of look—one that screams toughness. It isn't an unpleasant device to handle, but for a camera that's supposedly ready for action in all kinds of situations, a grip handle or a non-slip finish could have really helped. It's also a shame that the AW110 is only supplied with a neck strap, as we think an adjustable wrist strap would have been more practical.
The interface feels pretty dense, with a load of small buttons and controls packed into the space to the right of the screen. They're not the easiest of controls to use underwater either. Thanks to the camera's "Active Control" function, certain functions (auto mode, video mode, GPS) can be adjusted quickly and easily by tapping the camera. The range of options available for tap-control is quite limited, however.
The AW110 has an OLED screen with 614,000 dots. This has nice, wide viewing angles and keeps onscreen images looking fluid and smooth even in low light. Plus, it's sharp and precise enough for use in most situations. In full sunlight, the screen is a little too reflective (as are most digital camera screens) but lining up shots underwater is a relatively comfortable experience ... so long as you're head's underwater too. We did, however, notice that the display tends to overexpose areas of highlight.
Gadget-wise, the AW110 has got a pretty full line-up, with a GPS (with map and compass), Wi-Fi, an altimeter, a barometer and a depth gauge. All that's missing in this tech-packed adventurer is an anemometer for measuring wind-speed and—let's get really crazy—a thermometer!
The GPS can be used to easily tag photos with location data and to find locations on a map. The map isn't particularly detailed, but it does give you a decent idea of where your shots were taken. It also features certain points of interest. The GPS is backed up with an onboard compass, which is always useful for finding exact locations. The GPS finds the satellite signal quickly and can be further improved by loading the camera with an A-GPS file of satellite location data (valid for seven days). Note that the GPS can also be used to track a route. All in all, the AW110 has one of the best in-camera GPS systems on offer right now.
The altimeter, barometer and compass are all displayed directly onscreen, where they actually take up a fair bit of space. It would have been preferable to have some kind of "Disp." button to bring up this info as and when required. Unfortunately, you have to dig deep into the menus to change that particular display option.
The menus have been simplified for the AW110, but this waterproof compact still has a wide range of options, such as sweep panorama, creative filters, and a good dozen scene modes including the must-have underwater modes. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking on offer, but the range of options is largely sufficient for day-to-day snapping. That said, it would have been nice to see a set of PASM shooting modes. Similarly, a RAW mode could have been a wise addition, especially for correcting the white balance in underwater shots.
Battery life is announced at 250 photos and the AW100 lived up to expectations in our tests ... but only with the Wi-Fi and GPS functions switched off. With these modes active, the model we tested struggled to reach 100 shots.
We got some quite contrasting results with the Coolpix AW110 in our responsiveness tests. The autofocus, for example, is very fast in good light but gets quite slow when it starts to get dark. The start-up time is fine (under two seconds) but the photo-to-photo turnaround is quite slow (3.4 seconds). The burst mode reaches over seven frames per second for six consecutive full-resolution shots, which more or less meets the eight fps continuous shooting speed promised on the spec sheet.
This compact also has super-fast burst modes at 60 fps or 120 fps. Note, however, that image resolution drops dramatically (VGA) and only 50 frames are saved.
This waterproof compact is loaded with a 16-Megapixel backlit CMOS sensor. Digital noise is controlled reasonably well up to 800 ISO, but quality drops sharply at 1600 ISO. At that point, smoothing seriously wipes out finer detail and you'll need to stick to onscreen viewing (monitor, TV) or small-format prints (8" x 12" or 20 x 30 cm max.). The AX110 does have a 3200 ISO setting, but you should use this with extreme care.
The 5x optical zoom lens has a focal range of 28-140 mm, which is almost ideal for this kind of camera. However, lens quality could be better. The middle of the frame is sharp but the edges are still too hazy. There's also some chromatic aberration, although nothing too dramatic. Sharpness levels get more even over the frame as you start to zoom, but the aperture obviously drops in turn. In fact, that's the other real downside of this lens—the aperture drops from an already pretty tight f/3.9 (!) at wide-angle to f/4.8 at telephoto. In comparison, the Olympus TG-2 lets in almost four times as much light with its f/2 lens. Thankfully, the optical stabilisation system works pretty well, as we managed to get sharp shots at 1/5 ths.
The AW100 has an interesting macro mode that can shoot subjects from just 1 cm away from the camera lens. However, it's not quite on par with the impressive macro mode in the Olympus TG-2. In terms of lens quality, the Panasonic FT5 out-performs its two main rivals at wide-angle, but Nikon's underwater compact edges ahead at telephoto (although the difference between the three models is less significant).
The flash gives reasonably good results, with a controlled dose of light that can be particularly useful with backlit scenes. The automatic white balance does a decent job of balancing out the effect of tungsten and/or halogen lighting, which often makes shots come out looking yellow.
It almost goes without saying that the Nikon AW110 films 1080p or 720p HD video at 30 fps. Picture quality is good, and you can use the optical zoom while filming—the optical stabilisation system makes a handy addition here too. Note, however, that it's not possible to take a photo while filming video. That's all the more surprising since this camera has separate controls for shooting video and taking photos. Finally, a 1080 video mode with a 15 fps framerate can be used to play speeded-up videos (but with no sound).