Nikon Coolpix AW120 ($350/£270/€350)

Key Features

  • 16MP CMOS sensor
  • F2.8-4.9, 24-120mm equiv. lens
  • 3" OLED w/921k dots
  • Waterproof to 18m
  • GPS w/landmarks and maps
  • Wi-Fi w/smartphone app
  • 1080/60i video

The Nikon Coolpix AW110 was one of the better rugged cameras in last year's roundup, earning it a Silver Award. That camera already had a pretty ambitious spec sheet (not to mention a ton of bells and whistles), and the only major changes to the AW120 are its wider and faster lens and 1080/60i video.

Handling

While it has a more conventional shape than the Olympus or Pentax, the Coolpix AW120 still packs some impressive credentials. While the AW120 doesn't feel as sturdy when you're holding it, it does have a metal front plate and solid-feeling plastic everywhere else.  Holding the camera with one hand is easy, though watch your thumb, as it can easily brush against several of the rear controls. These controls - which include the four-way controller and the four buttons that surround it - are cluttered, but that's not unusual for compact cameras. The AW120 retains the same 3" OLED display (with 921,000 dots), which was one of the weak spots on its predecessor, due to subpar outdoor visibility.

One of the two big changes on the AW120 is its lens, which is now wider (24-120mm) than what its predecessor had (28-140mm). This lens is nearly a full stop faster at the wide end, which should improve the AW120's low light performance. The camera uses a combination of lens-shift and electronic vibration reduction to reduce blur in stills and movies.

The AW120 has a single sealed door which has a rotating locking mechanism.

Last year the AW110 could dive deeper than any other rugged compact camera, though it gave up that title to Canon this year. Even so, it can go 18m/59ft underwater, be dropped from 2m/6.5ft, or be exposed to temperatures as low as -10C/+14F. There's just one door on the camera, which is protected by seals and a rotating lock. Behind the door are the battery and memory card slots, as well as micro USB and HDMI ports.

The previous iterations of the AW120 (the AW100 and AW110) have a bit of a bad reputation for leaking and then failing. In our testing of both the AW110 and AW120, we had zero problems.

The AW120's Active Control feature allows you to switch shooting modes, playback images, and view maps by shaking the camera in various directions. Olympus' tap control feature is a lot more intuitive.

The Coolpix AW120 has a single menu which, while plain-looking, gets the job done. Since there's no shortcut menu, you do have to dig a bit more, but it's not a huge deal on this relatively simple camera.

Features

If there's one thing that sets the Coolpix AW120 apart from the competition, it's features - especially related to the GPS. Starting with the basics, there's a scene-selecting auto mode plus program, scene, and special effect modes. There are also 'sweep panorama' and HDR features available. You can be just 1cm away from your subject in macro mode.

The GPS and underwater features are the best in this group of four cameras. Above ground the camera can record your location, direction, altitude, and nearby landmarks. The landmark feature performed very well on a recent trip to Hawaii, knowing exactly where it ways, whether it was a snorkeling spots or off-the-beaten track viewpoint. You can view your current location on a map and you can see exactly where you took your photos in playback mode. While no GPS works underwater, the depth at which a photo is taken is saved along with your last known location.

The AW120's Wi-Fi feature is rather basic. You set up the camera as a hotspot and then use your smartphone to connect to it using Nikon's Wireless Mobile Utility app. This app lets you control the camera remotely, and also download photos to your phone or tablet. Once there, your photos can be sent onward via e-mail or directly to social networking sites. 

"The GPS and underwater features are the best in this group of four cameras"

The video features on the AW120 have been enhanced a bit compared to its predecessor. You now have the option of recording 1080/60i video, in addition to 1080/30p. While 60i has as higher frame rate than 30p, fast action or panning can show artifacts that go along with interlacing. You can deinterlace videos on your Mac or PC, which should reduce this phenomenon. The AW120 can also capture video at both low and high frame rates, with the latter requiring lower resolutions.

Performance

When it comes to shooting performance, the Coolpix AW120 impressed. The startup delay is nearly imperceptible, and focus speeds in good light are top-notch. In low light the Coolpix is less impressive, with delays of up to two seconds. Underwater focus times fell somewhere in the middle. The delay between shots is roughly two seconds.

There are a pair of continuous shooting modes on the AW120. The high speed option takes 5 shots at 7.1fps, which is a bit higher than Nikon's estimates. At the lower speed the burst rate drops to 2.3fps, but the camera can keep firing away, presumably until the memory card fills up. Do note that the camera is 'locked up' after you take a decent-sized burst at low speed.

Battery life is rated at 350 shots per charge using the CIPA standard. That's with Wi-Fi and GPS off, so expect much lower numbers if you're using either or both of those. In the real world, the AW120 easily survived a day snorkeling and then touring around with the GPS on. The battery is charged via and AC-to-USB adapter or by connecting to your Mac or PC.