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Nikon AW1

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Nikon AW1 Preview

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Preview posted 09/19/2013

Nikon AW1 Review -- Front quarter view

If you're in the market for a weather-sealed, interchangeable-lens camera, there are plenty of options out there. Many of them will handle quite a beating, as well. (We've often joked about hammering in tent pegs with professional SLRs.) But what if you're looking for something more -- how many interchangeable-lens cameras can you think of which promise that they can be used underwater? And how many claim to be shockproof? Until now, you could count them without raising a finger, but that's all changed with the Nikon AW1 mirrorless camera.

The 14.2-megapixel Nikon AW1 is the world's first shockproof, waterproof, interchangeable-lens digital camera. It's also freezeproof, for good measure -- and unbelievably, the AW1 needs no case or housing of any kind for these claims to hold true. It is, in essence, a hybrid of the Nikon J3 mirrorless camera and the AW110 waterproof compact, combining the feature-set of the former in a body reminiscent of the latter.

You could think of the Nikon AW1 as being a digital Nikonos Lite. Admittedly, with a maximum depth of 15 meters (49 feet), it's not going to accompany you quite as deep as did the famed Nikonos film cameras. (Depending on the model, they were waterproof to 50 or even 100 meters.) Still, it's the closest thing we've had to a digital Nikonos thus far, if you ignore a very brief run of Nikonos film cameras customized with digital innards by Kodak way back in 1998, on behalf of the US Navy. As well as its 15-meter waterproofing, the Nikon AW1 is shockproof to two meters (6.6 feet), and freezeproof to -10°C (14°F).

Of course, with an interchangeable-lens camera, you have more to worry about than just the camera body itself. The lenses, too, need to be sealed, as does the interface between lens and body. A sealed and ruggedized system is provided for with two special lenses, intended for use only on the Nikon AW1. (And indeed, they won't fit on any other 1-series camera. You can use existing 1-mount lenses on the AW1, though, if you don't need water / shock / freezeproofing for a particular shot.)

Nikon AW1 Review -- Lens in hand, showing mounting flange

The simultaneously-launched 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 and 1 NIKKOR AW 10mm f/2.8 lenses are, in essence, ruggedized and waterproofed versions of two existing 1-mount lenses. They're waterproof, shockproof, and freezeproof to the same degree as the camera itself. A flange on the rear of the lens butts up against one on the camera body, and a removable O-ring surrounding the body mount provides a seal that prevents ingress of water. (It's this flange, incidentally, that prevents use of the new lenses on existing bodies.)

Comparing its stainless steel body to that of the J3, the Nikon AW1 is close to half an inch larger in all dimensions. A knurled metal grip helps make it easy to hold onto, important when a dropped camera could exceed its depth limit or disappear into the depths. It's also significantly heavier, with a body-only weight some 55% greater than that of the J3. That's only to be expected, though, given the extra hardware needed to make the camera so rugged, and to seal all of its seams and openings. (There are locks and O-rings on all openings, incidentally, and even the popup flash strobe is waterproof.)

The lenses, too, are a little larger and heavier than their above-the-surface equivalents. Weight of the 11-27.5mm zoom, in particular, has more than doubled, while the 10mm prime has increased its weight by about half. The size difference for both isn't as great as for the camera body, though -- an added tenth of an inch or two in length and diameter.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Front view

Like the AW110, the AW1 includes a built-in GPS receiver for geotagging. It also has an altimeter / depth gauge, electronic compass, and virtual horizon. And you can control it hands-free, too, using an Action Control function like that on the Nikon AW100. (By placing the camera in hands-free mode with the dedicated button on the rear panel, you can navigate menus, change settings, and even operate playback functions simply by tilting the camera. Handy if you're shooting with gloves or cold-numbed fingers.) There's also a new underwater scene mode.

In other respects, though, it's pretty-much identical to the Nikon J3, just housed in a new and much more solid body. The 14.2 megapixel CX-format CMOS image sensor is the same Aptina chip used in the Nikon J3 and V2. The EXPEED 3A processor, too, is identical, and so is the dust reduction system. Nikon has also kept the same 73-point hybrid autofocus system, 3-inch LCD panel, flash strobe (guide number 5 meters / 16' at ISO 100), storage (SD / SDHC / SDXC), battery (EN-EL20 good for 220 shots), and connectivity (USB 2.0 High Speed plus Type-C Mini HDMI). You can also use Nikon's WU-1b Wi-Fi dongle to provide wireless connectivity, but this will obviously negate your water, shock, and freezeproofing.

And as you'd expect, the Nikon AW1 also retains its land-based sibling's searing performance. You can shoot at a whopping 15 full-res frames per second with autofocus for as many as 22 frames. Lock autofocus from the first frame, and you can increase the full-res burst speed to as high as 60 fps, for as many as 20 frames. ISO sensitivity ranges from 160 to 6,400 equivalents, and enthusiast-friendly features like Priority / Manual exposure and a raw file format are available.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Top view

You can also shoot movies at up to Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) resolution, with a frame rate of either 60 interlaced fields per second (1080i60) or 30 frames per second (1080p30), and H.264 compression is used. There are also still two slow-motion modes which allow 400 fps or 1,200 fps shooting, but with a strange 8:3 aspect ratio, and extremely low resolution.

As we said, it's largely the same as the Nikon J3 in terms of feature set, beyond the new sensors and weather-sealing. There are some new accessories to choose from, though. Nikon is offering silicone rubber accessory skins for the AW1 body and both waterproof lenses, intended to provide a more reassuring grip and greater comfort. These are available in black, khaki and orange, priced at US$37.

There's also a new SB-N10 Underwater Speedlight in development, along with a filter that aims to prevent condensation when changing lenses in high humidity and with extreme temperature changes. (Pricing for these hasn't been disclosed, and while we know the filter should ship in the first half of next year, there's no availability date for the Speedlight, as yet.)

As for Nikon AW1 itself, it should hit retail from October 2013. Pricing for the single-lens kit bundling the 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens is US$800. A twin-lens kit adding the 1 NIKKOR AW 10mm f/2.8 lens, meanwhile, lists for $1000. Should you opt to buy the prime separately, it lists for US$200, meaning that you save nothing by buying it in a kit with the body. (Other than the hassle of finding it to purchase, anyway -- we can't imagine that a lens useful only to customers buying one specific kit bundle of one specific body will have widespread distribution.)

Note that the AW1 won't be offered body-only, incidentally, which makes sense given that you won't receive its unique advantages without mounting one of the waterproof lenses.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Rear view

On land, the Nikon 1-series cameras have taken some knocks from pundits for their use of a smaller CX-format sensor, where most competitors are using APS-C sized chips. It doesn't seem entirely fair to judge them harshly based on that one metric, as they do offer some pretty clear advantages in other areas -- especially in their size, weight, autofocus speed, and continuous-shooting performance. Nevertheless, they've been faced with weaker sales than the company had hoped.

Underwater, though, the Nikon AW1 looks to have no real competition. Underwater housings for interchangeable-lens cameras are expensive and clunky, especially if you plan on having a choice of lenses. And while plenty of underwater point-and-shoot cameras are available, they all use much smaller image sensors than that of the Nikon 1-series cameras.

Although it doesn't take you as deep as did the legendary Nikonos, the Nikon AW1's 15-meter limit is probably sufficient for the majority of recreational divers. Fans of snorkeling typically don't go deeper than a few meters, and many recreational scuba divers don't have the training or experience to go beyond 18 meters or so.

While we've yet to put it through our lab, the Nikon AW1 looks to offer a truly unique proposition for many underwater photographers. Perhaps the sensor-size-is-everything critics will have to sit this round out.

Walkaround. Measuring 4.5 x 2.9 x 1.5 inches (114 x 72 x 37mm), the Nikon 1 AW1 is around a half-inch larger in each dimension than its nearest sibling, the Nikon J3 (4.0 x 2.4 x 1.1 inches; 101 x 61 x 29mm). That's noticeably bigger, but not unreasonably so for an underwater camera. (It's also significantly smaller than any of the Nikonos film cameras.)

Nikon AW1 Review -- Front view with optional orange silicone rubber skin

Seen from the front (and with its optional silicone rubber skins in place on both body and lens), the stainless steel Nikon AW1 certainly looks the part. It wears its added volume well, but weighs 76% more than the J3 does with its 11-27.5mm kit lens mounted. Body-only, it's still some 55% heavier, weighing 11.1 ounces (313g) instead of the J3's 7.1 ounces (201g). You're certainly going to notice the difference when you're above the surface.

The front-panel layout has changed quite a bit since that of the Nikon J3. The newer AW1 repositions all but the lens mount and its release button. The autofocus assist lamp now sits above and to the right of the lens mount (as seen from the rear), while the microphone ports that were previously on the top deck now straddle the mount on the Nikon AW1's front. There's also a new, deeply-knurled metal handgrip, which is similar to that of the Nikon Coolpix A in all but its finish.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Top view in-hand

Seen from above, change is again the word of the day. The popup flash strobe -- which is, impressively, also waterproof to 15 meters -- has moved much closer to the edge of the camera. (It's deployed with a button on the rear panel.) It sits atop a protrusion which also contains the new GPS antenna. And as we mentioned, the microphone ports are gone from the top deck, rehomed to the camera's front panel.

Moving further right of the flash / GPS hump, the J3's Mode dial has been removed from the Nikon AW1's design. The On/Off button, Shutter button, and Movie button remain in much the same locations as before, however.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Rear quarter view in-hand

On the rear, things have gotten a lot more complex. There are almost twice as many buttons, and that's probably in part due to the absence of the Rear dial. We'd guess it was simply too challenging to waterproof a rotary control, and so Nikon has had to add a few more buttons. (But then, it has some extra room to do so, given the greater real-estate available on the Nikon AW1's body.)

At top left, above the LCD, you'll find a button to release the flash strobe. The remaining controls line the right side of the AW1's rear surface. At the top are two buttons which serve as Playback Zoom controls, and beneath them is a dedicated button which enables the AW1's Action Control function. This allows you to adjust certain settings -- and control playback mode -- simply by tilting the camera from side to side. It should prove pretty handy for underwater shooting, where your sense of touch may be impaired.

The Action Control button sits alongside a new thumbgrip which mirrors the front-deck grip, although its diamond knurling is much shallower. Finally, you have a fairly standard Four-way controller with central OK button, surrounded by a cluster of four buttons: Menu, Playback, Display, and Delete. A card access lamp sits in between Menu and Play buttons. As well as being used to navigate menus, the Four-way controller's directional keys act as Function, Drive / Timer, Exposure Compensation and Flash controls in Record mode.

Nikon AW1 Review -- Left view in-hand

And so we come to the left side of the camera, home to its double-locked connectivity compartment door. Beneath this, you can find the Nikon AW1's USB 2.0 High Speed data port, and its Type-C Mini HDMI high-definition video output. There's also a neck strap lug near the top of the left panel, mirrored by one on the right side. (The only other feature on that side of the camera is a lock release for the battery compartment door.)