A rugged camera, despite design flaws

A rugged camera, despite design flaws

A rugged camera, despite design flaws

Nikon’s new AW1 is a tough little camera. You can bash it on rocks, take it under water and use it in the worst ski conditions.

I just wish I could love it a little more. It’s a sturdy device that fairly screams rugged. But for all of the work Nikon did to make it simple, some of its controls can still be tricky to use.

Before I got into more detail about why I’m in not in love with this camera, let me explain why I am in like with it.

The AW1, part of the Nikon 1 brand, is one of a new breed of digital camera: compact and mirrorless. It is small and highly automated. It’s not quite a digital single-lens reflex camera but, like those professional cameras, it gives users control over image settings.

The AW1, which costs $800 (Rs 49,248), stands out from its peers in this middle ground. It is for people who want an almost-pro camera that can’t be easily damaged.

The usual ports for charging and inserting memory cards and the USB socket for connecting to a computer are covered on the AW1 with sturdy little flaps. These seal firmly to keep out grit and water. They also have two catches that have to be clicked in sequence to be undone, so you won’t accidentally do something like open your camera’s sensitive inside parts under water.

The AW1’s hand grips feel like sharply knurled metal and they stay firmly stuck to your hand. And turning the lens take a little effort - it doesn’t twirl like a lens on a cheap plastic camera.

There’s a reassuring weight to the device, and it feels balanced when you hold it up to take a photo. It is easier to keep steady than a much lighter smartphone.

The first time I used it, the camera felt so professional, in fact, that I raised it to my eye to take a shot as I would my DSLR. It was a funny moment, since the AW1 doesn’t have a viewfinder, and to frame a shot you have to look at the screen on its back.

I took the camera with me on a short ski trip. I stood it on rocks, slid it accidentally over pebbles and propped it up on an impromptu snow “tripod.” I also happily skied with it in my hand to take an action video, got it thoroughly wet and freezing cold. I even accidentally dropped it on a hard floor from chest height - a drop like this would have wrecked my DSLR and its lens. But the AW1 stood up to the abuse, without getting dents in its plastic or scratches on its rear screen.

I have to say that this hardiness is reassuring. One of the nicest features of the camera is its fast-access menu. When you’re skiing with gloves or diving or even climbing, the menu allows you to change camera settings with just one hand. The menu is activated with a button near the natural resting spot of your right thumb. A semicircular display appears on screen, with a pointer indicating what mode your camera is in. By holding the button, then rotating the camera body, the pointer can be spun to select a different camera mode. Need to switch from full-automatic mode to slow-motion video? Just rotate.

This isn’t full access to everything the camera can do, but it lets you swap between some common settings quickly. Similarly, a dedicated video button means you don’t have to fuss with small buttons and menus to record a video.

Once you get the hang of its controls and the heft of it in your hand, the camera takes great images and HD video with its 1-inch, 14.2 megapixel sensor. And that’s good, because that’s really the only thing you want it to do.

Like its lesser point-and-shoot digital camera cousins, the AW1 works well in fully automatic mode where you let its smart circuitry choose settings like aperture and shutter and so on. It coped beautifully with awkward backlighting situations caused by the sun on snowy mountains.

The camera offers additional, built-in special effects:

One makes a photo of a cityscape look like a photo of a model city. The automatic panorama-generating mode, which uses motion sensors inside the camera just like those in your smartphone, is also very impressive. There are even some nice video effects, like a short, slow-motion clip capture. My favourite is the “motion snapshot” effect, which generates a brief video of the event you have snapped and a final still frame of the best moment in the clip. It even overlays cheesy music.

While the automated modes are fun, the whole point of this sort of camera is that you can set the aperture sizes, shutter time and so on manually. This lets you choose how much of the image is in focus, how bright it is and so on. These manual modes work just as well as on a “proper” DSLR camera, though it is perhaps more of a fuss to do in the AW1’s menus than it is on a big camera with dedicated buttons.

This leads me to what I did not love about this camera. Nikon doesn’t get all of the design detail right. It’s easy to confuse the video button with the next-door shutter button. The rugged metal grips feel curiously small when held in a gloved hand - which isn’t good for action photography.

The small rubber thumb pad on the camera’s rear, where your thumb normally goes when holding a camera, is amusingly small. It’s easy to roll your thumb off this pad onto the nearby control buttons on the camera’s back if you are not paying attention.
The menu system is also confusing. It’s easy to get a little lost in the submenus and swapping between modes can also be tricky.

Also, there are annoying quirks in the user interface. It has some awkward buttons and there are a few feature omissions. For the $800 price, it would have been nice to have a Wi-Fi chip inside to make getting photos and videos onto a PC much simpler. As it is, you have to open the camera’s flaps and plug in cables or extract the SD card.
The AW1 does do more or less exactly what it promises on the box. While I can’t say I love it, I do like it rather a lot. And so might you, especially if you’re an outdoors type with deep pockets.

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