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With 100 feet of water resistance, 7 feet of shock resistance and a price tag lower than the best that Canon and Olympus have to offer, the $275 Nikon Coolpix AW130 packs a lot of features in a well-designed rough-and-tumble body. Then you add built-in Wi-Fi, NFC, GPS and dedicated buttons to control all those features, and you get a 16-megapixel shooter that's a perfect companion for outdoor adrenaline junkies. So even though it doesn't snap the sharpest photos, it's hard to ignore this Nikon's package of performance and price.
One of the most comforting things about the AW130 is its reassuringly tough turn-dial latch, which unlike some other underwater cameras, never leaves you wondering if the flaps have been properly secured before going for a swim. There's a small grippy bulge on the right to provide a purchase for your hands, and a small but sturdy lens hood to protect the most important part of the camera in the event of a fall.
I wish Nikon had included a scene dial to make it easier to switch between shooting modes, as Olympus did on the TG-4, but with the simplicity of the AW130's menus, I'm not terribly bothered.
Like Canon's PowerShot D30, the AW130 also features a built-in 5x optical zoom for when you want to push in closer to get just a bit more detail.
Measuring 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.1 inches and weighing 7.8 ounces, the AW130 is just a tad bigger than Canon's PowerShot D30 (4.31 x 2.68 x 1.08 inches). However, the AW130 is smaller and lighter than the Olympus TG-4, which comes in at 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.2-inches and 8.7 ounces.
With shock resistance tested to drops of up to 7 feet and water resistance up to depths of 100 feet, the Coolpix AW130 features a good mix of durability. That's 50 feet greater than the Olympus TG-4, but 50 feet less than the Canon PowerShot D30.
The AW130 also features built-in NFC for easy pairing, Wi-Fi for simple sharing and GPS for no-nonsense metadata embedding, so you can enjoy your adventure without getting lost in your tech.
Unfortunately, if you looking for RAW file support or a true manual mode, you'll have to opt for Olympus TG-4, since the AW130 doesn't offer these settings.
Nikon's AW130 acquitted itself pretty well, freezing the action on some skydivers practicing at an indoor facility. While the AW130's white balance ended up a bit orange, details in the fast moving scene were pretty crisp, although not quite as sharp as what the Olympus TG-4 snapped. On the bright side, the AW130 captured more vivid colors that helped bring a little extra splash of richness to the equipment rack in the background.
Even at 10 p.m., the Nikon AW130 captured a surprisingly detailed shot of some flowers. Colors were spot-on, and the petals retained a lot of their subtle shading and detail. Unfortunately, clarity fell away somewhat quick, as the green leaves around the edges of the picture looked blurrier than I'd like. Here, Olympus' TG-4 holds an advantage over the AW130 in sharpness, but loses in accuracy.
When we mounted the AW130 on a tripod and submerged it in an indoor pool, the Nikon did a solid job of capturing the intricate details in our coral test scene and the rippled light that came in from above. Unfortunately, even though it was set to underwater mode, the whole picture came out a little underexposed and white balance was a little too heavy on the green side. While the blurry shot we got from Canon's PowerShot D30 was even worse, the Olympus TG-4 wowed with a properly exposed photo with better details and proper white balance.
In our lab, with the AW-130 set to auto and IS0-1600, images showed great color saturation that had the square in the middle looking richer and more vivid than it did in pics from other cameras. The downside is a graininess that's a bit more pronounced than similar photos taken with the Olympus TG-4.
MORE: Best Cameras
If you're the kind of person who's looking to geotag their adventure and snap some great pics in rugged conditions, the Nikon Coolpix AW130 is probably the camera for you. Its dedicated GPS and Wi-Fi buttons makes it extremely simple to embed metadata into your photos, and with 100-feet of water resistance, only the deepest of dives will threaten this cam's underwater integrity. While the AW130's image quality isn't quite as sharp or as colorful as what you get from the $330 Olympus TG-4, the Coolpix $275 price tag makes that compromise an easy one to make.
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Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).