Nikon Coolpix A review

3.5 out of 5
£999

For

DSLR quality images from APS-C sensor, sharp lens, small and light construction, decent battery life, good build quality, wireless flash control, 10cm macro mode useful with such a sensor size

Against

Expensive, sluggish and sometimes inaccurate autofocus, no manual focus, no peaking function for manual focus, manual focus ring feels small and tight-positioned to the body, no zoom and 28mm equivalent lens won't suit all, no viewfinder included in the price

Coolpix is rising up through the ranks and the introduction of the new king of the range - the Coolpix A - sure does show Nikon's commitment to the brand.

But this Coolpix is far from your average compact. It may be small and light, but it comes loaded with a DSLR-sized APS-C - or "DX" as Nikon calls it - sensor, paired with a 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens. No zoom, and not much change from £1,000 either. Does its performance and image quality match up to the price?

Small And Practical

On first glance you wouldn't think that the Coolpix A had a DSLR-like sensor inside it. Because it's a small thing; really small. Think towards the consumer spectrum - something like the Panasonic Lumix TZ40 - and the Coolpix A really isn't that much larger at all. We wore it with its included strap and occasionally thought we'd lost it, only to realise - in that "searching for keys in the fridge" moment of panic that a £1,000 camera could have gone by the wayside - that it was still hanging from our shoulder. At 299g it's heavier than smaller-sensor compacts, but with that DSLR mentality in mind we had suspected that the A's all-metal body would weigh in far heavier.

The Coolpix A sure does have size on its side - and those contemplating the Fujifilm X100S will certainly think of the Nikon in the size stakes - yet manages to remain functional in use too. It's also quite a striking little compact that's got us rather loved-up before so much as firing the shutter.

A mode dial is paired with a top-rear thumbwheel control and d-pad which doubles up as a secondary rotational thumbwheel. There's a function button on the camera's front, along with a mix of quick-access and main menu controls. The "i" button on the rear brings up the standard Nikon DSLR reference/menu screen which is useful for adjusting the majority of important settings. However, without a built-in viewfinder - only an optional and yet-to-be-priced optical version will be available at further cost ($450 - £295 - in the US) - this can't be used in the always-on way that it can with a DSLR camera.

To the side of the camera is another crucial control: focus type. It's possible to select between normal, macro and manual focus options - crucial when close-up focus is required. Just don't forget which mode the camera's set to or you'll find a lot of mis-focusing can occur.

The Coolpix A's build quality is certainly second to none. The all-metal body features a small and raised strip-like grip which is ideal to tuck fingers around for a sturdy hold. Everything falls well to the hand and after more extended use even the rather small scale and close-to-body manual focus ring becomes familiar. This ring glides through rotations in a silken fashion - we'd just like it to have a little more width. It's not on account of lack of space either, as there's an additional and removable protrusion in front of this focus ring that can be used to attach the optional adapter ring for filters or a lens hood. No word on whether there'll be optical adapters for super-wide or extended telephoto adaptations of the 28mm equivalent lens.

On the rear of the camera there's a 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD which doesn't capture the kind of brightness levels of, say, the Nikon D7100's WRGB screen, nor are there touchscreen capabilities or a vari-angle bracket. It does the job and does it well enough, but in brighter sunlight reflections can be present.

Paltry Performance

But here's the pinch: the Coolpix A, despite all its promise, isn't up to scratch in the performance stakes. Autofocus is slow. There, we said it. This comes as a bit of a hammer to the heart, as the likes of Fujifilm's X100S will run circles around Nikon's high-end offering.

READ: Fujifilm X100S pictures and hands-on

Now we don't necessarily demand the absolute fastest focus system in the world, but the A will be shown the door by compact system cameras and other should-be lesser compacts too. It's not just on account of focus speed either - we also found the accuracy to be questionable. With an f/2.8 lens available there's always going to be a tight line to work with when wide open, but we've shot and then re-shot scenes and even at f/4.0 we've found the single AF point position - which is available in normal, wide, tracking and face detection options - can vary in its decision. Critical focus can be adjusted by a manual focus override option that comes into play once focus is acquired and the shutter button remains half depressed. Problem is there's no zoom in to the preview available at this point and, while there are left-aligned buttons to zoom in and out of the preview, these aren't active once focus has been acquired. Huh?

The Coolpix A's manual focus measure can display in feet or metres but doesn't offer up more than an approximate focus point measure - not the sort of approximate hyperfocal distance system of, say, the Fujifilm X20. Manual focus could have also benefitted from the focus peaking - an embossed edge which shows up on the preview to confirm focus - feature as found in an increasing number of other cameras, including Sony's RX1.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX1 review

A greater variety of focus options would have gone far, as would a more intricate manual focus option. Add the fact that there's no way to assess manual focus via the optical viewfinder and we suspect there'll be some disappointed with the A's prospects. Single autofocus (AF-S) is matched with a full time (AF-F) option which isn't of great use - the single mode is slow as it is, and the full-time doesn't improve this for its ongoing continuous focus.

Burst speed performs somewhat better, however. With a four frames per second (4fps) maximum, we were able to snap up nine raw & JPEG Fine files in any one sitting with a Class 10 SD card loaded into the camera. Movie mode is also tucked away into this drive mode section within the menu - seemingly tucked away from the fore, despite its 1080p capture capability at 24, 25 or 30fps. Also on the plus side is the camera's macro mode's 10cm close-focus distance, which is certainly welcome. Competitor cameras, such as the Leica X2 for example, suffer from limited close-focus distance capabilities so the Nikon trumps them in this instance.

READ: Leica X2 review

We found the Coolpix A's battery to be up to the task too. We've been off and on shooting with it forseveral days, accumulating in hundreds of shots. The three-bar display of battery life isn't as accurate as a percentage system would have been, and it once its down to the final of its three bars the red colour seemingly means there are few shots left available rather than a proportional third. Still, that a fairly small gripe all things considered.

Image Quality That Wows

But negativity is flipped on its head to beyond the opposite as, when on point, the Coolpix A's pictures are an absolute delight. The camera may have the same 16.1-megapixel sensor as the D7000 DSLR, which despite now being a generation old given the release of the Nikon D7100, has gone a couple of steps further to push image quality up a gear - there's no low pass filter in the Coolpix A and, therefore, no anti-aliasing required, which helps to make for sharper images. But it's the A's 28mm equivalent lens that adds to the razor sharpness. We doubt that even a D7000 or D7100 with a premier lens could match up to this kind of sharpness - it's particularly prominent in the close-up macro shots.

READ: Nikon D7100 review

Initially we were sceptical about the Coolpix A's generation-old sensor and Expeed 2 processing engine, but the pictures have undone any negativity that we've had. And if that's from a generation-old set-up then we can only imagine what the sequel could bring in the future - but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

With a sensitivity range from ISO 100-6400 as standard, the Coolpix A's lower ISO settings are superbly sharp and clear. There's only a subtle hint of chromatic aberration - shown as purple fringing - and increased softness towards the edges of the frame throughout the sensitivity range, both of which - and fortunately - are subtle blemishes. Even though sharpness does decrease as the sensitivity increases, shots into four-figure ISO sensitivities still deliver plenty of punch. Raw files aren't as drastically different from their JPEG counterparts as we've seen from some other cameras either - and it's this subtle processing which brings out the quality whichever format is your preference. Raw files hold out the subtle details in shadow areas better, even if it as the expense of more prominent colour noise.

The f/2.8 lens is of great use too, even if the 28mm equivalent is fairly wide-angle and won't suit all tastes. But that's just the nature of this camera - it served us well for a mixture of landscapes and close-ups. The default colour palette of the Coolpix A may not be the most saturated or striking, but there are other in-camera options that range from the subtle - such as Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Mono and more - through to more specific scene mode options, while sepia and cyanotype effects are accessible via the main menu alongside a variety of "retouch" options such as fisheye, miniature effect and more. We're not totally taken by the last set of options though - we'd rather have seen some more advanced, camera-specific black and white filter types as one example.

Verdict

The Nikon Coolpix A is almost there. It's taken us on a full-circle roller-coaster ride: from love at first sight, to loathing the slow and so-so autofocus system, then back to love again when looking at those super-sharp, detailed images. Seriously, they're better-than-DSLR-quality in many situations thanks to that sharp 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens.

But despite such high praise, it's not enough. Well, not quite enough for the £999 asking price any way. We've shot and reshot scenes using the Coolpix A - as it's in the interests of our photographic tendencies - but have found off-focus shots a nuisance, or entirely misfocused shots to occur from time to time. Manual focus, too, while it has the makings of good things thanks to the manual focus ring around the lens, needs an automatic focus-area zoom option for pinpoint accuracy. It's possible to use the zoom in/out buttons to the side of the camera, but not when focus has been acquired - which is at the point we would wish to use the manual focus override feature.

See it's not the pictures that see the Coolpix A a little below our bar of high expectation - they're fantastic when they're on the money - it's the slow pace the camera works at. As such we're being firm on this small form-factor compact in our verdict, despite it delivering the building blocks of brilliance. The Coolpix A's price may be high, yet a D7000 with 28mm f/2.8 lens would cost much the same and, we suspect, wouldn't produce images as sharp.

It's one of those head versus heart products: as much as we still unconditionally love the Coolpix A for its super-sharp images, it can be a painful process to arrive at that point.