Nikon's Coolpix range of compact cameras has grown in strength over the last few years, and now it just got serious: the Nikon Coolpix A represents the first APS-C compact camera from the Japanese manufacturer. The camera even has "made in Japan" emblazoned across its rear - the last time that didn't say "China" was, well, we can't really remember exactly.
First thoughts are that the Coolpix A sounds rather Fujifilm X100S, at least by concept. In the flesh, however - or, more literally, its aluminium front and rear and magnesium top alloy panels - it doesn't quite deliver the same retro cool or striking design appeal as its competitor neighbour. We do like the small scale though: that will be of definite appeal to those that want an on-the-go street photography camera.
The Coolpix A is fired up by using a toggle around the shutter button, which looks rather like the zoom toggle of other Coolpix compacts. But of course that's irrelevant: the Coolpix A has a fixed 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens that extends from the body when fired up, but there's no zoom to be found here.
That's a definite nod towards picture quality perfection, or at least we hope so. We've not been able to take any samples away, but the arrangement of seven lens elements in five groups - one of which is aspherical glass - coupled with a seven-bladed diaphragm for an awesome bokeh effect sounds, well, rather sumptuous doesn't it?
Around the lens is a manual focus ring that, to our hands, felt a little too tucked into the body. We'd rather have seen a deeper lens ring so that a variety of finger sizes would be able to get an ample grip to it. But when that ring spins it does so with well-oiled grace. It's all metal and feels absolutely quality.
Just in front of this is a removable section to expose a screw thread for the addition of forthcoming but yet-to-be-announced filters. We thought that it could be a sign that a wide-angle or telephoto magnifier accessories could be on the cards, but Nikon representatives had no comment to make about that at present. Still, who knows, it wouldn't be impossible, even if it might cost the overall image quality in the long run.
Then there's the sensor. Well, not so much the sensor - which is the very same 16.2-megapixel APS-C one as found in the Nikon D7000 - but the fact that Nikon's removed the optical lowpass filter (LPF) from the equation. That means no anti-aliasing and, therefore, sharper images.
READ: Nikon D7000 review
The thing is, this increases the risk of moire in some situations and, therefore, could be a bit of an issue. When Nikon announced the D7100 DSLR was also LPF-free it explained that the high 24-megapixel resolution was able to compensate for most issues. But the Coolpix A isn't 24-megapixels, it's got a 50 per cent lower resolution. So we'll just have to wait and see when we get a final sample model as to whether it will have any real-world negative impact or not. We hope not, but there's definitely the chance if you like shooting arrangements of pin-stripe suits, for example.
The sensor also includes an "AR" or anti-reflective coating to help reduce flare and ghosting that can be caused by the image sensor's surface itself. Interesting stuff.
Otherwise one of the things that we take from the sensor is that, well, it's a generation old isn't it? Why is a 2013 camera released with tech that was, in part, around at the tail-end of 2011? The same can be said for the processing engine too - Expeed 2, rather than the latest Expeed 3 models found in Nikon's DSLR cameras. And as the Coolpix A is targeted at the high end, some of whom are likely to have other Nikon kit, it's not as though this will go unnoticed. Whether that has any considerable impact to resulting pictures, again, we won't know until we get a final sample model in to play with.
Focus is handled in either single (AF-S), full time (AF-F) or manual (MF) options - the initial two from within the menu system, the latter via an auto/macro/manual switch to the left side of the camera body. It's a key function of the camera as the minimum focus distance is 50cm from the lens in the standard mode, and that's felt when trying to shoot things close up. A quick flick of the switch to its macro mode and close-up focus can be achieved 10cm from lens to subject which is a far greater result.
However the autofocus system isn't one to shout from the hills about, at least not in the state we've seen it here. This is fairly typical of this market sector, including the Leica X2, Sony RX1 and so forth. The Nikon doesn't speed into focus by any means, and is yet slower in its macro equivalent. We're not going to cry about it, but a compact system camera and the majority of standard compact cameras are swifter off the mark.
Used in manual focus mode and we rather liked the focus distance indicator which can display in feet or metres. There's no edge-emboss-style peaking to show what falls into focus as with recent competitors, but the zoom button can magnify the preview image for critical focus on the screen. Those using autofocus can also keep the shutter half depressed and tweak final focus with the manual focus ring, which by default is available to override focus.
Modes are fairly stripped back on the main dial: the usual manual options plus auto, scene and two user defined settings keep things simple. Movie mode isn't available on the mode dial, nor does it have its own one-touch button. Instead you'll need to dig through the burst mode option to select it. That makes it seem like a last-minute thought really, but then a large portion of Coolpix A users aren't likely to have movie capture at the top of their wishlists.
The 921k-dot rear LCD can display Nikon's DSLR-style menu system for quick access into various settings and to display clean and clear shooting information. It's an established, tried and tested method that we're familiar with and is a definite good move. No Nikon-1-style menu conflictions to be found here.
Controls are handled by a rear thumb dial that, despite having no lock, doesn't protrude over the rear so shouldn't be knocked too easily. This is paired with a rear rotational d-pad and, like many Nikon DSLR cameras, there are four other control buttons to the left side of the screen, here assigned to magnifying, exposure compensation/depth of field preview and ISO/function button number two. The primary function button, which is also user-assignable, can be found on the front of the camera.
As well as a pop-up flash there's the ability to add an additional flash via the hotshoe. The Coolpix A does support Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS) but "multiple flash advanced wireless lighting is not supported" from what we were told. There were no Speedlite flash guns knocking around to experiment further.
Optional GPS and Wi-Fi units can also be used in conjunction with the camera, but neither is built-in. Probably a good thing as the EN-EL20 battery - the same as that found in the Nikon J series of compact system camera - only lasts out for a quoted 230 shots per charge as it is. Ouch. We were hoping for a lot more.
Oh, then there's the small issue of the price. Well, small is the wrong word: it's a grand. Yup, £1,000 and that's without the optional optical viewfinder (yet to be priced). It's a lot of cash considering the Fujifilm X100S, but we can see the Nikon's appeal. In fact, we rather like it. It's about time Coolpix sat on the map as something more than a volume brand that happens to sponsor TV soap Hollyoaks in the UK.
The Coolpix A - despite its weird name, which has no immediate or apparent meaning - is half way to "awesome", though we'd like to see a faster autofocus, beefier battery and some more advanced manual focus options on board for it to excite us that much more.
Still, even though not all of the tech is brand-spankin'-new in Nikon's own terms, there's something about the Nikon Coolpix A that makes us want it. It's a desirable little camera for sure. If you've got a spare £1,000 knocking around then it could be yours from 21 March.