The Nikon COOLPIX A is a camera designed to fulfil a very specific task, to provide DSLR levels of control and quality in a small fixed-lens compact. In order to do that Nikon, along with others, reasons that you need to start with the same kind of sensor as a DSLR and build from there. The superb quality of the images produced by the COOLPIX A is all the proof you need that they got that one absolutely right.
The next most important element is the lens. The COOLPIX A’s 28mm equivalent f2.8 lens, like the sensor, is of high quality and produces excellent results, but on a fixed lens compact the lens has to work well in a variety of situations and the terms ‘general purpose’ or ‘all-rounder’ simply aren’t ones you often find associated with a 28mm wide angle – and with a maximum aperture of f2.8 it’s also slower than much of the competition.
The lack of an electronic viewfinder or an accessory port to accommodate one will disappoint many and the option of an expensive optical viewfinder accessory doesn’t really address the issue. In the absence of a viewfinder the lack of an articulated screen puts the COOLPIX A at a disadvantage compared with many other mdels in this class which offer either one or the other.
It’s worth remembering that these ommissions have been made in order to achieve a very specific balance between performance and size. Nikon has applied the same uncompromising attitude to constraining the size and weight of the COOLPIX A as it has to maintaining the best possible image quality. If the only things that matter to you are quality and portability, the COOLPIX A delivers both. But again, will you be satisifed by the fixed 28mm coverage?
Compared to Olympus XZ-2
If you’re considering the COOLPIX A, you may also be eyeing enthusiast compacts with smaller sensors like the Olympus XZ-2. To look at, there’s little to tell the Nikon COOLPIX A and Olympus XZ-2 apart from the black body to the white name badge, but you don’t have to go deep beneath the surface to uncover some fairly major differences. Let’s start with the sensors. The COOLPIX A has the same size APS-C sensor found in the company’s DX-format DSLRs and, with a resolution of 16 Megapixels and absence of low pass filter, it delivers as good, if not better quality. The Olympus XZ-2 has a smaller 1/1.7in sensor with a resolution of 12 Megapixels. It too produces excellent quality images, but neither its resolving power nor high ISO noise performance can match the COOLPIX A.
Where the COOLPIX A has a fixed focal length 28mm equivalent lens though, the Olympus XZ-2 sports a 4x zoom with an equivalent range of 28-112mm. It’s also more than a stop brighter, with an f1.8 maximum aperture compared with f2.8 on the COOLPIX A. The XZ-2 also offers image stabilisation, not so necessary on the COOLPIX A for stills, but noticeably absent on video clips.
Neither model offers a built in viewfinder, but the XZ-2’s accessory port is compatible with both the VF2 and VF3 electronic viewfinders which are reasonably priced compared with the expensive DF-CP1 optical viewfinder on offer from Nikon for the COOLPIX A. Both have 3 inch LCD screens with similar resolutions, but the XZ-2’s touch screen can be used to make menu selections as well as for focusing and shooting. It also flips out and can be angled up or down whereas the COOLPIX A’s is fixed. Both models also provide a built-in flash and a standard hotshoe for an external unit.
Both offer fully manual control over exposure with PASM modes in addition to fully auto modes and custom positions on the mode dial. But the XZ-2 has intelligent Auto with scene detection in addition to Art filters for special effects. Beyond its scene modes the COOLPIX A has few frills. Continuous shooting on the Olympus XZ-2 is slightly faster at 5fps but effectively there’s little difference betwen the two models in this respect.
The COOLPIX A offers a wider range of video modes than the XZ-2 with full 1080p HD at 30, 25 and 24fps compared with only 1080p30 on the XZ-2. But the extra frame rates may not be as much use to videographers as the XZ-2’s dedicated movie record button, it’s 4x zoom or its image stabilisation.
Lastly, there’s the question of price. The COOLPIX A is getting on for double the price of the Olympus XZ-2. At the time of writing the COOLPIX A was a very recent release, so that differential will be eroded, but remains significant. In many ways the XZ-2 is a lot more camera for a lot less money but what you’re paying for with the COOLPIX A is Nikon’s uncompromising adherence to the twin pillars of quality and compactness. All you need to do is decide which of those approaches most closely matches your own individual needs and preferences.
Check out my upcoming Olympus XZ-2 review for more details.
Compared to Fujifilm X100S
Fujifilm’s X100S is arguably the closest rival to the COOLPIX A, although it looks nothing like it. A camera that wears its design credentials very much on its sleeve, the X100S embraces analogue controls in a format reminiscent of the rangefinder models of the 1950’s and 60’s.
Like the COOLPIX A, the Fujifilm X100S has an APS-C sized sensor with an unconventional design, but it goes much further than the omission of the optical low pass filter. The X100S uses Fujifilm’s X-trans sensor, that does away with the conventional Bayer filter design using a colour filter array with a more random distribution. Other models using the X-trans sensor have produced excellent image quality. The X100S’ sensor is similar to the 16.1 Megapixel sensors used in the X-Pro1 and X-E1, but adds on-chip phase-detect sensors to improve AF speed which, although I haven’t yet tested it, will undoubtedly be quicker than the COOLPIX A.
The X100S retains the fixed 23mm f2 lens of its predecessor, the X100, which has a full-frame equivalent focal length of 35mm making it a much better focal length for all-round use, and an aperture that’s also a stop brighter than the COOLPIX A.
One of the strengths and unique selling points of the X range is its viewfinders. The X100S is no exception, offering a hybrid optical / electronic viewfinder with a 2.35 million dot LCD. Manual focusing aids include focus peaking, first seen on Sony’s NEX range, and a novel electronic split image display of the kind used in film rangefinders and manual focus SLRs. It’s a world of a difference from the simple, yet expensive, optical accessory on offer from Nikon for the COOLPIX A.
In terms of shooting modes, the X100S offers the same PASM modes as the COOLPIX A but, with its old-style analogue controls including an aperture ring with marked f-stops and a shutter speed dial, a very different way of setting them. Like the COOLPIX A it has a built in flash as well as a standard hotshoe, but it lacks optional accessories for GPS and Wi-Fi.
The X100S can manage slightly faster continuous shooting at 6fps compared with the 4.5fps I managed to squeeze from the COOLPIX A. Video plays second fiddle on the X100S; like the COOLPIX A it lacks a dedicated movie record button. It has fewer video modes than the COOLPIX A, but does provide a 1080p60 mode, useful for high quality slow motion recording.
One final thing to consider that’s not of minor importance is that the X100S is bigger, heavier and a little more expensive than the COOLPIX A.
See my upcoming Fujifilm X100S review for more details.
Nikon COOLPIX A final verdict
The COOLPIX A pretty much achieves what Nikon no doubt had in mind for it. It is the World’s smallest camera with an APS-C format sensor. The image quality and low light high ISO noise performance are nothing short of outstanding for a camera this size. Job done.
But though Nikon hasn’t compromised on its vision, users of the COOLPIX A may have to. The 28mm lens is great for landscapes and interiors, but will be less than ideal in many other situations. It’s hard to fathom Nikon’s thinking here, when it could have opted for a more useable 35mm equivalent without compromising on size or weight and when much of the competition is offering lenses at least a stop brighter. The decision to omit a built-in viewfinder is easier to understand, less so the exorbitantly priced optical accessory. It’s these two factors, the lens focal length and the lack of a built-in or affordable viewfinder that potential buyers can most easily solve by looking to other models.
In most other respects – LCD screen, continuous shooting, movie modes and general handling – the COOLPIX A performs on a par with the competition. It lacks some of the frills on offer elsewhere, like art filters and panoramic modes, but that may not bother the target enthusiast buyer so much. The question potential buyers will have to answer is this: is the COOLPIX A’s outstanding image quality enough on its own to justfify choosing it over competing models which, on the face of it, appear to offer more in terms of handling and features?
It may be that the COOLPIX A is one of those cameras that looks good on paper, but in the flesh requires too many compromises. But there are two things you can’t argue with: it’s compact and its image quality is unsurpassed. If that matters to you more than anything else and the fixed 28mm equivalent coverage works for your style of photography, it’s a simple choice. It’s certainly enough to earn the COOLPIX A our Recommended award.
(relative to 2013 high-end compacts)
17 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20
16 / 20
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