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Lackluster Nikon 1 gets second chance in rugged, scuba-friendly AW1

Nikon 1 AW1
The Nikon 1 AW1 can remain at a depth of 49 feet underwater for up to an hour. Cool orange rubber jumpsuit sold separately.

On Thursday, Nikon revealed the Nikon 1 AW1, "the world’s first waterproof and shockproof interchangeable lens camera." And it's not just splash-proof: This baby's rated to go 49 feet under the sea and stay there for an hour. It'll also take a 6.6-foot drop and withstand below-freezing temperatures. So what's not to like? Wellllll...

There are few today who would sing the praises of the original Nikon 1 cameras. They arrived on the scene in late 2011 just as Sony, Panasonic and Olympus were shaking up the camera market with their mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras — smaller and better at shooting video than mainstream DSLRs, for starters. But the Nikon 1 models had a smaller sensor than the competition, and the interface (as I can attest) was sorely lacking. Their successors haven't done much to raise the camera line's profile, either. Maybe now that'll change.

This isn't the first compact, weather-proof interchangeable-lens camera — Olympus' OM-D E-M5 (What's with those hyphens, Oly??) is also splashproof, but you can't take it snorkeling, as our colleague Devin Coldewey pointed out in his review. The Olympus also $1,000 for just the body — and the newer E-M1 is even more expensive. To balance that out, there's a sea of rugged point-and-shoots, but their tiny sensors and lenses won't impress anyone.

The Nikon AW1 is as snorkel-friendly as it's gonna get — even scuba friendly, if you keep an eye on your depth gauge and don't exceed 49 feet. And for $800, it comes with a 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Sample underwater shot taken with Nikon's AW1 camera.
Sample underwater shot taken with Nikon's AW1 camera.

Let's look at what else you get for that price:

  • "World’s fastest continuous shooting frame rate," roughly 15 frames per second with full autofocus, and 60 frames per second with fixed focus
  • 1-inch 14.2 megapixel CMOS image sensor - the same size as the predecessors
  • Full 1080i and 720p HD video shooting 
  • Slow-motion shooting at up to 1200 frames per second - at the microscopic resolution of 320x120, but still fun
  • Built-in GPS - not sure how well that works underwater but worth having
  • For $1,000, you get body and kit lens plus a second lens, a fast 10mm f/2.8 lens that's also waterproof down to 49 feet

There are some obvious limitations to the ruggedness, outlined in Nikon's own fine-print PDF: It's only waterproof or shockproof with the appropriate lenses (just two, at the moment), and the waterproof rating may change if there's excessive water pressure, so firemen and whitewater rafters beware. And if you're beating the tar out of it, you'll need to make sure it stays waterproof, by taking it to Nikon for inspection.

That said, this is the kind of thing that Nikon should be doing to differentiate its interchangeable lens system from the aggressive competition, and as someone who has shoved a few cameras into bulky housings in order to protect them in the watery depths, I think it makes perfect sense. I just wish more of our smartphone makers would take a page from the camera industry.

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.