Nikon WU-1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review: using Android as a remote trigger / wireless display

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

In the world of DSLR shooting, you can certainly catch one's attention by mentioning one of two things: a wireless display, or a remote trigger setup. Neither of these are exactly fresh concepts, but Nikon has chosen a curious beast to highlight one of its most promising accessories to date. The $60 WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter primarily allows two things to happen. First, it enables your Android phone or tablet (and soon, iOS device) to act as a wireless display. You shoot an image, and within seconds, that image is ready for your ogling on a far larger display than the 3-incher found on the D3200's backside. For those looking for a far better way to review each shot without pulling out the laptop, this is it.

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The other function -- the one we at Engadget were most intrigued by -- is the ability to use a mobile device to wirelessly trigger a shot. The adapter relies on WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) in order to converse with one's Android device, enabling a connection even when you're away from a cellular data signal or WiFi network. Frankly, we were overly bummed to see the entry-level D3200 gain compatibility before full-frame shooters like the D800, D3S and D4 -- after all, it sure seems that professionals would be seeking these features more than novices. In the end, however, it's probably best that more spendy clients be kept far, far away from the disappointment. Join us after the break as we explain. %Gallery-159805%

Introduction and compatibility

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

Just so we're crystal clear, the WU-1a is only compatible with a single Nikon DSLR. That DSLR is the D3200, a lower-end unit that's selling for around $700 with an 18-55mm kit lens. The camera itself is pretty stout for the price -- plenty of megapixels, a compact frame and a reasonably outstanding 1080p movie mode. But there's no denying that it's a novice-to-amateur rig. Those who make ends meet shooting weddings, sporting events and similar engagements are probably dipping into the D800 / D3S / D4 territory, which makes the decision to exclude every body except the D3200 from the WU-1a's compatibility list all the more baffling. We're guessing the outfit's just using the D3200 as a guinea pig to see how it goes over before potentially making a similar dongle for other units.

The unit itself is wonderfully miniscule. It's smaller than the diameter of a US quarter, and no thicker than the side panel to which it attaches. Speaking of which, you will have to open the left side panel to plug this guy in, and that door flap will just remain awkwardly propped open the entire time that you're using it. Sure, it'd be amazing if it were integrated directly into the D3200's body instead of being an optional, direct-connect apparatus, but perhaps that'll come to fruition in the D3200's successor. We have to say, though, that the WU-1a is shockingly easy to lose. It's tiny. Really tiny. Make sure you carve out a special place for it in your camera bag -- the only thing more painful than spending $60 on one, is spending another $60 for a replacement.


DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

First-time setup is a breeze. Plug the module into the D3200, flip the camera on, and surf over to the WiFi section in the Settings menu of any Android 2.3+ device. (For what it's worth, we tested the unit and the app on a Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.1, and it worked flawlessly even with Jelly Bean.) If you're lucky, you'll see a "Nikon" network show up in the list; a simple tap will have the two talking to one another. If they aren't, there's a quick press-and-hold-and-pray scenario that's spelled out in the user guide. If you routinely switch Android devices, you may have to reset the WU-1a entirely to connect it to a new product. Otherwise, you may only see a "locked" network showing up in your WiFi settings. Simply holding the single button on the WU-1a for 10 seconds will achieve the reset.

Hoping to change ISO sensitivity, aperture or shutter speed via the app? Keep dreaming.

You'll also need an app, of course. Searching for "Wireless Mobile Adapter" will lead you to a poorly titled "WirelessMobileAdapterUtility" program from Nikon. As of today, only the Android build is available; we're still hearing that the iOS edition will be out at some point in the fall of 2012. The app itself is lightweight ... almost to a fault. We'd call it spartan, in the effort of accuracy. If your connection is solid, you'll see all four of the available options lit up; if not, you'll be prompted to hop into WiFi settings and patch things up first. As far as multi-device setup goes, this was one of the easier ones that we've encountered.

App usability

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

We knew from the outset that the WU-1a has a pretty limited feature set. What we didn't know was precisely how limited that feature set is. The WMAU app gives you four options up front: Use the camera to take pictures, Take pictures remotely, Share pictures and Download pictures from the camera. We'll walk through each one below.

When you select the first, "Use the camera to take pictures," you'll simply continue to use the D3200 as you would. Compose a shot and take it. From there, however, your Android device will automatically suck down the full resolution version of the photo. In our experience, ~10MB JPEGs took just two to three seconds to transfer over. The upside here is that there's no compression in the transfer; the downside is that the app provides no customization options whatsoever in this department. Wish that you could force it to send over resized versions instead of clogging up your Galaxy Nexus' internal storage? Too bad.

Using this mode allows you to easily review the shots you're taking at a macro level, with the ability to pinch-and-zoom in tight on images to inspect minute details. If you notice something that's not quite perfect, you can easily tweak your camera and reshoot. It's an ability that professional wedding and landscape photographers would adore, but alas, it's only available to the market that would purchase a D3200. We'd actually recommend using an Android tablet to best take advantage of this; being able to zoom into a full-res image on a TF700 or the like would be hugely valuable if you're trying to scrutinize details mid-shoot.

The "Take pictures remotely" option is supposedly toggle-able by just sliding a switch while in the mode that we just spoke of. In our experience, the slider didn't work. At all. Perhaps it's a bug that's only seen with Android 4.1, but there it is. We had to back out to the main menu, and select the 'remote' option. From here, our D3200 took around two seconds to send over a live view of what its lens was seeing, but annoyingly, you only get what amounts to a thumbnail view of the proposed shot. We're guessing it's a pixel-for-pixel representation of what would appear on the D3200's own VGA-level display, and there's no scaling whatsoever. So, even on a pixel-packed Galaxy Nexus, you still can't get a "better look" at what's downrange until you shoot the image and then review the full-resolution result.

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

Along with the live view look, you'll also see the shutter speed, aperture, available image space and battery level. Of note, all of these values are treated as live; if you spin the camera around in Aperture Priority mode, you may see the shutter speed move as the camera compensates for changing light levels. In our experience, the live view look -- and the live changing of the values -- was ridiculously fast. Lag was practically imperceptible.

Once you've lined up the shot you want, a tap on the circular on-screen button will fire the camera. Be aware, however, that the same shutter lag seen when capturing an image while using the live view option on the rear of the DSLR is present here, too. This is effectively an extension of live view, so that shutter lag will be unavoidable when using this app. Bummer. It's also stupefying just how bantam the on-screen shutter button is. Just look at the blank, unused space in that screenshot above, and then ask yourself: "Why?" We have no good answer. If Nikon won't allow the live view look to be expanded, at least make the shutter button size customizable. It'd be hugely valuable to have the entire bottom of the screen act as a trigger, so you can focus on what's downrange of the lens instead of how to direct your fingernail to land on the speck-of-a-button that'll trigger the shutter.

Sadly, that's just the start of the bad news. In what can only be described as a ghastly oversight, Nikon doesn't allow the WMAU app to control any of the settings. Hoping to change ISO sensitivity, aperture or shutter speed via the app? Keep dreaming. At this point, you're probably wondering what exactly the point of this app is given the severe limitations of control, and that's a fair thing to wonder. Worse still, in our testing with the Galaxy Nexus, the app refused to work properly while the D3200 was in "Manual" mode. Regardless of what settings we chose on the camera itself, it reverted to shooting at 1/30 of a second at f/5.6. Settings chosen in the other priority modes transferred properly.

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

That's a shame, too, because one of the things we were hoping to accomplish here was to use an Android phone as a remote trigger for long-exposure shots at night. The idea was to pop the D3200 into manual mode, force the shutter to stay open for 30 to 60 seconds while on a tripod, and use the camera to trigger the shutter as to avoid camera shake from mashing the button on the body itself. Plan: foiled.

You may also notice a litany of poor reviews in Google Play. Those folks aren't liars.

It's also worth mentioning that the app outright ignores any shutter mode outside of a single shot. Select continuous, or the famed 10-seconds-and-then-shoot, and the app just ignores it. Even if you've selected one of those alternate modes, pressing the shutter button in the Android app fires off a single shot right away. It's just another disappointment in an experience that came to be defined more by what it lacked than what it offered.

Moving on to the third menu option, "Share pictures," we're happy to say that this actually does seem to work as advertised. Choose it, and you're able to sift through shots you've imported from the D3200 and share them via any number of services -- Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Evernote, you name it. Of course, you can bet your carrier will compress that 10MB JPEG before it ever hits your social network of choice, so if you're looking to actually retain some level of quality in your share, we'd still recommend doing it the old-fashioned way: by using a real computer with a legitimate broadband connection.

DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

The fourth and final menu option, "Download pictures from the camera," is useful when you've shot a gallery's worth just before connecting to your phone. In our experience, it sucked down 35 full-resolution JPEGs without so much as a hiccup. You'll need to allow two to three seconds per image, but if you've got the time, it seems to work swimmingly. (Also, if you're looking for these snaps on a Mac or PC later, you'll find 'em within the newly created Nikon_WU folder -> Capture.)

You may also notice a litany of poor reviews in Google Play, mostly concerning crashing or disconnect issues. Those folks aren't liars. While our first day with the unit was largely trouble-free (from a connection standpoint), subsequent days weren't so kind. We routinely had to reset the module for our Galaxy Nexus to connect, and upon setting the image mode to RAW or RAW+JPEG, the app itself crashed. From there, it became even more troublesome to reconnect, even with a module reset and a reinstallation of the app. In case it's not obvious: no, the setup doesn't support RAW files at all, but all sizes of JPEG seem to play nice.


DNP Nikon WU1a wireless mobile adapter for D3200 review using Android as a remote trigger  wireless display

Nikon has a ton of work to do if it hopes to make the WU-1a truly usable. And if we're being honest, we genuinely hope it does. The concept here is magical. Enabling users to turn a smartphone or tablet that they're probably carrying around anyway into a remote viewfinder and shutter trigger is downright brilliant, and if the package were executed properly, it'd be worth every penny of the $60 asking price. Being able to view full-resolution images on an Android phone or tablet (and again, soon on your iPhone, iPod touch and / or iPad) is wonderful. It enables the kind of in-the-field previewing that professional shooters have always dreamed of, helping them to spot problems on a larger panel and make tweaks on the fly.

Nikon has a ton of work to do if it hopes to make the WU-1a truly usable.

But the other half of the app -- the wireless triggering -- is dreadfully implemented. You can't change any of the camera's settings from the app itself, you can't adjust the size of the live view preview being beamed over, and you can't adjust the size of the inexplicably small on-screen shutter button. It also ignores the camera's "Release Mode" settings -- a crucial oversight in every sense of the word -- and wouldn't respond to our settings while the D3200 was in Manual mode.

The potential for this to be a differentiator for Nikon is huge. Having a remote trigger and viewfinder in your pocket at all times is an amazing idea, but the software simply has to improve by leaps and bounds before we'd recommend it. Moreover, the WU-1a truly needs to be available for Nikon's full-frame / professional assortment of bodies. Clients that buy those are most likely to appreciate this feature set, but until the company works out the significant limitations, there's no need in longing for body compatibility expansion.