Tough, waterproof point-and-shoot cameras are supposed to be awesome: small enough to fit in your pocket, submersible to depths of 12 metres, able to survive drops from heights above a man's head. We put four of these cameras through gadget hell to determine the ultimate rugged shooter. It turns out that they're all great in some ways, and they all have some serious flaws.
These cameras make some bold claims as far as toughness goes, so the test regimen went all out. First, the cameras endured a rigorous five-day backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Then, they headed down to Mexico for three days of sandy, submerged fun, followed by another filthy camping trip.
Each camera was subjected to more than an hour of continuous underwater time on several occasions. They were also given a cringeworthy drop test onto hard tiles. That's two 1.5m drops, one landing on the cameras' bottoms, and one on their backs. Each machine's performance, features, ease of use, battery life and ruggedness appears below. As for the four cameras' image quality, see for yourself. For video, make sure you click 1080p in the clip above.
4th Place: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX20
Looking at the Sony, you'd never know it's water-proof and ruggedised. The thing is tiny and sleek. Its back panel is one large touchscreen, and its menu seems the most familiar because it looks similar to that of a modern smartphone. It has 4x optical zoom with glass from Carl Zeiss. It shoots stills at 16.2 megapixels and video at 1080p/30fps. It's waterproof up to 5m and drop-proof up to 1.5m.
The Exmor sensor in the Sony is the hands-down winner in low-light conditions (with the Olympus in a close second, and the others way behind). Night images are just so much sharper and noise-free. The other big feature is the design. It's tiny, slender and ultra-pocketable. It's the only one of the four that has a lens cover -- something you'd think would be a no-brainer on cameras built for wear and tear. Gimmicky filters actually make some nice, fun shots. The Sony survived the drop test alongside its beefier brethren. The video quality was very good (in AVCHD and .mov format). The touch-to-focus option is a really a nice feature.
After about 20 minutes of swimming (never exceeding a depth of 1.8m), it died in the middle of shooting what was going to be a friggin' awesome video. It never came back to life. Upon returning to shore, it was plain to see that both the camera's doors had leaked. Tremendously disappointing. Also, touchscreens don't work so well when wet, so if you're out for a swim and you want to change settings, you're going to need to tread water for a while. It's also hard to read in bright light, and the settings are harder to tweak than they should be. Despite dominating in low light, in bright, outdoor light, there's a real lack of sharpness and detail. Colours can be muted, and it struggles with light balance. Battery life is pretty poor, but unlike the others, it has no GPS to use as an excuse.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX20 Specs Price: $499 RRP in Australia Sensor: 16.2MP 1/2.3-inch Exmor R CMOS Sensor Aperture: f/3.5 - f/4.6 Image: 4608x3456 Video: Up to 1920x1080 30FPS Screen: 3-inch LCD touch display 921K dots
3rd Place: Nikon Coolpix AW100
The Coolpix looks like a clone of the Lumix (see below), but Nikon has managed to improve upon the design in some ways. Instead of the double-latch door you have on the Panasonic (which failed), Nikon has this metal knob that absolutely won't open by accident. There is a 3-inch screen and a large 1050mAh battery. It uses GPS, it's waterproof to 10m and can take a drop from up to 1.5m. It has Nikkor glass with 5x optical zoom. The 1/2.3-inch sensor shoots 16MP stills and takes up to 1080p/30fps video.
The Nikon is grippy, easy to hold, and the buttons are placed well. Battery life is excellent. The menus are generally pretty easy to navigate. Video quality is arguably the best of the lot, and the stereo mic placement on the front of the camera does wonders for audio clarity. Videos are standard .mov files -- easy to deal with. It also had the most options for frame rates (you can go up to 240fps if you're willing to drop the quality down to 320x240). Overall, photos are very sharp, and it's the only one that weathered all of our stress tests perfectly. It shoots the best panoramic pictures of the bunch (180 or 360 degrees).
Colours tend to be very flat and washed out, which is a shame when you're shooting glorious nature shots. As a result, the Nikon took last place in many of the outdoor photos. The built-in high dynamic range (HDR) is absolutely atrocious, and it struggles almost as much as the Panasonic in low-light -- lots of noise. The plastic front panel just doesn't seem as strong as the metal on the others, and it shows wear. The GPS can't do as much as the others, and the camera frequently struggles to find the correct focal point. Bland images are the Nikon's Achilles heel.
Nikon AW100 Specs Price: $449 RRP in Australia Sensor: 16MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS Sensor Aperture: f/3.9 - f/4.8 Image: 4608x3456 Video: Up to 1920x1080 30FPS Screen: 3-inch LCD display 460K dots
2nd Place: Olympus TG-1
This is the newest of the cameras, and it's a beast. It's the biggest, thickest and heaviest of the group, and the aperture opens the widest, going up to f/2.0 (the second best is the Panasonic at f/3.3). It has a 3-inch OLED screen, an Olympus lens with 4x optical zoom, and it shoots at 12 megapixels. Videos are coded in h.264 and pop out in standard .mov files. It has GPS and a stereo mic. It's waterproof to 12m and drop-proof to 2m. It also uses an exchangeable lens system, if you want to pop a fisheye or telephoto lens on there.
The mode dial on this thing is awesome. When you're out in the water, it's far easier than the others when switching between shooting modes. The OLED screen is also the easiest to read in bright sunlight, with deep blacks. In general, photos are very sharp, and it does a pretty good job in low light. The colour balance is pretty decent too, and all the special effects are fun to use. Many of those filters can be directly applied to videos too. Also, it has the best battery life of the bunch, which is very handy for longer camping trips.
What is the deal with the video? It looks absolutely awful. Grainy. Focus jumping all over. Hands-down the worst of the lot. It also has the worst panoramic mode. It has a very slow processor -- five seconds from power-on to being able to shoot, and processing photos with effects takes forever. It's also the thickest and heaviest of the bunch. Worse, it fails the water test. After about 45 minutes in a metre of fresh water, it leaked. It never fully broke (it just got a foggy lens and LCD for a couple days), but had it gone deeper, longer or been in saltwater, it certainly would have died. Shame. Also, placing the lens in the middle of the camera makes it easier to accidentally block the lens with your finger while you're one-handing it.
Olympus TG-1 Specs Price: $499 RRP in Australia Sensor: 12MP 1/2.3-inch BSI-CMOS Sensor Aperture: f/2.0 - f/4.9 Image: 3968x2976 Video: Up to 1920x1080 30FPS Screen: 3-inch OLED display 610K dots
Bestmodo! Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4
The DMC line from Panasonic has been the standard-bearer in this category for the last four years. The fourth generation offers GPS integration in addition to 1080p/30fps video. This one is waterproof to 12m, and drop-proof to 2m. It has a hard, light aluminium body, a 2.7-inch screen and well-defined physical control buttons on the back. Its lens is from Leica. There is a 4.6x optical zoom, and it shoots at 12.1 megapixels.
If you hit someone on the head with this thing, it would hurt. A lot. It just feels rock solid. There aren't quite as many shooting modes as the others, but that actually made it feel simpler to use at times. The Panasonic took the clearest, most vivid outdoor and underwater stills. It generally found very nice balance in light levels the others would blow out, and it really makes colours pop (especially greens). Panoramic shots are excellent, at up to 360 degrees. It's generally able to attain focus faster than the others, and it's the fastest and cleanest at night-time shooting with a flash. (The dance party pictures are very good.) It shoots decent video, but that's nothing to write home about. The GPS can actually record your path, which is kind of cool.
On a backpacking trip, the Lumix was the unfortunate victim of an unintended drop test. It fell out of a jacket pocket, bounced off a rock and landed in ocean water. Unfortunately, when it bounced, the door flew open, so it completely filled with water and killed it. Very dead. This was not what we expected from the bulletproof wonder. However, there is the possibility that the door wasn't locked. We think it was a fluke and that it must have hit at a strange angle, because the replacement unit passed the intentional drop test with flying colours. The Lumix has a tendency to lean a bit blue on the colour scale (but not too bad). It lacks an HDR mode, but sunset mode was a close approximation. In low-light testing, the Lumix produced the darkest pictures -- it did an OK job of grabbing focus, but you can forget about shooting a night sky. Also, it chewed through its battery rather quickly. The display is the smallest and lowest resolution of all of the cameras, which sucks.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4 Specs Price: $449 RRP in Australia Sensor: 12.1MP 1/2.33-inch CCD Sensor Aperture: f/3.3 - f/5.9 Image: 4000x3000 Video: Up to 1920x1080 30FPS Screen: 2.7-inch TFT-LCD display 230K dots
The Panasonic takes the gold for now. But the competition is hot on its heels.
All of these cameras just had too many flaws. Hopefully, next year, one of them will really step up to be a clear winner. For today, the Panasonic's superior daytime image quality netted the win.