Conclusion

While most of the compact camera market has been slaughtered by smartphones, rugged waterproof cameras are still alive and kicking. While fewer models were introduced in 2014 than 2013, consumers are more likely to reach for one of these cameras when hiking or diving than a smartphone or interchangeable lens camera.

All four of the cameras in this roundup can go diving anywhere from 14 to 25 meters, operate at temperatures as low as -10C/+14F, and can survive drops of around six feet. The Olympus Tough TG-3 and Ricoh WG-4 GPS can also be stepped on, though we didn't want to try that. All have GPS systems of varying complexity, and two have Wi-Fi.

Features range from fairly basic on the Canon PowerShot D30 to perhaps over-the-top on the Nikon Coolpix AW120 (maps, anyone?). All four cameras can record 1080p video at various frame rates.

None of the cameras will win any awards for image quality, especially when viewed at 100%. But we think that most consumers won't be doing that. Rather, they'll be downsizing photos to a low resolution for e-mail and social sharing, at which point most of the image quality issues become moot.

Recommendations

After spending time with these four rugged cameras - including a week of snorkeling and hiking in Hawaii - there was one camera which this reviewer reached for the most often, and that was the Olympus Tough TG-3. Not because it has the best image quality (it doesn't), but because its performance, ease-of-use, fantastic LCD, and never-ending battery life made it a pleasure to use, which is why it earns a silver award. 

If you're more budget-limited, then Nikon's Coolpix AW120 is a good choice. It has an attractive focal range, good performance, elaborate GPS system (perhaps too much so), and the nicest movie mode. The trade-off is an OLED display which is difficult to see outdoors, and subpar photo quality.

The remaining two cameras are also worth considering, especially the Pentax WG-4 GPS (a non-GPS version is $50 less). It arguably has the best photo quality in the group, is extremely rugged, and offers a nice GPS tracking system with a useful front-mounted LCD info display. Unfortunately, its battery life is awful. The Canon PowerShot D30 is unremarkable, but it can go deeper than any other camera in the group and has above average image quality. Both cameras lack Wi-Fi, which has become a standard feature on compact cameras these days.

One other rugged camera to look at is one of last year's favorites, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5 (FT5), which is now selling for a very reasonable price of $249/£249.

 

"There was one camera which this reviewer reached for the most often, and that was the Olympus Tough TG-3"