Conclusion and Recommendations
While the compact camera market has been fairly stagnant over the last few years, one area in which there's been growth has been rugged/waterproof cameras. At one time there weren't a lot of choices in this segment, and now all the major camera manufacturers are selling at least one rugged camera model.
There isn't much to differentiate the cameras we covered in this group. They're all protected against water and dust, and most are able to take a drop from about 1.5 - 2.0 meters. The most rugged cameras are able to be crushed by up to 100 kgf (980N). Five out of the six cameras in the group have GPS systems, with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX30 being the exception.
Something else that all six cameras have in common is image quality. Or rather, a lack of it. All of these rugged cameras have issues with detail smudging, with a few having strong highlight clipping or fringing. If you view the output from these cameras at 100% on your computer screen, then you'll be anything but impressed - especially if you own something with a larger image sensor. However, the vast majority of rugged camera buyers won't be inspecting their images at full size - they'll be downsizing them for sharing or making small to medium-sized prints. That's something prospective buyers definitely need to keep in mind.
Here's a list of all six cameras and what they're best suited for. After that, we'll pick our favorites from the group.
Canon PowerShot D20
The PowerShot D20 is a perfectly capable rugged camera. It doesn't stand out from the pack because there's really nothing remarkable about it. It has the usual rugged specifications, save for being crushproof, and a unique shape that looks something like a whale. While its lens covers a nice 28-140mm range, like most of its peers it's on the slow side, with a maximum aperture range of F3.9-4.8.
While the camera focuses well in good light, it's sluggish when things get darker. The camera's built-in flash is also one of the weakest in the group, which makes the D20 a poor choice for low light shooters.
The D20 has the standard PowerShot feature set, which includes a Smart Auto mode, plenty of special effects, and a lack of manual controls. Its GPS system is very basic, but it gets the job done. The movie mode records at 1080/24p (slower than its peers), and sound is not recorded in stereo. In addition, there's a noticeable 'jello effect' in movies, which you'll see on moving subjects or when panning the camera.
Image quality is good but not great. It's on the soft side, with frequent highlight clipping and chromatic aberrations. Underwater photos have a noticeable blue/green cast to them, which was an issue on all cameras, except for the Olympus TG-2. Performance is about average for the group, which includes battery life.
Good for: Everyday shooting, ease-of-use, long exposures
Not good for: Low light shooting, GPS enthusiasts, movie aficionados
Nikon Coolpix AW110
The Coolpix AW110 is a camera we like not for its image quality as much as its value. For under $280 / £269, you get a camera that has every feature in the book - with nearly all of them well very well-implemented.
Its lens, likely the same as on the Canon above, covers a range of 28-140mm, and has a maximum aperture of F3.9-4.8. The AW110 can dive deeper than any of the cameras in this group (up to 18 meters) and can get dropped by up to 2 meters, as well. The AW110's real flaw is found on its backside: its OLED display. Indoors, it looks fantastic, with 610k pixels, vivid color, and a wide viewing angle. The problem is when you take it outdoors, where it becomes very difficult to see, even with the brightness cranked up all the way.
On a better note, the AW110's feature set is one of the best. Its GPS has more bells-and-whistles than anything else in this group, with an e-compass, pressure meter, landmarks and detailed maps. It has lots of scene and special effects modes, as well, including the ability to apply effects immediately after a photo is taken. There's also a well-designed Wi-Fi feature, which allows you to control the camera with your smartphone, and then forward images on to social networking sites. The movie mode records good quality videos at 1080/30p with stereo sound.
As with its display visibility, photo quality on the AW110 is not one of its strong points. Its biggest problem is detail smudging, which is very noticeable when viewing photos at 100%. We figure that your typical point-and-shoot user will be sharing these images on Facebook or, perhaps, making smaller prints, in which case they won't notice that. As with most of the waterproof cameras in this test, there's a color cast when shooting underwater. The AW110 performs well in all areas, save for battery life, where it's on the low end of the spectrum.
Good for: Outdoor enthusiasts, divers, GPS lovers, people who want to share images via smartphone
Not good for: Frequent shooting in bright light, pixel peepers, or those who want long battery life
Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS
The Olympus Tough TG-2 lives up to its billing as being one of the most rugged compact cameras in the world. Not only is it waterproof to 15 meters and shockproof from 2.1 meters, but it can also be 'crushed' by up to 100 kgf. One very cool feature is 'tap control', which lets you adjust important camera functions by 'tapping' on the top and sides of the camera - perfect when you're wearing ski gloves.
The TG-2 has the same F2.0-4.9, 25-100mm lens as the Pentax WG-3 below. This lens is more than a stop faster than all of the other cameras (except for the WG-3) at wide-angle, allowing it to bring it more light, and therefore keep the sensitivity from climbing as quickly. The TG-2 also supports conversion lenses and filters, and can even wirelessly control Olympus external flashes. Speaking of flashes, the one built into the TG-2 is more powerful than every camera in the group, save the Pentax.
You'll find the usual point-and-shoot features on the TG-2, including a scene-selecting auto mode plus lots of special effects. One nice surprise is an Aperture Priority mode, though you can only choose from three apertures at any given time. The TG-2 has a good GPS system, with a compass, pressure meter, and landmarks, plus relatively useless maps. The camera can record 1080/30p video with stereo sound, though movies can get 'choppy' when panning, or when your subject is quickly moving.
Photo quality is about the same as the other cameras in the group. Photos are on the soft side, with detail smudging and highlight clipping. Chromatic aberrations can be strong at times. The TG-2 took the best underwater pictures of any of the six cameras, mainly due to the fact that there was no color cast. The TG-2 is a very responsive camera and has some of the best battery life in its class.
Good for: Skiers/boarders/divers, low light shooters, GPS enthusiasts
Not good for: Frequent shooting in bright light
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5/FT5
The Lumix DMC-TS5 (FT5 in some countries) is Panasonic's flagship rugged camera and it has the features to match. Its body has an industrial design with a large strap lug, which doubles as a thumb rest. Its rugged features are similar to that of the Olympus and Pentax cameras in that it's waterproof to 13 meters, shockproof from 2 meters, and crushproof up to 100 kgf.
While the TS5's 28-128mm lens covers a decent range, it's also the slowest in the group, with a maximum aperture range of F3.3-5.9. Flip the camera over and you'll find something much more impressive: the TS5's LCD. What makes it excellent isn't the 460k dot resolution, but rather its amazing outdoor visibility. The built-in flash on the TS5 is about average for this class, which means 'not great'.
The DMC-TS5 has a full set of features, including what may be the best auto mode on the market. There's also the usual assortment of scene modes and special effects. The nicest surprise is a manual exposure mode, which allows you to set both the aperture and shutter speed. The GPS feature is quite elaborate, and features a compass, pressure meter, and landmarks. The TS5 also features Wi-Fi, which allows you to control the camera from your smartphone, as well as to transfer photos to your mobile device or computer. We found Panasonic's Wi-Fi implementation to be clunky, and the NFC feature (which lets you 'tap' your phone to the camera to connect and transfer photos) very unreliable. Something that did not disappoint was the TS5's movie mode, which records video at 1080/60p with stereo sound, which is as good as you'll get in this class.
Photo quality is typical for this class. Fine details are often smudged and chromatic aberrations can be strong at times. One thing the TS5 doesn't do as often as the other cameras is clip highlights. Underwater photo quality was just like all the other cameras in the group (save the Olympus TG-2), with a noticeable blue/green color cast to them. Performance-wise, the TS5 is very quick in all respects, with best-in-class battery life.
Good for: Outdoor enthusiasts, those desiring manual controls, high quality video, and great battery life
Not good for: Low light shooters, those who want easy Wi-Fi setup
Pentax WG-3 GPS
The Pentax WG-3 comes in two flavors: a 'standard model', plus the GPS model which has its namesake feature, plus a front-mounted LCD (which displays the time and your choice of depth or barometric pressure) and support for wireless charging. We tested the more expensive of the two, and found it to be a capable, though not best-in-class rugged camera.
The WG-3 certainly has a unique design, which looks something like a futuristic dog bone. It's waterproof to 14 meters, shockproof from 2 meters, and crushproof to 100 kgf. The WG-3 uses the same F2.0-4.9, 25-100mm lens as the Olympus TG-2, which means that it's more than a stop faster than your typical rugged camera at the wide end of the lens. Around the lens is a six LED ring light which, when combined with the included macro stand, let you take photos from 1cm away. On the back of the camera is a 3" LCD with a 16:9 aspect ratio (which is better for movies than it is stills). Outdoor visibility is average for the group. The WG-3 has the strongest flash of the group, but it's quite slow to charge.
Pentax cameras are known for having a lot of special effects and filters, and the WG-3 is no exception. It doesn't have any manual controls, though we like the inclusion of an electronic level as well as dynamic range correction features. The GPS falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, with direction, altitude/depth, and barometric pressure being the only additions to location data. The WG-3's movie mode sounds good at first, as it can record videos at 1080/30p with stereo sound for quite a while. The bad news is that image stabilization is electronic, which isn't very effective, and can create strange artifacts in your movies.
You can probably guess what we thought about image quality. Like all of these cameras, the WG-3 smudges details and clips highlights. The WG-3 also has very strong chromatic aberrations at times. It does, however, perform better than all of its peers at high sensitivities. Underwater photo have the same color cast as the other cameras, minus the Olympus of course. The Pentax WG-3 is a mixed bag in terms of performance. While it focuses well in bright light, it's very sluggish when light levels drop. As mentioned above, the flash is slow to charge, which leads to long delays between shots when you're using it. Lastly, battery life is below average.
Good for: Outdoor enthusiasts, low light shooters, macro photographers
Not good for: Low light (due to slow focusing), movie fans, flash shooters, and those who desire strong battery life
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30
The Sony TX30 is an interesting camera, for many reasons. Unlike the other cameras, which have more of an 'industrial design', the TX30 is sleek, stylish, and ultra-thin. It's a rugged camera that you can essentially keep in your pocket at all times.
Unfortunately, Sony decided to put form over function by putting a capacitive touchscreen display on the TX30, which means that it doesn't work underwater or if you're wearing gloves, which sort of defeats the purpose of a rugged camera in the first place. The TX30 needs to be looked at as a go-anywhere camera that can occasionally get wet or dropped.
In terms of numbers, the TX30 is waterproof to 10 meters and shockproof from 1.5 meters. You can probably tell by looking at the TX30's design that it's probably not crushproof. The DSC-TX30 uses a F3.5-4.8, 26-130mm zoom lens, and it's surrounded by a pair of LED lamps that can be used to illuminate macro subjects. The TX30 easily has the worst flash of the bunch, with a maximum range of just 80cm at wide-angle (at ISO 400). In other words, this is not a camera you want to buy if you take a lot of flash photos. On the back of the camera is the largest and sharpest display in the group. It's a 3.3" touchscreen OLED display with almost 1.3 million dots. We already covered how the touchscreen cannot be used in certain conditions, and it's also worth a mention that outdoor visibility isn't the greatest.
If you ignore the fact that the DSC-TX30 doesn't have a GPS, you'll find that it has a really nice feature set. We like the 'Superior Auto' mode, which goes beyond just selecting a scene mode for you - it'll even use HDR when it deems necessary. Speaking of which, the HDR feature is very well done, allowing you to improve contrast without needing to use a tripod, which is the case on many of its competitors. Sony's iSweep Panorama feature is first class, allowing the TX30 to create perfectly stitched, large images. In terms of movies, the TX30 can record lengthy 1080/60i videos with stereo sound. The videos are very smooth since they're played back at 60 fields per second, though you will sometimes spot interlacing artifacts on moving subjects.
One wouldn't expect wondrous photo quality from an 18 megapixel 1/2.3" sensor, and that's the case here. Mushy, smudged details are prevalent, and things get worse quickly as you increase the sensitivity. The TX30 also has issues with redeye, and suffers from the blue/green color cast underwater. Ending on a mixed note, the DSC-TX30 has very responsive autofocus system, but poor battery life.
Good for: Carrying everywhere, quick focusing, point-and-shoot fans
Not good for: Skiers/boarders/divers, flash shooters, GPS lovers (it doesn't have one)
Choosing a winner in the rugged camera category wasn't easy, as each one has its own strengths and weakness. As long as image quality isn't your primary concern, you can't really go wrong here - unless you expect to go diving with the Sony TX30. Ultimately, we decided on two award winners, plus a very strong runner-up.
The Nikon Coolpix AW110 doesn't have fantastic image quality (though, to be fair, none of these cameras do), nor will its battery last all day. Its OLED display isn't the greatest outdoors, either. That said, it's an incredible value, offering a wide feature set for much less than the competition. For under $280 / £263 you get a camera with a 28-140mm zoom, a fully ruggedized body, and a GPS with a compass, pressure gauge, compass, landmarks, and maps. Add in a 1080p movie mode and Wi-Fi and you end up with a lot of camera for the money.
The Olympus Tough TG-2 is a camera that we'd never hesitate to take diving, snowboarding, or mountain climbing. It can take more of a beating than any other camera in the group, an impression that becomes clear as soon as you pick it up. The TG-2 has a faster-than-average F2.0-4.9, 25-100mm lens that brings in more light (at wide-angle) than every other camera except for the Pentax. Its photo quality is better than the Nikon, but not wondrous, mainly due to strong chromatic aberrations. It was the only waterproof camera that we tested that had accurate color while snorkeling, as well. Other things we liked are its responsiveness, tap control (great for when you're wearing gloves), battery life, and support for conversion lenses and filters. Its major flaw is the same as the Nikon's: the display is difficult to see outdoors.
One camera that we really liked that fell just short of earning an award was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5 (FT5 in some countries). It has a rugged design similar to that of the Olympus, a 28-140mm lens, the best LCD in the bunch, manual exposure control, and a 1080/60p movie mode. The GPS feature is well-implemented, as well. What held it back from an award was its lens, which is the slowest in the group, meaning that the ISO sensitivity will quickly rise as light levels drop. When you combine that with a weak flash, you'll have pretty noisy portraits. We were also disappointed with the heavily marketed Wi-Fi/NFC feature, which we never got working properly. Despite those issues, the TS5 is definitely work checking out.
|Canon PowerShot D20||Review Jun 2013||Overall score:||71%|
|Nikon Coolpix AW110||Review Jul 2013||Overall score:||73%|
|Olympus Tough TG-2||Review Jun 2013||Overall score:||72%|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5||Review Jul 2013||Overall score:||72%|
|Pentax WG-3 GPS||Review Jul 2013||Overall score:||72%|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30||Review Jul 2013||Overall score:||70%|
Ergonomics & handling
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Movie / video mode
The PowerShot D20 is a good underwater camera, though it doesn't stand out in any particular area. It takes decent (though slightly soft) photos with pleasing colors (but expect a color cast when shooting underwater). Although light on features, the D20 is water, freeze, dust, and shockproof, and it didn't let us down in our testing.
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