'Waterproof' Camera Group Test (Q2 2009)
When we started this group test, we were trying to find out how good the current generation of waterproof cameras are, and which would be best (if any) should you decide to only take one camera with you to the beach or on a holiday involving some water activities. What we found was a distinct split in the specifications of cameras, with some featuring 3x optical zoom and VGA video recording while others featured wider zoom ranges and HD (720p) video recording. All cameras featured either 10 or 12 MP sensors, full-resolution ISO ranges from 50-1600, and 2.5- or 2.7-inch LCDs at 230K dot resolution.
Features aside, when you are purchasing a camera, what you really want to know is which camera will consistently produce the best image quality. And on that front this review quickly turned into a story of two groups of cameras, with the Canon D10 and Panasonic TS1 producing better results than all the other cameras in this group, and the TS1 producing the best high ISO image quality. It was also interesting to see that the Pentax W60 was not that far behind the image quality leaders at lower ISO settings.
The four other cameras in this group are not completely useless; certainly if you only need to produce small (5x7) prints or display images online, then all of these cameras will produce decent enough results. But considering that most of these lenses only extend to 100mm on the telephoto end, there may be situations where you might want to crop the image (and all these cameras allow you to do this in camera), or if there is that once-in-a-lifetime shot that you capture that you want to print really big it's nice to know you've got the best image quality available for your money.
It is interesting that Panasonic (for which the TS1 is the first attempt at a waterproof camera) and Canon (for which the D10 represents the first waterproof camera in the PowerShot line) are the two that managed to produce the best image quality of the group. Where the D10 uses more sharpening at lower ISO settings and more noise reduction at higher ISO settings, the TS1 images are less sharp at low ISO settings and employs less aggressive noise reduction at higher ISO settings, producing a more even output across the range. The TS1 has a wider zoom range, a greater ISO range, is more pocketable and more feature-packed, and the battery is CIPA rated to 340 shots which is best in group (where the D10 is only rated to 220). Operationally it doesn't seem as responsive as the D10 and it is not waterproof to such great depths. In essence, though, the TS1 seems to be the camera that you can use all the time and occasionally take underwater, while the D10 is the camera designed to be used underwater which you can also use all the time if you choose.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
In good light the Canon, Panasonic (at least at the wide end) and Pentax W60 models are a cut above the rest. While the D10 beats the TS1 and W60 by way of its higher level of in-camera sharpening, but the other pair come back with their wider zoom ranges. Despite the D10 having a higher resolution sensor than the W60, the actual detail resolved is fairly close. The TS1 while very close to the D10 and better than the W60 at the wide end of the zoom range is noticeably softer at the telephoto end, falling behind the D10 and W60. Overall we consider them to be equal best of the bunch.
The W80 and Olympus Tough 6000 are slightly better the the Tough 8000 and Fuji Z33, and manage to resolve better detail than the other two cameras. In good light all of these cameras should be able to produce an image that is good enough for a nice print at 8x10 or under, or for web viewing resolutions, but taking a closer look reveals that the D10 and W60 are clearly better than the other cameras in this group.
- Best of the bunch: Canon Powershot D10, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, Pentax Optio W60
- Middle of the road: Pentax Optio W80, Olympus Tough 6000
- Bottom of the class: Olympus Tough 8000, Fujifilm Z33 WP
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
High ISO image quality is more difficult to judge but it is clear that the Panasonic achieves the best balance of noise reduction and retained detail. The Canon and Pentax W60 take a different approach to noise reduction, with the D10 being more heavy handed and, while this means less visible noise, it also means there is also less detail left behind and the high amount of chroma noise reduction makes the image seem desaturated. The W60 on the other hand leaves behind more noise and noise reduction artifacts, but also manages to retain more detail.
Of the other four cameras the Tough 6000 and W80 manage to retain just enough detail to be better than the Tough 8000 and Z33 - which both reduce the details in the image to not much more than watercolor-like smudges.
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
- Middle of the road: Canon PowerShot D10, Pentax Optio W60
- Bottom of the class: Pentax Optio W80, Olympus Tough 6000, Olympus Tough 8000, Fujifilm Z33 WP
Image quality / performance: Flash
Here the winner is clear. The D10 managed to get the balance between ambient light and flash illumination just right to produce the most pleasing image of the whole group. This was the one areas in which the Panasonic really disappointed.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot D10
- Middle of the road: Pentax Optio W60, Pentax Optio W80, Olympus Tough 6000
- Bottom of the class: Olympus Tough 8000, Fujifilm Z33 WP, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
Image quality / performance: Underwater
The purpose of this group test was to test waterproof cameras, and underwater they all seemed to work pretty well, but the D10 (which seems to have been designed first and foremost for this environment) was both the best performer and the easiest to use, with a clear interface and big buttons. The W60 slips behind here because the interface was not as easy to use, and sharpness and detail was just not as good as the D10.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot D10, Pentax Optio W60
- Middle of the road: Pentax Optio W80, Olympus Tough 6000, Olympus Tough 8000,
- Bottom of the class: Panasonic TS1, Fujifilm Z33 WP
Ratings and recommendations
The Canon PowerShot D10 certainly put in an impressive performance both in and out of the water. It was one of the most responsive cameras to use, and at the same time it produced some of the sharpest and most detailed images of all the cameras in the group at lower ISO settings. On the downside the 3x zoom with no wide-angle capability might be a bit limiting in some situations. it is also the least compact camera in the group.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 was not far behind the D10 in low ISO image quality, and produced the best image quality in the group in low light. It also features the widest zoom range with more telephoto reach, though this also meant that images produced at the telephoto end of the zoom were a lot softer than those on the wider end. The TS1 featured the most comprehensive video mode of all the cameras in this group test, and was the only one with AVCHD lite recording functionality. It also has the highest rated battery life of all cameras in this group (according to CIPA standard tests). Despite all these features there were operational annoyances and poor flash performance that dragged down its overall rating.
The Pentax W60 was certainly feature-packed with a 5x zoom lens that starts at 28mm and the ability to record 720p video that, when combined with an impressive 50 - 6400 ISO range, make this a camera that should be near the top most potential buyers shopping lists. Overall performance was good, and it managed to produce image quality that was just about on par with the D10 and TS1.
Pentax appeared to have kept the attractive overall package of the W60 and increased the resolution and improved the video mode to produce the W80. The increase in resolution on such a small sensor and apparently inferior image processing saw image quality suffer at all ISO settings, and it was disappointing to see Pentax still not including image stabilization in this camera.
The two Olympus Tough cameras also feature lenses that start at 28mm (though the total zoom range isn't as impressive as the Pentaxes or Panasonic). The Tough series of cameras are certainly stylish and compact, as well as being robustly made, but there's more to a camera than rugged good looks. The image quality of the Tough 6000 was middle of the pack in most areas, while the Tough 8000 was just about the worst of the group. The Olympus cameras were also let down by their poor shot-to-shot performance and focus issues.
The cheapest camera of the bunch was the Fujifilm Z33, and it showed. It was the least well specified camera in the group, though it was also the most compact. While good-looking on the surface it produced some of the worst images of the group, as well as being relatively slow shot-to-shot. You should only consider this camera if your budget is tight and you're looking for something that will survive the beach (rather than actually getting well below the surface to shoot underwater).
So on, then, to the most important part of this review. And the winners are...
Test Runner Up: Pentax Optio W60
The Pentax W60 is certainly an attractive package, and with a 5x zoom lens that extends from 28mm to 140mm HD video capture, you would think that it would make a great competitor to the D10 and TS1 for winner of the group test. But looking closer you find that the 720p video is only recorded at 15 fps, and to get 30 fps you have to step down to VGA resolution. The lack of built-in image stabilization means that the W60 needs to use higher ISO setting to reduce camera shake compared to the D10.
Looking closer at the image quality, especially at lower ISO settings, the D10 constantly produces sharper more detailed results than the W60. The flash performance is also not as good at the D10, and the very poor red eye performance with flash is especially concerning. As a underwater camera the W60 can only be used to 3m / 10ft, which is far off the 10m / 33ft of the D10, and the interface of the W60 is harder to use while in the water than the D10. Ultimately if you are going to mainly use the camera out of the water, and need something that can fit easily in your pocket then the W60 is certainly worth a closer look.
Joint test winners: Canon PowerShot D10 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1
If you have even glanced at the rest of this review, then the winners should come as no surprise to you at all. The D10 produced the sharpest, most detailed images of all the cameras in this group test at low ISO settings, both in and out of the water. This, combined with responsive performance and a straightforward user interface that has been proven on other cameras in the PowerShot series, means that if you were shopping for a waterproof camera mainly to use in the water, then you can stop reading right now and go order the D10.
When you get out of the water the Panasonic TS1 starts to make more sense with its more pocketable dimensions, wider zoom range, long battery life and much better video capabilities. Certainly if you need a camera to live with day-to-day then the TS1 seems a more sensible choice. Image quality at lower ISO settings edges in favor of the D10 in sharpness and detail but at ISO 1600 the TS1 produces the sharpest and most detailed images of all cameras in this group test.
Both the D10 and the TS1 have flaws. For the D10 it's the not very compact dimensions, the not very wide zoom lens that extends only from 35mm to 105mm and the VGA-only video recording functionality. For the TS1 it is the soft images at the telephoto end of the zoom range, the sometimes very frustrating-to-use design and ergonomics decisions, the limited underwater ability (3m / 10ft vs 10m / 33ft of the D10), and the rather poor flash performance. Which of these flaws are deal breakers? Only you can decide this, and with the two cameras costing about the same price in most stores, the decision ultimately comes down to those differences.
In their own ways both Canon and Panasonic have, with their first attempts at waterproof cameras, shown the segment how to innovate. This leaves you with a really great choice when you only want to take one camera with you to the beach or on that tropical holiday. The hard part now is deciding if you are going to spend more time taking pictures in the water or out of it. Both the TS1 and the D10 are great cameras, and they are joint winners of our waterproof group test.
Group test written by Don Wan
Jul 22, 2009
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