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Olympus TG-3 Review -- First Impressions

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The Olympus Stylus Tough TG-3 digital camera follows on from last year's TG-2 iHS, and although it has a strong family resemblance, it brings changes in a number of key areas -- including one feature which the company says is a first for a digital camera.

Its restyled body is still extremely rugged, being waterproof to 50 feet (15m), shockproof to 7 feet (2.1m), freezeproof to 14°F (-10°C), crushproof to 220 pounds (100kgf), and dustproof. However, its controls have been refined slightly, and it sports a new sensor, new processor, refined connectivity and geolocation features, and a unique focus stacking function. These improvements are accompanied by a slightly lower-res LCD monitor and a subtle decrease in battery life.

Starting with the redesigned body, the Olympus TG-3 forgoes the rear-deck zoom buttons of its predecessor, in favor of a more traditional top-deck zoom rocker. This frees up space for a new Info button, and allows Olympus to move the movie button nearer the top right corner of the rear panel, for a more comfortable reach.

The new image sensor is still a 1/2.3-inch type, backside-illuminated CMOS chip, but it increases total pixel count by one third to 16 megapixels, up from the earlier camera's 12-megapixel chip. The new sensor is accompanied by a current-generation TruePic VII image processor. Together, these allow the same sensitivity range and burst-shooting performance of the earlier camera, despite the smaller pixels and higher pixel count. The TG-3 provides a sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalents, and can shoot full-res images at five frames per second for as many as 25 frames.

The Olympus TG-3's sensor sits behind the same 4x optical zoom lens featured in the TG-2. It provides 35mm-equivalent focal lengths ranging from 25 to 100mm, and has a maximum aperture that starts at a bright f/2.0 at wide angle, but falls to a rather dim f/4.9 by the telephoto position. Actual focal lengths are 4.5 to 18mm, and it's worth noting that it's only a three-step aperture: you can choose from f2.0, f2.8 or f8.0 at wide angle, and from f4.9, f6.3 or f18.0 at telephoto.

On the plus side, the lens focuses to an unusually close 0.4 inches (1cm), and does so at 30 to 100mm equivalents, making for a fairly respectable macro performance. And to help combat blur from camera shake, Olympus has included mechanical, sensor shift-type image stabilization. There's also a five-mode flash strobe to help illuminate nearby subjects.

On its rear deck, the Olympus TG-3 sports a 3.0-inch LCD monitor. While it's the same size as the 3.0-inch Organic LED display of the TG-2, the resolution is a bit lower. The TG-2's screen had a dot count of around 610,000, where the TG-3 has some 460,000 dots.

The TG-3 supplements the GPS radio of its predecessor with a Wi-Fi radio, allowing for quick and simple sharing with your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet. As we've seen in a number of past models, Olympus forgoes any additional hardware for quick Wi-Fi connection, simply displaying a QR barcode on the camera's LCD display with which to provide your smart device the information necessary to pair -- so long as it has a barcode-reading app installed.

Once established, the Wi-Fi connection allows both remote live view, and remote shutter / zoom control. You can also adjust white balance, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, and aperture remotely, select the autofocus area, shooting and drive modes, and enable the self-timer. The free Olympus Image Share app is used to control the camera from Android or iOS devices, and you can also transfer JPEG and MOV files using the app, but not AVI files. (That rules out sharing time-lapse or high-speed movies through your phone.)

Although the GPS receiver was already extant in the TG-2, it too has been improved in the newer camera. According to Olympus, it has lower battery drain, is more accurate, and connects more quickly, with a claimed ten-second lock time. As well as standard GPS satellites, it can also now locate satellites from the competing, Russian GLONASS network. As in the earlier model, the geolocation is supplemented by an electronic compass and a manometer, with the latter tracking air / water pressure and using them to estimate altitude or depth. Cleverly, the manometer is also used to display a depth warning when the camera feels you're nearing its maximum safe depth underwater.

According to Olympus, the focus stacking function of the TG-3 isn't just new to the camera, but a world's first. Until now, you needed to combine multiple images with variant focus on your computer to achieve expanded depth of field for macro shooting, but the Olympus TG-3 can now do this in-camera. To do so, it shoots eight frames in quick succession, varying the focus distance between frames. The sharpest areas in each photo are then combined to create a single image with a depth of field covering several centimeters. So long as your subject is reasonably static, that could be the difference between a usable macro shot, and one with an unidentifiably-blurred subject. If you prefer to merge images yourself, though, the TG-3 can also bracket focus without combining images in-camera.

Also new to the TG-3 are Olympus' Art Filter and Photo Story functions. Art filters are pretty self-explanatory: they tweak the look of images in a number of creative ways. Choices include Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Dramatic Tone, Fish Eye, Sparkle, Reflection, and Fragmented (although the TG-2 had a similar set of effects but they were called Magic Filters). Photo Story function, meanwhile, combines multiple shots in-camera to create one of several collage layouts. The Olympus TG-3 also sports a new underwater macro scene mode, and supports interval shooting, with a time between shots of one second to 24 hours, and a 99-frame shot limit.

As well as still images, you can also shoot 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels; Full HD) movies using the Olympus TG-3, and these are saved with H.264 compression in a .MOV container. As well as standard movies, the TG-3 also supports high-speed and time-lapse movies, both of which use Motion JPEG compression in an AVI container. Time-lapse movies can be as long as ten seconds, and play back at ten frames per second, for a total of up to 100 video frames. These have a maximum resolution of 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels; HD). High-speed movies have a much lower resolution of VGA (640 x 480 pixels) at 120 frames per second, or a non-standard 432 x 324 pixels to achieve 240 fps.

Images and movies are stored on Secure Digital cards, including higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, or in a not-so-generous 36MB of built-in memory. Connectivity include Type-D Micro HDMI for high-def video output, and a combined multi-connector that allows USB 2.0 High Speed data, DC power input, and standard-def audio/video output. Power comes from an LI-92B rechargeable lithium-ion battery said to be good for 330 shots on a charge, down slightly from the 350 shots of the TG-2. (The difference is likely due in large part to the greater processing requirements of the Olympus TG-3's higher resolution.)

Like its predecessor, the Olympus TG-3 is part of an expandable system, with accessories such as cases, float straps, an underwater protector, fish-eye conversion lens and tele conversion lens available. There's also an interesting new accessory, though: the LG-1 LED light guide. This acts like a macro ring light, but doesn't need a power source. Instead, it simply redirects light from the TG-3's built-in LED, located next to the flash strobe, and allows it to shine from a ring around the lens. The result is a source of illumination for nearby subjects, an important feature given the near-impossibility of ambient light illuminating your subject when focusing from the minimum distance of just 0.4 inches (1cm).

Available from June 2014, the Olympus TG-3 ships in black or red versions with a list price of US$350. That's just slightly lower than the US$380 list price of its predecessor, despite the new features.