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Tough/Waterproof Camera Shootout 2013: Intro, Features and Operation

Six tough/waterproof cameras compared

Survival of the Fittest:
2013 Best Tough/Waterproof Camera Shootout


by Dave Pardue and Roger Slavens, with William Brawley
Posted: 10/15/2013

When we published our first tough/waterproof camera shootout last year, we admit we were a little hard on the six cameras we tested. None of them earned a coveted Dave's Pick -- not even our top-ranked Canon D20 that returns again this year to take on five newcomers. It was hard not to compare the tough models to other compact cameras in their price range, many of which boasted superior optics, delivered sharper images and offered more advanced photographic capabilities.

But for this year's shootout, we're not going to dwell on their limitations too much. Instead, we're going to focus on what separates them from the pack. After all, no conventional compact can match what any of these tough cameras can do. Throw a typical land-loving compact in the pool and it's ruined. Take one snowboarding on a cold winter's day, and it will likely lock up (maybe for good). Accidentally drop one on the driveway, and it's likely time to buy a new camera. It's particularly worthwhile noting that, while all our shots here emphasize the waterproof nature of these cameras (since we shot the tests in the summertime), they're truly four-season shooters, as all of them are freezeproof to pretty low temperatures: If you're looking for a photo companion for an upcoming ski trip, read on below!

The six tough, rugged, waterproof cameras we tested for this year's shootout -- the Canon D20, Nikon AW110, Olympus TG-2, Panasonic TS5, Pentax WG-3 GPS and Sony TX30 -- can handle such rigors with relative ease. Not only are they all fully submersible, able to withstand depths of no less than 33 feet underwater, but they're also shockproof (at least from 5 feet) and freezeproof (14 degrees F) -- and some are even crushproof (to 220 pound force). That makes them perfect memory-making companions to take along with you whenever you want to document activities ranging from daredevil adventures (skydiving anyone?) to simply spending time with the family at the pool. You can even let the kids romp around with these cameras without having to worry that they'll get wrecked along the way. And if you're wondering if they can really do all that rugged stuff and still snap a photo, don't worry... we did all that stuff to them (seriously) and will report our findings to you in our conclusion section (don't peek!).

That said, the first time we dunked one of these models underwater our insides screamed at us to stop what we were doing. Electronics and water just aren't meant to mix -- or are they? As soon as Dave took the plunge and snapped that first shot of his daughter sitting on the bottom of the pool, he was completely hooked. We discovered shooting still photos and video with these rugged cameras -- below, around and above the water -- to be an addicting and liberating experience. Normally we take care of cameras as if they were our children, and it was refreshing to put away our fears and put these tough shooters to the test in real-world conditions where they could prove their element-defying super powers.

So which one of the six should you buy? Ah, we wish it were that easy to pick out a clear winner for you. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and while a few certain cameras may suit my needs best, you might prefer a different model that's better for how you intend to use it. Do you want the waterproof camera that: Takes the best pictures or simply best takes a beating? Performs the most smoothly underwater or slips most easily into your pocket? To find out which camera is right for you, we invite you to read our in-depth analysis of the top six compact waterproof camera models for 2013. After each section we'll give you our rankings of how the cameras fared versus the others, so that you can custom-tailor your own conclusions depending on how you intend to most use the camera. Time to dive in!

Tough/Waterproof Contenders

Canon D20 -- front right view Nikon AW110 -- front left view

Canon D20

  12.1 megapixels
  5x zoom, 28-140mm (equivalent), f/3.9-4.8
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 100-3200
  Full HD video (1080p @24fps)
  Intelligent IS Image Stabilizer
  Built-in GPS
  Wi-Fi via Eye-Fi and FlashAir cards
  Waterproof to 33 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$290 ($300 MSRP)

See our Canon D20 overview for full specs.

Nikon AW110

  16.1 megapixels
  5x zoom, 28-140mm (equivalent), f/3.9-4.8
  3-inch, 614K-dot OLED
  ISO Auto, 125-3200
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  VR Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Built-in Wi-Fi
  Waterproof to 59 feet
  Shockproof up to 6.6 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$270 ($350 MSRP)

See our Nikon AW110 overview for full specs.

Olympus TG-2 -- front right view Panasonic TS5 -- front left view

Olympus TG-2

  12.0 megapixels
  4x zoom, 25-100mm (equivalent), f/2-4.9
  3-inch, 610K-dot OLED
  ISO Auto, 100-6400
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  iHS Dual Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Wi-Fi via Eye-Fi and FlashAir cards
  Waterproof to 50 feet
  Shockproof up to 7 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof to 220 LBF
  Price: ~$330 ($380 MSRP)

See our Olympus TG-2 overview for full specs.

Panasonic TS5

  16.1 megapixels
  4.6x zoom 28-128mm (equivalent), f/3.3-5.9
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 100-3200
  Full HD video (1080p @60fps)
  Power O.I.S. Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Built-in Wi-Fi with NFC
  Waterproof to 43 feet
  Shockproof up to 6.6 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof to 220 LBF
  Price: ~$350 ($400 MSRP)

See our Panasonic TS5 overview for full specs.

Pentax WG-3 GPS -- front right view
Sony TX30 -- front left view

Pentax WG-3 GPS

  16.0 megapixels
  4x zoom lens, 25-100mm (equivalent), f/2-4.9
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 125-6400
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  Dual Sensor-Shift & Pixel Track Shake Reduction
  Non-GPS version costs ~$50 less
  Wi-Fi via Eye-Fi and FlashAir cards
  Waterproof to 45 feet
  Shockproof up to 6.6 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof to 220 LBF
  Price: ~$300 ($350 MSRP)

See our Pentax WG-3 GPS overview for full specs.

Sony TX30

  18.2 megapixels
  5x zoom lens, 26-130mm (equivalent), f/3.5-4.8
  3.3-inch, 1,229K-dot touch panel OLED
  ISO Auto, 80-12800
  Full HD video (1080i @60fps)
  Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilizer
  No GPS
  No Wi-Fi
  Waterproof to 33 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$260 ($300 MSRP)

See our Sony TX30 overview for full specs.


Design

Tough cameras, for the most part, are designed to stand out and let you know they were built for far more than capturing everyday shots. Each model we tested had its own unique look and feel, though almost all of them exuded toughness -- five of them boasting two-tone color schemes, unusual shapes and grippy textures. Only the sleek-and-slim Sony TX30 seemed to hide its true nature, appearing more like a compact spy camera than a rugged machine engineered to take abuse. Fortunately, their design elements aren't incorporated just for design's sake; many of their eye-catching details have very functional purposes. For instance, bright colors might normally be a turn off to camera purists, but they're no doubt easier to see underwater; if you accidentally drop one while you're snorkeling, you'll likely be thankful you picked that unmistakable orange model. Let's take a deeper look at the designs of all six cameras we tested.

Canon D20 -- front view Nikon AW110 -- front view

Canon D20

The Canon D20 is neat-looking, curvy, rounded and asymmetrical. Because of its control arrangement, especially the sloping wide and telephoto zoom buttons, we found the Canon D20 a comfortable camera to hold and shoot two-handed, but a bit more difficult one-handed. Oddly, the Playback button is on top, next to the shutter button, which makes it hard to find. The other buttons on the back are large, nicely placed and labeled, and because they're made of no-slip material, easy to press underwater. Of course, the Canon D20's battery/memory card and port doors are waterproof, but there's no safety lock to keep you from accidentally opening them underwater. A bayonet mount on the bottom-right (as seen from behind the camera) mounts a unique hand-strap. We especially liked the ridge on the top left corner that prevented our index fingers from unwantedly wandering into our shots.

Nikon AW110

The Nikon AW110 shares much of its boxy, rugged good looks with its predecessor, the AW100. The new model is both stylish and functional, with slightly rounded edges and a nice textured shutter button that begs to be pressed. One of the bigger changes is the switch from a 3-inch 460K-dot LCD to a 614K-dot OLED display. Meanwhile, what most sets its design apart from competitors is the battery/memory card door, which proved to be, by far, the coolest and easiest to open among the models we tested. Simply depress the center button on the dial, turn it and pull it open; it has a satisfying spy-gadget feel to it and makes a comforting click when you close it. Unfortunately, the control buttons and zoom lever felt a bit too flimsy, and the metal strap lugs too sharp to be used as a finger rest. Also, the lens is placed in the upper left (as seen from the back) where fingers can wander into the frame too easily.

Olympus TG-2 -- front view Panasonic TS5 -- front view

Olympus TG-2

The Olympus TG-2 looks ready to take on the world, and not just because the word "Tough" is emblazoned right on its front. It feels both rugged and professional in the hand, a camera meant to do business. And that's especially true because of one physical feature it boasts that none of the others have -- and that's a true Mode dial. Wedged amongst the other controls on the back, it's a bit stiff to turn, but reassuringly solid. The rear rubber thumb rest feels nice, and the metal controls all have a precision feel. Both the memory card/battery door on the bottom, and port door on the side are secure, but their locking mechanisms are a bit frustrating to operate. We appreciated that the lens was smack dab in the middle of the camera, meaning we weren't likely to see many fingers in our photos, but unfortunately the flash is positioned top left where it can be easily blocked, leading to improperly lit shots.

Panasonic TS5

We have to admit, the Panasonic TS5 looks and feels quite similar to the Nikon AW110, albeit slightly larger and heavier. The camera has a bit more of an industrial appeal, with a beveled front and prominent textured grip. The TS5's controls are ergonomically laid out, although the buttons on the back are particularly small and hard to operate underwater. The dedicated Movie button sits right next to the shutter up top, which can cause some frustration when you're focused on your subject and not looking at the camera. The large battery/memory card/port door resides on the right side and is easier to use than most models we tested. We also liked the dedicated Wi-Fi button, which lets you access the camera's wireless options quickly. Like a few other models, we didn't like that the lens is located on the upper left corner, and we lost a good number of shots due to an index finger encroaching upon the lens.

Pentax WG-3 GPS -- front view Sony TX30 -- front view

Pentax WG-3 GPS

The Pentax WG-3 GPS certainly wins the prize for shockingly strong looks, though we're not sure if we like the purple color option (it's also available in green, or in the non-GPS version in orange, white or black). With its wide, super-textured body, overall heft (8.4 oz.) and formidable lug strap and carabiner combo, the camera seems like it could survive anything. We got confused often as to which side was the top, because the word "waterproof" at the top is upside down, and the swoop indent seems like it should be on the bottom. While the shutter button and power switch almost seem intentionally hidden, the rear controls -- including a zoom toggle, playback button and four-way switch -- are all easy to find and use. We loved the centered lens, the chronograph-styled ring around it, and the camera's LED GPS/clock/depth gauges right on the front.

Sony TX30

The Sony TX30 is slim and polished, featuring none of the rough edges of the other waterproof cameras in our shootout. In fact, it doesn't look much like a rugged camera at all. It's the smallest and lightest among the bunch, with rounded corners that feel nice to the touch and help make it ultra pocket-friendly. However, because the TX30 is so small and sleek, it's difficult to hold onto -- especially while shooting underwater. A retractable cover slides down to expose the camera's 5x zoom lens and built-in flash, and at the same time turns the camera on. We're not sure the cover will hold up over time, or if it will trap dirt and water. Since the lens is placed in the top left corner, combined with the TX30's slippery design, we found a lot of fingers in our images. Finally, a 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen -- which the camera relies heavily upon -- dominates the back.

 

Overall Design Ranking

#1
Olympus TG-2
#2
Canon D20
#3
Nikon AW110
#4
Pentax WG-3
#5
Panasonic TS5
#6
Sony TX30
The TG-2 proved to be our clear favorite for design, with its great looks, lens properly centered and a real Mode dial. The D20 took second based also on its good looks and nice-feeling controls. The TX30 ranks last for two reasons: it doesn't look like a rugged camera, and in many ways its design gets in the way of underwater shooting. However, if you're walking the city streets and want a cool-looking camera that can stand some rain, the Sony would move towards the front in this category.

 

Features, Functions and Modes

Comparing what a camera has to offer users involves more than simply adding up a manufacturer's laundry list of features and deciding, by the numbers, which device provides the most bang for your buck. We dove into each camera's capabilities, looking for especially noteworthy ones, as well as those not up to snuff.

Canon D20 -- back view Nikon AW110 -- back view

Canon D20

The Canon D20 is literally last year's model -- the only waterproof camera in our shootout not updated for 2013 -- and it definitely shows in its feature set. The D20 is the only device in our roundup without an in-camera panorama mode. Instead, it has what is called Stitch Assist, which requires using Canon's software and external editing on a PC or laptop to create a panorama. Another function that isn't quite up to speed with the other cameras is video -- it can record Full HD 1080p video, but only at 24fps. We did like the way Fisheye warps the image, and how Soft Focus changed boring shots into ethereal portraits. Other notable features include a smart self-timer mode that automatically snaps when you smile or wink, plus the ability to tweak colors (vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone) or even substitute one color (vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red) for another.

Nikon AW110

Built-in Wi-Fi connectivity is definitely the biggest upgrade made to the Nikon AW110, and this wireless sharing functionality is handy and easy-to-use with Nikon's Wireless Mobile Utility app for iOS and Android smart devices -- especially when the camera's wet and you don't want to mess with the memory card or cables. The camera also boasts better element-defying skills, with an improved waterproof depth of 59 ft. (compared to 33 ft. for the AW100) and shockproof height of 6.6 ft. (5 ft.). Nikon has brought back its Action Control system, which makes it easier to operate underwater or out in the cold when you're wearing gloves. By pressing the Action button on the AW110's side, you can cycle through shooting options just by tilting the camera, and then by pressing the Action button again, you can start shooting. Simplifying menu navigation is a neat idea, but it's more than a bit finicky to use.

Olympus TG-2 -- back view Panasonic TS5 -- back view

Olympus TG-2

Like the TG-1 that came before it, a couple of the things we like best about the Olympus TG-2 are its fast f/2 lens and relative customizability; the Mode dial holds two slots for custom settings which is especially handy underwater when you don't want to be fumbling around with multiple settings. The TG-2 gets a new Aperture Priority mode, allowing to you select from three apertures at a given focal length, as well as a very cool Handheld Starlight mode for nailing night-time exposures. Gone is the TG-1's Super Sport option, replaced by the much cooler Microscopic Macro Mode that lets you get as close as 1cm from your subject and also lets you zoom in closer with the lens. Two new High Speed Movie modes let you record at 120fps and 240fps in VGA and QVGA formats (640x480 and 320x240 pixels respectively). One thing that makes the TG-2 stand apart is the availability of add-on lenses, including a Fisheye converter and Teleconverter, which can be pretty easily mounted using an adapter.

Panasonic TS5

Of all the waterproof models that added Wi-Fi functionality this year, the Panasonic TS5 boasts the most robust features, including Near-Field Communication touch-and-share capabilities and easy remote control shooting when the camera is paired with a smartphone. For deep underwater photography -- or nighttime snapshots -- the TS5 employs a bright Torch Light that effectively cuts through dark, murky environs. Creative options abound, including Manual exposure mode (with 2-step aperture), Panorama, Intelligent HDR, Handheld Night Shot, Time Lapse, and even 3D modes. According to Panasonic, the camera is capable of a blazing 10 frames per second at full res in burst mode (and even faster at reduced resolutions). And the TS5 is one of the few contenders that can record Full HD 1080p video at speeds as high as 60fps. Last but not least, the camera's waterproof abilities have been improved, now safe to use at depths up to 43 feet.

Pentax WG-3 GPS -- back view Sony TX30 -- back view

Pentax WG-3 GPS

One of the coolest features of the Pentax WG-3 GPS version is its wireless inductive recharging, though we're doubtful many photographers will actually take advantage of this advanced functionality. However, the GPS model is worth the extra cost not only because you can track your globetrotting adventures, but also because of the built-in compass, altimeter, and pressure and water depth gauges. This important data is displayed at-a-glance right on the front of the camera. We loved the camera's six LED Macro Lights that ring the lens barrel; they fire up to illuminate tiny subjects when using the WG-3's powerful Digital Microscope mode. We also appreciated the f/2 max aperture, the new sensor-shift shake reduction, as well as the built-in dual-axis electronic level to help properly frame shots (especially difficult underwater). Finally, the camera is now waterproof at depths of up to 45 ft, crushproof to 220 lbf, shockproof to 6.6 ft, and coldproof to 14 degrees F. And it's even dustproof, to boot.

Sony TX30

A bump up to 18.2 megapixels of resolution and an extended zoom range of 5x (26-130mm equivalent) marks the Sony TX30's focus on image quality and versatility. Its rugged features have been improved, now waterproof to up to 33 feet and shockproof for drops up to 5 feet, but still don't match up with the other cameras in our shootout. However, it surpasses most of its competitors (save for the Panasonic TS5) with its 10 frames per second burst mode at full resolution. Other new features include a 15x Magnifying Glass Plus mode for ultra-close macros, and a built-in LED light to help you get subjects as close as 1cm in focus (and get rid of shadows created by the camera!). Picture Effects such as Toy Camera and Partial Color were added, as well as the Beauty Effect mode that allows you to re-touch portraits. We were glad to see that Sony brought its panorama expertise below the surface with its Underwater Sweep Panorama mode too.

 

Overall Features, Functions and Modes Ranking

#1
Panasonic TS5
#2
Olympus TG-2
#3
Pentax WG-3
#4
Nikon AW110
#5
Sony TX30
#6
Canon D20
The TS5 comes packed with advanced photographic features, including 10fps burst mode, Manual exposure mode, an underwater Torch Light and excellent Wi-Fi capabilities, including remote image capture. Meanwhile, the TG-2 boasts a physical Mode dial, Aperture Priority mode and good customizability, while the WG-3 sports all manner of ultra-cool underwater gadgetry and an LED light ring to boot. The D20 falls to bottom primarily because it's the only camera not updated for 2013 and therefore lags behind just a bit in terms of features and functions.

 

Display and Menus

Being able to navigate menus and frame shots using a display monitor is something we scrutinize on all cameras we test, but it's especially important when evaluating waterproof cameras. After all, if you can't easily change exposure settings and view your subjects underwater -- or in bright sunlight at the beach or on the slopes -- then it doesn't matter how element-proof the camera is. So we paid extra attention to the menu systems and the physical displays on these cameras, and tested them under a range of shooting conditions to sort out which ones work best.

Canon D20

The Canon D20's menu system is refreshingly straightforward, and the physical controls are big and easy to see. Perhaps the best feature is that the menu system displays a simple information dialogue at the bottom of the screen that describes the function or setting you're using. Other cameras do this, but the info often gets in the way of the menu in the process. Pressing the Mode/Up button (labeled Auto beside a camera icon) brings up a Modes menu, and lets you quickly select the shooting mode. We found it slightly confusing that some of the setting selections are multiple choice while some aren't, but that's something you'll eventually learn over time. The Display button allows you to quickly choose what information to display, a feature that some models do not have. The 3-inch, 460K dot LCD display may not be as high res as some, but it's reasonably clear with good contrast. While we found its colors a bit oversaturated, it's still relatively easy to view in sunlight and underwater.

Canon D20 -- menus

Nikon AW110

Similar to the D20, pressing the camera icon Scene button on the AW110 brings up a simple and easy Mode menu, with some options being single and some multiple choice. This button would be more logically called the mode button, as the actual Scene modes are just one of the choices here. The camera also can be controlled simply by tilting it via its Action Control mode, which we described earlier in the Features section of our shootout. It's cool, but not always practical. We had to go to the manual to try and figure out how to disable the depth gauge; it was located in the GPS section. We also found it very confusing the way the Tool section scroll is displayed, because if you leave it when you've cycled to the bottom and then come back, it only shows those last few items and you may forget (like us) that there's much more available. As for the display, the 3-inch, 614K-dot OLED monitor has good available contrast, fairly accurate colors and can be seen in bright sunlight and underwater. Unfortunately, the AW110 doesn't have a display or info button, something we tend to use a lot, though it does automatically overlay shooting info for a few seconds after an operation.

Nikon AW110 -- menus

Olympus TG-2

Though it doesn't boast the highest specs, the TG-2 had the clearest display of the bunch and was hands down the easiest to view in bright sun and underwater. The 3-inch, 610K-dot OLED monitor demonstrated good depth and contrast, as well as great color reproduction. As we mentioned earlier, the TG-2 is the only waterproof camera we tested that had a physical Mode dial, which made it easier for us to change settings underwater (and on dry land!). The left arrow of the metal four-way control on the back of the camera brings up simple settings, with options changing depending on the mode the dial is in. And the top arrow is an Info button that brings up key settings on the display. Overall, we found the camera had a no-nonsense menu system and, along with the simplicity of its controls, provided a very user-friendly experience for composing shots and changing settings.

Olympus TG-2 -- menus

Panasonic TS5

The 3-inch, 460K-dot LCD display on the TS5 was not quite as clear as some, especially the D20 and TG-2. It had a bit of a hazy view, making it somewhat difficult to use underwater and in direct sunlight. We found the LCD also scratched fairly easily from general use, at least compared to the competing models we tested it against. The TS5's menu system, however, proved to be straightforward and user-friendly. The Mode button dials up simple settings emulating a mode dial, and the Menu button activates an easy-to-navigate menu interface. We didn't like that the Menu button was hidden in the center of the four-way control, where the OK button resides on many models. But we did like that there was a Display button -- not found on some of the camera's competitors -- which lets you quickly toggle through display settings.

Panasonic TS5 -- menus

Pentax WG-3 GPS

Confusing and not-at-all straightforward, the WG-3 menu system took some getting used to. On the plus side, the correctly labeled Mode button activates the equivalent of a Mode dial, and that is user-friendly. Unfortunately, the rest of the interface is difficult to figure out and unattractively displayed. For instance: While most all cameras these days feature a red Movie button, the WG-3 has a green button below it (reminding us of a stoplight). This activates the WG-3's Green Mode -- something found on may Pentax models -- designed for "easy picture taking." We weren't familiar with the mode, but pushing the green button did limit the menu configuration to some very basic settings. The Green Mode also forced us back to a 16:9 image aspect ratio, also the default camera setting. As far as the display goes, we found the 3-inch, 460K-dot LCD to be of decent clarity and quality, but not quite as good in sunlight nor underwater as some other models.

Pentax WG-3 GPS -- menus

Sony TX30

Based on the poor performance of its highly-spec'd display alone, the TX30 may not be a camera you want to regularly use in the pool or ocean. The 3.3-inch, 1,229K-dot OLED touchscreen isn't very visible, nor usable, when shooting underwater. It's indeed waterproof, just not underwater savvy. Compounding the problem, the screen is also difficult to see in bright sunlight, taking away from its appeal even as a beachside or snow-skiing camera. The touchscreen interface -- when you can see it -- is fairly easy to figure out, with a Mode control that brings up expected shooting modes. The menu system is straightforward, with deep functionality residing behind the toolbox icon, something that took us a few minutes to figure out. Though the OLED touchscreen may be an Achilles' heel when it comes to underwater photography, the TX30 still does a lot of things right that still warrant your consideration for other shooting situations.

Sony TX30 -- menus

 

Overall Display and Menu Ranking

#1
Olympus TG-2
#2
Canon D20
#3
Nikon AW110
#4
Panasonic TS5
#5
Pentax WG-3
#6
Sony TX30
The TG-2's display is awesome compared to the rest, regardless of specs. It's clear underwater and on dry land, and its menu system is straightforward. The next two in the bunch, the D20 and AW110, both fared quite well here with good screens and easy-to-navigate menu systems. The TS5 screen is a bit on the hazy side, while the WG-3 has a confusing menu system and some other quirks that take a bit to figure out. Finally, the TX30's hi-res touchscreen proved just too hard to see and operate underwater.

 

Handling and Performance

How a camera feels in your hands and how fast and easy it is to operate are just as important to most shooters as image quality itself -- and even more so with the challenge of using them underwater or in winter weather with gloves and cold fingers. We spent a good deal of time with each of these models and took plenty of notes on what we liked and didn't like about each. Some of the results were surprising.

Canon D20

Canon D20 -- controls

The D20 powers up relatively speedily with a bright little "bling!" and is ready to go. In our hands, we found its size and weight nearly ideal for providing good stability while shooting underwater. The body is made from rugged plastic, which some may gripe about but we prefer in a tough camera body; it simply felt like it could take a licking and keep on ticking (and it did!). Overall, the camera was a reasonably fast performer, focusing fairly quickly and accurately, though perhaps not as lightning-fast as most of the other models in this roundup. However, the fact that it employs last year's tech never really slowed us down (except in continuous mode where the camera can only shoot at about 2fps). While the D20's lens resides in the upper left corner of the camera -- in danger of being blocked by fingers -- it wasn't an issue because the camera's shark-fin-like design provided a perfect resting spot for our index fingers while shooting. We found that the D20's balanced mix of good design, decent features (if a bit old hat), and painless operation made it a fun and rewarding camera to shoot with.

Nikon AW110

Nikon AW110 -- controls

When we first picked up the AW110 we thought it would become our favorite just by feel alone. At only 6.9 oz., it's the lightest of the bunch except for the relatively diminutive Sony TX30. We liked the AW110's simple, rounded feel and its nice textured shutter button. The other physical controls, however, are pretty tiny and have a somewhat dinky feel to them -- not ideal for a tough camera -- and the up-and-down zoom lever operates counterintuitively. Despite those quibbles, shooting with the camera was a pleasing experience as it operates quickly and decisively, locking onto subjects even in low-light underwater. Adding built-in Wi-Fi was a nice touch that separated it from some of the competition, though its wireless capabilities are limited to sharing images and videos. We wish the camera was more of an upgrade from the AW100 -- for instance, a brighter lens would have been nice -- but the camera's improved ruggedness and Wi-Fi capabilities make it a better waterproof/adventure-driven performer.

Olympus TG-2

Olympus TG-2 -- controls

We immediately thought the TG-2 had the most professional look and feel of the group of waterproof models we tested. The camera powered up almost instantly and, in combination with its physical Mode dial, provided a speedy and straightforward user experience. We loved shooting with it underwater and on dry land. Though most of the controls were well designed and responsive, we found the battery/memory card door to be a trifle cumbersome to open and close -- but not a deal breaker. We didn't try out any accessory lenses, such as the add-on teleconverter, but they give the camera a leg up on the rest in terms of versatility. Speaking of lenses, the TG-2's max aperture of f/2 at wide angle make it perfect for shooting in low light (or at further depths), and we weren't surprised when it came out on top in our lab testing for this skill. Overall, the TG-2 ranks near the top of the class for overall handling and operation. And for its great looks too!

Panasonic TS5

Panasonic TS5 -- controls

In the hand, the TS5 demonstrated that it was more than an AW110 clone, not that this a bad thing. It has a logical, ergonomic layout, and a zoom toggle that's right where you want it. The dedicated Wi-Fi button brings up your wireless options quickly -- and as we said before, it's much more than just for sharing photos. The TS5 is the only camera in the shootout that you can control remotely with your smart device. Very cool. Also cool is the camera's continuous shooting burst rate of 10 frames per second at full resolution, which definitely comes in handy when you're shooting your adventures on land and under the sea. The camera is generally a peppy performer, with quick shot-to-shot times and fast flash recharging. It also has above-average CIPA-rated battery life that makes extended outings less worrisome. We just wish its lens wasn't located in the upper left corner where our wandering fingers too easily came into frame and botched some shots.

Pentax WG-3 GPS

Pentax WG-3 GPS -- controls

The WG-3 GPS was a mixed bag when it came to handing and performance. Overall, it was a fairly quick performer, and stellar when autofocusing at telephoto distances. However, it struggled mightily in low light situations -- both real-world and in the IR Lab -- despite its f/2 max lens aperture. The six LED lights that ring the front, alas, are solely for macro use. In the hand, the WG-3 is a bit bulkier than the other models we tested, but the camera definitely seemed reassuringly rugged. We especially appreciated the relatively larger, precision-feeling controls on the rear of the camera, as well as the readout of GPS info, time, depth and other data on the front LED. Unfortunately, we found the menu system to have a higher learning curve than most, and some of the default settings to be outright frustrating -- such as the 16:9 image aspect ratio. The WG-3 proved overall to be a bit of an odd duck, but that could be good or bad depending on your needs.

Sony TX30

Sony TX30 -- controls

Handling the TX30 in comparison to the other five cameras here is an unusual experience. Weighing a mere 4.9 oz., it's almost a full 2 oz. lighter than the next model, and the camera's general dimensions are Lilliputian in comparison. The camera is certainly the most pocket-friendly of the bunch. And it's also one of the highest performing. It's the second fastest to start up, fastest to autofocus at wide angle, has the shortest prefocused shutter lag, and has the fastest full-res burst rate (tied with the Panasonic TS5) at 10 frames per second. As we mentioned before, the TX30's lens and flash are covered by a front panel that, when you slide it down, powers up the camera. There are only four physical controls -- the on/off switch, shutter button, dedicated movie button and zoom toggle. We found the shutter button a bit too trigger happy, and the zoom toggle uncomfortable to use. As for the touchscreen, it works well on dry land, but fails miserably underwater -- both for viewing and changing settings. The TX30 passed muster as an everyday ultra-compact, but not as an underwater camera.

 

Overall Handling and Performance Ranking

#1
Olympus TG-2
#2
Canon D20
#3
Nikon AW110
#4
Panasonic TS5
#5
Pentax WG-3
#6
Sony TX30
The TG-2 felt so professional in the hand and performed so well overall that it netted our No. 1 ranking here. Meanwhile, the D20 demonstrated a great combination of rugged controls and thoughtful design, and proved to be just plain fun to shoot with. At No. 3, we found the AW110 to be refreshingly straightforward and comfortable. The other three all had an issue or two, especially in underwater use, that drove them toward the bottom in this category.

 


 

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