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Waterproof Shootout 2012: Conclusion

Six waterproof digital cameras compared


by Shawn Barnett

We went into this shootout with some clear expectations as to which would emerge the winner, but as is often the case it didn't quite turn out the way we thought. What's most disappointing is that we wouldn't choose any of them to serve as both a waterproof and everyday-carry camera. If you want premium image quality in a small camera, we still recommend a premium pocket camera, also costing between $400 and $500. We wish camera companies could build a waterproof camera that also took great pictures, but it's all about balancing out that bill of materials. If you spend money on expensive water sealing and higher-end freezeproof components, you apparently can't keep the price low enough if you also use premium optics and sensors. Olympus made the greatest claims to high optical quality, and that proved true, but we weren't as pleased with color rendition, exposure, or video quality -- three elements Olympus usually does quite well.

The bottom line is that no camera in this shootout is a clear winner or loser in every category. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and each will bring back reasonably exposed images most of the time. The good news is that none is terrible, but the bad news is none is the absolute perfect solution for anything but rugged photographic conditions.

#1: Canon D20

Big and bold, Canon's first foray into folded optical design was certainly a success, even if wide-angle optical quality suffered a bit. The Canon D20's overall performance put it at the top in a fairly close race. Its large display performed well outdoors, and the Canon D20 captured good quality stills and video. Chromatic aberration and corner softness were quite high, but the Canon D20's positives far outweighed those issues. When it comes to outdoor and underwater performance, the Canon D20's results speak for themselves, with good color, good detail for the category, and satisfying pictures.

Links to:
Canon D20 Review
Canon D20 Gallery

#2: Pentax WG2

With its aggressive Transformers-like design, the Pentax WG2 rose above the Olympus TG1 primarily thanks to its superior image quality in the situations we imagine people will use it: Underwater and in outdoor sun. The Pentax WG2 just turned out better shots more often. It also turned in a respectable print quality result, making a good 11 x 14 at ISO 125 and a decent 4 x 6 at ISO 1,600. Timing factors, like startup and shutter lag, were slower than others in this roundup, but not by much. If you want a little faster AF, look to the Canon or Olympus, but we're talking a tenth of a second difference, so it's not a big issue. Our reviewer also had trouble with the buttons, and had a hard time viewing the LCD underwater, as our sample video demonstrates, so take note if those issues will be a problem for you.

Links to:
Pentax WG2 Review
Pentax WG2 Gallery

#3: Olympus TG1

Better in most ways than other recent Olympus Tough cameras, the TG1 came in third with a good physical design and impressive speed. The Olympus TG1 was fast, had surprisingly good print quality, and very low chromatic aberration. Distortion at wide angle was a bit of an issue, and in our tests the TG1 struggled to maintain good exposure. It's important to note that the TG-1's super-fast f/2.0 lens will be a key selling point for many users, though. Where the Olympus TG1 shines is speed. It's faster to start up, faster shot-to-shot, and even its flash recycles quickly. Its battery life is best-of-class too, all of which amounts to a lot. The Olympus TG1 also turned in the best print quality numbers of the group. So if speed, a wide-aperture lens and print quality are important, the TG1 is a top choice, but the exposure problem is a major issue, which is why we couldn't rank the Olympus TG1 any higher.

Links to:
Olympus TG1 Review
Olympus TG1 Gallery

#4: Sony TX20

By far the most universally popular camera when first held, the Sony TX20 flies in the face of its burly competition with James Bond-like class and finesse. Fast shutter lag, good Movie mode, and good print quality stand out as high points for the TX20. Optical distortion at wide angle and chromatic aberration at both ends were mild problems, as were occasional exposure inconsistencies, both over and under, which is undesirable outdoors. However, we liked that the Sony TX20 turned on the flash in our outdoor portrait test. It made a big difference in the image. This is just how a camera should behave for the snapshooter who just wants the best shot. Battery life was about average for pocket cameras, at 250 shots, but was lower than all but the AW100.

Links to:
Sony TX20 Review
Sony TX20 Gallery

#5: Panasonic TS4

We really liked the look and feel of the Panasonic Lumix TS4, but its performance in certain key areas left us wanting more. In our full review of the Panasonic TS4, we noted that image quality was good at wide angle, but suffered from lens flare as we zoomed it even a little. We still think it'll serve just fine as a rugged camera for snapshots, but don't expect excellence when you zoom. Underwater, the camera tended toward underexposure, and videos weren't quite as colorful as we'd have liked. Exposure also varied on land, sometimes under, sometimes over-exposing images. Battery life was among its stronger points, supporting capture of about 310 shots per charge.

Links to:
Panasonic TS4 Review
Panasonic TS4 Gallery

#6: Nikon AW100

By performance, the Nikon AW100 was on track to earn a second place award in this shootout, but somewhere along the line it sprung a leak, we think around the LCD. Thorough drying brought the camera back to life, and made us doubt if it even leaked, but our second try in the water proved too much for the AW100, as the leak became more pronounced. In its defense, it survived a full review process prior to our shootout, but a failure of waterproof ability is a critical failure in a waterproof shootout. Provided it can stay sealed, though, the Nikon AW100's strong points include low chromatic aberration, good color, good indoor performance, good print quality, good autofocus speed, and a good display. Low points include only fair underwater movie performance, very soft corners, and underexposure in outdoor portraits. We think its probably a fine camera so long as it doesn't leak, and there's no telling whether our leak was a fluke, so check and balance reviews online before purchasing. If ruggedness is more important than water-resistance, the AW100 might still be a great choice.

Links to:
Nikon AW100 Review
Nikon AW100 Gallery

Test Results

To prevent wandering too deep into the weeds, we wanted to give you our conclusion before getting to the Lab Test Results. But if you like that sort of analysis, click on to the next page for all the details.



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