cameras

Pentax Optio WG-2 Review

The Optio WG-2 is Pentax's latest “adventure-proof” camera.

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Introduction

Pentax is known for their DSLRs, but they’ve been in the tough-cam category longer than any other manufacturer we can think of. The Optio WG-2 is their latest “adventure-proof” camera. Submerge it in up to 40 feet of water, drop it from up to five feet, crush it with 220 pounds of pressure, freeze it with temperatures as low as 14ºF, or leave it in a dust storm—it can take all of this abuse. That's no way to treat a gadget, but there you have it.

Competition in the tough-cam space is as fierce as we’ve ever seen it. As the industry shifts away from featureless, low-end pocket cameras, they’re looking toward rugged cameras as a space for growth—you can’t swim with your iPhone, after all. The WG-2 is one of seven current top-tier tough cams, and it looks to be stacking up pretty favorably. We got this camera over to the lab to see if Pentax took time for image quality amid all the crash testing. Sure, you can sit on it and it won't break, but can it take a decent picture?

This tough device is available now at a current MSRP of $299 (originally $349) in vermillion red and matte black. The GPS-enabled WG-2 GPS (the model on review here) is available now for an MSRP of $349 (originally $399) in shiny orange and glossy white. Aside from the GPS antenna, the two models are identical.

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Design & Usability

So much for rugged good looks...

Like most tough-cams, the WG-2 handles an acts like an automatic point-and-shoot, just clunkier. The angular design, rubbery grip, and light body-weight are easy to handle, and it's compact enough to fit easily into a jacket or cargo pocket. The small sticky buttons are frustrating at times, and the menu system is ugly and often puzzling—but occasionally brilliant, too. The clunky type-face could use an update, menu options should be organized more logically, and there should be a better way to navigate through pages, but we love the green button, which brings up a customizable Fn menu. It gave us, in effect, four virtual hot-keys on top of the five physical hot-keys.

The lumpy, rubberized design is ten kinds of ugly, but it's great for handling.

The button design and layout is pretty typical, but a button controls zoom instead of a tilter and keys are small and sticky, a result of the waterproof construction. The lumpy, rubberized design is ten kinds of ugly, but it's great for handling. There's no obvious bump or handle on the shutter-side of the body, but all the little divots and contours add up to a comfortable grip, especially with the textured coating. It's surprisingly light for such a rugged camera too, and it comes with a carabiner—not a bad idea.

Features

Earth, wind, and water are no match for the WG-2.

Hardware is not exactly the WG-2's claim to fame. The 5x zoom lens, the 16-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch backlit CMOS sensor, and the 3-inch, 460k-pixel widescreen LCD are all pretty average. The spec boasts an above-average flash though, which supposedly stretches as far as 18 feet.

Take it swimming, sit on it, stand on it, drop it, use it as a nose for your snowman—well, don't do those things, but if you do, this camera claims it will survive the abuse.

The WG-2's real super-power is its durability. If the ratings don't lie, this is the most durable compact camera on the market right now. It's waterproof to 40 feet for up to two hours (the deepest rating out there), it's shockproof to five feet, it's crushproof up to 220 pounds (most rugged cameras don't even advertise crushproofing), it's freezeproof to 14ºF, and it's even dustproof. Take it swimming, sit on it, stand on it, drop it, use it as a nose for your snowman—well, don't do those things, but if you do, this camera claims it will survive the abuse. We want to point out several notable warnings though: the manual says to avoid warm water and to rinse the camera after exposure to salt water. Also, we read dozens, if not hundreds, of user reviews from unhappy customers, claiming that their tough-cam sprang a leak or cracked after a short fall. The WG-2 doesn't have any negative Amazon.com user reviews yet, though there are only 5 at the moment. It feels very well built though, and it survived our cursory abuse tests. Just use common sense whenever possible—treat it like an expensive electronic gadget, and always follow the care instructions in the user manual.

Like all tough-cams, the WG-2 is designed for automatic shooting. An Auto Picture mode allows a limited measure of control, but Green Mode is entirely automated. Plenty of scene modes (20 by our count) run the gamut from Handheld Night Snap to Underwater, but perhaps the most notable one is Digital Microscope, a super-macro mode in reduced resolution that uses an LED macro light—exclusive to Pentax rugged cameras. Manual controls are very limited, but for creative controls, users may choose from three color modes and a heap of picture effects. The many picture effects are only available after a shot has been taken though, in manner of Instagram, and they include everything from Toy Camera, to Retro, to a slew of silly digital frames. Moreover, most of these effects have adjustable parameters, too—impressive. In-camera editing options are plentiful as well, and though HD video is yet another perk, it's only average.

Performance

Image quality is not exactly an asset of the WG-2.

The WG-2's image quality is mediocre. Unless you're shooting in outdoor, brightly lit scenes, with the intent only to share online or to print small, there's a long list of problems: soft edges, terrible color fringing, and lots of noise.

Image sharpness is a real struggle. Most cameras have soft spots in their lenses—usually between the center and the edge of the frame at the wide-angle setting—but the WG-2 is pretty hazy across the entire zoom range, in just about every area of the frame. Color tends to look flat, which is especially bad for underwater conditions, but luckily the Bright setting goes a long way to punch things up a bit. The automatic white balance is strange. Most cameras handle daylight without a problem, but the WG-2 is noticeably warmer than it should be, which is rather bizarre, seeing as this is a camera made for the outdoors. Noise is just awful, a real problem at all ISOs thanks to aggressive noise reduction that scrubs away fine. Images look fine through ISO 400, but the appearance becomes too sloppy above that point.

Color fringing is vicious [and] the WG-2 is very sluggish.

Furthermore, the WG-2 is not an acceptable low-light camera. Mid and high ISO performance is poor, and the lens starts at a mediocre f/3.5. If you want to attempt low-light shots, you'll need to crank up the sensitivity and either settle for blurry photos or turn on the flash. In any case, this is not the camera you want for low-light photos. Hold on to your seats, the problems keep coming. Color fringing is vicious. At every zoom length, and most especially at telephoto, images will have ugly color fringing along tree branches and other high-contrast areas. This is one of the worst scores in terms of light distortions that we've seen in a while. Don't leave yet, there's more. Startup is fast and shutter lag is not a problem, but in terms of continuous or burst mode shooting, the WG-2 is very sluggish, even by tough-cam standards. Don't expect much in the way of burst mode action photography. Finally, video mode, though it was sharp and a fine low light performer as well, struggled with all the average point-and-shoot troubles, such as trailing, stuttering, and color-bleed.

Conclusion

It's a good thing the WG-2 is crushproof, shockproof, waterproof, and more, because its mediocre images may make you want to stomp it, hurl it, or drop it in a lake.

Competition is a great thing. While sales of plain point-and-shoots dwindle, the camera industry is betting that tough-cams like the Pentax WG-2 will keep the compact-camera market afloat. Most manufacturers now make at least one adventure-ready camera, and it's driving improvements and innovation in the newly crowded segment.

The WG-2 stands out by default because it can venture deeper underwater than any other rugged camera. A few cameras can survive slightly longer drops, but all told, the WG-2 is arguably the toughest of the tough cams. There are some cool and unique features too, like the ring of LED lights for macro photography. The trouble is that image quality struggles to keep up. Shots taken outdoors and in bright light are fine for medium-sized prints and online sharing, but indoors or under low-light, photos are soft, sloppy, and flat. We've seen a handful of competitors capturing cleaner, clearer, punchier shots—and many of them are faster, too.

Photographers who need a camera exclusively for outdoor excursions might still consider the WG-2—there's a certain peace of mind that comes with the world's toughest camera, and some folks can live with "okay" quality. However, anyone looking for an all-around snap-shooter with a hard shell should keep on shopping.

Check out our 7-camera waterproof shootout to see how the year's best tough-cams compare.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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