Cameras

2012 Waterproof Camera Showdown

It's a 7-way battle between the year's top waterproof tough cameras, and we declare a decisive winner.

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Introduction

The best camera is the one that you have. So when you're playing in the surf, spending a weekend at the slopes, or going on any kind of rugged adventure, you want a camera that can face up to the elements with you. A waterproof, rugged camera is the way to go.

With more waterproof cameras to choose from than ever before, picking the right one can seem daunting. We're here to help. We took a long, hard look at the top-billed tough cams of the year, measuring how they perform outdoors, underwater, and in dim lighting; how tough they are and how tough they really need to be; and how they'll work once they're in your hands. Read on to see how they fared.

Update: This is our 2012 roundup. We've posted a newer roundup with up-to-date models from 2013. Check it out here!

The Contenders

Your iPhone can't swim, which is why the camera industry thinks that you'll buy a waterproof point-and-shoot. Some companies seem pretty sure that demand for drown-proof cameras will increase, so they've introduced multiple snorkel-ready models into their lineups.

• Fujifilm, for example, makes four waterproof cameras, three of which are identical aside from a GPS antenna in one, and wireless capabilities in another.

• Panasonic makes two, including one full-on, tank-like tough guy, and one that can survive in a few feet of water, but costs half as much.

• Olympus now has four tough cams, with diminishing durability as the price drops.


How We Chose the Contenders

How We Chose the Contenders

For the purposes of this roundup, we picked the most expensive models that could be considered all-around rugged cameras. They are:

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Canon PowerShot D20
Canon's first waterproof camera in three years packs a 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, 5x zoom lens, and 3-inch screen into a colorful, slightly bulbous body.


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Fujifilm Finepix XP150

Fujifilm adds toughness to their waterproof lineup. The XP150 sports a 14.4 megapixel CMOS sensor, 5x zoom lens, and a 2.7-inch LCD.


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Nikon Coolpix AW100

Released in 2011, the AW100 is still Nikon's most recent waterproof model. Vitals include a 16-megapixel sensor, 5x zoom lens, and 3-inch LCD.


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Olympus Tough TG-1

Longtime players in the tough-cam game, Olympus surprised many by equipping the TG-1 with an f/2 maximum aperture and OLED display.


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Panasonic Lumix TS4

The fan-favorite TS series returns with another modest update, including a 12.1 megapixel CCD sensor, 4.6x zoom, and a great in-camera GPS system.


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Pentax Optio WG-2 GPS

Pentax plays up the toughness angle with the rugged-looking WG-2, sporting a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, 5x zoom, and 3-inch display.


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Sony Cyber-shot TX20

Ever fashion-conscious, Sony refreshes their ultra-compact waterproof model. Not much has changed, though it's available in new colors.


We could have made a few substitutions, like swapping the wireless-ready Fujifilm XP170 for the GPS-equipped XP150. But they have the same MSRP, and it was easier for us to get the XP150. The Sony TX200 could have fit too, but it's much more expensive than the TX20, and isn't really marketed as a tough cam. We left out the Kodak Sport, too; technically it's Kodak's best waterproof camera, but it's cheap on purpose, and uh, well, Kodak doesn't actually make cameras anymore.


How We Tested the Contenders

How We Tested the Contenders

We tested each of these tough cameras the same way that we test all cameras that come through our labs. Full-length, in-depth reviews of all the cameras in this roundup have already been posted. How we test.

But the traits that make a great tough cam aren't quite the same as a great all-around camera, so we put together a shorter, tweaked version of our rubric for this roundup. Most of the data comes from our regular reviews, but we've weighted certain scores differently. We also added a few mini-tests, including an underwater still life, and an indoor shutter-speed test.

Outdoor & Underwater Image Quality

Tough cameras are basically outdoor cameras. Take a look at the marketing —they're selling the idea of adventure as much as they're selling a physical product. Windsurfing, rock climbing, fresh-powder snowboarding—but even if your expeditions only take you as far as the beach or pool, it's still crucial that your tough-cam take clear and vibrant outdoor photos.


Color

Color

Accurate, vibrant color separates "oh, cool pictures" and "Whoa! Cool Pictures!"—especially when it comes to outdoor photos, and extra-especially for underwater shots.

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The chart above shows each camera’s color score, pulled from our in-depth reviews, with a slight tweak. Outdoor shots and especially underwater photos tend to look better when they’re a bit oversaturated, so we bumped the acceptable range of saturation to 95-115%, instead of our usual 90-110%. It affected some scores on both ends.

The Sony TX20 is clearly the most accurate, punchy performer of the bunch. It has the lowest minimum color error at 2.29 (under 2.5 is fantastic) and just the right amount of oversaturation, at 103.5%. The Canon D20 also has a nice color profile, slightly more vibrant than the others. The Panasonic TS4 is solid as well.

The only outlier on the low end is the Fujifilm XP150, with plainly poor color performance. Outdoor shots don’t look terrible exactly, but definitely flat, and the shades just look “off.”


Resolution

Resolution

Great resolution separates crisp, striking pictures from cheap-looking, blasé shots. The chart below shows our scores for each camera in three major resolution categories—distortion, sharpness, and chromatic aberration.

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Distortion isn't usually a problem anymore, thanks to correction software. Sharpness in this case measures the clarity of edges. And chromatic aberration refers to the green and purple color fringing that sometimes occurs in high-contrast scenes—particularly problematic for landscape photos, so we doubled the weighting compared to our standard reviews.

Our pick for top sharpshooter is the Olympus TG-1. The f/2.0 lens is impressive on paper, and delivers in real life, too. There’s barely any chromatic aberration, and sharpness is great.

By the numbers, the Nikon AW100 finishes at the front of the pack. It's a decent performer, but the sharpness score is higher than it deserves to be. The camera applies extra, artificial sharpness to edges, which can cause some weird artifacts at times, and doesn’t accurately represent the AW100's somewhat fuzzy detail reproduction. All cameras sharpen edges, but this is one of the more heavy-handed cases that we've seen.

A few tough cams run into significant resolution problems. The Pentax WG-2 struggles with sharpness and particularly aberration. The Fuji XP150 is especially soft. And the Sony TX20 has notable (though not severe) shortcomings in each resolution sub-category.


Underwater Photo Quality

Underwater Photo Quality

For the most part, the same characteristics that make a good outdoor photo apply to underwater photos. But sometimes cameras inexplicably struggle underwater. Their metering or white balance systems just might not be up to the task.

The Nikon AW100 is one such camera. In auto mode (which should be able to recognize the scene and adjust settings accordingly), it made our underwater scene look flat and washed out. When we set it to the underwater mode, it fared a little bit better, but still took some of the most lifeless underwater shots in the comparison group.

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Despite an undersaturated, un-adjustable color profile on dry land, the Olympus TG-1 actually took the richest, punchiest photos in the water, both in auto mode and in its underwater modes. (It uses flash by default in some underwater modes). We'll chalk it up to a fast lens and smart metering.

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Otherwise, the rest of the cameras performed as we would've expected underwater—slightly softer and flatter than their dry-land performance.

We've heard from some underwater photogs that water and oily sunblock droplets sometimes make themselves at home on lenses. In this batch of cameras, we only noticed it with the Olympus TG-1 and Pentax WG-2—the two models in the roundup with circular, center-mounted lenses. It caused a few fuzzy shots with each camera, so be aware.

And as we re-discover every year, touchscreens are totally worthless underwater, so serious underwater photographers should cross the Sony TX20 off their shopping lists.


Outdoor & Underwater Picks

Outdoor & Underwater Picks: Panasonic TS4, Olympus TG-1, Canon D20

Indoor & Low-Light Image Quality

Tough cameras have always struggled to take good pictures indoors or in low-light. The root of the problem is the lens quality—most of them start at a piddling f/3.9, and slow down even further throughout the zoom range. As a result, the cameras are almost always cranking at maximum sensitivity, so grainy noise becomes a problem. Lets see how this year's batch stacks up.


Noise

Noise

Heavy noise is the easiest flaw to spot in a photo—too many grainy, off-color speckles from the sensor, and the sloppy details that follow because the processor tries to correct for those speckles. It occurs at higher ISO settings on the camera.

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The chart above shows each camera’s noise score, based on performance up through ISO 1600 (ISO 3200 is universally useless on just about every point-and-shoot, so we took it out of the equation).

The Olympus TG-1 and Panasonic TS4 both take nice clear and clean shots throughout most of the ISO range. For online sharing and small prints, they’re both A-OK up through ISO 1600. They'll do fine in dim conditions, at least in terms of noise control.

The Canon D20 deserves a higher score than it gets; while the images are technically a bit noisy, they still look quite detailed, unsmudged by aggressive noise reduction.

The Fuji XP150 is the only real loser in the group, though the Nikon AW100 also struggles to maintain detail at ISO 800 and above.


Stabilization & Shutter Speed

Stabilization & Shutter Speed

Grainy, sloppy photos are problematic, but it's the blur that usually ruins indoor photos. When a camera's aperture is too narrow, the shutter needs to stay open longer to let in enough light for a decent exposure. And when the shutter is open for too long, your hand shakes, and the movement is reflected in the photo.

So we wanted to see how each camera metered a typically dim indoor setting. We lit a scene to 100 lux—the average light level in a living room at night—and noted each camera's shutter speed at the wide-angle setting, both in auto mode and program mode at ISO 1600.

The target shutter speed is 1/30s (or faster), usually considered the threshold where most people can hand-hold a camera without blur.

Thanks to its f/2 max aperture, the Olympus TG-1 uses the quickest shutter speed for indoor shots by far: 1/30s in auto mode, 1/60s in program mode. Both are fast enough to snap shake-free photos in dim settings, even without stabilization turned on.

None of the other cameras hit 1/30s in either shooting mode. With stabilization, the Canon D20 and Sony TX20 might be able to pull off crisp shots with some consistency (the TX20's stabilization is always on). Don't rely on it. And the rest of the group—forget it.

So the Olympus TG-1 is really the first camera that works well indoors. That's a big deal. Most folks just use their tough cameras outdoors, but we've heard from countless readers over the years who want a family camera that can go anywhere and do everything without breaking. The TG-1 is that camera.


Indoor & Low-Light Pick

Indoor & Low-Light Pick: Olympus TG-1

Toughness

Toughness

Waterproof, durable bodies are the obvious selling point for tough cameras. Otherwise, they’re just regular point-and-shoots with short zoom ranges and big price tags.

Manufacturers provide official toughness ratings in a few different categories, and since we can't afford to really stress-test all of these cameras, we have to take them at their word.

The toughest camera is the Olympus TG-1. It has class-leading durability in every single category, and for what it’s worth, we haven’t heard any reports of egregious waterproofing failures. The Pentax WG-2 is in the top tier of toughness as well.

By the numbers, the Panasonic TS4 looks like a first-rate tough-guy too, but water leakage seems to be a big problem. Several of our readers have left stories about failed waterproofing. And it has a higher percentage of 1-star Amazon user reviews than any of the other cameras in this roundup, typically because it leaked and died in the water.


Customer Reviews

Customer Reviews

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We can't put too much stock into user reviews, since it’s basically hearsay and people tend to write when they're frustrated rather than satisfied. But the TS4 sure seems to have a higher rate of defects.

The Sony TX20 is the only camera of the bunch that’s significantly less-studly than any of the others. It’s also much smaller, and still tough enough to survive at the bottom of a pool and outlast a faceplant from chest-height. It's probably tough enough for most casual beach bums.

It raises an interesting question: How tough does your tough-cam really need to be? Not very, if you're just bringing it to the pool or ski slopes, or if you're worried that a child might break it. Any one of these cameras will work just fine. Be aware that they can and do break—even the best ones—so follow the proper care instructions, and be smart.

But if you’re a truly rugged adventurer, or just want the peace of mind that comes along with the “most” of anything, then the Olympus TG-1 or Pentax WG-2 should be your top choices.


Toughness Picks

Toughness Picks: Olympus TG-1, Pentax WG-2

User Experience & Features

User experience is always important, and no point-and-shoot would be complete these days without a slew of extra features. Here’s a chart of some relevant bells and whistles, pulled directly from our in-depth reviews.

The Olympus TG-1 sits in front of the pack because it has no serious design flaws, and just about all of the perks we can expect from the waterproof class. The gorgeous 3-inch OLED display gives it a leg up from the get go. Then add zippy burst shooting, in-camera GPS, super macro focus, and an awesome set of effects, to name a few; it has just about every cool, useful extra feature we’ve seen in the waterproof class. And on top of that, it’s just as easy to use as any other point-and-shoot out there.

Most of the rest of the contenders all fall into a secondary tier. They have a few great features, but are hobbled by at least one notable weakness. The Sony TX20 is a particularly frustrating example. It’s the fastest waterproof, with some of the smartest automatic shooting modes and coolest extra features. But touchscreen cameras are irritating enough on land, and basically unusable near water.

Nikon’s AW100 offers a solid all-around user experience, though the interface is clunky like their lower-end S-series models. The Pentax WG-2 and Panasonic TS4 are both superlatively average—totally serviceable but unexciting, though they’re both easy to use. The Canon D20’s awkward shape is its Achilles’ heel, uncomfortable to handle and too bulbous to comfortably fit into a pocket.

The only real clunker of the bunch is the Fujifilm XP150, built from low-end components and saddled with an ugly interface.


GPS

GPS

In-camera GPS has been kicking around for a few years, and the word on the street according to a few manufacturers is that it hasn’t really caught on. But if there’s a type of camera where GPS makes sense, it’s adventure cameras.

If you’ve decided that GPS is a must-have feature, then any of the GPS-equipped cameras are fine. We haven’t figured out a good way to empirically test this feature. But as far as we could tell, each works reasonably well, locking on quickly and providing accurate coordinates. They can ping their satellite periodically so that they don’t have to hunt for a signal from scratch every time you turn it off and on. Some of them can plot your movements over time, too. They’re all better than any of the first-generation systems that we saw a few years ago.

If we had to pick the best, we’d go with the Panasonic TS4. It can measure depth, altitude, and atmospheric pressure in addition to the usual latitude and longitude coordinates. Even so, we don’t think it’s a useful enough feature on its own to justify the TS4 over any other tough camera.

And whichever model you choose, definitely buy an extra battery. GPS chews through battery life like no other feature, and if you leave the tracking feature on overnight, the camera will be dead by sunrise.


Feature Picks

Feature Picks: Olympus TG-1, Panasonic TS4

Conclusion

Note: You are currently reading our 2012 waterproof camera roundup. We've posted an updated roundup with all the new waterproof models for 2013. Check it out here!

No beating around the bush necessary: The Olympus TG-1 is far and away the best waterproof camera of the year. Tough cameras had been making baby steps in the right direction for years, but Olympus made a bold and necessary move when they slapped an f/2.0 lens onto the TG-1. Just like that, we now have a tough cam that is actually a great all-around compact camera, too.

It’s a winner across the board, earning top-pick status in every category in this roundup. The image quality alone puts the TG-1 a cut above the rest of the class, but it has the best body, too. It’s the most durable tough-cam, with top toughness ratings in every category. The 3-inch OLED screen is the brightest, smoothest, and punchiest display out there.

Handling is comfortable, and the interface is simple, but still offers enough user control. Extra features like super-macro mode, GPS, top-tier speed, and the most striking set of digital effects out there are just the cherry on top. Yeah, it’s the most expensive tough camera, but pound for pound, it’s a fantastic value.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the color profile. It’s a bit undersaturated, and there’s no user control in that regard. Our review unit was also a bit glitchy, and we’ve heard from a few people who’ve had the same issue—less than one-tenth of a percent of the people who have read the review so far, so it doesn’t seem to be widespread.

All things considered, we recommend the TG-1 as the best all-around tough camera out there, and an excellent camera, period. If you want the best underwater camera, this is it. If you want an excellent family camera that won’t break, this is also it. Highly recommended.


Runners Up

Runners Up

Honorable mention goes to the Panasonic TS4—as long as you don’t plan on taking it into the water much. But outdoor photo quality is excellent, and it’s basically as hardened as they come. Now that the price has dropped to about $280, it’s a solid value for a tough camera. We’ve just heard too many reports of water leakage to recommend it as a serious underwater camera. Splashes at the pool and in the surf, sure. Diving, not so much.

And second honorable mention goes to the Sony TX20. Photo quality is quite good, it’s fun to use, and it’s by far the smallest and lightest in the class—as compact as any of Sony’s other slimline pocket shooters. It’s the least-tough model out there, and the touchscreen is worthless in water, but it’s a nice carry-anywhere point-and-shoot.

Some of you might have noticed that the Nikon AW100 has the best overall score in our camera rankings among its competitors. It’s a fine waterproof camera, and in our opinion was the best on the market when we reviewed it last fall, shortly after its release. A big part of the score is the artificially high sharpness result. We also used different video tests last year, which affect the result in its favor. In reality, it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack.

The only model that we’d avoid outright is the Fujifilm XP150. It’s a cheap camera in a hard shell—supremely irritating to use, with sub-par results across the board.

It would be great to see a few manufacturers follow Olympus’ lead next year, and even better if somebody made a waterproof camera with RAW capture and proper manual exposure controls. Chances are slim—especially when you can just wrap something like the Canon S100 in waterproof housing—but we love surprises.