We put four of these cameras through gadget hell to determine the ultimate rugged shooter. Turns out, they are all great in some ways, and they all have some serious flaws.
These cameras make some bold claims as far as toughness, so the test regimen went all out. First, the cameras endured a rigorous five-day backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Then, they headed down to Mexico for three days of sandy, submerged fun. Then, another filthy camping trip.
Each camera was subjected to more than an hour of continuous underwater time on several occasions. They were also given a cringe-worthy drop-test onto hard tile. That's two five-foot drops, one landing on the cameras' bottoms, and one on the backs. Each machine's performance, features, ease of use, battery life, and ruggedness appears below. As for the four cameras' image quality, see for yourself. For video, make sure you click 1080p in the clip above.
4th Place: Sony Cyber-shot TX20
Looking at the Sony, you'd never know it's water-proof and ruggedized. The thing is tiny and sleek. Its back panel is one large touch screen, and its menu seems the most familiar because it looks similar to that of a modern smartphone. It has a 4x optical zoom with glass from Carl Zeiss. It shoots stills at 16.2 megapixels, and video at 1080p/30fps. Its water-proofiness is rated to 16 feet, and drop-proofiness to 5 feet.
The Exmor sensor in the Sony is the hands-down winner in low-light (with the Olympus in a close second, and the others way behind). Night images are just so much sharper and noise-free. The other big feature is the design. It's tiny, slender, and ultra-pocketable. It's the only of the three that has a lens cover—something you'd think would be a no-brainer on cameras built for wear and tear. Gimmicky filters actually make some nice, fun shots. The Sony survived the drop-test alongside its beefier brethren. The video quality was very good (in AVCHD and .mov format). The touch to focus option is really a nice feature.
After about 20 minutes of swimming (never exceeding a depth of six feet), it died in the middle of shooting what was going to be a friggin' awesome video. It never came back to life. Upon returning to shore, it was plain to see that both the camera's doors had leaked. Tremendously disappointing. Also, touchscreens don't work so well when wet, so if you're out for a swim, and you want to change settings, you're going to need to tread water for a while. It's also hard to read in bright light, and the settings are harder to tweak than they should be. Despite dominating in low light, in bright, outdoor light, there's a real lack of sharpness and detail. Colors can be muted, and it struggles with light balance. Battery life is pretty poor, but, unlike the others, it has no GPS to use as an excuse.
Sensor: 16.2MP 1/2.3" Exmor R CMOS Sensor
Aperture: f/3.5 - f/4.6
Image: 4,608 x 3,456
Video: Up to 1920 X 1080 30FPS
Screen: 3.0" LCD touch display 921K dots
3rd Place: Nikon Coolpix AW100
The Coolpix look like a clone of the Lumix (see below). But Nikon has managed to improve upon the design in some ways. Instead of the double-latch door as on the Panasonic (which failed), Nikon has this metal knob that absolutely won't open by accident. There is a 3-inch screen and a large 1050 mAh battery. It uses GPS, it's waterproof to 33 feet, and can take a drop from up to five feet. It has Nikkor glass with a 5x optical zoom. The 1/2.3-inch sensor shoots 16 megapixel stills and takes up to 1080p/30fps video.
The Nikon is grippy, easy to hold, and the buttons are placed well. Battery life is excellent. The menus are generally pretty easy to navigate. Video quality is arguably the best of the lot, and the stereo mic placement on the front of the camera does wonders for audio clarity. Videos are standard .mov files—easy to deal with. It also had the most options for frame-rates (you can go up to 240fps if you're willing to drop the quality down to 320x240). Overall, photos are very sharp, and it's the only one that weathered all of our stress tests perfectly. It shoots the best panoramic pictures of the bunch (180 or 360 degrees).
Colors tend to be very flat and washed out, which is a shame when you're shooting glorious nature shots. As a result, the Nikon took last place in many of the outdoor photos. The built-in high dynamic range (HDR) is absolutely atrocious, and it struggles almost as much as the Panasonic in low-light—lots of noise. The plastic front panel just doesn't seem as strong as the metal on the others, and it shows wear. The GPS can't do as much as the others, and the camera frequently struggles to find the correct focal point. Bland images are the Nikon's Achilles heel.
2nd Place: Olympus Tough TG-1
This is the newest of the cameras, and it's a beast. It's the biggest, thickest, and heaviest of the group, and the aperture opens the widest, going up to f/2.0 (the second best is the Panasonic, at f/3.3). It has a 3-inch OLED screen, an Olympus lens with a 4x optical zoom, and it shoots at 12 megapixels. Videos are coded in h.264 and pop out in standard .mov files. It has GPS and a stereo mic. It's waterproof to 40 feet and drop-proof to 6.6 feet. It also uses an exchangeable lens system, if you want to pop a fisheye or telephoto on there.
The mode dial on this thing is awesome. When you're out in the water, it's far easier than the others when switching between shooting modes. The OLED screen is also the easiest to read in bright sunlight, with deep blacks. In general, photos are very sharp, and it does a pretty good job in low light. The color balance is pretty decent, too, and tons of special effects are actually a lot of fun to use. Many of those filters can be directly applied to videos, too. Also, it has the best battery life of the bunch, which is very handy for longer camping trips.
Holy God, what is wrong with the video? It looks absolutely awful. Grainy. Focus jumping all over. Hands-down the worst of the lot. It also has the worst panoramic mode. It has a very slow processor—five seconds from power-on to being able to shoot, and processing photos with effects takes forever. It's also the thickest and heaviest of the bunch. Worse, it fails the water test. After about 45 minutes in 2.5 feet of fresh water, it leaked. It never fully broke (it just got a foggy lens and LCD for a couple days), but had it gone deeper, longer, or been in saltwater, it certainly would have died. A shame. Also, placing the lens in the middle of the camera makes it easier to accidentally block with your finger while you're one-handing it.
UPDATE: It turns out we had a pre-production unit, so we did some retesting. The good news is that it didn't fail the waterproof test and bootup time did seem a bit faster. The bad news is that video quality was just as bad as before and processing (things like panoramic photos) was still very slow.
Bestmodo! Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4
The DMC line from Panasonic has been the standard-bearer in this category for the last four years. The fourth generation offers GPS integration in addition to 1080p/30fps video. This one is waterproof to 40 feet, and drop-proof to 6.6 feet. It has a hard, light aluminum body, a 2.7-inch screen, and well-defined physical control buttons on the back. Its lens is from Leica. There is a 4.6x optical zoom, and it shoots at 12.1 megapixels.
The Panasonic took the clearest, most vivid outdoor and underwater stills. There aren't quite as many shooting modes as the others, but that actually made it feel simpler to use at times. It generally found very nice balance in light levels the others would blow out, and it really makes colors pop (especially greens). Panoramic shots are excellent, at up to 360 degrees. It's generally able to attain focus faster than the others, and it's the fastest and cleanest at nighttime shooting with a flash. (The dance party pictures are very good). It shoots decent video, but that's nothing to write home about. The GPS can actually record your path, which is kind of cool. Last, it just feels rock solid. If you hit someone on this head with this thing, it would hurt. A lot.
On a backpacking trip, the Lumix was the unfortunate victim of an unintended drop-test. It fell out of a jacket pocket, bounced off a rock, and landed in a few feet of ocean water. Unfortunately, when it bounced, the door flew open. So it completely filled with water, which killed it. Very dead. This was not what we expected from the bulletproof wonder. However, there is the possibility that the door wasn't locked. We think it was a fluke and that it must've hit at a strange angle, because the replacement unit passed the intentional drop test with flying colors. The Lumix has a tendency to lean a bit blue on the color scale (but not too bad). It lacks an HDR mode, but sunset mode was a close approximation. In low-light testing, the Lumix produced the darkest pictures—it did an okay job of grabbing focus, but you can forget about shooting a night sky. Also, it chewed through its battery rather quickly. The display is the smallest and lowest resolution of all of the cameras, which sucks.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4 Specs
Sensor: 12.1MP 1/2.33-inch CCD Sensor
Aperture: f/3.3 - f/5.9
Video: Up to 1920 X 1080 30FPS
Screen: 2.7" TFT-LCD display 230K dots
The Panasonic takes the gold for now. But the competition is hot on its heels.
All of these cameras just had too many flaws. Hopefully, next year, one of them will really step up to be a clear winner. For today, the Panasonic's superior daytime image quality netted the win.