If you're heading to the beach this winter, you might want to pack the Pentax
Optio W20 or the Olympus Stylus 720SW in your beach bag to capture your
We've run the cameras through the Pop Photo lab, and pulled the hard data about their image quality performance, but that wasn't enough. These cameras demanded a field test to see how they handled in the real, wet, world. Somewhere warm, somewhere tropical, with palm trees and brightly colored fish, somewhere like the Bahamas.
For this head-to-head test, we're comparing both the lab performance and the shooting experience on-land and, most importantly, underwater.
In the lab, the cameras were class-competitive, without setting any performance records. The Olympus Stylus 720SW scores better in color accuracy, with an Excellent rating, while the Pentax Optio W20 comes in at Extremely High. At ISO 64 and 100, both cameras post similar Noise numbers in the Moderately Low range. At ISO 200, the Pentax stays Moderately Low, while the Olympus jumps up to Moderate, and both cameras get up into the High/Unacceptable range at ISO 400 and beyond. Analyzing the numbers, it is clear that the Olympus employs a blur filter to contain noise constantly at higher ISOs, while the Pentax has a user-selectable "Blur Reduction mode" which will reduce noise and blurred edges by cranking up the ISO, and ironically, employing a blur filter to minimize noise in this "Blur Reduction mode." (We were unable to get meaningful data about the Pentax's Blur Reduction mode within our testing methods.)
At ISO 64, both cameras score Extremely High in resolution, with the Olympus having a slight edge at 1640, compare with the Pentax's 1565. At ISO 400, both cameras score Very High, with Pentax holding a slight advantage at 1410, to the Olympus's 1340. At ISO 1600, both cameras lose a good deal of resolving power, with the Olympus staying just this side of Acceptable at 1130, while the Pentax scores 50 points lower, dipping into Unacceptable territory at 1070.
Due partly to the use of sealed, internal, non-protruding lens designs, both cameras exhibit visible wide-angle distortion at 1x, and both show slight pincushion at 2x and 3x. Underwater, in a world of organic shapes and forms, these lens imperfections are very minor; however, on dry land, both will show a little bit of smiling and frowning horizons, which get more pronounced the further away from center the straight lines are in the frame. It's not a fatal flaw with either camera, just something to be aware of when framing images with straight-line elements.
So no camera really blows the other out of the water in lab performance, but what about the real-world experience?
We're going to look at the camera's ergonomics, menu design, shooting modes, video, playback features, price, and underwater shooting experiences to pick a winner in PopPhoto.com's first underwater digicam shoot-out.
At 2.1 x 4.2 x 0.9 inches, the Pentax Optio W20 is slightly longer, not quite as tall, and a bit more thick than the 2.3 x 3.6 x .08 inch Olympus 720SW. Both cameras have 2.5-inch LCDs for both framing and playback, with no optical viewfinder option. The Pentax's internal focusing lens is centered in the middle of the front of the camera, while Olympus goes with the upper right corner design for its non-protruding lens (upper right when facing the front of the camera, that is). In the water, and even on dry land, Pentax's centered lens placement works better, because it is easy to get finger intrusion into the frame with the Olympus when holding the 720SW with both hands for stability. Additionally, the flash on the Olympus is located just to the left underneath the shutter button, and it is easy (especially for a person with big hands) to accidentally cover part of the strobe while shooting.
On closer inspection, the Olympus looks rugged after all. It's not only waterproof up to 10 feet; it's also shockproof and can handle a drop or two with no damage. Three small hex bolts on the front of the unit hint at the camera's toughness. This is one rugged and solidly built camera. All the buttons are water-sealed and have a satisfying amount of resistance without feeling sticky or overly damped. But until you get a proper feel for the camera it can be difficult to determine whether the slim shutter button is engaged at half-press for focusing without pressing all the way for capture. To the right of the LCD are the control buttons. Two small buttons behind the shutter that act like a toggle switch for wide and telephoto focusing select focal distance. Beneath the zoom toggles are two tiny buttons. The top controls the camera's shooting mode program, digital anti-shake, or scene modes. The lower switches the camera into playback mode. To the right of these is the speaker grill.
Below these buttons is the smaller-than-a-dime multi-controller array, which controls many different functions depending on shooting or playback mode. The silver-on-silver etched function symbols can be difficult to see, particularly underwater. Below the multi-controller are two more tiny buttons which call up the menu or for direct-from-camera printing. Changing settings on this camera underwater can be a challenge due to the small buttons and multi-controller.
The Pentax, on the other hand, has a wider shutter button that has a better finger-feel at half-focus. Opposite the Olympus, the Pentax has a true toggler for zooming, but splits its multi-button array into five distinct, and slightly more spread out, clear rubberized buttons with black icons beneath the rubber seal. Above the array to the left is the Green Mode (all-auto shooting) and playback button, and below to the left is the menu button. Due to the larger rubbery buttons on the multi-controller, it is easier to switch camera settings and modes while swimming with the Pentax, which is a good thing because Pentax has buried some useful image quality settings such as exposure compensation and ISO speed deep in the menus.
Both cameras are compact enough to not impede swimming when held in the hand, and care should always be taken when handling the cameras in the water; neither floats, so be sure to use the supplied wrist straps.
Neither camera has an optical viewfinder, so the similarly sized 2.5-inch LCDs are the only framing option. While both have brightness controls to gain up the screen, it can be a challenge to see the LCD in the best snorkeling conditions -- when the sun is high and shining down on the water. With both cameras, there are times when the best thing to do is to eyeball your subject with the camera held at arm's length and try to take as many shots as possible, hoping that at least one turns out OK.