Rugged cameras are getting tougher all the time. They can stand bigger falls, deeper water and more brutal temperatures. To test the true burliness of the newest crop, we threw four of the latest models into a backpack and headed out to the Tough Mudder adventure race at Mt. Snow in Vermont. With 10 miles of brutal terrain and more than 25 obstacles -- many of which involve being submerged in near-freezing water -- we were interested to see which cameras were still standing at the finish line.
As a note, we're going to be running all of these cameras through our Popular Photography test lab to get a scientific comparison of the image quality. That will be published in the future, so this review will focus primarily on usability and performance. Of course, IQ will come into play a little, but we prefer to go the scientific route for that.
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS
Just like the Optio W90 that came before it, the WG-1 makes no secret of its toughness. Not only did Pentax put a sticker on the front boasting its specs, but they went and printed some right onto the faceplate, which is the camera equivalent to a barbed wire tattoo. Luckily, it has the toughness to back it up.
Probably the biggest advantage the WG-1 had over it competition was, oddly enough, the strap. It comes with a rugged nylon band that attaches to a carabiner (a D-shaped clamp used by climbers for securing ropes and many hipsters for carrying their keys). The rest of the cameras in the test came with relatively wimpy bands that likely wouldn't survive a swim in choppy water, let alone a tumbling fall down a steep ski slope. Because of that strap, I kept the WG-1 clipped to the outside of my bag, which meant it got the most usage.
The overall layout of the camera is also fairly smart. The dipping top line makes for a secure, but comfortable grip, which is augmented by the slightly tacky coating applied to the body. It's light, but not too light and the flash is located on the far side of the lens, which means it's less likely to be blocked by a stray finger -- a problem that definitely affected a few of the other cameras.
The screen also seemed to be the toughest in the bunch. While the rest suffered a few minor scratches and blemishes, the WG-1's display remained fairly pristine, especially once the race was over and we wiped it down with the included cleaning cloth.
From a photographic standpoint, the WG-1 is about on-par with the average mid-range compact (more on that below) but it's quick to power up and there's very little lag when taking photos and recording video.
Like the Fujfilm, the WG-1 has no moving parts, which means lens protection is handled by a stationary piece of glass in front of the optics. While it does a good job on the protection front it also acts as a rather large target for finger prints, water droplets, mud spray and -- worst of all -- fog.
The WG-1 is also the only camera in the test that doesn't have a dedicated video record button. If you want to get to motion picture mode, you have to use the menu. Normally, that's not a deal breaker, but in an action-oriented camera like this, the extra seconds you spend shuffling through the menu might mean missing something truly awesome.
While the screen gets bonus points for its toughness, it takes a bit of a hit in the performance department. Viewing it in the harsh sunlight wasn't much of a problem, but it had the worst viewing angle in the bunch. Also, because of its extra-wide aspect ratio, the image on the screen is smaller than it could be. And while the Sony made good use of those black bars, the Pentax was less successful in doing so.
The WG-1, the Olympus and the Fujifilm were equipped with built-in GPS. All three worked very similarly, but it's a nice feature to have in a camera like this. We were able to upload the images to Aperture and check out the locations without a problem.
The internal image stabilization is also quite effective, augmented by how easy to grip the camera itself actually is. Even videos came out looking smooth despite the fact that the 720p HD video was a little more compressed than we would've hoped.
The five LED macro lights surrounding the lens are also a nice touch, but don't expect them to give off a ton of light. When they say macro, they really mean it, since the illumination effects will be pretty much negated after you move more than a few feet (at most) away. But, since the higher-ISOs seemed to show a fair bit of image degredation, that extra light might come in handy from time to time.
It's also worth noting that more than one person remarked about how much it actually kind of looked like a disposable camera. Personally, I think it's a bit of a stretch.
Waterproof: To a depth of 33-feet (tied for best in test)
Shockproof: From a height of 4.9-feet
Crushproof: Up to 220-pounds
Freezeproof: 14-degrees F
Screen size: 2.7-inches
Screen Resolution: 230,000 dots
Optical Zoom: 5X (28-140mm equivalent)