With the first signs of spring already cropping up in many parts of the country, our thoughts turn to that most hallowed of American institutions: the beach trip. If you've ever witnessed what happens to ordinary digital cameras that come into contact with too much sand and saltwater, however, you'll understand that your vacation can be just as terrifying for your camera as it is relaxing for you. Thankfully, if you're willing to fork over the slightly higher-than-average cost, a couple of weatherproof compacts are just the thing to keep your prized DSLR or ultrazoom pristine and bring home some vacation snapshots at the same time.
In this "vacation edition" of Head to Head, we'll put two similarly priced, 7.1 megapixel waterproof compacts – the Olympus Stylus 790 SW and the Pentax Optio W30 – up for comparison. As always, what follows is a side-by-side look at these two devices based on information and images from our reviews and impressions.
Sophistication and Style
Though the Stylus 790 SW has recently received an update (by way of the slightly better speced and more expensive Stylus 850 SW), the 790 still appears to be more widely available at the moment and offers a better stylistic, functional, and budgetary counterpart to the Pentax offering. In terms of overall look and feel, the 790 wears the same basic appearance seen on previous models in this line, and offers the same high-quality build.
In testing the 790 last October, DCR reviewer Howard Creech described the camera as "super durable" and "built like a tank," praising the Olympus for the rugged feeling and dashing good looks of its all-alloy construction.
Out back, the 790 sports a standard Olympus control arrangement that includes a physical mode dial (rather than button-based selection) and a large HyperCrystal LCD.
At a fair bit less than an inch thick, the Stylus has sophisticated shirt pocket styling down. Given its size and weight, the Olympus is an imminently portable, imminently pocketable camera, making it ideal for snapshooters on the go who want to be able to bring a camera along and not think much about it. The control arrangement has the look and feel, in terms of fit and finish, of a well-made camera, and if fun and hip is more important than sleek and sophisticated, the Stylus also comes in a range of metallic colors.
Visually, the all-aluminum Pentax Optio W30 is a bit more of an odd duck. The lens, plopped right in the center of its candy-bar shape, looks strange for a land-going camera but makes perfect sense for underwater use in that it's much harder to accidentally cover the lens (especially when shooting two-handed).
Buttons on the W30 are more what you might expect from a waterproof camera, with a slightly tough to press, sticky feel.
The Optio's overall styling is also a little more dated looking in my opinion – more "basic camera" than "fashion camera." While this probably won't be a deciding issue for those choosing one of these cameras exclusively as a waterproof device, users looking for a compact camera that's also waterproof may (if they think like me at least) find the Stylus more modern feeling and visually compelling.
In my mind, the Stylus carries the day in this category, then, with its top-notch build quality, attractive look, and excellent compactness making it equally at home in or out of the water.
Advantage: Olympus Stylus 790 SW
Features and Specs
Given that we're talking about far and away the two most prevalent waterproof cameras on the market, both cameras in this comparison share the one feature that brought many consumers to them in the first place: both are waterproof to 10 feet/3 meters (the Olympus for up to 1 hour, and the Pentax for as long as 2). As we've said before in discussing these cameras, think of them as "snorkel," rather than "scuba," picture takers. If you need more depth, it's time to go the generally much more expensive route of putting a regular camera in a waterproof housing instead.
Both devices are also sealed all around for dust as well, making them equally suited to a day of surf and sand. The Olympus also adds freeze- and shock-proofing, however, meaning that the Stylus can survive a fall of up to 5 feet and temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. For general outdoor/adventure use, then, the Stylus proves a touch more versatile.
In an odd turn for a camera comparison, we've haven't even come around to the picture-taking specs of these two models. As noted, both cams bring 7.1 megapixels of effective resolution to the table. The Stylus and the Optio also wear nearly identical internally contained 3x (38-114mm) zooms, though the Optio's lens is just a touch faster on the aperture side. Neither camera features optical/mechanical image stabilization, so the playing field is level in that important area. Likewise, both cameras are limited to auto, scene, or program mode shooting only.
Moreover, these cameras are so close to functionally identical that the difference between them in this area really is a hair's breadth. With its shock- and freeze-resistance, the Olympus does just a little more as a camera for general outdoor/adventure use; if this doesn't matter to you, in terms of the specs sheet these cameras are about as close as it gets across brands.
Advantage: Olympus Stylus 790 SW (by a nose...)
Ease of Use
The Stylus 790 seems to do better than some Olympus models of late in terms of menu structure and ease of use, comparing favorably with Pentax's slightly more basic looking but generally very accessible interface. With fewer buttons and a slightly more familiar layout, the Pentax control setup is probably just a touch more intuitive for most shooters.
One surprising disappointment for the Stylus was the lack of adequate glare control for sunny outdoor shooting on its otherwise superior 230K-dot (the Pentax sports a much grainier 115K unit) 2.5-inch LCD. For cameras nearly purpose designed for use on the beach, both models are slightly hamstrung by the omission of an optical viewfinder for shooting in extremely bright light, and neither comes equipped with an exceptionally bright display. While the Pentax proved difficult at best during bright daylight testing, Olympus's choice of reflective coating on the 790's monitor makes it "virtually impossible" to see anything on screen.
Overall, given the limited applicability of a waterproof camera in indoor shooting situations, this poorly considered decision puts the Olympus at something of usability disadvantaged in its natural environment.
Advantage: Pentax Optio W30
Thin cameras with small optics coupled inside "periscope" zoom arrangements don't tend to promote superior edge-to-edge sharpness as a rule, and it seemed likely that optical performance would be the primary limiting factor. While the W30 lacks super sharp optics or great processing (colors lack much vibrancy at times, and some strong sharpening halos make an appearance in several shots), the 790's overall softness and extreme edge softness are below even the relatively low expectations set for cameras of this kind.
Similarly, the W30 can boast particularly impressive high ISO performance, but a comparison of night shots and crops at ISO 400 shows a smoother, more film-like grain appearance in the Pentax's shot. By contrast, noise speckling turns solid color areas into something of a mess, even at this relatively low sensitivity.
Olympus Stylus 790 SW, ISO 400 (view large image)
Pentax Optio W30, ISO 400 (view large image)
For more sample images and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, check out our full reviews:
Advantage: Pentax Optio W30
Price and Value
Given the strong similarities across the board between these two cameras, it's hard to see that it would make sense to pay much more for one versus the other. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, brick-and-mortar stores seem to be listing both models right around $300 with very little variation. At the moment, you can score a couple of great deals on the Stylus if you're willing to settle for the silver version, but color options are apparently a premium-price offering – the blue version of the 790 costs a rather steep $50 more than its silver counterpart at more than one of the same retailers referenced above.
Overall, then, the Olympus, with its somewhat wider availability, is able to edge the Pentax more consistently in price wars, but only if you're a savvy shopper with a preference for silver (then again, the W30 only comes in silver anyway).
Advantage: Olympus Stylus 790 SW
Above all else, a critical look at the current kings of the waterproof world suggests that there's an appreciable price to be paid for the luxury of being able to take your camera for a swim. While the 790 SW and the W30 are both acceptable performers as compact/ultracompact cameras go, there's no question that $250+ buys you a lot more camera in the rest of the compact market, in terms of performance, features, and image quality. The lack of image stabilization on either offering is certainly a disappointment, and a little better image quality all around would go a long way toward making it easier to choose one of these models as your one and only compact camera. Unfortunately, the design restrictions imposed by waterproofing make this a difficult hurdle to clear.
Assuming price was the same (which seems to be, in general, a fair assumption most of the time), I'm honestly still unsure which choice would more easily separate me from three Ben Franklins. The Pentax has an IQ and usability edge that makes it seem a little more practical, but the Olympus is definitely the build quality champion and beauty contest winner of the two. With features and performance that match up well blow for blow in almost every conceivable way, if you're looking for a water-tolerant digicam for documenting your summer fun, it seems like you really can do alright either way.