By David Rasnake and Kevin O'Brien
These days, the challenge in rugged and waterproof cameras isn't finding one that takes good pictures: with so many manufacturers getting in on the action and technologies improving all the time, the ability to take album-quality family snapshots, at the very least, with a camera that you can drop, dunk, and generally expose to the elements is assumed. Rather, these days the real challenge comes in getting this excellent performance in a rugged, outdoor-ready camera at a price that doesn't break the bank.
That's where the Olympus Stylus Tough-6000 comes in. Olympus has been offering up shockproof, waterproof, and generally "lifeproof" (to steal a term from their own marketing) compact cameras for a long time – long before relative newcomers like Canon and Panasonic got in on the action. And Olympus is hoping that this experience in building active-lifestyle compact cameras – and, given the current state of the economy, doing so increasingly affordably – will pay dividends this time around.
With a 10 megapixel sensor and a 3.6x wide-angle zoom, the shockproof and waterproof Tough-6000 checks a solid list of technology "boxes." And with a retail price well under the $250 mark, the 6000 offers a lot of promise as an affordable ultracompact alternative for more adventurous shooters.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Unboxing the Tough-6000, we generally liked what we saw: Olympus has put together a compact, attractive digicam that plays on its "tough" image with mixed brushed metal and composite construction. At the same time, the 6000 doesn't have the overly cheesy, flashy, or generally tacky styling cues associated with many overtly ruggedized/waterproof models. And the fact that it's small enough to pack along in your pocket – coming in at roughly the same size as one of Canon's larger SD models – gives the Tough-6000 an additional advantage for on-the-go use.
So just how rugged is the Tough-6000? Packing the camera on a recent week-long bike trip, I was able to test Olympus's waterproof and shock-resistant claims first hand. The device survived a hard fall onto pavement without incurring so much as a scratch, and torrential rains didn't phase the camera either. Like some previous rugged Stylus models, there is a concern that the typical grit and grime that accumulates from time spent in the great outdoors can jam up the Tough-6000's shutter-style lens cover, but keep this area wiped down, avoid opening the gasketed covers when it's wet, and things should work out – dare I say it? – swimmingly.
Of course, Olympus wouldn't be Olympus without a non-standard turn or two in their design: although former partner Fujifilm has publicly bailed on the xD-Picture Card memory format (and Olympus has even shown signs of moving away from it with their latest launches), the Tough-6000 continues to cling to this irritating proprietary card type.
In fairness, as with all current Olympus models using xD, the 6000 comes supplied with an adapter for using a Micro SD card as well – which works fine until you forget both your xD card and the adapter, and are subsequently at the mercy of some rural convenience store that only stocks SDs. Then, the fact that the 6000 offers a respectable 42MB of internal memory (enough for about 10 highest-res/highest-quality captures) becomes important.
Ergonomics and Controls
Olympus designed the case for the Tough-6000 from the ground up with durability and ruggedness in mind. All ports and access panels are fully gasketed to prevent water intrusion, with the release clips mounted slightly recessed so you don't accidentally open one of them while the camera is in use. The case feels very durable in your hands, with no hint of flexing or creaking when you are holding it.
The plastics feel solid in combination with the stainless steel panels, although it is still comfortable to hold in your hand with the rounded edges. The camera uses a periscope style lens, instead of a telescoping lens which would make waterproofing much more difficult.
Basic controls are logical and obvious: there's a four-way controller with a center select button for navigating the interface. Basic shooting modes are selected from a six-position mode dial. A handful of dedicated buttons provide access to the menu and playback mode, toggle display settings, and engage a list of quick-access functions (via the mysterious labeled "OR" button, which stands for "Olympus Recommended"). Zooming is handled by a small but fairly comfortable toggle switch that sits on the back panel as well, leaving only the shutter release and power buttons on the top deck.
For controls that are a little less conventional, the Tough-6000 also carries over the Tap Control functionality first seen last year in Olympus's high-end rugged cameras. Sensors in the camera body allow the device to register taps on the physical surface of the device, and assuming you enable this function (either through a menu option, or by tapping the top of the camera twice), you can simply tap the right side of the camera to change flash settings or the left side to engage macro shooting. Tapping the screen sends the Tough-6000 into playback mode, and two taps on the top of the camera confirms on-screen selections.
Built to make a handful of basic functions more accessible in environments where menu wading is simply not practical (shooting in cold weather with thick gloves on, for instance) the Tough-6000's tap recognition system worked without incident for us – even underwater. Menu options allow you to configure the system to recognize firmer or lighter taps, adapting the interface to recognize taps when you're wearing thick gloves, for example. While it remains a nifty idea, though, I do hope that Olympus will expand this function in future models to let users select which options they'd like to be able to control using the system.
Menus and Modes
Olympus's menus are getting better by degrees, and the layout of the Tough-6000's heads-up menu – which provides adjustments for key settings like white balance and ISO – is easy to call up, easy to navigate, and makes basic adjustments easy to accomplish.
The master menu interface, however, is still a little bit awkward compared to many point-and-shoots. Pressing the Menu button calls up a main selection screen, which provides access to not only the setup menu, but also to sub-areas for selecting Panorama Mode, Silent Mode, or changing image quality settings.
While all of this couldn't have just been rolled up into the plain Olympus-style page menu that you get if you select the Setup icon is anyone's guess. It's not my favorite interface, and certainly not as logical as it could be; it's also, though, not as obtuse as the highly subdivided Stylus menus from a few years back, and albeit strange and (at times) irritating, the Tough-6000's interface isn't, on balance, trying enough to present a serious usability issue.
Basic shooting modes on the Tough-6000 are as follows:
One unique addition this time around is the inclusion of a Beauty Mode. Programmed to smooth out skin tones only (rather than softening the entire image), Beauty Mode functions like regular iAUTO mode unless a face is detected (and in fact, if one isn't, you'll get a "Face Detection Error" warning on-screen once the shot is captured).
The Tough-6000's 2.7 inch, 230,000 dot HyperCrystal III LCD is run-of-the-mill as displays go these days. That's not to say performance is disappointing, exactly, but we had a tough time seeing the screen in bright light for starters – a serious concern for an outdoor camera like the 6000. In terms of toughness, the display's protective cover stood up to everything we threw at it, and color and contrast reproduction were generally accurate in both shooting and playback modes. But the lack of adequate power from the display – even after maxing out its five steps of manual adjustability – is tough to overlook.
Unfortunately, shoot under indoor light with the Tough-6000 and other issues emerge. A combination display lag/AF issue seems to afflict the Stylus in even moderately dim situations (outdoors under heavy shade, for instance), causing the preview image on the screen to freeze, lag, blur, or exhibit a combination of the three. A noisy, blurry preview and display lock whenever the shutter release was half-pressed to engage AF make the 6000 especially frustrating – sadly, at times even nearly unusable – for shooting moving subjects in situations requiring ISO 1600 or higher.
While our overall impressions of the Tough-6000 are quite positive, these twin display concerns are almost certainly one of this model's most serious flaws, presenting usability challenges in both outdoor and indoor shooting situations.
Satisfied with the accuracy of Olympus waterproof, freezeproof, and shockproof claims, no question remained in our minds after a few weeks of testing that Tough-6000 itself would survive. But while this sort of ruggedization has traditionally demanded a lot of compromise in terms of how these devices perform as cameras, the fact remains that if you can't expect – at the very least – consistent, good-quality snapshots from a rugged camera, then its go-anywhere capabilities are largely a moot point. When it comes to camera performance, the rugged and recently reviewed Canon PowerShot D10 impressed us with its picture-taking capabilities, setting performance expectations for the Tough-6000 that much higher.
The Tough-6000's shooting speed was competitive if not impressive in our standard test, but in this case there's more to the story.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Pentax Optio P70||0.05|
|Olympus Stylus Tough-6000||0.06|
|Canon PowerShot D10||0.08|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.23|
|Canon PowerShot D10||0.36|
|Nikon Coolpix S230||0.51|
|Olympus Stylus Tough-6000
|Pentax Optio P70||0.87|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700
|Canon PowerShot D10||∞||1.2 fps|
|Olympus Stylus Tough-6000
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Shutter lag is nearly instantaneous: once the camera was focused, I never had trouble snapping the exact moment I was after with the usual amount of anticipation. Getting the camera focused in the first place, though, was often less than easy.
As our "ideal conditions" studio test reflects, the Tough-6000 sits toward the bottom of its class in the best of circumstances, and even under studio lighting focus lock sometimes took more than a full second to achieve. As noted previously, indoors in a dark room, press-to-lock times of several seconds were the norm – during which time, it should be reminded, the camera is frozen and unresponsive.
Very few digicams these days remind me of the "bad old days" of consumer digital photography, when acquisition times could be adequately measured in whole seconds. Sadly, if you want to take a walk down that particularly avenue of remembrance, the Tough-6000 will happily oblige: find a dimly room, a fast-moving subject, and watch the frustration unfold. Moreover, while we fully expect to see some performance differences between outdoor and indoor shooting, the difference between these two numbers in this camera's case – and the fact that ideal-condition performance wasn't stellar to begin with – are a solid step behind even an average competitor in this regard.
The bad taste that the 6000 left in our mouths after trying to use it as a general-purpose party/indoor snapshooter is unfortunate, because in most other ways the camera's performance met or exceeded expectations. There's a good collection of useful scene presets, and the Tough-6000's iAUTO mode was reliably good (again, assuming sufficient light). The auto mode's flash-happy tendencies, even outdoors, seem to be at least somewhat intentional, helping the camera smartly correct for strong backlighting in portraits and similar compositions.
Speaking of the flash, we found it to be a bit disappointing from a performance standpoint. Most exposures were exactly as expected, capturing evenly lit, slightly underexposed scenes.
We did experience the occasional, inexplicable seriously blown-out exposure when shooting indoors with the flash enabled, but more frustrating than this was the camera's slow flash recycle rate. Moderate-power recharges took seven to eight seconds in many cases, with a full-power burst taking more than ten seconds to recharge.
Battery life is rated at a modest 230 shots per charge using a proprietary lithium-ion pack. But in a rare occurrence, we actually found the Tough-6000 to not only live up to these expectations, but actually exceed them, in regular shooting. Olympus's web-published specs aren't obvious about what testing standard was used to arrive at this number, but after two charges that yielded more than 250 shots each, I'm satisfied that it's an accurate – and perhaps even a modest – representation of real world performance.
The Stylus Tough-6000's periscope-style internally contained zoom lens didn't leave us with particularly high expectations for performance. Range is a moderate 3.6x, covering the equivalent of 28-102mm (at a fairly typical f/3.5-5.1). We do like the fact, however, that you get decent wide-angle coverage for capturing more sweeping outdoor shots.
The camera's zoom controls react quickly to inputs, and nine steps between full wide-angle and full telephoto mean that you can fairly precisely frame out your compositions with this lens. Likewise, Olympus's trademark Super Macro mode sports a tested minimum focusing distance of right around a centimeter, and there's even a built-in (and blindingly bright) LED illuminator for use in macro mode or when shooting underwater.
The Tough-6000's ten element/eight group optic exhibits typical performance for a lens of this design: center sharpness is better than acceptable, with noticeable softening as you head toward the edges of the frame. Otherwise, performance was typical for a point-and-shoot, with some purple fringing evident in contrast boundary areas. Distortion was well-controlled at both ends of the zoom, with minimal barrel distortion at wide angle and equally minor pincushioning at telephoto.
All in all, even with Olympus's optical design skills at work, if you're expecting the level of sharpness you get from most current ultracompacts, the Tough-6000 will certainly seem to be a step behind. Remember, though, that you can't dunk your typical ultracompact in water, and some of the justifications for the Tough-6000's optical compromises make a little more sense.
Video capture on the Tough-6000 is limited to VGA quality (640x480) at 30 fps, but the fact that there's no HD video here will be offset for many by the fact that you can, in fact, capture video under water with this model.
As seen (and heard) above, Olympus has – unlike the Canon D10 we recently checked out – even gone so far as to provision the Tough-6000 with a mic, which leads to some interesting sound captures when shooting underwater, and should generally improve the camera's standing with most shooters when capturing video on dry land.
With a camera like the Tough-6000, the design expectation seems to be – and perhaps rightly so – that you intend to take photo-album family snapshots with this camera and nothing more. If that is indeed your aim, and if the Tough-6000's lagging performance doesn't turn you off, there's little to suggest that you'll be disappointed. For basic snaps, especially in good light, the Tough-6000 produces images that are colorful, vibrant, and contrasty.
Getting down to the details, however, serious shooters will find plenty of nits to pick with the Tough-6000's images. In our experience, one of the more frustrating aspects of this camera's output was its bizarre white balance behavior.
Tungsten White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
As seen above, under incandescent light using the incandescent preset, the output is excessively cool – a phenomenon we experienced not only in studio testing but in "real world" living room shooting as well. Likewise, auto white balance is characteristically (though not, it should be noted, excessively) warm under these same conditions. Ultimately, we often ended up finding the look of the AWB shots a little more true to life in many cases, though a manual/custom white balance setting option would have been a helpful addition in this case.
In terms of processing and detail capture, the 6000's 10 megapixel sensor gets the job done as well as many "dry land only" ultracompacts. At low ISOs, there's plenty of detail, and while some processing options (a vivid color mode at the very least) would have been nice, the output is both colorful and usable assuming you don't expect to make gallery prints.
ISO 50, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Things start getting messy by ISO 400, however, and by ISO 800 you'll have to be careful with print sizes if you're persnickety. ISO 1600 on the Tough-6000 looks more like ISO 3200 on many of the better small-sensor cams these days. It's still perfectly usable for web photos or even small prints, and Olympus preferences visible noise over detail-smearing noise reduction in this case. That said, there's some obvious desaturation occurring between ISO 800 and 1600 that makes high-sensitivity shots from this cam look especially flat and bland.
Additional Sample Images
Having just checked out Canon's new rugged point-and-shoot, the PowerShot D10, in summing up the Olympus Stylus Tough-6000 some comparisons are inevitable, and in this case, those comparisons largely yield a study in contrasts. The Tough-6000 is smaller, (significantly) more attractive, and better built than the Canon. It's also slower, heavier, and – with touches like xD memory and a slightly strange interface – quirkier than the straightforward D10. Quite a dilemma, indeed.
If you don't have delusions about the Stylus Tough-6000 becoming your one and only camera for family snapshots, you might just come away very satisfied with your choice. Used in its "native environment," for capturing photo-album shots in situations where it might get dropped or dunked, the Tough-6000 is an excellent performer, and its compact size and solid battery life are key advantages. Take it to a party or club, though, and the combination of lagging performance, slow flash recycle, and weak high-ISO output shows the 6000 to be more than a bit uncomfortable outside of its outdoor element.
At the end of the day, the Tough-6000 – which impressed us so much early on – left us feeling just a little disappointment after a month of testing. Maybe our expectations were too high. Regardless, it's a stylish, impressively solid little camera that handles itself well in the great outdoors. But for all of its adventure-photo advantages, the Tough-6000 is just a little too rough – or perhaps a little too tough – around the edges to be the all-in-one, general use answer we were hoping for.