Review: Dive deep with 3 underwater cameras

These digital cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and SeaLife don't mind a dunking.

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Olympus Stylus 1030 SW

Thin yet solid, attractive yet rugged, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is truly a design marvel. The beauty of the 1030 SW put the other two devices I tested to shame. Its chrome finish made it easy on the eyes and its beautiful 2.7-in. LCD display made viewing targets underwater both simple and convenient.

Unlike the other cameras, which are specifically designed for underwater use, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW (according to the literature) can be submerged in 33 feet of water, dropped from 6 feet in the air onto a concrete surface, survive in 14-degree weather and withstand 220 pounds of pressure. In fact, while I was getting ready to submerge the Olympus, I accidentally dropped it on a concrete walkway from eye-level -- about 6 feet high -- and was surprised to see not one scratch or ding on the surface.

underwater cameras
Olympus Stylus 1030 SW

Underwater, things also went well. Unlike the other devices, which feature buttons in awkward spots, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW puts all the main buttons -- power, zoom, capture -- in convenient locations on the top and back where they're easily accessible.

Snapping stills is where the 1030 SW shines. After comparing shots, I was gratified by how much detail the 10.1-megapixel camera was able to capture. When I took pictures of the rings, the camera was able to show the grooves along the side and even captured the screw holes toward the bottom. And with its ability to accurately capture light and shadows without a hitch, I was quite happy with its performance in well-lit areas.

That said, I wasn't too happy with how well it was able to recreate the detail of the shark lying at the bottom of the pool. Unlike the rings, which were submerged in a well-lit area, the shark was at the bottom of the deep end and not as much light was getting through. Without the help of the light, the camera started to lose its ability to capture a high-quality image and some of the detail was lost.

Video capture on the shallow end of the pool was adequate, but not nearly as appealing as that produced by the Panasonic SDR-SW20. That said, as a device that's specifically designed with stills in mind, I didn't expect too much from the Olympus' video capabilities.

I took two videos -- one from a longer range and one from a closer range. The camera was able to capture the sunlight breaking through the water relatively well.

After dropping the rings into the pool, I recorded their descent. The 1030 SW responded well and was capable of reproducing the action without a hitch. But in terms of detail, the camera was woefully behind its competitors. Not only did it fail to capture some of the finer areas of the pool, but also the image looked slightly off-color and noticeably rough.

The Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is a fine underwater camera that can do more than any other device in this review. If you're looking for something with superior video capture though, this probably isn't for you. But if you don't mind subpar video and would like to hand this to the kids without worry of damaging it, the $400 price is well worth it.

Olympus Stylus 1030 SW
The Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is great in well-lit areas, but without the help of the light, some of the detail was lost.
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