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Pentax Optio W10

Looks like a standard digicam, but you can take it into the water
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Now for something special: a waterproof camera that does not need a special underwater case. By "waterproof" I do not mean just "splashproof" or "weatherproof," but truly waterproof. You can take this camera underwater. And not just dunking it a little, but really taking it underwater There are limits, of course, but you may just be able to live with them. See, this camera carries an IP58 rating. IP stands for "Ingress Protection" and is an industry standard rating for how well a piece of equipment is protected against solids and liquids. The higher the numbers, the better. The first number represents protection against solids. A "5" means the device it protected even against fine dust. What matters most here is the second number. An "8" is as high as the liquid protection scale goes as it means the device is protected even when immersed in water. IP ratings are routinely used with rugged computer equipment, notebooks and handhelds used in the field. You rarely see them on cameras.

Can you take it diving?

So can you take the Optio W10 scuba diving? The answer is somewhere between "no way" and "it depends." That's because waterproof performance is limited to 30 minutes of continuous use at a depth of five feet. Most dives are obviously much deeper than that, and the bottoms of most swimming pools are, too. Yet, my guess is that Pentax's rating is probably on the conservative side, and the camera may well survive eight or ten feet, and that is definitely at least snorkeling if not shallow scuba territory, like some rivers and other shallow but interesting places. I wouldn't recommend pushing it, of course, as a single leak will probably destroy the camera.

Interestingly, you'd never know the Optio W10 was a waterproof camera just by looking at it. It looks just like your average compact digicam. Pleasant, if not exciting, styling. Matte-silver finish. And it measures 4.25 x 2.125 x 0.8 inches and weighs 5.5 ounces including battery -- just small enough to stick into a pocket. And certainly a whole lot handier than a camera in a separate underwater housing.

Not a compromise

As far as specifications go, the W10 does not compromise. It is a 6 megapixel camera that can also shoot at various lower resolutions. Movies can be recorded at 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 pixels with an anti-shake mode, and you can zoom in movie mode. For memory, the W10 uses an SD Card and there is also 10.5 MB of internal space. ISO sensitivity goes up to 800, there is the usual variety of white balance settings, and the 3X optical zoom can be digitally multiplied up to 12X. The 2.5-inch LCD is large and bright enough, but at 115k pixels doesn't have very high resolution. There is no optical viewfinder. There is also no manual control other than manual focus. Users can select from two dozen shooting modes that cover just about any situation and also include the movie and sound recording modes. Modes are selected by a somewhat cartoonish looking on-screen menu. The flash is tiny and has an effective range of 10-12 feet, if that. The 3.7 Volt 710mAH battery is retained by a slip so it won't fall out, and is rated at 240 pictures.

Controls are simple. On the top are the shutter and a slightly recessed on/off button. I am not terribly fond of this arrangement because even after years of shooting with digital cameras, every so often I push the wrong button. All other controls are on the backside, to the right of the screen. There is zoom rocker, a menu button, a button that toggle between record and playback, the usual multi-function four-way navigation diamond wher each of the four directional buttons also brings up a functions menu bar (flash, focus mode, drive/timer mode, and shooting modes). Finally, there is a "green" button that, when pushed, sets the camera to basic/standard mode. You can also assign three other menus to the green button. Pushing it repeatedly then toggles through the functions.

Waterproof functions

How did Pentax waterproof the camera and what do you need to observe? As stated above, at first sight you'd swear this was just an ordinary camera, but there are some differences. For obvious reasons, the 3X optical zoom is fully internal and the lens does not motor out when you zoom. The front of the lens is protected by glass (make sure that stays nice and clean!). The battery/card cover has a soft rubber seal/packing inside, and there is a lever to protect it from being opened accidentally. The manual warns against getting sand or water onto the packing as even a few grains may cause leaks. Also, it is recommended to have the seal replaced once a year. After use underwater, and especially in the sea, the camera should be rinsed off with tap water, or left in a bowl with clean fresh water for two or three minutes.

There are two special underwater camera modes, one for still pictures and one for movies. The manual doesn't reveal what special settings the camera uses in these modes, other than saying they "capture the blueness of the sea." Note that the camera is negatively buoyant, i.e. it sinks. So use the strap that comes with the camera and secure it to your hand when shooting with the Optio in the water.

Using the Optio underwater initially requires a leap of faith. I had planned to don my scuba gear and check it out at the bottom of my pool. That was a tad cumbersome and so I did the next-best thing, hit the rather cold pool with my ten-year-old son and snap pics of him diving. I put the camera underwater, having the awful feeling that it might die right then and there. It didn't. My son took it to the bottom of the pool, which is eight feet, and it was none the worse for wear. The snapshots came out nice, we had tons of fun playing with the camera in the water, and it was a cinch to dry it off afterwards (except for the carry strap that takes a lot longer to dry; they should have used a plastic or ntlon strap instead of fabric). Just make sure to look out for waterspots on the protective glass in front of the lens. If there are any, wipe them off as they'll impact picture quality.

Using it

Apart from its underwater tricks, the Optio W10 handles just like any other modern consumer digital camera. Controls are simple enough to rarely present any problems. I have never liked the liberal mix of icons, letters and colors camera manufacturers use to label controls - especially when even the fonts and typestyles are different - but perhaps that's what works best even if it isn't pretty or stylish. Whenever I use a digicam without an optical viewfinder I miss it, no matter how good or how large the LCD. As is, even on an overcast day I immediately found myself cranking up the brightness of the Optio's LCD to the max, which isn't good for battery life. And even that was marginal. That's not a criticism; it's simply the current state of affairs with LCDs.

And speaking of batteries, that's where we run into another design dilemma: consumers want their digital cameras as small and handy as possible because that's convenient. However, in order to make them small and handy, manufacturers have to forego standard AA batteries and use proprietary Li-Ion packs that are expensive to replace and need to be recharged, which certainly isn't convenient. I wish the industry could agree on a standard Li-Ion rechargeable which could then be bought for a few dollars at every drug store.

When shooting, you can set the LCD into four different modes: off, normal (includes basic info), histrogram and info, and no icons. In histogram mode, not only can you use the histogram graph to take better pictures, but too-dark portions of the picture blink yellow and too-bright portions red. Very useful.

The camera has a continuous shooting mode and a high speed continuous shooting mode (3 frames per second). There is also an interval shooting mode where you can set the number of pictures, the interval (between 10 seconds and 99 minutes) and even the start time (up to 24 hours in the future).

As far as picture quality goes, there are some compromises. I was excited about the ISO 800 sensitivity, but it really isn't that useful because images taken that way tend to be grainy. Also, the W10 is not a speed demon in any area. That is not inexcusable in what is, after all, a specialty camera. Unfortunately, speed and low-light sensitivity so happen to be important underwater.

The W10 has limited onboard editing functionality. You can resize, trim, apply one of nine filters, adjust brightess, eliminate red-eye, and add a frame. You can also add voice to any image, or record voice memos until memory is full.

Bottom line

If you hang around wet places a lot - pool, lakes, or even the sea - the Pentax Optio W10 is a great choice. Its sealing comes in handy under any circumstances. You never have to worry about a bit of rain or sand, or have it getting splashed on. And the ability to take pictures underwater is just priceless. The W10 immediately becomes a conversation piece around water because it looks like any other camera, and so people's jaws drop when you take it under!

While the Optio W10 does not replace a true underwater camera for scuba diving by any means, it can be used for some pretty heavy-duty photography in shallow water. Hey, there's a lot of interesting stuff at just five to ten feet! And while $299 is not inexpensive for a basic 6 megapixel camera, consider that most waterproof cases alone cost almost $200. Sure, they let you go deeper, but they also flood easier and they are less handy to use. Next time I go diving, the W10 comes with me.

We like:

  • A camera you can take underwater!
  • Still looks and handles like a regular digital camera
  • Very simple to use
  • Costs less than a camera plus a dedicated waterproof case
Not so much:
  • Five feet underwater not enough for real diving
  • Somewhat sluggish performance
  • ISO 800 mode too grainy

Specifications Pentax Optio W10
Status Added 10/2006
Camera Type Waterproof Compact (5 feet/30 minutes)
Size 4.25 x 2.125 x 0.8
Weight (oz.) 5.5 with battery
Effective Pixels 6.0 mp
CCD Type 1/2.5
Max pixel size 2816 x 2112
File formats JPEG, MOV, WAV
Compression Best, better, good
Movie recording (best) til full @ 30fps
Max movie pixels 640 x 480
Voice recording Record til full
Lens 11 elements, 9 groups
Focal length 6.3-18.9mm (38-114mm)
Zoom (optical/digital) 3X/4X
Aperture f/3.3 - f/4
Focus modes AF/macro/infinity/pan/manual
Focus minimum/macro 0.4 inches, 1.3 feet
Shutter speed 1/2000 to 4 sec
Sensitivity (ISO) auto/64/100/200/400/800
Autofocus system TTL contrast detection, 9-point (mutiple, spot, auto)
Metering TTL multi/center/spot
White-balance modes auto, 5 presets, manual
Shooting modes auto/24 modes
Exposure compensation +/-2EV in 1/3 steps
Viewfinder Type none
LCD size 2.5" LCD (115k)
LCD type outdoor viewable
LCD construction fixed
Flash type built-in
Flash range up to 12 feet
Flash modes 6
Camera internal memory 10.5MB
Storage Medium SD Card
I/O mini-USB/AV
Battery type Li-Ion D-LI8 (3.7V, 710mAH)
CIPA Battery life 240 images
List Price $299.95


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