Pentax has been in the waterproof digital camera arena since 2005, if we don’t count the earlier water resistant models, with the release of the Pentax Optio WP. Megapixel counts have soared since that first 4.9 megapixel model, and waterproof cameras are now expected to be durable in addition to watertight. Pentax has struggled to maintain its lead in the category, and over the past few years offerings from Olympus and Panasonic have boasted more rugged ratings and better image quality. The WG-1, which came out last year, was Pentax’s attempt to revitalize the flagging waterproof line with a new, hyper-rugged and ostentatiously designed camera. While the new emphasis was welcome, the camera was flagged for missing shake reduction, noisy images, and fiddly controls.
The WG-2 GPS is their latest attempt to win back some market share, and this time they’ve really pulled out all the stops. The WG-2 is waterproof to 40 feet, shockproof from a 5-foot drop, crush-proof to 220 pounds of force, cold-proof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and dust-proof. While these features as well as the GPS and LED ring light are bound to appeal to outdoorsmen, Pentax has also switched the WG-1’s CCD sensor out for a shiny new 16 megapixel backlit CMOS sensor. This change should provide better images in low light as well as stunning 1080p video wherever your travels take you, but read on to see if it delivers.
Body and Design - Pentax WG-2
There’s little doubt upon handling the Pentax WG-2 GPS, a disappointingly large camera, that it means business. Although mostly made up of a grippy matte black plastic, the camera is reassuringly solid and the front is reinforced with bright orange metal plating. Unlike the Sony-inspired minimalist designs found on almost all cameras today, the WG-2 makes a show of the screws and gaskets that keep everything together. There’s no explicit grip on the front, but the slanted cuts throughout the plastic make it easy for your fingers to find purchase. These design elements make it appear as though the camera has suited up in armor for a medieval duel, a design choice we’re sure wasn’t lost on the marketing folks. While we weren’t about to test the limits of the WG-2’s durability (Pentax isn’t quite that indulgent), the build certainly seems hardy enough.
The visually busy front of the camera stands out mostly for the six LED lights that surround the lens. They are inlaid into an inwared-pointing ring that helps direct the lights toward a macro subject. The 5x lens itself is entirely housed within the camera body, typical for a waterproof camera, and zooms from 28-140mm at f3.5-5.5. The flash sits in the top right corner of the front plate.
The top of the camera houses a shutter button and On/Off button, as well as a hump above the flash for the GPS unit. The back of the camera features a 3-inch 460,000 dot 16:9 LCD screen with buttons arranged to the right. A small zoom toggle sits at the top of the back, with Playback button below and 4-way controller and OK button in the center. Below the controller sits a Menu button, a Face Recognition button, and the Green button. The battery and card sit in a compartment on the underside of the camera, and there’s also an HDMI output on the side. Also of note is that the camera doesn’t come with a standard wrist strap but rather a piece of webbing and carabiner. While some may find this useful, it’s extremely annoying to shoot with for normal snaps around town.
User Experience and Performance - Pentax WG-2
Pentax has opted to group scene settings and shooting modes all within one unpolished menu, which is accessed by pushing the Mode button on the four-way controller. There are two normal shooting modes, Auto and Program, in addition to a number of more specialized scene modes. These include the usual suspects of Flower, Macro, Night Scene, Kids, Pets, Fireworks, and Sports, as well as Underwater, Frame Composite, Report, and Digital Microscope. This last option, which is described, “Capture the bigger images of the closer objects,” actually gets remarkably close to the subject but does so at the expense of resolution (see left). It’s on images like these where those LED lights really come into their own, illuminating a subject just a millimeter from the front element. Pentax has also decided to shelve the video options in with these other modes, and as the camera doesn’t have a Record button you must manually switch between stills and video by menu diving.
Because the WG-2 doesn’t have a Quick Menu for changing shooting settings, Pentax has included the Green button to provide fast access to whatever it is you need. When pressed, the Green button brings up an on-screen completely customizable four-way controller. For example, you can have the up directional change contrast, the down modify white balance, the left adjust exposure compensation, and the right change focusing area. It’s a system that works quite well, although certain settings are grayed out in full auto mode.
It would have been nice if Pentax had allowed the user to map the Face Recognition button to another function too. It’s unlikely users will be changing this between pictures, and direct access to something like exposure compensation would have been a nice touch. The Green button is good, but necessitates two button presses to access your desired setting.
Shot to shot times are pretty poor on the WG-2 and autofocus, even in bright light, takes a second to lock on. The focus assist light really speeds up the process in lower light, but it doesn’t always turn on when it should. The continuous burst mode shoots about one picture a second, which barely qualifies as burst at all, and the faster 3fps option reduces resolution to a grainy four megapixels (see left). Menu operation and image review, on the other hand, are both fast and there’s absolutely no wait while scrolling through images in playback.
The WG-2's downfall is the physical controls. In their pursuit of ever-stronger and more impressive ratings, Pentax seems to have forgotten that people actually need to use this thing. The buttons are difficult to push and the zoom toggle is too fiddly for larger fingers. The shutter button is especially difficult to compress, resulting in blurrier images and distractingly jumpy beginnings and endings to video clips. Pentax hasn’t included shake reduction in the WG-2 either, a much-needed feature if they continue to use these same confounding buttons.
Image Quality - Pentax WG-2
Unfortunately, the new backlit sensor does little to help the WG-2’s image quality. Images are mottled and washed out throughout the ISO range, including the base ISO of 125. Blue skies appear grainy and fine details are frequently washed away by noise reduction smearing, even in bright sunlight. These smearing problems seem to plague some backlit CMOS sensors, particularly those starting at odd ISOs like 125, so we aren’t particularly surprised by the results. Images taken in the “Natural” mode are probably too muted for most people’s taste, too, so definitely turn the camera to “Bright” if you prefer some pop.
As the ISO ramps up the WG-2 actually holds its colors quite well, which don’t shift dramatically until ISO 6400. While the colors may look decent, the noise levels at ISO 1600 are too high for normal use and we suggest sticking to 800 or below. This mediocre noise performance paired with the relatively slow f3.5-5.5 lens and missing stabilization make low-light shooting one of the WG-2’s real weak points.
The camera’s lens didn’t impress much either, yielding sharp results in the center but noticeably blurred details toward the outer edges of the frame at wide-angle. Chromatic aberrations are commendably well controlled, even in dramatically backlit scenes, but flare was a real problem with streetlights or the sun in the frame.
Video quality on the WG-2 is lackluster as well, exhibiting severe compression artifacts along with very poor mono sound. You are able to zoom while capturing, but the camera uses digital rather than optical zoom, yielding out-of-focus and exceptionally grainy unusable footage.
Conclusion - Pentax WG-2
The Pentax WG-2 GPS offers little to recommend it over other all-weather cameras from the competition, and at its current price point is out-performed by models costing nearly $100 less. The camera’s controls are fiddly and frustratingly difficult to press, the image quality is unimpressive throughout the ISO range due to excessive smearing and drab colors, and autofocus and shot-to-shot times are relatively poor. The durability ratings are quite impressive, yes, but there are many models waterproof to 30 feet that will leave users much happier. Pentax has included fancy new features like GPS in the WG-2, yes, but has somehow forgotten to include something as basic as image stabilization. Despite the WG-2’s eye-catching design, ultra-durable ratings, and handy LED lights, this rugged camera is a tough one to recommend.
There are a couple other options for those looking for similar durability ratings in a much better camera than the WG-2. Olympus has recently fought its way back into the game with the TG-1 iHS, a similarly durable model that boasts an impressive f2-4.9 zoom lens and also has an LED light, making this the best option in the category. Also give the well-reviewed Panasonic TS4 a look, which is waterproof to 40 feet and currently selling far below the WG-2’s price point. Nikon’s AW100 is also worth a look. Although not rated to 40 feet, the AW100 has received glowing reviews and represents a real bargain for the features.