So, what's changed? Well, there's a new sensor -- 14 megapixels vs. the 8000's 12. There's a new lens -- it's slower, but has a longer zoom range, with a 5x range compared to the 8000's 3x. It takes HD video at 720p, something the 8000 couldn't do. It has added water and dust seals, and a clumsy but undoubtedly effective double-latch for the battery and memory card door. And speaking of the memory card, the TOUGH 8010 gets with the times and moves to SDHC for its storage needs, jettisoning the also-ran xD-card standard that the 8000 ran with.
These are all good things, but the question that I had going in to my weeks with the camera was this: does it take good pictures?
Build and Design
As you'd expect for a "TOUGH" camera, the 8010 is every inch the heavyweight contender. The body is made of solid metal, and while the camera is actually substantially lighter than its predecessor (4.3oz vs 6.4oz), it's still pretty heavy for a compact. The finish is all chrome, with exposed rivets and screws to really drive home the fact that this thing means business.
Olympus claims the TOUGH 8010 can withstand drops of up to 6.6 feet, submersion of up to 33 feet, and temperatures as low as -10C (or 14F). Every opening on the body is sealed with a gasket or some other form of seal, including the aforementioned battery and memory card door, which has both a toggling latch and a rotating secondary latch for your extra special peace of mind. The lens cover is yet another piece of chromed metal, which slides purposefully out of the way when the camera is turned on.
It seems like Olympus intentionally designed the ergonomics to emphasize the ruggedness of the camera. The buttons on the rear and top are tiny and distinct, easy to find in a hurry if not the most comfortable to use.
Performance and User Experience
The operating system on the TOUGH 8010 both looks and sounds like a Nintendo GameBoy UI, right down to the graphics and bleep-bloop sound effects. Using the camera's menus is a bit like taking a trip back to the early 90s, both in terms of the aesthetic experience and in terms of the menus' responsiveness, which is pretty abysmal.
Start up time is slow by industry standards, with an Olympus splash screen hanging on for a few seconds before giving way to the LCD viewfinder. Along the right side of the screen, a series of icons give an indication of the menu settings you can change. The camera defaults to Program mode, which is essentially as close as it gets to manual shooting. Here you can change the flash settings, toggle the macro mode, set the self-timer, adjust the exposure compensation, change the white balance, set the ISO, and select continuous shooting. There is no way to manually set the aperture or shutter speed. From this on-screen menu, you can also select a different shooting mode. These include Intelligent Auto (iAuto), Beauty, Panorama, Magic Filter, and Scene, which automatically detects the kind of scene you're shooting and adjusts the various settings accordingly.
Annoyingly, while these menu selections can be accessed at any time, there's no way to directly access the deeper Setup menu, where you control things like image size, compression level, shadow adjust, autofocus mode, image stabilization, and so on. To get to these options, you have to page through the already-on-screen menus and then select the option to go to the Setup menu. There's a dedicated Menu button on the rear of the camera, so this is a bit baffling.
Shooting is a pretty straightforward affair. You aim, you set your zoom level, you shoot. Shutter lag is a bit high, but not completely out of line for a compact. Images take their time in coming up for review after you shoot, and you cannot zoom in on an image during the five-second review period. You have to wait for this period to pass, for the screen to go back to live view, and then hit the playback button. It seems like a small thing to complain about, but in practice, for someone who's accustomed to checking sharpness and fine contrast, etc, on the fly -- it's a real drag.
Video recording is a pretty idiot-proof experience. There's a dedicated record button (the one with the big red dot) on the rear. Pressing it takes you out of whatever mode you're currently in and sets the camera to recording moving pictures. The camera takes a few seconds to make this transition, which could be a problem if you're trying to react quickly to catch something ephemeral, but once it does it begins recording immediately. When you're done recording, simply hit the same button to end the video and the camera will return to stills-shooting mode after a brief pause.
Unfortunately, April is a bit too cold for rafting here in northern New Mexico, and I don't have a pool, but I did go for a hike near the Santa Fe River and managed to take some underwater-looking-up shots. I dropped the camera into the water, dropped it on the carpet in my office from eye-level (about six feet), showed it Freddy Got Fingered, and generally treated it like it was a very bad boy. In short, it fully lived up to its billing as shockproof, waterproof, and cold-proof. It's one tough customer.
Based on my experience with the TOUGH 8000, I knew the 8010 wouldn't wow me. I was hoping that with the new sensor and lens combination there might be the outside chance of a surprise, but in the end the results from the new camera were virtually indistinguishable from those of its predecessor, if not a little worse.
Sharpness is okay on close-focus objects and gets progressively worse on distant subjects. Color rendition is fairly neutral, and the camera doesn't seem to over-do the contrast, which is nice to see from a consumer point and shoot. Image noise is apparent even at base ISO, though it's manageable until about ISO 800 and up. JPEG compression is pretty nasty even at the "Fine" compression setting, and of course there is no option to shoot RAW. Shooting into the light produces severe ghosting and chromatic aberration, which is hard to eliminate in editing.
Video quality is okay -- not great. There are visible artifacts in the 720p video at the "Fine" setting, and the mic produces sound recordings that could at best be called adequate.
The TOUGH 8010 produces shots on par with the cheaper end of compact digital cameras -- cameras you'll find in the $120 range at Target or Wal-Mart. Some cell phone cameras are approaching this quality level, which makes the very existence of this category of point and shoot sort of tenuous.
The TOUGH 8010, however, costs about three times as much as those low-end cameras, which means that if you end up buying it you should do so for its build quality and go-anywhere nature rather than its image quality. You wouldn't want to dunk your iPhone in a river, but this thing will take it in stride.
Build quality is superb. That's all you can ask for from a camera that claims to be as tough as this one. Performance and image quality are a letdown, but in its price range, the TOUGH 8010 is a good performer. The only real competition comes from the Pentax Optio W90 and the Canon PowerShot D10. On the whole, these cameras suffer from the same issues to varying degrees. The only way to get substantially better go-anywhere image quality would be to buy a dSLR and a purpose-built waterproof shell for it, but the price here quickly skyrockets.
If you need waterproof, shockproof, and cold-proof in the sub-$400 range, this is it.