Olympus’ TOUGH camera line pioneered the rugged digital camera, pairing waterproof bodies with shockproof exteriors that can take a beating and keep clicking away. The first TOUGH models appeared in 2007, and since then have consistently gotten sturdier and cheaper as other manufacturers released their own hardy models. After lackluster performance from last year’s TG-810 and TG-610, Olympus has revamped the lineup to up the competition once more.
The TG-820 digital camera replaces last year’s TG-810, but actually represents a sidestep rather than a straight upgrade. Gone are the stereo microphones and GPS of the TG-810, with these higher end features reserved for the new, more expensive TG-1. The TG-820 does get the latter’s 12 megapixel backlit CMOS sensor and 1080p video recording, however, and should output better images in lowlight than its predecessor. Most notably, the TG-820 sits at a full $100 less at release than either the TG-810 did or TG-1 does now, making it an appealing ultra-rugged option for those on a budget. Image quality has been Olympus’ greatest failing in the past, so hopefully the new sensor carries the TG-820 to good marks.
Body and Design - Olympus TOUGH TG-820
Admittedly, we didn’t drop the TOUGH TG-820 from six feet to determine whether it could survive the fall, but build quality undoubtedly suggests it would fare just fine. The camera is made up of a combination of both brushed aluminum and plastic, together yielding an exceptionally strong construction. The TG-820’s body doesn’t bend in the slightest, and its boxy design exudes durability. We’d be hesitant to label this camera “stylish” (especially when compared to Sony’s waterproof offerings), yet the utilitarian build suits the target market, outdoor enthusiasts who need a worry-free camera. As for size, it’s small enough to fit in a pants’ pocket could be just a tad thinner. Panasonic’s TS20, which we reviewed a couple months back, strikes a great balance between size and durability that Olympus should try to emulate. Olympus’ more-expensive TG-1 is even larger than the TG-820, which is a bit worrisome.
As with all waterproof cameras, the lens on the TG-820 is housed within the body and doesn’t extend when the camera is turned on. It rests in the top right corner of the camera, with the flash resting almostdead-center. The lens, a 5x optical zoom starting at 28mm and ending at 140mm, is a slow f3.9-5.9. If you were looking for a real wide-angle or a fast lens, you’ll want to look at the more expensive TG-1. There’s a little bit of a stippled metallic grip on the left of the camera for your fingers to curl around, but it’s not much. At the top of the camera lies the On/Off button, the shutter button, and an unconventional zoom toggle that zooms in when pressed right and out when pressed left.
The back of the camera features a very high-resolution 3-inch 1.03 million dot LCD. The normal shooting view leaves black bars on the right and left of the screen, for it’s not 4:3, and video shooting leaves barson the top and bottom. To the right of the screen lies a metal grip that also encompasses the record button and wrist strap. Underneath that lie a Playback button and then a Joystick that operates as a 4-way controller would, with OK button in the middle. There aren’t any quick options tied to each direction, however, with all shooting options buried in the shooting menu. Beneath this setup is the Menu button and finally a Guide mode button that provides answers to common problems and will change settings if you find the answer you’re looking for.
User Experience and Performance - Olympus TOUGH TG-820
The TG-820 is mainly run through the shooting menu, which you navigate using the joystick. The top level of the menu provides access to Program Auto, iAuto, Scene Modes, Magic Filters, Beauty Mode, and Panorama Mode. Each mode selection changes the options displayed vertically below it on the screen.Program Auto provides access to the most settings, including flash settings, macro, the self-timer, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, continuous burst, and resolution. iAuto chooses from the scene modes automatically and, like most of the other modes, limits your fiddling to the flash and self-timer. The 22 scene modes include the usual array of portrait, HDR (below right), landscape, low-light, and pet but also include a few different settings for capturing good underwater photos. Whether or not you’ll be willing to switch back and forth between these and the above-water modes after each underwater dive is another question. Panorama mode takes up to three photos, which can be captured automatically as you pan or manually. The camera will then take its time combining the photos, although it was prone to mistakes.
If you’re into specialty filters, the TG-820’s Magic Filters are where you’ll want to spend your time. With such varied effects as Pop Art, Miniature, Drawing, Watercolor, Fish-eye, Punk, Dramatic, and Sparkle, there’s almost no end to the creations this camera will output. For further experimentation, Beauty Mode offers a truly extensive in-camera skin retouching dialogue for more “professional”-looking portraits. The options here are truly astounding and generally work pretty well; you can remove skin blemishes, brighten skin tone, add extra eyelashes, change eye color, and even add lipstick and blush to your subject. Your female friends will love it, the males not so much. Results can look over processed and fake with too much work, so try to use some restraint. Note that all the specialty modes limit the camera resolution to a compressed-looking 5 megapixels and stall the camera while it processes effects.
Autofocus and shot to shot times are impressively fast on the TG-820. The autofocus never takes longer than a second to find focus, and oftentimes was much faster than that. Speed doesn’t mean accuracy, wedid have some misfocused shots of fast subjects, but you would be hard-pressed to find a compact with much better performance. The camera also turns on and off with a solid thwack of the metal sliding cover over the lens, ready as soon as you are. The camera did manage to turn itself on occasionally while pocketed, a problem that’s harder to catch when the lens doesn’t extend. We measured the normal full-resolution burst mode at 5 fps, but if you need faster the camera will shoot up to 60 fps at a reduced 3 megapixel resolution.
While the lens zoomed fast enough, the zoom control lever and navigational joystick both presented usability issues. Both are finicky switches that don’t give the tactile feedback of a button press. The joystick especially doesn’t differentiate enough between directional movement and compressing in the center to select; it’s easy to accidentally hit OK when you meant to move the cursor up or down. These problems are only magnified when submerged, when it becomes close to impossible to change the magnification or settings. Without a real handhold, the camera moves around and the joystick is easy to hit. After coming up for air the camera settings had oftentimes been inadvertently changed by the protruding joystick. These are definitely issues that Olympus should address in future models, but are relatively minor problems on an otherwise very responsive and easy to use camera.
Image Quality - Olympus TOUGH TG-820
Initial impressions of the TG-820’s image quality are a bit mixed. Olympus has chosen to make the images pop, and in so doing has boosted contrast and sharpness to garish levels that spoil images. It’sdifficult to achieve “natural” looking photographs with the TG-820, with most appearing over processed and a bit fake. Blacks tend to block up unpleasantly and sharpening halos ring high-contrast edges.
These issues are a real shame, too, because it’s clear that behind all the processing is a very capable sensor. The TG-820 easily beats the recently reviewed Panasonic TS20 at both low and high ISOs and retains accurate color and detail through ISO 800 and even 1600 in a pinch. ISO 3200 is too smudgy for our taste and color swings wildly at ISO 6400, but from studio results alone the camera reveals its wasted potential. While it trounces most cheaper and even some more expensive cameras in these tests, the real world samples remain unconvincing.
It would be nice if the lens started at something wider than 28mm, but at least the TG-820’s is mostly sharp. Distortion at wide-angle is the most glaring problem, with subjects bending haphazardly even when not particularly close to the edges. The extreme corners aren’t great, either, but overall detail is quite good (albeit oversharpened). Flare can be a problem if the sun is in the frame, but chromatic aberrations are very well controlled.
Video, while supposedly 1080p, is undoubtedly the TG-820’s weakest point. Footage is pixelated and the mono sound is muddled. It’s possible to zoom while recording but the motor is clearly audible.
Conclusion - Olympus TOUGH TG-820
The search for the perfect waterproof digital camera moves on once more, for despite its impressive performance the TG-820’s image quality misses the mark. There’s undoubtedly value to having a go-anywhere camera like those in the TOUGH series, and it was a lot of fun playing with its underwater capabilities, but the sacrifice in image quality isn’t worth such versatility. Aggressive sharpening and contrast taint otherwiseimpressively clean files, rendering most photographs with an unnatural pop. The TG-820 actually produces cleaner files on the pixel level than many cameras, but even the $150 cheaper TS20 takes more natural-looking and pleasing photos. Olympus has also removed key features, like a stereo microphone and GPS, which other manufacturers include at about the same price point. Despite its rugged ratings, the TG-820’s lackluster image quality, missing features, and finicky controls swamp an otherwise functional and promising camera.
If you can spend the extra cash, the Nikon AW100 digital camera is currently the waterproof top dog with strong image quality, a built-in GPS, and similar rugged ratings. If not, Fujifilm's XP150 (or the new wireless XP170) offer the most direct competition to the TG-820 although can be unreliable. The cheaper Panasonic TS20 is also well worth a look, offering better image quality at great price.