Waterproof cameras are becoming more and more popular these days, with models available from most major manufacturers. These cameras offer protection from the elements in the form of dust-proofing, water-proofing, and impact resistance. Since 75% of broken cameras are the result of a drop or dunk, this kind of protection is worth it--especially on a beach vacation or when lounging by the pool.
Today we'll take a look at five models that are highly regarded by actual users - the Nikon AW100, Panasonic TS3, Panasonic TS4, and Sony TX10. All offer similar protection from the elements and all cost $400 or less from major resellers. The differences between them, however, are bigger than you might think.
This article has been replaced by a newer version. Please click through to the August 2012 Best Waterproof Camera Shootout.
BEST WATERPROOF CAMERA:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4
12.1 MP, $329 (more specs)
The new TS4 is a TS3 with a better GPS system, in-camera panoramic stitching, a time-lapse shooting mode, and slightly sharper pictures by default. Other than that, the two cameras are largely identical. Both sport the same 12-megapixel and excellent water, dust, and shock protection. Both cameras smoke the competition when it comes to image quality and ease of use.
The TS4 and TS3, while more similar than different, are separated by a price gap of almost $100. The new TS4, at $329, is the more fully-featured camera, while the TS3 has great image quality at a bargain price. For the time being, the TS3 is still being sold, though it won't be for long. If you don't need the TS4's improvements, there's no reason not to save a few bucks and pick up the TS3. For this reason, both cameras will bear our Best Camera award until the TS3 goes off the market. Read more about the Panasonic TS4.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3
12.1 MP, $239 (more specs)
The Panasonic TS3 wowed us with its superb image quality, easy-to-use menu system, high-quality lens and overall intuitive design. The TS3 has the lowest megapixel count in the shootout, but our response to this is a hearty "so what?"
The TS3 takes great pictures. What's more, it has the best water, dust, and shock protection ratings of any camera in the shootout, which is of special importance in this category. It has the fastest for quick shooting, making it a great snapshot camera for fast-moving objects, like small birds and small children. The menu system makes the camera easy to use, so there's never a struggle to get it to do what you want. That combination is hard to beat. Panasonic's own TS4 has some additional features, but there's a price gap that makes the two cameras appeal to different consumers, so both will remain on the list until the TS3 is no longer available. Read more about the Panasonic TS3.
Third Place Tie:
16.2 MP, $289 (more specs)
The TX10 will appeal to a different sort of person than the TS3 and TS4 will. This tiny point-and-shoot is truly pocketable in a way that the other cameras can't match. Its all-metal body is sleek and streamlined; nothing sticks out that would catch or snag. The 5x is the highest quality of the bunch, showing remarkably little distortion. Image quality is close to the TS3. What keeps it from the top spot is its capacitive touch screen and lack of controls, which make it difficult to use as an underwater camera -- something the other two models are much better suited for. The sliding cover also has the potential to trap sand or dirt.
All in all, the TX10 is good for the user who wants a point and shoot with a built-in insurance policy, rather than a dedicated underwater camera. If that's what you're looking for, it's a great little machine. Read more about the Sony TX10.
Canon PowerShot D20
12.1 MP, $349 (more specs)
The Canon PowerShot D20 is Canon's first ruggedized camera since the D10, released in 2009. The D20 is a big step up from that model, with a larger screen, new lens, new sensor, and entirely new case. The design should appear somewhat familiar, despite the smooth and streamlined case; it uses the same lens placement and general control scheme as the TS4, TS3, and AW100. Its menu systems can be confusing, which detracts from its excellent picture quality, while its waterproof case can be difficult to open. Despite these flaws, the D20 is a solid performer and a good choice for someone who wants a tough waterproof model that can stand up to the elements. Read more about the Canon PowerShot D20.
16 MP, $300 (more specs)
Despite being the newest camera in the shootout and having the best video modes, the AW100 leaves a lot to be desired. A noisy focus motor limits its usefulness for video. It has the longest zoom range, but a subpar lens adds softness to corners and is prone to lens flare much more so than the other cameras. The menu system can be difficult to navigate, as well. The overall experience is one of frustration, which is not endearing in what is meant to be a snapshot camera. While Nikon has made some amazing cameras over the years, this is not one of them. Read more about the Nikon AW100.