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Olympus is our reigning champion for waterproof cameras and this year it has its eyes set on the prize once again. The new TG-850 (MSRP $249.99) is the successor to the TG-830 – because apparently TG-840 just didn't sound right. It brings a few new tricks and upgrades to what was a solid waterproof camera while lounging in the wake of the new flagship, the Olympus TG-3. The TG-850 may have fewer features than the TG-3, but it follows the same "tough" camera ethos: focus on being a good camera that happens to be able to survive the elements.
The TG-850 is not just a stripped down version of its big brother, the TG-3, it has a few tricks all of its own. Chief among them is an articulated 180-degree tilting LCD monitor, making it a rough, tough, selfie-taking machine. It really gives off the vibe of being the tough guy's version of the NX Mini, which isn't a bad thing—adventurers love selfies too.
We ran the TG-850 through our gauntlet of lab tests and put it to the test out in the field to see just how tough it really is. While it certainly stands up well to everyday abuse, it's only $100 cheaper than competing tough cameras. Is that discount enough to convince buyers to live with fewer features and questionable low light image quality?
The TG-850 is labeled as the “tough” camera that can go anywhere and do its job under (nearly) any conditions. The first word that came to mind when I took it out of the box was sturdy. It has a very compact and strong build to it, with absolutely no give or flex in the body. It's the first tough camera to feature a flip-up screen, and it's very securely built. A flip-out screen is always going to be a point of vulnerability, but when closed it should take as much abuse as the flagship Olympus TG-3. The back of the camera may be plastic, but it's not cheap “I might break at any moment” plastic, so that's nice.
Navigating the rear controls is simple and the camera only requires one hand to operate. All of the buttons have a rigidness to them, helping maintain grip on the controls even in wet conditions or even when entirely submerged. There is also a grip on the back for the thumb and on the front side for your right hand. A strong lanyard comes with it to round out the drop proofing of the TG-850. Olympus even offers a floating lanyard for purchase online; if you drop it with that attached, the TG-850 will float safely to the surface.
There's an obvious appeal to having a camera that can take a beating. I have a monstrous Otterbox Armor Series case on my iPhone 4s to get shallow underwater shots and it handles about as well as you'd expect—not well at all. The TG-850 feels much nicer, and despite being rated for greater depths, the TG-850 is actually almost two inches smaller than my iPhone when I have the case on it.
While shooting with the TG-850 I felt more like I was using a point and shoot camera that happens to be waterproof than a waterproof camera that can take a photo and or two. The tilt-screen really helped set it apart from all other underwater cameras I have shot with by allowing me to frame shots that normally take multiple images of hit-and-miss framing shots. Shooting underwater is hard enough as it is, the flip-out screen makes actually framing your shot much simpler.
We had high hopes for the TG-850 due to the success of Olympus with its flagship TG-2 and newer TG-3. However, it let us down on a few key areas that are some of the more important areas if you're using it in lowlight or underwater. It had solid noise performance until we hit ISO 800, after which it was hard to really pull any detail out of the images.
Since the TG-850 doesn't have any form of noise reduction control, you're left with post processing as the only way to do it. This is a bit of a disappointment if you're a diver looking to use it in deep or murky waters where there isn't as much light. It should do just fine if you're sticking to bright, shallow waters, but you'll still have the same cloudy, washed out color reproduction other waterproof cameras suffer from.
The TG-850 offers users three full resolution drive modes and two "burst" modes that shoot only 3-megapixel images. While shooting at full resolution, the TG-850 tops out at 6fps for six images. If you flip over to burst mode—again only 3MP—you can hit numbers as high as 60fps for 60 images. The burst modes, with shots being only 3MP, are rather useless for anything other than the web. We recommend sticking to the full resolution for burst and getting the best you can out of the TG-850. If you need to shoot 30 or 60fps, use the Full HD video to capture it or step up to the TG-3.
In our video tests the quality we got from the TG-850 wasn't exactly knocking our socks off. But not many point and shoots in this price range offer you the ability to get 1080/60p video, and the TG-850 can do that underwater. The video quality isn't the best, however, with mediocre sharpness and very poor low light performance. It shot mostly clean footage that had little artifacting or trailing in bright light, but like the TG-3, video just wasn't sharp enough.
Head over to the science page for more on the TG-850's performance.
While the TG-850 is certainly not as feature-rich as the TG-3—which has WiFi with an excellent smartphone app, macro LED adaptor, and even GPS—it does have a few tricks that the TG-3 doesn’t have.
The big feature that is unique to the TG-850 in the toughcam world is the 180 degree flip-forward LCD. It can move away from the body, letting you frame while looking down at the camera, and even face toward your subject for easy group shots and selfies. It's a huge advantage: Whenever you are shooting at angles you wouldn’t be able to see the rear of the camera from, just pop the screen up a bit and you’re in business. This also opens up the options for mounting the camera in places where you normally wouldn't, making up somewhat for the lack of WiFi and remote viewfinder options.
The next big thing the TG-850 offers over its sibling rival is a wider zoom range, with 21-105mm as opposed to the 25-100mm of the TG-3. That is 4% wider and 5% longer, giving it a 9% total range increase when compared to the TG-3. In addition to shooting wider, you can also shoot panoramic shots up to 360 degrees. The main disadvantage is the lens doesn't open quite as wide—f/3.7 compared to the TG-3's f/2.0—which explains why its low light performance suffers so much.
In terms of toughness the 850 is waterproof up to 10 meters, which is less than half of the Canon D30’s 25 meters. However, unless you’re scuba diving down the full 18 meters certified divers are allowed, 10 meters is more than deep enough for snapping photos while swimming or snorkeling. The 2.1 meter shockproof is standard for the majority of tough cameras, but it obviously only covers 2.1 meters when the screen is closed.
Olympus is known for its Art modes and the TG-850 was not overlooked on this front. It has 11 such modes ranging from fish eye to pin hole modes. It also has 18 different scene modes that allow you to adjust your shot to the area with great range. Last but not least is the interval shooting, which allows up to 99 frames taken with a 0-60 minute start timer and intervals ranging from 10 seconds to one hour—exactly what you need for time lapses.
Olympus has been a leading the pack in underwater cameras recently with the TG-2 and now the new TG-3. We were hoping that some of the great performance and features from the flagship series would trickle down to the TG-850. While that isn't the case with WiFi and GPS functionality, the TG-850 has a flip forward screen that no current toughcam offers.
The TG-850 is a solid waterproof camera that is made unique by the 180 degree tilt screen. It performs decently, but not better than or with as many features as the TG-3, which is just $100 more. If you're looking for a fun point and shoot that can get wet and keep going worry free—especially for a family with children—then give the TG-850 the nod. However, if you're looking for a camera to take on a diving adventure or in low light, we recommend spending a bit more and getting the TG-3.
We will be pitting the top waterproof cameras of 2014 against each other to see who comes out on top. As it stands now, the TG-850 is outperforming more expensive cameras like the Canon D30 on multiple fronts, but falls just short of the Nikon AW120 and the TG-3. Both of those cameras take better quality images than the TG-850 while also offering GPS, mapping, WiFi, and having better action shooting chips.
Bottom line: the TG-850 is a nice value choice for anyone who doesn't want all the bells and whistles of the TG-3 but can live with inferior low light performance. We'll have a complete breakdown of all the 2014 waterproof cameras soon. Can Olympus retain its place at the top of the heap, or will a late challenger knock it off? Check back soon to find out!
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