Our First Take
Pentax goes toe-to-toe with the Olympus TG-2, outfitting its flagship toughcam with an f/2 lens and upgraded ruggedization specs.
Last year was an unusually strong one for toughcams. Olympus has already started 2013 off strong with the TG-2, which was announced at CES. Perennial contenders Sony and Panasonic also showed off new models in Las Vegas, but Pentax was curiously silent. The company has long been a player in the toughcam market with its WG series, and it has a certain degree of built-in pedigree thanks to the long line of weather-sealed Pentax DSLRs.
We didn’t have to wait too long to get our hands on the 2013 iteration of the WG line. Along with the low-end WG-10, Pentax has announced the WG-3 (MSRP $349.95 w/ GPS; $299.95 without)—successor to last year’s WG-2. The biggest news here is a bright lens that can hit 25mm and f/2 on the wide end, but the WG-3 has quite a few other tricks up its sleeve.
Design & Usability
Aesthetics have been upgraded, but there’s still a strong family resemblance.
Users of last year’s WG-2 will be instantly familiar with operation of the WG-3. A couple of buttons have been shifted around, and there’s a new dedicated video recording button alongide the playback toggle, but generally speaking it’s the same old WG.
The GPS module is a pretty nifty enhancement, automatically tagging each shot with your location and adjusting the camera’s internal clock whenever you enter a new time zone. GPS logging lets you create a detailed map of your travels, which we could definitely see coming in handy on a long hike or cross-country skiing session.
Controls are pretty easy to find by feel, well-spaced and with decent travel and tactility. The shutter release button has a spongy feel, and you have to press it quite a long way down to get it to fire—probably a good thing for those using diving gloves or shooting in sub-freezing temperatures.
Chunky rubberized material covers the majority of the body; it’s not a camera you’re likely to drop very easily. And if you feel like you might, there’s a huge strap lug on the right side that accommodates a carabiner strap. It’s a setup that should be perfect for latching onto your backpack or scuba hose.
Trade show lighting is a nightmare of epic proportions (we’re photographing in practically an airplane hangar, which is dim even by hangar standards). This is poor not just for those photographing the products, but also for the products themselves. The WG-3 did quite well, locking onto subjects quickly and confidently, though it was hard to really judge focus accuracy on the large (3-inch) but low-res (460k-dot) rear screen. The built-in flash and unique ring of six LED lights for macro shooting should be a great help in dimmer conditions.
It’s all about the lens.
Toughcams have historically sacrificed image quality in favor of ruggedization. Over time, the dichotomy has become so ingrained in the category that people forget that it doesn’t even make sense. Image quality has nothing to do with ruggedization, so why do we tacitly accept that toughcams can’t take a decent shot?
Lately, manufacturers have started stepping up their game. Last year, the Olympus TG-1 became the first rugged compact with a f/2.0 lens. Pentax has followed suit with the WG-3, putting a 25-100mm equivalent f/2-4.9 lens on their flagship toughcam. It’s a big upgrade from the 28mm f/3.5 on the WG-2, but we’ll have to see whether it really increases image quality.
Curiously, the lens has the same exact specs as the TG-1’s—reminiscent of the way the advanced compact Pentax MX-1 apes the Olympus XZ-2. More evidence of a hush-hush partnership? Could be, or maybe they just source their materials from the same third-party vendor. Anyway, we suspect the Pentax lens will perform similarly to the TG-1’s.
On the ruggedization front, waterproofing has been extended to 45 feet (14m / 45ft.), you can drop the camera from as high as 6.6 feet (2m), and it’s crushproof to 220lbf (100kgf). As with most other toughcams, coldproofing goes down to 14F (-10C). We’re not exactly sure why all cameras max out there, but there you go.
Inside, the sensor is a 16-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS unit, paired with a “new generation” processor. Sensitivity ranges from ISO 125–6400, exactly the same as the WG-2, leading us to suspect that the sensor itself is a bit “old generation.” That might spell trouble in our lab tests down the road.
What else is new? A few things, but these are exclusive to the GPS-enabled model. Around front, a secondary watch-style LCD displays the current time and can also report air/water pressure, altitude, and depth figures. The LCD is low power, but it can be illuminated if you’re in a low light environment. There’s an onboard compass, too. Who knows, it might save your life if you get lost in the woods. (Better hope the battery lasts, though.) Finally, an optional inductive charging mat lets you charge the WG-3 GPS edition wirelessly. Why? We’re not sure, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless.
It’s still not the ruggedized advanced compact we’ve been dreaming of, but the WG-3 appears to be a solid step toward a brighter toughcam future.
We’re just going to throw this question out there: Why hasn’t someone made a lifeproofed advanced compact camera? All we’re looking for is an RX100 you can take swimming, a P7700 you don’t have to worry about dropping. Come on, camera industry… we believe in you.
Maybe that dream will come to fruition someday, but for now the latest crop of toughcams is the closest thing we have. Fast lenses are great, and improved ruggedization never hurts, but we hope it doesn’t stop there. In future generations, we’d love to see Pentax (or anyone else) slap a sensor bigger than 1/2.3-inch in one of these things and really get serious about image quality.
Taken on its own merits rather than compared against some Platonic ideal of a toughcam, the WG-3 looks to be a pretty good effort—certainly the match for anything out there pre–CES 2013. The mix of a fast lens, useful GPS technology, excellent ruggedization, and an attractive (if a bit over-the-top) design makes for an appealing package. The price is also very competitive—the GPS edition is $30 cheaper than the TG-2, and the non-GPS model outdoes it by $80.
But really, it all comes down to image quality. Trust us: If the WG-3 finds success in our labs, you’ll be the first to hear about it.