Olympus Stylus 1030 SW
Immediately after Macworld Expo, I fly off to join my wife's family for a week-long Caribbean cruise. Don't envy me; it's my first vacation since I went to the Grand Canyon with The Brady Bunch in 1971. You may remember me as the blonde, bespectacled Cousin Oliver. (If you so much as think, "But Robby Rist, aka Oliver, didn't join the cast until 1974," I will label you a Brady Nerd and tell everyone to mock you.)
Anyway, I mentioned that I'll be doing some diving to a terribly helpful Olympus rep, and she took it upon herself to loan me a 10-megapixel Stylus 1030 SW. Which is a pocket-sized, quite stylish point-and-shoot camera that is waterproof down to 10 meters (33 ft). Billed as "the camera that redefines tough," this diminutive, shorter-but-thicker-than-an-iPhone camera is my favorite gadget of the first few days of the New Year.
Time has not afforded me the opportunity to take this camera lower than a few feet. I'll get back to you after the cruise. But in the meantime, I was able to test out its toughness. And I'm here to tell you, this little camera is scrappy.
In addition to its face-detection and snowman (-10°C, 14° F) icons, the box advertises that you can drop the camera 6.6 ft and drop upon it 220 lbf (pounds of force). Which I assume means you can throw it off some tall guy's shoulders and then jump on it. Can't verify, never did that.
Instead, I took it to a water park. I and my family celebrated the advent of 2009 in Rapid City, South Dakota. (An unexpectedly picturesque city, btw.) Perhaps owing to its frigid conditions and lack of much to do in the Winter, Rapid City boasts an strangely high number of indoor water parks. And thus, we spent three days in one.
Outdoors, the temperature was a freeze-your-tenders-off 10° F. Inside, it was a balmy 72. Imagine you're in a biosphere full of folk who would otherwise hang out in a shopping mall or monster truck rally, and when you look out the window it's all cold prairie and desolate bluffs. No kidding, Custer (who has a nearby city named after him) fought his Last Stand an afternoon's journey to the west. Do you suppose, in the nights before his resounding defeat, he dreamed that his team's ultimate prize would be children sailing down water slides in a bizarrely humidified environment? I sure hope so.
I kept the camera tethered to my wrist incessantly. (To the extent that at one point, after I wondered aloud whether my watch was water resistant, a stranger helpfully explained, "Dude, I'd be more worried that my camera's in the water." And yes, he did say dude.) I plummeted down one four-story slide after another, smacking into the sides, falling out of my tube, and bashing into my children and other tube travelers. But the 1030SW never complained.
I didn't capture many underwater photos. (The place was too packed and it didn't seem fair to shoot a bunch of unsuspecting and generally ample people in the midriff.) But I shot lots in the water. Like this tour of the Lazy River, in which my youngest, Sam, imagines terrors at every turn. To see a higher-res version of this montage that may help you judge quality, click on the graphic. You'll see I missed focus a few times, but with a model this hammy, who the hell cares?
My favorites were the motion shots inside the Toilet Bowl slide (featuring, in order: my eldest, Max, in my lap with my wife flying by in a blur; Max looking back atop my lovely knees; and family friend Jeff with a pretending-to-be-frightened Sam). The image quality was uniformly great. But the fact that I could capture these images was was what really rocked my world. When's the last time you hopped in a pool with a small, housing-free point-and-shoot? Mike and Carol Brady would've loved this thing.
My guess is that water parks will decide to forbid these kinds of cameras in the future. Too much of a chance the photographer might fumble and release the camera like a puck into a fellow slider's head. But everyone seemed to be too amazed by mine to give me any guff.
Downsides: No xD card included, so you'll need to buy a couple (about $20 for 2GB). Includes a proprietary USB port, so be sure to pack the cable that ships with the camera. And shoots exclusively JPEGs, no raw. I don't understand why any camera lacks raw support, but alas, this one does.
Costs about $300.