Given the high ratings of Survivor and extreme sports, it makes all the sense in the world that tough digicams are more popular than ever. You’ve gotta record those exploits to share with the world, right? As we reported from PMA, several companies added their names to the growing list offering cameras that can take a serious beating, such as crashing onto rocks, being stepped on, tossed into overboard or just plain manhandled by a rambunctious three-year-old. Olympus started the trend with its Stylus SW series, and now has introduced two new ones with an official “tough” designation. The 12-megapixel Tough-8000 is the more rugged of the pair and the one we were most anxious to try out. Should it join you on the slopes or white water rafting? Let’s find out…
Features and Design
The Olympus Stylus Tough-8000 looks like a tank – especially with its stainless-steel case (appropriately enough, black and blue bodies are also available). The camera looks strong, with metal edges and screws that look like bolts scattered on the front, and feel just as sturdy thanks to some nice heft. It camera measures 3.7 x 2.4 x .85 (W x H x D, in inches), and weighs 7.4 ounces with battery and card in place.
The lens, which is a nice wide-angle 3.6x zoom rated 28-102mm, does not extend from the body when you power up. A metal lens cover slides up or down so the camera can confront the elements. And, boy, can it do just that. The Tough-8000 can handle a drop of 6.6 feet, go 33 feet underwater, withstand 220 pounds of pressure, and operate down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (more on these in the performance section). Also on the front is the flash, an LED illuminator for focus, and a two-pinhole microphone. The logos and nomenclature were very subdued in our stainless version. It looks rugged and definitely stands apart from the competition. Just have a cloth handy, since fingerprints really stand out.
On the top you’ll find the shutter, a power button, and an underwater sensor, which will tell you how deep or high you are when engaged. On the right side is a compartment with a sturdy lock for the multi-use connector (for charging the battery, watching images on a TV or transferring photos and videos to a PC). Below it is a small speaker.
The back also has a rugged look, with sturdy metal keys and a quality 2.7-inch LCD screen rated 230K pixels. The monitor worked well in a variety of lighting situations, including direct sunshine. The controls are similar to those found on almost every point-and-shoot digicam. On the top right are the wide/tele keys and below them is a mode dial. In keeping with a big trend for 2009, there’s an intelligent auto option, where the camera decides the proper settings for the subject it believes is in front of it (sports, portrait, landscape and so on). Strangely, the camera icon, which typically means auto, is actually P for program automatic exposure. Here you can change the ISO, white balance and shadow adjustment; in iAuto, you can’t adjust anything, it’s totally aim-and-forget. You cannot change shutter speed or aperture in any setting, so if you’re looking for these controls pass this one by. Other dial options include SCN for scene modes, which include several for underwater shots, movies (only 640 x 480 at 30 fps), playback and beauty. This is a strange one: The camera picks a face, and smoothes that countenance, creating a 2MP still. Forgive us but something got lost with this one in translation during the trip from Japan to the States.
Below the mode dial is the classic four-way controller with center set button. We don’t know why Olympus duplicated playback here as well, but there’s delete, menu and display (no grid lines, unfortunately). On the bottom of the made-in-China camera is a tripod mount and a compartment for the battery and xD picture card slot.
Along with these controls, the camera also features something called tap control, which allows users to touch parts of the 8000 to engage select commands. It’s nothing like an iPhone touch-screen (more in the performance section).
The Tough-8000 comes with everything you need other than the memory card – body, battery, wrist strap, A/V and USB cable plus an AC adaptor for recharging the battery in-camera. You also get an 86-page printed owner’s manual and Olympus Master 2 software for handling files on CD-ROM along with a microSD card adaptor if you want to use that media instead of xD.
Once the battery was charged and date set, it was time to give the Tough-8000 some punishment – within the limits of our geography.
Performance and Use
The Tough-8000 is a 12-megapixel camera with options for Fine and Normal compression. It was set to fine and 3968 x 2976 resolution so the supplied 2GB xD card could hold around 390 shots. We started off in iAuto, moved to program and onto to some scene modes.
Several days earlier, there was a huge snowstorm in New Jersey. Although we missed the brunt of it, there were still piles of the white stuff around, and it was rather liberating just throwing the camera into it, something we wouldn’t dare do with a traditional camera. We even packed snow around it to make sure it was encased. The Tough-8000 passed this test without a problem. Then it was time to drop it from the requisite six feet and see what happened. We did this to the ground and a concrete sidewalk. You guessed it; even after several thunks, the digicam still functioned, but the metal surrounding the lens did get scratched. Any other non-tough camera would’ve gone to the graveyard after hitting the concrete, so this was still an excellent result. Olympus also rates the camera as crushproof to 220 pounds. We didn’t have the heart stomping on the camera, since there was no way to judge the proper foot-pounds of pressure, but we did stand on it several times. Again, the Tough-8000 kept snapping away once we picked it up – the LCD never even blinked out.
Olympus Stylus Tough-8000
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to snorkel down 33 feet, so we can’t specifically state it will survive that test, but we did leave it in a sink for a few hours, and it still worked.
The tap control also works, but it’s too limited in scope. The main idea is simple: control of the camera if you’re wearing gloves. We put on ski gloves to see how it worked, and the concept was good. You tap on the right side to adjust the flash, hit the LCD screen to replay your shots, hit the left to go into macro. That’s reasonable, but once you make a change, you have to hit the small OK button—which kind of defeats the purpose. It would nice to have the ability to change the settings you can adjust via the tap control. We have to tip our hats to Olympus for trying this interface, but it’s clearly version 1.0.
So we discovered the camera could take a beating and has a somewhat unique way of changing some parameters rather than the tried-and-true four-way controller menu system – what about the photographs?
Glad you asked. In a couple of words – not so good, especially indoors. We guess that’s really not supposed to matter for a camera designed for the beach or on the slopes. Still, people do come inside and want snapshots. We took a series with available light with the flash off, simply changing the ISO from 64 to 1600. Noise was apparent even at 100, with 200 the limit if you want to go to an 8 x 10. Definitely try to keep it as low as possible, but unfortunately there is no ISO limit to set. Bummer. Snaps taken with the flash were much better, and the face detection did a good job. As for images taken outside, the Olympus captured the gloom of a cloudy day with fairly accurate colors. However there was plenty of purple fringing on tree limbs and focus tended to be not as sharp as we’d like. The camera is hardly DSLR fast, as it takes about a second for it to save the 12MP files to the card.
Videos at 640 x 480 were decent, but had issues with noise as well.
Olympus Stylus Tough-8000
Although we certainly like the tough concept and the ability to kiss your worries goodbye if drop your camera, step on it by mistake or take it into the snow and water without a care in the world, a digicam still has to take good pictures. The Olympus Tough-8000 really doesn’t do that primary task well, sad to say, and it’s hard to recommend at nearly $400. We have hopes the new Canon PowerShot D10 will combine toughness and good photos. Stay tuned.
- Definitely takes a beating
- Attractive styling
- Nice wide-angle lens
- Good attempt at tap control
- Slow response
- Pictures ain’t great
- Loads of noise at 400 ISO and above