If you're an avid explorer (or a walking disaster), feast your eyes on the rugged charms of the Olympus Stylus 1050 SW. This pocket-size camera can endure a torrent of abuse, whether it accompanies you on outdoor adventures, joins you on underwater expeditions, or just constantly slips out of your pocket. According to Olympus, the US$300 1050 SW can withstand drops of up to 5 feet, submersion to depths of 10 feet, and temperatures down to 14 Fahrenheit.
I didn't put all of those claims to the test, but as soon as my review unit arrived I did jump into my local swimming pool with it. The camera survived okay, and I got a few nice shots; but even wearing goggles, I had difficulty seeing the large 2.7-inch screen. As such, composing underwater pictures was mostly a matter of guesswork.
That said, the screen's less-than-perfect visibility underwater probably had more to do with a combination of reflection from the screen, distortion from looking through the water, bright sunlight coming from above, trying to hold my breath so I wouldn't create any bubbles, and difficulty seeing through my goggles. The camera is better suited to taking snaps of the kids playing in the pool than to documenting a serious snorkeling trip, but that doesn't detract from its all-weather appeal.
Olympus has thrown in an interesting and unique tap control feature. Simply by tapping the top, sides, and back of the camera, you can trigger a few common operations, such as playing back your pictures or setting the flash mode. While that feature wasn't very helpful underwater, I can imagine it being a real boon while skiing at subzero temperatures--now the gloves can stay on!
The camera offers a few of the latest must-haves (such as automatic face detection) but lacks several others. The antishake mode is electronic-only; it works by raising the exposure sensitivity, which risks more noise in low-light shots than mechanical image stabilization does. You get neither manual modes nor such niceties as white balance calibration and color settings. You can't zoom while shooting video, or do any in-camera video editing. The 1050 SW also felt a little sluggish while focusing in low light and storing its images, often causing a delay between consecutive shots. In addition, the placement of the lens in the top-left corner of the camera meant that my finger easily strayed into the corner of my pictures when I shot with both hands.
For storing photos, the camera uses the obscure XD Picture Card media format. Moreover, Olympus has the audacity to punish anyone who doesn't use the company's own brand of card by disabling the panoramic-stitch mode. It's easy to sidestep these tactics, however, since an included adapter lets you shoot onto a more modern microSD memory card; that format stands more of a chance of working in your phone and other devices.
Despite those grumbles, the 1050 SW takes fabulous photos. I was really impressed with the faithful colors and precise exposure of my shots. Flash photos looked surprisingly natural, with plenty of background depth.
The PC World Test Center confirmed my experience, awarding the camera chart-topping scores in many of our test categories. The 1050 SW fared particularly well in color accuracy tests, exposure levels, and overall image quality. Battery life earned a rating of Good, as the 1050 SW fired off 250 shots on a single charge. That's decent, but short of the 300-plus shots per charge we've seen from many current point-and-shoot cameras.
This is definitely a niche camera, but one that is very good at what it does. For shooting in extreme weather conditions, or simply surviving everyday bumps and scrapes, the Stylus 1050 SW delivers excellent photo quality with little fuss.