The most hardy µ to date, the Olympus µ 720 SW is a waterproof, 7.1-megapixel camera that's fully submersible up to 3m, for an hour at a time. This ultracompact µ is also shockproof (putting the S in SW), rated to withstand a drop of 1.5m. Sleek, responsive and outfitted with image stabilisation, the µ 720 SW makes a rugged and welcome travel companion.
Considering its stainless-steel body and solid, watertight build, the µ 720 SW is remarkably thin and light -- only 20mm wide and 164g with battery and optional XD-Picture Card installed. Contributing to the trim design, as well as the camera's watertight durability, is the fact that the f/3.5-to-f/5.0, 38mm-to-114mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent) doesn't protrude at all from the camera body. The nearly wafer-thin 3.7V lithium battery pack doesn't take up much space either.
This ruggedly handsome companion is just a little inaccessible though -- you'll need some time to get to know its intricacies. While the µ 720 SW offers some useful features, they aren't always easy to reach. The digital image-stabilisation implementation is a good example. In other cameras, you can simply press a button to enable and disable image stabilisation, while in the 720 SW, it's a mode in and of itself. In other words, you have to plan to shoot in image-stabilisation mode. If you're shooting in program or full auto mode and notice the effects of camera shake, switching to image-stabilisation mode restores the settings (that is, flash or ISO) you were previously using.
Just as cumbersome is selecting one of the 25 scene modes. A single button on the back controls capture modes -- press it repeatedly to select among auto, image stabilisation and scene mode settings. (Neither manual nor aperture or shutter priority are offered.) Combine that with scrolling through a list of 25 scenes, and you end up pushing a lot of buttons to access basic features such as movie mode or slow-sync flash.
Thankfully, this camera performs reasonably well under the hood. Shutter lag was 0.8 seconds in our tests, though it feels shorter while you're shooting. It took about 3.1 seconds to power up the camera and take a shot and less than 3 seconds between shots, with flash adding another second. Sequential shooting is sluggish at the highest resolution -- just 1.6fps, capped at 4 shots. At 3.8fps for an effectively unlimited number of shots, high-speed burst is better, though it requires dropping to 3-megapixel resolution.
Clearly, the Olympus µ 720 SW was designed for the open road, as reflected in the shots it takes. Quality is best under daylight, exhibiting natural colour and very good detail. Indoors, picture quality is acceptable but prone to noticeable amounts of visual noise -- as often found, noise increases with the ISO, which is user-selectable up to ISO 1,600 and tops out at ISO 2,500 in low-light scene modes. Those willing to apply noise-removal filters afterwards will be pleased by the wide ISO range, but some images taken at the widest lens setting (equivalent to 38mm, which isn't that much) revealed noticeable barrel distortion.