Pentax calls this 'your most adventurous friend', and it's easy to see why. The Optio WG-2 is waterproof, dust-proof and able to withstand a fall from 1.5 metres. It's claimed that freezing it to -10 degrees should not put the WG-2 in reach of the icy grip of death, and it can even shrug off a 100kg load without being crushed.
It's available to buy now for around £230.
Software and build
To achieve all this sturdiness, Pentax has wrapped it in a somewhat unconventional body -- one that invokes the Marmite cliché. You'll either love or hate the glossy finish and angular cut of its superhero outfit, which does a good job of hiding the locked, strengthened battery flap. Despite what you might assume from its spiky appearance, it's both lightweight and comfortable to hold.
My only gripe where build quality is concerned is the dull shutter button. The buttons on the back aren't so bad -- they have a satisfying click -- but the necessities of battle-hardening this device have left the top-mounted shutter release more fiddly to press than it ought to be. I had no trouble finding the halfway point to fix the focus, but pressing it further than that required slightly more force than should be needed. This makes the WG-2 a little tricky to hold while framing.
I'd also like to see Pentax give its on-screen menus a little refresh. They present all the regular options simply enough, but the bright colours and blocky graphics look stretched on the 3-inch widescreen display.
Some of the grammar in the menus needs a little polish too -- the digital microscope mode is described as 'capture the bigger images of the closer objects'. It's a smart extra tool though, and it that gets you within 1cm of your subject, using a ring of front-mounted LEDs to illuminate it so the camera doesn't cast a shadow. The result is very good, but the resolution is capped at 2 megapixels, which goes some way to helping your subject fill the frame.
That same circle of LEDs surrounding the lens window blink out one at a time when you're using the self-timer so you know when to smile and stop fidgeting.
Once you start to look at its specs, things become a whole lot more impressive. The sensor is a 16-megapixel chip, producing stills of 4,608x3,456 pixels and HD videos at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 30 frames per second.
The lens is entirely captive behind a protective window that stops it getting snapped or scratched when dropped, yet it still manages to provide a 5x zoom, equivalent to 28x140mm in a 35mm camera. To put that into context, a consumer dSLR's kit lens often only offers a 3x zoom covering 18-55mm.
Sensitivity runs through a scale of ISO 125 to ISO 6,400 with compensation of +/-2EV in 1/3EV steps. There's a dedicated night scene for use with a tripod and a separate handheld night mode for beginners who would rather not fiddle with settings they don't understand.
The results at ISO 1,600 showed a fair amount of noise when zoomed to 100 per cent, with a painting-like finish. However, colours remained accurate and when viewed full screen, rather than zoomed, overall fidelity was good. If you want to make sure the WG-2 sticks to low sensitivities to preserve image quality, you can limit its sensitivity range through the menus.
When pushed to less extreme levels, results were much cleaner, with accurate texture recognition and less dappling, although they weren't always entirely unsullied.
Examining the portico of this country house and the sky around its chimneys below reveals a slight loss of detail in some significant areas, including the roof-line, which should be crisp in a well-lit scene exposed at ISO 125 -- the camera's lowest possible setting.
However, the carving below, which was taken at closer quarters, shows a very high level of detail where the side of the face has been eroded by the elements. When zoomed to 100 per cent, there's no fudging of the particularly fine pockmarks and holes.
In general, subjects with a greater level of texture tend to mask any slight imperfections in the output, which in turn has a bearing on macro performance. An overview of the macro output is very good, but closer examination reveals a slightly lower level of detail than I would want to see in a photo of that type.
The wild rose below, for example, is well rendered, with accurate colour and a good shallow depth of field that draws the eye to the main subject. However, zooming to 100 per cent reveals a degree of noise, both on the flat petals and on the raised stamen.
There was occasional evidence of chromatic aberration in my results, where the lens didn't precisely focus each wavelength of incoming light in exactly the same position on the sensor. The result is a pink fringe along the edge of some strong contrasts, which can be seen here on the edge of these white elder flowers when zoomed to actual size.
There's very slight evidence of a fine pink fringe on some of the blooms. On the whole, the WG-2 generally did very well to avoid such flaws (click image to enlarge).
Although much of this may sound negative, it's important to note that these issues only become apparent upon close inspection of your pictures. When viewed so that they fit on screen, rather than zoomed to 100 per cent, the high resolution is sufficient to overcome most of these flaws by rendering them too small to be easily seen. This leaves you with plenty of detail to enjoy and excellent colour reproduction.
The image below is a case in point where colour is concerned, with accurate foliage, a vibrant sky and well-rendered stonework and tiles.
The WG-2's video feature is hidden away in the scene modes menu. That means you need to actively select it rather than press a record button on the body. More importantly, you also need to switch back to stills when you've finished using it or the next time you switch it on you'll likely miss a spontaneous shot.
Results are pretty good. The soundtrack is very cleanly recorded if you hold the camera still and don't play with the buttons, it easily picks up quiet and distant noises, including bird song. It uses the digital zoom when zooming in video mode to ensure you don't hear the sound of a lens motor on the soundtrack, so at full telephoto, the results are a little softer than they are when filming at wide angle.
You can work around this by zooming to the appropriate position before you start filming and leaving the zoom rocker alone. There's another reason for doing this too -- it means you won't hear the clicks of the rocker buttons on the soundtrack, which are easily picked up by the built-in mic.
It compensates well for changing light levels though, with smooth and unstepped transitions. Colours are accurate too, for a fair video performance overall.
All rugged cameras require a degree of compromise from both the manufacturer and the user, and the WG-2 is no different in this respect. In particular, the firmware could do with a refresh, while the unresponsive shutter release needs loosening up.
One compromise I would welcome is a slight trimming of the resolution, which would allow for larger photosites on the sensor and perhaps a little less noise in some of the results. We may be getting used to seeing metrics like 16 megapixels being tagged to compact cameras, but in reality, 12 megapixels is sufficient for most needs. By coincidence, that's the resolution sported by the Canon D20, which I declared to be the best rugged snapper you can buy at the end of my tests last month.
While the WG-2 has many charms, my judgement about the D20 stands. It's more expensive than the WG-2 but it's worth saving up for. If cash and time are both short though, and you need a rugged camera for an imminent trip or activity, the WG-2 is unlikely to disappoint.