The Pentax Optio W30 is waterproof and dustproof. Which means you can take it places that are usually off-limits for digital cameras, like boats, the beach, kayaking, swimming, snorkeling and even shallow diving. Yes, you can take the W30 down to ten feet underwater and use it there for a full two hours.
Those who like to take pictures outdoors will certainly appreciate a camera like the W30. It totally eliminates the anxiety of constantly having to make sure the camera you took with won't get wet. This one doesn't mind getting wet. You can even drop it to the bottom of the pool. Such insurance can be invaluable. And from our own experience with waterproof cameras like the W30, jaws will drop every time you casually enter the water with a gleaming little digital camera strapped to your wrist.
What do you get in a waterproof camera?
A little preface here about waterproof cameras: Taking pictures underwater is a magical thing. And being able to take photographs by the pool or at a beach while splashing around can be priceless. That said, there are different kinds of waterproof and underwater cameras, and you need to pick one that makes sense for you.
If you are a scuba diver and go deep, you'll need a camera with an optional deepwater housing. Those are available for many compacts and digital SLRS, but the housing itself can cost more than the camera. The cases also add a lot of bulk, and they need to be meticulously maintained so that they don't leak and flood the camera.
As a result, some manufacturers now offer cameras that are waterproof to a certain depth as is. They don't need special housings. However, while the optional deepwater cases are usually good for depths of 133 feet (the recommended limit for recreational diving), waterproof cameras can't go that deep. The Optio W10, a predecessor of the W30 we're reviewing here, was rated at just five feet. There are models available rated as much as 33 feet.
There are also specialist manufacturers that sell digital cameras with waterproof housings and flashes optimized for underwater photography. The cameras themselves are usually very generic, but their special underwater modes and the tight case/camera/software integration can make for excellent pictures. Unfortunately, they usually cost quite a bit.
With the Optio W30, Pentax chose a very reasonable compromise. You can take it down to ten feet, which means it is suitable to be used in any pool and also for most snorkeling (unless you're champion breathhold diver who goes much deeper than ten feet). The two-hour rating means you're not limited to just brief dips; you can pretty much swim and snorkel with the W30 all day. And though we do not recommend it, you can probably take it down deeper than its 10-foot rating.
Are there compromises?
Almost anytime a piece of equipment is designed and engineered for a specific purpose, there are some compromises. You wouldn't be surprised if a waterproof camera were bigger or had some rubbery coating or were missing some features. That's not the case with the W30. It looks just like a regular camera. Pentax calls it a compact rather than an ultra-compact, and that's because it measures 4.2 x 2.1 inches and is almost an inch thick. That's a bit hefty for a modern digicam, but still within reason.
On thing you'll notice is that the W30's 3X optical zoom is entirely internal. It is one of those intricate "folding zoom" mechanisms, so the lens never barrels out. I've always liked that arrangement as I am not fond of a big lens barrel motoring in and out all the time, especially when it does so at inopportune times, such as when a camera decides to go to sleep or when it is inadvertently turned on.
Pretty much everything else looks just like it would on any other digital camera. Nothing would give away that you can take the W30 to the bottom of the pool. Nothing except the way the camera is sealed. The covers for both the USB/AV and DC jacks at the bottom of the camera and the larger battery and storage card compartment on the side have carefully designed rubber gaskets (see picture below) to keep the water out.
Owners of the earlier and also waterproof Optio W10 will immediately notice a most appreciated improvement: both doors are now self-locking. Close them and a springloaded latch locks the doors shut. And to open them you need to pull a springloaded lever. Why is that so important? Because if a latch needs to be locked manually, it's only a matter of time until you forget to do so. And if that happens when you take the camera into the water -- instant flooding. I know because I did flood an Optio W10 (amazingly, after taking it apart and drying everything off, it was as good as new).
The lens has a special water-resistant coating, and the flash cover is considerably thicker and sturdier than what you'd generally find on a land-use only camera.
Design and controls
The overall design of the Optio W30 is pleasing enough. The designer chose a "soap bar" shape, a standard box with rounded edges and corners. The body is made of an aluminum alloy, with the front and back halves matte silver, the varying width band inbetween a darker silver-gray, and some bright chrome accents.
Controls follow the current standard. On top are the shutter, the on/off button with a green light in the center to indicate the camera is on, and speaker and microphone.
The back features a nicely-sized 2.5-inch LCD, a zoom rocker, a record/playback toggle switch, a menu button and a "green mode" button. There is also a five-way navigation arrangement, with the "OK" button in the middle, and four directional buttons each of which also brings up one of the common screen menus (focus mode, drive mode, flash mode, and scenes).
On the bottom, in addition to the self-locking USB/AV and power compartment cover, is a centrally located plastic tripod mount.
Pretty much the entire left side consists of the sturdy, sealed and self-locking battery and storage card compartment cover. The battery only goes in the right way, and is secured in place with a spring-loaded latch.
While the 2.5-inch display is large enough, it sports a measly 115k pixel resolution, nowhere near enough for a sharp picture and definitely not enough to see if a shot is actually in focus. Worse, the screen has a very narrow viewing angle. Unless you hold the camera smack in front of your face, you can't see the picture. That is bad news for underwater shooting. There is a rather effective anti-reflective coating to cut reflections and glare, but it doesn't make up for the low resolution and narrow viewing angle.
The Optio W30 is strictly a point & shoot camera that relies on scene modes for its settings, but it does have a few interesting features.
There is a "Synchro Sound Record" mode that continually listens to sound. When you press the shutter to take a picture, it commits the ten seconds prior to the picture and keeps recording for another ten seconds afterwards.
The Pentax "Green Mode" button is implemented in yet another way. Pentax generally uses "Green Mode" to let you quickly toggle between full automatic and whatever special scene mode or setting you also want. However, the company also likes to experiment with the green mode button. In the Optio A30, for example, it can work in one of three ways (see full review of the Optio A30). In the W30, in addition to toggling between a scene and automatic, you can also assign access to up to three other function menus, such as focusing area, sharpness, white balance, etc. Pushing the Green Mode button in quick sequence then toggles through the assigned function menus.
Of all the current Optios, the W30 has the most scene modes, 25 in all. In addition to the "Synchro Sound Record," you'll find "Report" which captures images in a standard 1280 x 960 format, "Natural Skin Tone" for extra special attention to skintones, "museum" for places where you are not allowed to use the flash, "self portrait," "soft" for that soft outline, and so on.
The W30 uses face recognition autofocus and face recognition auto exposure in the portrait, kids, and self portrait modes.
This being a waterproof camera, there are also dedicated underwater still and movie modes.
In movie mode, you can zoom in and out during recording 640 x 480 pixel format video at a full 30 frames per second. And the zoom is not just digital; you can also use the full optical 3X zoom.
There is a manual focus mode. If you select it you get a vertical bar that let's you adjust the focus between 0.01 meter (0.4 inches) and infinity. Yes, you can get that close.
If you select the histogram LCD viewing mode, the screen will flash overexposed areas in red and underexposed in yellow.
There is no active CCD anti-blur, but you do get digital shake reduction both is still and movie mode. It works by increasing shutter speed and boosting sensitivity up to ISO 3200.
What's missing is an autofocus illuminator light.
Needless to say, we were eager to see how the W30 performed in the water. The camera has two special underwater modes, one for still pictures and one for movies. The modes are very flexible insofar as they still let you set various other parameters. For example, you can pick underwater still mode, and then set the flash, autofocus mode, and exposure compensation just the way you like it. Not all cameras with underwater modes let you do that.
Underwater photography is notoriously difficult because the camera doesn't always know what to focus on due to debris, reflections, air bubbles and rapidly changing lighting conditions. The Optio W30 passed with flying colors and even our first results were exceptional. True, we didn't push the camera, never went deeper than ten feet, and the lighting conditions were excellent.
The screen, as expected, proved to be a drawback. Its narrow viewing angle made it rather difficult to see. However, the anti-reflection coating worked well.
The underwater movie mode worked exceptionally well also. The resulting QuickTime movies looked and sounded excellent during playback, even when enlarged to fill an entire projection TV screen.
When using the camera underwater, always use the handstrap. The camera does not float and can easily get lost if you drop it while shooting in a lake or river. The included strap works but isn't optimal as you cannot tighten it around your wrist. Also it'd be nice to have a protective rubber boot as an option; as is, the camera can easily get scratched if you bump it against rocks or drag it along the bottom.
Playback mode menu
Th W30 lets you access 15 functions in playback mode. To access those, you use the down-arrow key. You can resize, rotate, delete, add a frame (three are in the camera, more are downloadable for free), use a variety of filters (including a funky fish-eye), slide shows, voice annotation, red eye removal, movie edit, copying images between internal memory and storage card, setting an image as the startup picture, resize, crop, protect, and more. Playback zoom is up to 8X.
On the software side the Optio W30 comes with ACDSee for Windows and the Mac OS. For the PC, that is version 6.0; on the Mac version 1.6.9. There is also QuickTime 7.
If you're spending a lot of time on, in and around water, the Optio W30 is a perfect fit. It doesn't mind getting wet, and it takes exceptionally good pictures underwater. And your underwater movies will blow everyone's mind.
But that doesn't mean the W30 is a one-trick pony. It also works very well as a regular digital camera. With the exception of the low-res display, there are barely any compromises. To the contrary; you'll find this camera loaded with interesting and helpful features. This is a modern 7.1 megapixel camera you can use for just about anything.
Having reviewed a prior Optio waterproof camera, we were very pleased to see that Pentax fixed a big flaw of the earlier model: the ever-important protective covers and doors now have spring-loaded latches that secure automatically. No more flooding.
As a waterproof camera that doesn't need a separate underwater housing, the Optio W30 doesn't have much competition. The competition it does have, however, is formidable. The Olympus 770SW is waterproof down to 33 feet and we've taken it much deeper. The Oly is also more expensive, so it'll come down to indvidual priorities. As is, the Optio W30 exceeded our expectations.
Not so much:
- Waterproof down to 10 feet!
- Internal optical zoom
- Excellent underwater image and movie quality
- Innovative synchro sound mode
- Digital shake reduction with ISO up to 3200
- Versatile, useful "Green Mode" button
- Low-res, narrow viewing angle LCD
- Fairly large
- Needs better handstrap and protective boot underwater
- No autofocus illuminator light