Pentax Optio W90 rugged camera
Whatever the weather
Review Summer is here, sort of. The beaches are soon to be filled to capacity and anyone with any sense is clambering aboard the first plane to somewhere hot and sandy. That's a disaster for most cameras, which don't happily take to beaches, airport baggage handlers or seawater. Unless you've a 'ruggedised' model, of course,
Environment friendly? Pentax's Optio W90
Having reviewed the Olympus sandproof, weatherproof, underwater compact, the 14Mp Tough 8010  recently, a test of the 12.1Mp Pentax Optio W90 seemed in order. This is yet another camera claiming all kinds of disaster resistance and it sports a nifty karabiner too, either for rock-climbing, or simply showing off.
The W90 is a slim, easily pocketable compact with a practical, all-purpose lens and enough durability to outlast virtually any environment, weather, or mishap you can throw at it. Where the Olympus Tough 8010 weighed a shade less than 200g, the W90 is 50g lighter and is considerably smaller in the hand too.
The sides, top and bottom of the camera are surrounded by a strip of rubber, the better for gripping the camera and keeping out the elements. The visible screw heads on the front and back round off the styling, emphasising that the W90 is for real men. Cack-handed real men, that is.
The Pentax Optio W90 complies with MIL-STD 810F  for shock proofing, which means, on paper, it will survive drops of 1.2 metres onto plywood. However, with testing safely out of the way, the W90 had far worse dished out. It survived six foot drops onto hardwood and being hurled across lawns, which suggests that 1.2m is just Pentax being cautious.
Basic controls on top
It also worked after being left in direct sunlight with the lens pointing at the sky. Like the Olympus Tough 8010 the W90 is rated for temperatures as low as -10, although it would be a surprise if it couldn't survive in much colder climates than that, particularly with sporadic warming in a snug pocket.
Certainly, it showed no short-term effects after being left in a pool of water in a freezer overnight. It complies with the IPX6 standard for dust ingress, which means it will still be running on dusty safaris across Africa long after you've wheezed your last.
Access to the innards is a twofold affair
The first unusual thing to note about the W90 is the lack of any kind of lens protection. "Lens protection" is a bit of a misnomer - the 28-140mm (35mm equivalent) lens assembly is safely housed behind a sheet of glass and, as is the fashion of reinforced cameras, doesn't poke out beyond the main housing in the name of safety.
However, with nothing to protect the front glass element at all, the front of our W90 quickly became smeared with fingerprint grease, fluff and other detritus that you can expect a ruggedised camera to pick up. Note: to real men, just remember to carry a hankie around with you.
Toughness aside, there isn't too much to get excited about in terms of the hardware. The top of the W90 is where the power and shutter release buttons live, and there's the usual gaggle of buttons on the back.
The battery and memory card, and the USB port and type D HDMI port, are hidden behind a pair of doors that require a double action to open. Pull down the switch with a fingernail, then slide the door open. It's fiddly, but that's preferable to a simpler single action, which could result in you accidentally opening the door while the camera's underwater.
Sharp, bright screen – ideal for the great outdoors
The screen is excellent. The 2.7in diagonal feels roomy, even if its widescreen aspect ratio means framing up a 4:3 still wastes a fair amount of space. But it's exceedingly sharp, and bright enough that I had no problems using it in very bright sunlight.
With enough tough credentials to survive a warzone, it's surprising that the W90 keeps coming up with interesting features. Front-mounted LEDs on cameras to help with lighting macro modes are nothing new, but the W90's arrangement of three bright lights clustered around the lens is unusual.
Illuminated macro mode from three LEDs around the lens
They illuminate when you select the W90's Digital Microscope mode, which allows extremely close focusing. Indeed, it worked well with the subject just under 1cm from the front element. The extra light is a necessity for ad hoc macro shots as it prevents the camera shadowing the object. The drawback? The W90's maximum resolution in Digital Microscope mode is a miserly 2.1Mp.
Regarding the other features, these are a fairly familiar bunch. There's an effective face detection mode, including a surprisingly reliable smile mode, which as the name suggests, waits for the subject to crack a grin before taking the picture. In a nod towards purists, there's a bracketing mode: keep your finger down and the W90 takes three pictures – one at what it thinks is the correct exposure and one a stop either side.
Continuous shooting in best-quality mode happens at a tedious frame per second although you can up the speed to 5fps if you're willing to use ISO 3200 or higher, and reduce the resolution to 5Mp. However, the buffer will only accommodate six shots before expiring and flashing a "Data being recorded" message.
Will outlast its owner in the desert
Power-on happens in just over a second, and the shot-to-shot time is around two seconds. It isn't rocket-like, but unless an important scene is unfolding in front of you it's unlikely to be an issue. The lens is good and sharp, reaching from 28 to 140mm in 35mm terms, and offering a reasonable aperture range of f/3.5-f/5.5.
Image quality is good, if not exactly trail-blazing. Although our images had crisp edges, JPEG mottling was a constant feature. Not everyone will notice it, or indeed care, as it's not sufficient to ruin an image, but printed at a large enough size the W90's images will be easily distinguishable from those from, say, the Canon S90, which costs around £30 more.
For ramblers and the clumsy alike
ISO performance was a real strong point. With the rest of the image tests in the bag, it seemed safe to assume that the W90 would return some fairly lacklustre results. Instead, the still life set up remained acceptable until ISO 800. ISO 1600 was a different matter altogether, but with some careful sharpening and contrast adjustments you could just about come away with a decent flash-free indoor image.
You can push the ISO beyond, to 3200 and 6400, but this restricts the available number of pixels to 5.03Mp. Perhaps inevitably, image quality at these settings was best forgotten. Annoyingly, there's no manual mode. However, there is 720p HD video at 30fps which adds to its appeal for use in all weathers.
Cool or what?
Treating the W90 to a cold bath resulted in a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, the lens appeared to handle the distortion caused by light refracting on contact with the water. On the other, our image was very soft - it's something you can see even in Pentax's W90 press images if you go here  and click on sample image. Indeed, keen snorkelers may prefer to buy a standard, high-quality compact and treat it to a decent underwater casing instead.
As before, it's worth pointing out that a decent, magnesium-alloy camera such as the Canon S90 is likely to withstand more than its fair share of punishment, even if it doesn't say so on the tin. It will also take better pictures and gives you a full manual mode to boot.
Lightweight, versatile and takes the knocks too
The W90 is an interesting blend. It might not take the best images, but many will consider this a compromise they're willing to make considering the build quality and the possibility of underwater photography.
In terms of whether you should get this or the Olympus 8010 the choice is fairly clear: the 8010 has a higher Mp count, is more expensive, bigger, and heavier, so the Pentax Optio W90 is a good choice for anyone who wants a reasonably good camera that will survive most calamities.
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