Pentax Optio WG-2 review

The Pentax WG-2 GPS is waterproof, shockproof and freeze proof

Reasons to buy
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    Ruggedised outer casing

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    Bonkers ultra-modernist design

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    Destruction proof spec

Reasons to avoid
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    Not easiest design to use

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    Softness on maximum zoom

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The Pentax Optio WG-2 GPS is waterproof, shockproof, freeze proof and crush proof and packs a 16-megapixel sensor, ultra modernist styling and GPS

Are you an active type wanting a camera capable of surviving both sand and surf this summer, but moreover one that stands out from the crowd?

The Pentax WG2, this iteration of which adds GPS, looks like it has been designed by an eight year old boy on a sugar rush. Its toughened qualities are indicated by a lens surround resembling a Casio G-Shock watch face, while all the arrows and diagonals on the bodywork recall a running shoe; it looks quite unlike any digital camera we've seen before – and that's obviously the intention.

Is the WG-2 tough enough to make it onto our list of the best digital compact cameras around?

Though outwardly toy-like, the headline features are serious enough: a 16-megapixel resolution from a back-illuminated 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor for improved sensitivity, 3-inch widescreen ratio LCD, 5x optical zoom with internally stacked lens design ensuring at no point does it actually protrude from the camera and get into harm's way, plus HDMI output for direct connection with a flat panel TV to replay its 1920x1080 pixels video clips.

Its destruction avoiding qualities are better than most of its ilk as well – though we've yet to see the new Olympus TG1 flagship 'Tough'. This Pentax camera is claimed to be able to survive a dunking to a depth of 12 metres for up to two hours, a drop from 1.5 metres in height, a weight of up to 100kg dumped on it, plus operating in minus 10°C.

If you can stomach the Marmite design aspect and a rather premium price at £349.99 (although the version without GPS is a more realistic £299.99) all the above sounds enticing enough. But how does the camera fair in practice?

Pentax Optio WG2: Controls

Grip this thickened Smartphone-sized unit in your palm and you get the impression that it could truly be built to last. Despite its ruggedised exterior the Pentax WG2 weighs a manageable 194g and will fit in the back pocket of your jeans.

The hardened controls on the camera require a definite press with a greater amount of pressure than non toughened cameras – the power button in particular – doubtless to avoid accidental activation if the camera is dropped or bounced around a bit.

There's no potentially vulnerable zoom lever surrounding a power button here. Instead we're asked to use a toggle switch on the back plate for zooming in or out.

The rear plate buttons also have a stiffened feel with just the right amount of resistance. That said, and not least because of their small size and proximity to each other, they'd still be slippery to use with wet fingers and impossible with ski gloves on.

Controls are clearly marked and separate review, menu and delete buttons feature. A four way control pad also feels instantly familiar. We missed a physical shooting mode dial – instead we were directed to an on-screen toolbar – but a turning dial would again have been a point of vulnerability, given the circumstances in which this camera is designed to be used.

As it is, all external ports have a first unlock and secondly slide open action to prevent accidental ingress of any unwanted materials due to basic human error. But we still felt the need to check everything was firmly sealed and then check again before taking this one for a dip.

Pentax Optio WG2: Screen

The Pentax Optio WG2 features the regulation issue 3-inch backscreen, here presented in widescreen 16:9 ratio format and offering a 460k-dot resolution and anti reflective coating, with acrylic layer for additional protection.

If you choose to actually shoot photos in widescreen ratio though, this necessitates a resolution drop to 12 megapixels. If you want the full 16 megapixels, then stick to 4:3 aspect ratio, whereby the view on screen is cropped with black bands featuring left and right.

While the LCD picture is visible in bright sunlight, contrast is not quite sufficient to be able to determine finer detail, such as whether the shot is properly pin sharp. Still, cartoon-ish function icons have been rendered bright and colourful so are easily recognisable whatever the viewing conditions.

Pentax Optio WG2: Battery

The Pentax Optio WG2 is supplied with a rechargeable lithium ion battery that will deliver 260 pictures from a full charge. Whilst not breaking records nor raising any benchmarks that is at least better than the average 200 images managed by most pocket point and shoots.

A separate charger and plug are supplied in the box, with the battery needed to be removed from the camera body for replenishing.

Pentax Optio WG2: Image quality

There is a danger with a toughened camera that features and, moreover image quality, come second to form. Generally you don't get optimum image quality from a small, folded zoom lens that at no point protrudes from the body – as if it did, this would be an obvious point of vulnerability when dropped or dunked.

Because the lens is set within the body however we also had to be careful to avoid stray fingertips creeping into the edge of the frame or partially obscuring the shot.

Making the most of the widescreen LCD, the Pentax Optio WG2 offers Full HD 1920x1080 pixels video at a smooth 30fps replay speed but sound is bog standard mono; also, when we adjusted our framing auto focus was slow to catch up.

Offsetting this is one of the flashiest features of the camera: a digital 'microscope' mode whereby six little LED lights circling the lens illuminate. While that's pretty there is the caveat that image quality is fixed at a lowly two megapixels if selecting this option.

Under close inspection there are familiar image bugbears here, like pixel fringing between areas of high contrast and barrel distortion/leaning verticals at maximum 28mm wideangle setting.

There's occasional softness if attempting shots at maximum zoom setting too, because there's only digital anti shake provided – rather than the more effective sensor shift mechanism – to combat the effects of hand wobble.

Neither of these are deal breakers however and we were impressed with detail when attempting close up/macro shots, and also with colours, which are well saturated and vibrant straight from the camera.

Pentax Optio WG2: Verdict

You're paying a premium here for the 16 megapixel, 5x optical zoom WG2's rugged construction, and then an extra £50 on top of that for the GPS facility, to bring us to its manufacturer's suggested £349 sale price.

It doesn't make sense therefore to consider this Optio model as your next camera unless you really are looking to make use of both those facilities on a regular basis.

For image quality alone, a compact system camera, such as the Olympus E-PM1, which also retails for £349, is a better bet, as the WG2's pictures are no better from those of a non-toughened snapshot £150 less expensive.

Having said that, for all but the most exacting, the results straight from the camera will certainly be good enough. Plus, of course, you will attempt shots with this camera that you wouldn't risk with any other, which has value in itself.

Pentax Optio WG2 availability: Available now

Pentax Optio WG2 price: £349.99

Gavin Stoker

Gavin Stoker has been writing about photography and technology for the past 20 years. He currently edits the trade magazine British Photographic Industry News - BPI News for short - which is a member of TIPA, the international Technical Imaging Press Association.