Point, Click, Drop and Dive

A new crop of rugged cameras can handle anything, even butterfingers

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Exilim EX-G1

When it comes to cameras, the only thing worse than dropping one on the ground is dropping one in the drink. Such Kodak-moment calamities are common, which is why a number of camera manufacturers have come out with point-and-shoot models that can be fumbled, dunked and even buried in the snow.

I tested four shockproof, waterproof, freeze-proof cameras, all of which can be dropped from at least 4 ft. (1.2 m) and can withstand temperatures as low as 14°F (–10°C). (It wasn't in the budget to send me to Antarctica, so the office-kitchen freezer had to do.)

A number of technologies give this crop of everything-proof cameras their ruggedness. Vital circuits and bits like the image sensor are wrapped in memory foam or protected by a hardened bezel to keep things in place if the camera should take a tumble.

Generally, the sturdier the camera, the bulkier it is. The "crush-proof" Olympus Stylus Tough-8010 is built like a tank and can withstand up to 220 lb. (100 kg) of pressure. Like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS2, the Olympus can be submerged at 33 ft. (10 m) for up to an hour. The Pentax Optio W90 bottoms out at 20 ft. (6 m), and the wafer-thin Casio Exilim EX-G1 goes down only 10 ft. (3 m).

As with nonshockproof cameras, a higher megapixel count doesn't necessarily mean superior picture quality. Both the Pentax and Casio, with 12.1 megapixels, outperformed the 14-megapixel Olympus and Panasonic models. But unless you plan on making poster-size prints, any of these cameras should be sufficient.

One key area of differentiation is video. All but the Pentax have a one-touch button dedicated to switching to video mode. And all but the Casio offer high-definition video. But only the Pentax and Panasonic can connect straight to your HDTV.

The core features put all four cameras on even ground: the Casio, for example, is the only one that lacks image stabilization, but its interval-shooting feature allows for time-lapse photography. So you'll have to decide for yourself which one best suits your needs. Are you more likely to surf the Banzai Pipeline or to dirt-bike over your camera? As for me, I'm going with the Pentax Optio W90. It shoots HD video, takes crisp photos and fits great in the hand. It also comes with a cool carabiner strap that can hook onto a belt loop. Surf's up.