Both the Sony and the Panasonic are also supposed to be shockproof, dustproof and freezeproof, too, thanks to reinforced glass and rubber gaskets. They take a licking and keep on clicking.
Here again, the Panasonic shines; I brutally tossed it, kicked it and flipped it 25 times onto concrete; it still looked new. The Sony’s sliding lens cover, however, took some damage when I subjected it to the same admittedly over-the-top treatment.
The photos look great — maybe not Canon S90 great, especially in low light. But they’re above average for pocket cameras, and because this camera is so rugged, it may well last you a lot longer.
But the videos are what you’ll really write home about.
Panasonic treats video as a first-class citizen on this camera; there’s a dedicated Record button right on the back. So to shoot video, you don’t have to switch modes or burrow into a menu (as you do on the Sony). It shoots 720p hi-def video that, especially in good light (like the sunshine that will probably accompany your waterlogged outings), looks fantastic. You can even use the zoom while you’re filming, which is a rarity in cameras.
SANYO XACTI VPC-WH1 ($310, 30X zoom, 3 pounds). Be warned: there’s only one thing that alarms onlookers more than immersing a digital camera in water — and that’s immersing a camcorder.
But this one is designed for exactly that purpose. It’s bright yellow (or bright blue), so it’s easy to spot in water. The controls are big and easily operated with one thumb underwater (or on land).
A 16-gig SD card holds about four hours of best-quality video, and the battery shoots nearly that long on a single charge.
Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks: the video is a little soft, the stabilizer could be better and the camera’s widest angle is extremely “zoomed in.”
PANASONIC SDR-SW21 ($224, 10X zoom, 0.5 pound). This bright orange, yellow, or silver camcorder is far sleeker, smaller and lighter than the Sanyo; it’s not much more than a palmful. It’s rugged, too, built for four-foot drops to concrete. It comes with a foam handgrip floater so the thing won’t sink.
In fact, the design is so great, it’s almost not fair that it’s such a loser of a camcorder. It doesn’t even capture hi-def footage: it films at 640 by 480 pixels, max, with the quality you’d expect from a cellphone in 2007. And the battery conks out after less than an hour. Best to forget this one.
So how did my undersea gadgets fare on the shark dive? They were a bust. The sharks hang out 45 feet down, on the sea floor. The companies aren’t kidding around with their depth ratings: at precisely 10 feet down, the Sony’s buttons stopped responding, and at exactly 33 feet, the Panasonic similarly clammed up. (The camcorders’ depth ratings are similar: 10 feet for the Sanyo, 6 for the Panasonic.)
The undersea Nova cameraman later explained that the water pressure down there winds up pushing all of the buttons simultaneously, which is why they stopped working.
In the end, then, I didn’t get any shark shots at all with these gadgets — but that was expecting too much, anyway. Using them for snorkeling, in pools and on water slides was a joy. I wound up with photographic memories that most people assume are unattainable on waterlogged outings.
Don’t even bother with the camcorders. The video from the Panasonic TS2, a still camera, easily trounces them — and generally takes better photos than the slimmer Sony.
In fact, you could even be happy with the Panasonic TS2 as your everyday pocket cam. The wide-angle lens lets you grab vistas in a single shot, the low-light shots are decent and the video quality is just awesome.
Above all, the waterproof/shockproof aspects don’t cost you anything in size, weight or features — only a few extra dollars upfront. And the next time someone mentions a trip to the Bahamas, you can safely think: “Photos! Videos! Drops to concrete!”
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.