The Pentax WG-3 GPS ($349.95 direct) is the latest in the company's line of go-anywhere point-and-shoot cameras. The 16-megapixel shooter offers numerous upgrades compared with last year's WG-2 GPS including a faster, sharper lens, support for inductive charging, sensor shift image stabilization, and overall improved image quality. Its photos are a bit noisy, and they don't look quite as good as images captured by our current Editors' Choice rugged camera, the Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS. That model has been replaced by the Olympus TG-2, which we haven't tested? yet?the TG-2 features the same lens, image sensor, and imaging engine as the TG-1, so we expect it to perform similarly.
Design and Features
The WG-3 features a bold design that combines bright, metallic colors?green or purple?with a body style that's a bit wider than most compact cameras. It measures 2.5 by 4.9 by 1.3 inches and weighs 8.1 ounces. Compare this with the funky, rugged Canon PowerShot D20, despite having some curvy lines as part of its design, the D20 is more traditionally proportioned?it measures 2.8 by 4.4 by 1.1 inches and weighs 8 ounces. In addition to a standard flash, there are six LEDs that surround the lens to provide even illumination when shooting in macro mode. They can be activated via the menu, and automatically turn on when you set the shooting mode to Digital Microscope?a special setting that lets you focus on objects as close as 1 centimeter from the lens.
The lens is a 4x zoom design that is fairly wide when zoomed out. The 25-100mm f/2-4.9 (35mm equivalent) zoom is also quite bright at the wide end, which is helpful for underwater shooting. As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to get as close as possible to what you're photographing under the sea, as even the cleanest water will cloud your field of view when you're further away from the fish or coral reef that you're trying to capture. The lens doesn't capture as much light when zoomed in, but that shouldn't be an issue when using the camera outdoors in the daylight.
The shutter release and power button are located on the top of the WG-3, with other controls on the back to the right of the LCD. There's a zoom control button, a dedicated movie button, as well as controls to activate the self-timer, enable macro shooting, change the shooting mode, and control the flash. It's a Pentax camera, so you also have the company's trademark Green button, which brings up a software menu that has four customizable functions, each mapped to a different direction on the standard four-way control pad. By default these adjust ISO, EV Compensation, the focusing area, and enable automatic macro shooting, but you can customize them to best suit your shooting style.
The 3-inch 460k-dot LCD is wider than what you'll usually see on a point-and-shoot camera. It has a 16:9 aspect ratio, the same as HD video. The image sensor is actually a 4:3 design, but there's a crop mode that records 12-megapixel 16:9 images if you prefer to shoot wider. It's not as crisp as the 610k-dot OLED found on the Olympus TG-1 and TG-2, but it's much crisper than the 230k-dot display found on the budget-minded Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS20.
The camera is rated for use in water as deep as 45 feet, which is five feet deeper than the previous model. It's strong enough to withstand pressure of up to 220 foot-pounds and to survive drops from heights of 6.6 feet. And it can shoot in temperatures as low as 14?F, good news for those who live in or enjoy spending time in frigid environments. It can go a bit deeper than the Olympus TG-1, that's limited to 40 feet, but the newer TG-2 hits 50 feet.
The integrated GPS took about a minute to lock onto a signal upon turning it on for the first time. The GPS in the Olympus TG-1 locks on in a shorter time, about forty seconds. Once the signal is acquired, the WG-3 GPS automatically adds your exact geographic location to every photo that you capture. There's also a version of the camera available without a GPS, the $299.95 WG-3 that also omits inductive charging and the front monochrome LCD. The front display can be set to show the time of day and the current barometric pressure in hectopascals. It's always on, even when the camera is off, and is backlit?just tap the shutter button when the camera is powered down and a pleasing orange light illuminates it.
Performance and Conclusions
The WG-3 starts and captures an in-focus shot in about 2.5 seconds, can fire off shots continuously with 0.7 second between each photo, and records a 0.2-second shutter lag. The Canon D20 is faster to operate?it starts and shoots in 1.4 seconds, fires off a photo every 0.5 second, and records a 0.2-second shutter lag.
The WG-3's startup speed is hindered by a bit of human reaction time that normally isn't a factor in our testing. Holding down the shutter release all the way after hitting the power button is our usual methodology, but doing so with the WG-3 activates a pan focus function that focuses on distant objects and doesn't engage the autofocus system. The camera is able to start up and grab a shot in this mode in about 1.8 seconds, which is still not the speediest result. If you don't take care when shooting a photo while you're out and about you can fall into the trap of accidentally triggering pan focus when you'd rather focus on something closer. You can disable it by engaging the macro shooting function?it will always confirm focus when capturing a photo if that is on. Unfortunately, the camera does not remember to leave macro on after powering down.
I used Imatest to check the sharpness of photos captured by the WG-3's lens. At its widest angle and aperture it scored 1,948 lines per picture height. This is better than the 1,800 lines we require for a photo to be sharp, and it's an exceptional score for a rugged camera with such a fast lens.? This is one area in which the Olympus TG-1 struggles; it only scored 1,656 lines, mainly due to softness at the edges and corners of photos.
As you increase a camera's ISO it becomes more sensitive to light, but with that extra sensitivity comes noise in the form of graininess and loss of detail. The WG-3 doesn't do a great job in this regard; it can only keep noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 200. Detail is pretty decent at ISO 400, even with 1.7 percent noise, but once you've set the camera to ISO 800 or above, image quality deteriorates quickly. Images are a huge step up from the WG-2, but can't keep up with competitors in this class at higher ISO settings. The Canon D20 controls noise through ISO 800 and its images at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 are much better than those from the WG-3.
Video quality is a mixed bag. The WG-3 does capture footage at 1080p30, 720p60, or 720p30 in QuickTime format. Footage is sharp and colors are accurate, but the sound of the lens refocusing is audible on the soundtrack. In fact, if you zoom in or out, the sound of the lens moving is overwhelming.
There's a micro HDMI port, housed in the battery compartment, as well as a proprietary USB port. The latter doubles as the connector for in-camera charging, and the WG-3 GPS also supports inductive charging via the Qi system. If you have a Qi charging mat you simply place the camera on it to recharge the battery. There's no dedicated battery charger included. Standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards are supported.
The WG-3 GPS is one of the more interestingly designed tough cameras on the market. Its lens is fast and sharp, it can go deep underwater, and the LED lights around the lens are a great tool for macro photography. ?Its image quality is noticeably better than the WG-2, but it still lags behind the Olympus TG-1 at medium to high ISO settings. Added features like GPS and inductive charging set it apart from the standard version of the WG-3, which is available for $50 less. If you generally shoot in brighter light, you'll be quite happy with the images you'll get from the WG-3, but if you find yourself in situations where you need to shoot at a higher ISO the same-price Canon PowerShot D20 is a better choice.