Dive deep with 3 underwater cameras

These digital cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and SeaLife don't mind a dunking.

Underwater, things also went well. Unlike the other devices, which feature buttons in awkward spots, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW puts all the main buttons -- power, zoom, capture -- in convenient locations on the top and back where they're easily accessible.

Snapping stills is where the 1030 SW shines. After comparing shots, I was gratified by how much detail the 10.1-megapixel camera was able to capture. When I took pictures of the rings, the camera was able to show the grooves along the side and even captured the screw holes toward the bottom. And with its ability to accurately capture light and shadows without a hitch, I was quite happy with its performance in well-lit areas.

That said, I wasn't too happy with how well it was able to recreate the detail of the shark lying at the bottom of the pool. Unlike the rings, which were submerged in a well-lit area, the shark was at the bottom of the deep end and not as much light was getting through. Without the help of the light, the camera started to lose its ability to capture a high-quality image and some of the detail was lost.

Video capture on the shallow end of the pool was adequate, but not nearly as appealing as that produced by the Panasonic SDR-SW20. That said, as a device that's specifically designed with stills in mind, I didn't expect too much from the Olympus' video capabilities.

I took two videos -- one from a longer range and one from a closer range. The camera was able to capture the sunlight breaking through the water relatively well.

After dropping the rings into the pool, I recorded their descent. The 1030 SW responded well and was capable of reproducing the action without a hitch. But in terms of detail, the camera was woefully behind its competitors. Not only did it fail to capture some of the finer areas of the pool, but also the image looked slightly off-color and noticeably rough.

The Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is a fine underwater camera that can do more than any other device in this review. If you're looking for something with superior video capture though, this probably isn't for you. But if you don't mind subpar video and would like to hand this to the kids without worry of damaging it, the US$400 price is well worth it.

Panasonic SDR-SW20

The Panasonic SDR-SW20 may be one of the ugliest camcorders you'll ever see, but what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in great video quality and the kind of ease that you typically won't find in other devices. With a red outer shell and black accents, the camcorder is much too big and bulky to be to be carried around in a pocket with any ease.

Like the Olympus, the Panasonic is rugged and designed to withstand some punishment, although it can't hold out in all the environments the Olympus can.

According to Panasonic, the SDR-SW20 can survive in 5 feet of water and withstand a drop of 4 feet. Its plastic outer shell doesn't seem rugged enough to withstand any major shock and the hearty CRACK! I heard after dropping it made me think twice about doing it again. However, after the drop, there were only a few scratches on the side and it worked fine.

As far as the user interface is concerned, though, the Panasonic stands out. It can sometimes be difficult to get to all the buttons you're looking for and capture the right angle for the perfect shot while underwater. But with the help of a flip screen and just a few simple buttons underneath the flip screen, the SDR-SW20 makes it easier than any other device.

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