Pentax Optio WG-2 review

Pros

  • Amazingly tough
  • Striking design
  • Microscope mode

Cons

  • Poor image quality
  • Slow performance
  • Shiny monitor

A couple of months ago I reviewed the Pentax Optio VS20, a nice looking 20x zoom travel camera with a lot of potential, but which was completely ruined by an overcrowded 16-megapixel 1/2.3in CCD sensor and some of the worst image processing I've seen in years. The reason I mention it is because today I'm taking a look at another Pentax compact, the waterproof, shockproof and crush-proof WG-2, which also has a 16-megapixel 1/2.3in sensor. Is it going to ruin this camera as well?

Adventure cameras have become very popular over the past few years, with all of the major manufacturers now fielding at least one waterproof, shockproof compact in their line-up. Pentax has been making them longer than most though, and the WG-2 has quite a pedigree behind it. This experience shows in the camera's credentials. When it comes to survivability, only the Panasonic Lumix FT4 (£260) and the Olympus Tough TG-1 (£309) can match it for water depth and shock protection, and both are more expensive. The WG-2 is currently selling for around £224.

Design and features

The WG-2 is certainly a distinctive looking camera. It has a rugged futuristic body shape that wouldn't look out of place on the set of a sci-fi movie, with lots of lines and ridges and oddly textured panels. In common with most of its contemporaries the design features exposed bolt heads, which I'm reasonably sure are purely cosmetic. There's really no reason why adventure cameras have to be styled in this way; Sony has demonstrated that it's perfectly possible to make a waterproof compact camera that looks just as stylish and elegant as a normal camera, and most of Pentax's previous waterproof models have looked less like military hardware. At least the camera's unusual shape and rather over-the-top design does make it easier to hold securely, although that heavy-duty strap and karabiner do get in the way a bit.

There's no disputing the WG-2's toughness. Pentax claims it is waterproof to 12 metres, able to withstand drops of up to 1.5 metres and survive crushing force of up to 100kg. It also claims it is able to withstand cold temperatures down to minus 10 centigrade, but as I've pointed out before, most digital cameras can operate at that sort of temperature without a problem. It's certainly a ruggedly built camera, but unlike the Panasonic FT4 and Olympus TG-1, Pentax has opted for a mostly plastic body. This doesn't really save much weight; the WG-2 is only a couple of grams lighter than the FT2, but with the addition of rubberised bumpers on the protruding ends it does mean that the camera bounces quite well. Don't tell Pentax, but I did try dropping it from about head height onto a hard wooden floor, and it survived completely unscathed.

The WG-2 does have one very unusual feature. Around the lens is a ring of six white LED lights, and the camera can focus down to approximately 1cm from the lens. The LEDs are used to illuminate close-range subjects in what Pentax has dubbed "microscope mode". It does work extremely well, producing clear, sharp and evenly lit pictures of small objects at very close range. How useful this is will depend on where you usually take photos. For a naturalist keen on insect life I imagine it would prove invaluable.

Apart from its ruggedness and that unique microscope mode, the WG-2 is a fairly standard compact camera, with a specification broadly similar to Pentax's Optio LS465. It has a 1/2.3in 16-megapixel back-illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor, a 5x zoom lens equivalent to approximately 28-140mm, and a 7.6cm (3.0in) monitor. Pentax claims that the screen has an "anti-reflection coating", but I've seen mirrors with lower reflectivity.

The control layout is also very similar to a conventional compact camera, although the buttons themselves are excitingly chunky to match the body. Like Pentax's other compacts the WG-2 is fully automatic, with a range of shooting modes accessed, not too surprisingly, via the "Mode" button on the D-pad. It has a useful selection of auto modes, including some unusual ones like hand-held night snap, which attempts to combat low-light camera shake by taking three pictures in quick succession and compositing them together. Other modes include underwater still and movie settings, as well as the usual landscape, portrait, surf & snow, pets, kids etc. While the control interface is fine for most casual snapping, if you want to stray from the fully automatic path it's a bit more complicated. Settings such as exposure compensation, ISO and white balance are relegated to the second page of the main menu, so changing either of them requires a lot of tedious scrolling and clicking. Fortunately like most Pentax compacts it's possible to re-purpose the green button as a customisable function button, which makes life somewhat easier.

Performance

While the WG-2 may be designed to accompany you on your adventures, it does so at its own pace. It starts up in about 3.5 seconds, which is a bit on the slow side, and in single shot mode its shot-to-shot time is approximately 2.7 seconds, which is pretty sluggish by current standards. The main cause of the delay is the AF system, which is very slow, taking about a second to focus even in bright sunlight. There is a continuous shooting mode, which can shoot 10 frames at just over one frame a second, but it then takes several seconds to empty the buffer before you can take another picture. The speed of your memory card will help here; a class 10 card clears the buffer in about eight seconds, a slower class six card takes about 12 seconds.

The WG-2 has a good movie mode, shooting full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution 30fps clips of up to 25 minutes duration. Audio is mono only, recorded by a single onboard microphone, but the quality is surprisingly good. Like most cameras the microphone isn't particularly directional, and it does suffer quite badly from wind noise in anything stronger than a light breeze. As usual, optical zoom cannot be used while recording video.

Battery duration is reasonably good. The WG-2 is powered by the same 925mAh li-ion battery found in all of Pentax's compacts, and it'll run the camera for approximately 260 shots. There is another version of this camera with a built-in GPS feature, and that too is powered by the same battery. GPS systems are notoriously power-hungry, so I suspect that battery duration is going to be a big problem for the GPS version. For this non-GPS version, 260 shots isn't exactly a lot, but I've seen worse.

Image quality

And so we come to the part of the review where I look at the results, and I'm afraid Pentax has done it again. What could have been one of the best adventure cameras on the market is let down by very poor image quality, and for exactly the same reason that spoiled the Optio VS20 I mentioned at the start; a tiny overcrowded sensor and shoddy image processing. I really thought camera makers were beginning to get the message that you simply can't keep squeezing more and more photocells onto a 1/2.3in chip without paying a penalty, but here we are with another 16-megapixel compact. More megapixels does not always make a better photo, and one look at the sample shots accompanying this review will show you why. The WG-2 suffers from noise problems from 400 ISO upwards, has very limited dynamic range, and images are over-sharpened and over-processed. It's not quite as bad as the VS20, probably thanks to the slightly better BSI sensor, but it's very far from good. Annoyingly in good light it can take a pretty decent picture, with nice colour reproduction and accurate focusing and exposure, and in fact the lens is actually pretty good, but once again it's let down by the electronics.

Verdict

The WG-2 is a camera that really looks like it means business. It can dive deeper and fall further than almost anything else on the market, and costs less than either of its only real rivals. It has some very clever features, such as the LED microscope lighting and dedicated underwater photography modes, but at the end of the day it's let down by the same problems that have dogged other Pentax compacts; a tiny overcrowded sensor and poor quality image processing. If Pentax could crack those problems it would be a winner.

As usual these ISO test shots are taken under constant tungsten studio lighting, using manual white balance and +0.3 exposure compensation. This is the full frame at minimum ISO. Download the original file.

f/4.8, 1/10th sec, ISO 125. Although there's no real noise problem at 125 ISO, the poor quality processing and over-sharpening has resulted in jagged diagonals, speckled artefacts in the darker areas, and poor colour saturation.

f/4.8, 1/15th sec, ISO 200. At 200 ISO there's still no visible noise, but the image looks even more over-processed, with poor tonal gradation.

f/4.8, 1/30th sec, ISO 400. At 4500 ISO the image quality takes a nose-dive as the noise reduction kicks into high gear, reducing detail and making the colour look blotchy and un-natural.

f/4.8, 1/60th sec, ISO 800. Noise is starting to take over at 800 ISO, and the image quality is getting steadily worse.

f/4.8, 1/125th sec, ISO 1600. At 1600 ISO the noise is plainly visible right across the frame, and nearly all fine detail is lost.

f/4.8, 1/250th sec, ISO 3200. Not so much a photograph, more an impressionist painting.

f/5.8, 1/320th sec, ISO 6400. Another fine example of a manufacturer including a completely useless high-ISO mode just for the bragging rights. I've seen Roman mosaics with more fine detail.

Here's my usual detail comparison shot, the 15th century carved door in Cathedral Close, Exeter. Download the full-sized version, at 4.7MB.

The image processing isn't quite as heavy-handed as the Optio VS20, but it's not far off. Over-processed, over-sharpened, and artificial-looking.

Annoyingly the WG-2's lens is actually pretty good. There's virtually no barrel distortion in this wide-angle shot. Download the full-sized version.

The over-sharpening is still very evident, but centre sharpness is very good. Contrast is slightly reduced by shooting through a glass lens cover.

There's a little bit of purple fringing visible, but I think that's charge leakage rather than chromatic aberration. Corner sharpness is also quite good.

Even on an overcast day the WG-2 has burned out the highlight detail, while the shadow areas have virtually no detail. Download the full-sized version.

The wide-angle end of the zoom range is approximately 28mm. Download the full-sized version.

Who parked a van in my zoom shot? The telephoto end of the 5x zoom is equivalent to approximately 140mm. Download the full-sized version.

In good light the WG-2 can produce a pretty decent picture, with good colour and excellent exposure metering. Download the full-sized version.

Even in slightly shaded conditions the accurate metering and good colour reproduction can produce nice results. Download the full-sized version.

The WG-2 has a unique microscope mode, with special LED lights. Download the full-sized version.

Manufacturer and model

Pentax Optio WG-2

Image sensor

1/2.3in CMOS, 16.79MP total

Max. resolution

4,608 x 3,456, 16.0MP

Zoom

5x optical, 7.2x digital

Focal length (35mm)

5 - 25mm (28 - 140mm equiv.)

Maximum aperture

f/4.8-5.8

Shutter speeds

4 - 1/4000th

Auto-Focus

TTL contrast detection

Manual focus

N/A

Exposure control

Program auto

Exposure metering

Multi-segment, Centre-weighted, Spot

Image stabilisation

Digital only

ISO range

125 - 6400

LCD monitor

7.6cm (3.0in)

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

Wide 0.2 - 5.5m, Tele 0.2 - 3.5m (ISO Auto)

Drive modes

Single, continuous, continuous high-speed

Image formats

JPEG

Video

1080p 30fps, mono audio, 25 mins

Memory card slot

SD/SDXC/SDHC

Supplied memory

88.2MB built-in

Battery

925mAh li-ion rechargeable

Ports

USB 2.0, HDMI Micro

Dimensions (W x H x D)

122.5 x 61.5 x 29.5mm

Weight (body only)

194g inc battery and card

Accessories

Macro stand ring, strap, karabiner, manual, cables, battery charger

Software

MediaImpression 3.5

Warranty

12 months