7 days living with.....a budget tough compact camera

Not a week goes by on Pocket-lint where we don't report on some sort of tough gadget that claims to be waterproof, dustproof, shockproof, nuclear-war proof and so on. So I thought I'd take one of these, so-called, tough gadgets for a spin 7 days style.

I'm not a regular user of tough gadgets (being quite a wimp myself they're not the exactly the perfect fit), but I'm going somewhere that calls for a bit of extreme adventuring and thought I'd see just how tough they really are.

Are they Popeye on spinach or Popeye on candy floss? Do they really live up to their billing and can they really handle the sorts of extremes that they promise?

As this is an experiment for a budget camera - the Olympus TG-310 was selected - rather than for a £5k rugged laptop, I won't be venturing to the Arctic, dropping it out of a helicopter and setting it on fire. Nope, instead I'll be taking it on holiday to Belize in Central America to see if it can handle a bit of backpacking.

The TG-310 is synonymous of the sort of budget-friendly gadget releases that we're seeing on a weekly basis now. It's the little brother to the slightly tougher TG-610 but still claims to be waterproof to 3 metres, freezeproof to -10 degrees C (14 degrees F) and shockproof to a height of 1.5 metres.

But this isn't a review, so don't expect a big overview of its features. This is merely an experiment to see how a budget tough compact camera can cope with the demands of a bit of backpacking....

Monday

A quick stop off in New York City on the way and like the bazillion other tourists pounding the Manhattan sidewalks, I see it as a good chance to grab some snaps of some of the most recognisable landmarks on the planet.

And that's where a budget-compact camera is certainly a winner. Sure, it can take a bit of H2O action and can survive the rough and tumble of the travel process, but it can also be used just like your regular compact camera.

So if you're no professional photographer, and you're not the type who usually has to take an extra suitcase on your holidays just to carry your SLR lenses, then a budget tough cam could be just what you're after for your summer hols.

The display on the back may not be as sharp due to the extra plastic waterproofing, but with all the mod-cons of your regular compact on board such as dual image stabilisation for reducing blur to face detection, intelligent auto mode (i-Auto) and AF tracking, you're bound to get some good snaps - certainly as good as you would with a similarly priced compact.

Tuesday

Arrival in Belize and the first thing I notice is that the TG-310 isn't in my hand luggage with all my other "important things" (i.e. other gadgets).

Nope, my good lady has seen fit to just chuck it in the side of her rucksack and it has therefore had a few hours being bashed around by overworked and underpaid airport baggage staff, and a few more jam packed under a ton of other luggage in the hold.

The first real test of its toughness then. And it passed with flying colours. Not a mark on it. I'm not saying that a normal compact wouldn't have made it through the trip in one piece but it was reassuring to know, once I knew it wasn't in my hand luggage, that it would probably be okay and with no worry at all about scratching up the screen.

Wednesday

Its first real challenge - a boat trip along a river with a manic Mayan tour guide with no sense of danger or safety, and a trek in an incredibly humid jungle.

The humidity wasn't a problem at all for the tough cam, with other people on the tour complaining that their cameras were getting greasy with the mix of sweat, insect repellent and sunscreen, I simply dipped the Olympus into the river every now and then to wash it off (quickly for fear of having one's hand being bitten by a crocodile, you understand).

It was also nice to not worry about the tour guides erratic boat driving skills. As every other tour member kept their cameras in a dry place to avoid damage from the numerous unneeded splashes he created I was able to grab some nice shots along the way, safe in the knowledge that a bit of water backlash was nae bother.

Thursday

Another travel day, this time across the Caribbean Sea to the island of Caye Caulker. Hey, it's a hard life - but someone's got to do it.

The heat was pretty unbearable, so we hit the pool in our hotel straight away taking the 310 with us, of course. Again, another novelty as we don't usually take a camera to the pool. It's normally a bit of a hassle as you don't want to get your camera wet and pools are, well, notoriously wet.

We got some great underwater shots of, well, not very much really, just us pulling stupid faces with a bright blue background. The nice thing was that the camera fit into the pockets of my swimming shorts and wasn't really noticeable when I wanted to do the odd length (which wasn't all that often, if I'm honest).

The 310, like most tough cams, has an underwater setting as well so you don't even have to worry about getting all the right settings in place. Just point and shoot - exactly what you want with a compact.

Friday

Okay, so now it was time to get serious. Seriously sun burnt that is. We hired a kayak for the day and set off around the island in search crocodiles and other less scary marine life.

And hey, why take two bottles into the shower when you don't have to?

The Olympus was brilliant at switching between above water shots for landscape shooting and the odd bit of digital twitching and underwater shots whenever we thought we'd seen something special.

And when we did finally muster up the courage to jump in with the colourful fish over a particularly special looking bit of coral we were rewarded with some really good pictures proving that the underwater option on budget compacts isn't necessarily a novelty - it really is a fully-fledged mode that will give you some stunning shots.

Saturday

Video time. We didn't even bother with still images. Why? Because I didn't want the rays or sharks at "Shark Alley" to bite my fingers off whilst I fiddled around with the settings. So it was just a case of point and record.

Sure, the sound is crap and the video is very wobbly - but five years ago grabbing HD footage for the home video collection like this would have cost a fortune.

The beauty of the budget compact camera is that most now pack at least 720p video recording as standard which, combined with the underwater option, makes for an impressive function.

Sunday

Water park day and only one aim really. To stretch the camera to its limit by taking it down as many slides as I could. I didn't break the 3-metre rule (I don't think) but continual splash landings didn't really seem to agree with it.

The first sign of trouble was a few wet spots behind the display. The next sign was a dead camera.

Drying it out overnight didn't do it any good but the positive news was that the SD card was fine. So even if your budget tough cam does run into bother, chances are you won't lose all your holiday snaps.

Conclusion

Although we inevitably killed the budget tough cam, it was only really because we were trying to do so. I mean, how many videos of a ride on a water slide does one man need?

Certainly not the 15 or 20 I took, complete with a big plunge every time. Most people may take a couple of videos and certainly not after breaking the 3-metre rule whilst snorkelling the day before (I fancy myself as a bit of a free-dive champion).

No, the Olympus TG-310 certainly provided exactly what you'd expect from a sub £200 tough compact camera. That being decent shots, ease to use and, most importantly - reassurance that it would survive a bit of rough and tumble and the odd bit of water action along the way.

Budget tough cams aren't really designed with the super-extreme sports type guys in mind - they're much more about providing a sturdy product that can stand up and be counted when needed.

Whether that's for taking family snaps at the beach, grabbing some shots of the Pyramids from your Nile cruise, or indeed doing a bit of extreme sporting - that's up to you. You get what you pay for really, just don't expect an indestructible device to be easy on your wallet. And the bottom line here is that all this rough tough gadget stuff isn't just gimmickry. It works and it's bloody good fun to use too.