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Olympus µ 1050 SW / Stylus 1050 SW Gordon Laing, December 2008
 

Olympus µ 1050 SW / Stylus 1050 SW review

The Olympus µ 1050 SW or Stylus 1050 SW as it’s known in North America, is a 10.1 Megapixel compact with a 3x optical zoom and a body that’s shockproof to 1.5m, freeze-proof to minus 10 degrees Celsius and waterproof to depths of 3m.

The 1050 SW was announced in August 2008 as the successor to the 850 SW, while the existing 1030 SW remains the flagship in the range with a wider lens and even tougher credentials. Note Olympus recently rebranded the ‘SW’ range with the ‘TOUGH’ badge to further cement their unique selling point, but existing models like the 1050 should still be labelled SW. In our review here we’ll test the 1050 SW’s features and compare its quality to its biggest underwater rival, along with the best terrestrial compact at a similar price point.

Olympus states the 1050 SW is guaranteed to operate at depths of up to 3m for one hour. This may be 1m shallower than its arch rival the Pentax Optio W60, and for half the time, but to be fair, you’re unlikely to notice the difference in practice. Few people will be underwater at shallow depths for a length of time to challenge either specification, and even if they were, battery life would be a bigger problem, especially if the water was chilly.



Olympus 1050SW


The important thing though is the 1050 SW, like the Pentax Optio W60, can be confidently used around water. So whether you’re into kayaking, jet-skiing or snorkelling, capturing your baby’s first splashes in the pool, or simply hiking in heavy rain, the 1050 SW will be perfectly happy. This water and dust resistance also makes it appropriate for use on the beach or ski slopes. It’s really quite liberating to use a camera in these kind of conditions, where you’d normally fear for the safety of electronic and optical equipment.

While some reviews seem satisfied to take underwater claims at face value, we put them to the test. First-up, a dive into a swimming pool, where the 1050 SW happily captured all the fun in and out of the water. It’s great fun for the kids and allows you to capture memories which most won’t have on record, whether a first swimming lesson or a race down a water slide. Interestingly while some photographers may be concerned by the reaction of others to a camera in a pool, the only one we received following the initial shock of seeing a camera get wet, was a stream of requests from people wanting their pictures taken. That said, you should still ask permission from the pool and make it clear to anyone around that you’re taking pictures.

   

Next-up a tougher test, snorkelling under the chilly surface of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu at a temperature of around 8 degrees Celsius. The murkier water sapped the sunlight, and low temperatures ate through the batteries, but the 1050 SW still performed well. In both the pool and lake we used the 1050 SW’s Underwater Snapshot preset with the flash to capture good-looking portraits from a distance of a meter or two, but not really any further – you can see an example in our Gallery section. The controls were easy to use underwater and the screen also remained quite visible most of the time although with direct sunlight shining it could become harder to see. In all these respects, the 1050 SW performed similarly to the Pentax W60, and in practical underwater terms, there was little to choose between them.

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While both cameras perform similarly underwater in real-life terms, Olympus goes one step beyond its rival by guaranteeing additional tough handling, claiming the 1050 SW is shockproof to 1.5m and freeze-proof to minus 10 degrees Celsius. Again, not ones to accept such claims at face value, we put both to the test. First a short spell in a domestic freezer at, ahem, several degrees below the ten quoted, although with no ill effects as a consequence.

Then under permission from Olympus we dropped the 1050 SW from a height of 1.5m onto a hard surface. The impact made a sickening sound, only matched by the look of horror from bystanders, but the camera subsequently powered-up and operated without a problem. That said, one corner of the plastic screen covering had cracked, requiring a service before any further underwater action. So while the 1050 SW can still take photos after a hard knock, any cracks may temporarily compromise its waterproof integrity. We’d still say the TOUGH badge is deserved though.

 

Olympus 1050SW - top view
 
 
Measuring 93x62x23mm and weighing 167g with battery, the Olympus 1050 SW is narrower and a tad slimmer than the Pentax W60, but taller and a little heavier. It’s still sufficiently slim and compact to squeeze into smaller pockets though. Depending on your region, it’s also available in four colours, described by Olympus as Dolphin Grey, Pacific Blue, Misty Rose and Midnight Black.

In a departure from previous Olympus TOUGH / SW compacts, the 1050 SW is fitted with a vertically-sliding front cover similar to those on Sony’s Cyber-shot T-series, which serves both to protect the lens and act as a power switch. The action is also similar to Sony’s, with a satisfying snap at the open and closed positions. While this cover may protect the (admittedly sealed) lens from knocks, any moving parts like these are obviously more vulnerable to damage under the rough handling the 1050 SW may face – it seems like an unnecessary design tweak more for fashion than function. That said, maybe the cover addresses a genuine problem faced by earlier models, and it should be noted our sample operated fine over the extended review period. But you may still prefer a model with no external moving parts like the Pentax W60 or Olympus’ own 1030 SW.

 

Olympus 1050SW - rear controls
 
Like most compacts these days, there’s little in the way of a dedicated grip on the 1050 SW. Unlike many models though, there’s not even a ridge or a handy cross hatched logo for your right middle finger to rest on at the front, while on the rear, your thumb has to press against the ridged edge of the mode dial. In practice your middle finger can certainly slip on the camera’s front surface, and while there is a cross-hatched Olympus logo, it’s too far over to be comfortably used as a rest unless your thumb relocates to the middle of the screen. Of course that’s the experience with our fingers and you may find it perfectly comfortable, so as always, we’d recommend trying it for yourself. Like all compacts which house their lens in the far corner, also watch out for your left fingers getting in the way during two-handed operation.

Beyond the power and shutter release button, all the controls are on the rear surface to the right of the screen. Like the Pentax W60, the shutter release requires a firm press to operate, no doubt due to its underwater sealing, although the other buttons feel similar to normal cameras.

New to the 1050 SW, and indeed unique to most cameras, are tap controls, where various aspects can be operated by a sharp tap to the left, top or right side or rear of the camera. Tap the right side to adjust the flash, the left side to set the Shadow Adjustment backlight compensation, or the top twice to confirm. Tap the rear to enter play mode and tap either side to scroll through images or the top to start a slideshow.

   
If tap controls are enabled, the 1050 SW will display a guide on-screen as the camera powers-up, although this can prove annoying when you just want to get on with your picture taking. Like touch-sensitive screens, the system works most of the time, but at others it may fail to recognise a tap, forcing you to repeat the action until it’s understood – this can end up taking longer than if you’d just entered the required menu using conventional buttons, but it can still prove convenient under some conditions or when you’re gloved.

The Olympus 1050 SW is powered by a small 740mAh Lithium Ion battery pack and is supplied with a recharger; this should be good for a couple of hundred shots under normal conditions, but take it underwater and cold temperatures can quickly sap the power. To be fair, this is no different from other underwater cameras, so always remember to have a full charge before diving-in.

The battery compartment also houses the memory card slot and is of course sealed against water, but like all underwater equipment, you should check for grains of dirt which may compromise the seal before submersion. Like other Olympus compacts, the 1050 SW uses xD memory cards which in our experience are generally slower and pricier than more common  formats like SD. Olympus does supply the 1050 SW with an adapter to take SD, but sadly only the Micro variety which again aren’t as widespread as the full-sized versions. It’s a shame Olympus doesn’t follow Fujfilm’s lead by fitting a slot which can take either xD or normal SD cards, or simply abandon xD in favour of SD altogether. Note: annoyingly, some of the 1050 SW’s presets including the Panorama function, will only work if the camera is fitted with an xD card.

The tripod thread is sensibly positioned virtually in the middle of the base; this may block the compartment from opening when mounted on a tripod, but at least the camera is central. The camera’s only port (a combined USB and TV output) is safely located behind a relatively hefty sealed door on the right side of the body.

The Olympus 1050 SW is equipped with a 3x optical zoom with ten relatively coarse steps and a pedestrian equivalent coverage of 38-114mm – the same as the earlier 850 SW and 790 SW models. This lacks the useful 28mm wide angle coverage of the 1030 SW, or indeed the Pentax W60 – in fact the Pentax not only zooms wider, but longer too with its 5x range delivering an equivalent telephoto of 140mm. You can see an example of its coverage below, and further examples of how you can use it in our sample images Gallery. The coverage shots were also taken within moments of those on our Pentax W60, Canon 870IS / SD 880IS, Canon A2000 IS and Sony T77 reviews, so feel free to open them and compare.

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Olympus µ 1050 SW / Stylus 1050 SW coverage
6.7-20.1mm at 6.7mm (38 mm equivalent)
 
6.7-20.1mm at 20.1mm (114mm equivalent)

Unsurprisingly for a waterproof camera, the 1050 SW’s lens remains housed within the body at all times. In a belt and braces approach, the lens is first sealed into the body by a transparent shield, which itself is protected from knocks and scratches by the sliding front cover. In contrast the Pentax W60’s lens cover is always on show, which raises concerns over scratches or marks. The 1050 SW is relatively slow to power-up, typically taking around five seconds from flipping the cover down to the live view appearing on the screen; you can add a couple more seconds if you wait for the tap-control guide to disappear too.

The actual lens specification is 6.7-20.1mm with a focal ratio of f3.5-5.0, and the closest focusing distance is 20cm in normal macro or 7cm in super macro modes when zoomed-out; we actually managed to focus as close as 5cm with the 1050 SW’s super macro mode, but it remains less impressive than many compacts including the 1cm closest distance of the Pentax W60. See our Gallery for an example. One neat option worth mentioning though is the super macro with LED mode which shines a bright lamp at the front of the camera (similar to a mobile phone ‘flash’) to provide illumination at very close range.

Like other underwater cameras, the 1050 SW is sadly lacking optical or sensor-shift stabilisation, and instead relies on increasing the sensitivity to reduce camera shake. This may allow fast shutter speeds to eliminate any wobbles, but also reduces the image quality as a result.

Olympus µ 1050 SW / Stylus 1050 SW Digital Image Stabilisation off / on
100% crop, 6.7-20.1mm at 20.1mm, 1/13, 100 ISO, IS off
 
100% crop, 6.7-20.1mm at 20.1mm, 1/100, 800 ISO, IS on

Above are examples taken with and without Digital Image Stabilisation with the 1050 SW fully zoomed-into its maximum equivalent of 114mm. Traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/114 to eliminate camera shake, so the example above left at 1/13 is unsurprisingly shaky. The 1050 SW’s Digital Image Stabilisation mode increased the sensitivity to 800 ISO, allowing a shutter speed of 1/100, which easily eliminated any wobbles, but at the cost of visible noise and reduced detail.


Olympus 1050SW - rear view
 

Admittedly it’s nowhere near as bad as the Pentax W60 which, moments after from testing the Olympus 1050, opted for a considerably higher sensitivity of 3200 ISO, operating at a reduced resolution of 5 Megapixels with significant smearing as a result. That said, neither result is ideal. Digital anti-shake systems really are no substitute for optical or sensor-shift solutions, and the absence of either is a major downside to both the Olympus 1050 SW and Pentax W60.

Round the back of the camera is a 2.7in screen with 230k pixels that’s slightly larger than the 2.5in model on the Pentax W60, albeit with the same screen resolution.

Side by side, we’d say the 1050 SW’s screen looked a little better, although it’s not in the same league as the 3in models on higher-end cameras like Canon’s 870IS / SD 880IS.

Pressing the DISP button cycles between views which include either a Live Histogram or an alignment grid (the Pentax lacks a grid option), and there’s also a handy preview of exposure compensation by splitting the screen into four live thumbnails showing the effect different settings.

     

 
   

Pressing the OK button overlays a menu running vertically down the left side with options (in Program mode) for the White Balance, sensitivity, drive and metering modes, along with the resolution and compression settings. By pressing the rocker up and down, you can highlight each setting, with its subsequent options popped out to the right; it’s a quick and easy way to change these common settings.

 
   
Pressing the Menu button first takes you to a splash screen with large icons – again in Program mode, these take you to more conventional menus to configure aspects like the camera, setup options and image quality. Like other Olympus compacts there’s also a Silent Mode icon which acts as a handy mute button. The Panorama function is also accessed from this page, but again only if you’re using a compatible Olympus xD memory card.

The 1050 SW has access to shutter speeds from 1/1000 to four seconds, but no means to directly control them or the aperture. The main dial on the rear offers three main shooting modes for still photos, which work similarly, but lock down different amounts of options when you press the OK button. The camera icon switches the 1050 SW into Program mode with complete access to all the different settings. Digital Image Stabilisation acts like Program, but takes over the sensitivity controls. Auto locks down everything apart from image quality.

 
In addition to these are 23 scene presets, chosen on-screen with an example image followed by a brief description. The 1050 SW also offers a Guide mode which steers you towards the desired result with a list of goals like blurring the background or shooting a subject in motion.

The 1050 SW of course offers face detection, although in our tests it proved the least effective of compacts reviewed over the same period, struggling to stay locked-on as the subject turned towards profile; it works best with the subjects facing the camera. The 1050 SW also follows Sony to offer smile detection, and while it works, our subjects needed pretty significant grins. Unlike Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-T77, there’s also no adjustment of the trigger point, nor any indication how close you are to it.

The movie mode offers 320x240 and 640x480 modes at 15 or 30fps; sadly like most compacts, there’s no option to adjust the optical zoom while filming. Video is recorded in the Motion JPEG format with an AVI wrapper and a maximum file size of 2GB; the VGA / 30fps mode consumes around 1.6MB/s. Note: the best quality VGA / 30fps mode will be limited to clips of 10 seconds if you’re using the internal memory or Type-M / Standard xD cards. Like the Pentax W60, the video quality isn’t anything to get excited by. The motion is smooth on 30fps footage, but it suffers from quite visible graininess even under good light; there’s certainly better quality movie modes on many terrestrial compacts.

The 1050 SW offers two continuous shooting options: the normal sequential mode can capture up to 25 frames at a pointlessly slow 0.38fps, while the High Speed mode operates at a much more useful 5.4fps for up to 24 frames, albeit at a reduced resolution of 3 Megapixels and using much higher sensitivities like 800 ISO. A self-timer is of course available, but only with a 10 second countdown.

   
At the heart of the 1050 SW is a 10 Megapixel CCD sensor measuring 1/ 2.33in; the same as most compacts in this price bracket including the Pentax W60. The sensor delivers images with a maximum resolution of 3648x2736 pixels, which can be printed up to 12x9in at 300dpi. No fewer than six lower resolutions are available, and images can be recorded with either Fine or Normal JPEG compression.

Best quality JPEGS measure around 4.3MB each, and the 1050 SW is fitted with 41.6MB to get you started, although you’ll obviously be wanting to fit a larger card sooner rather than later – especially if you’re shooting in watery conditions, as changing cards may not be an option.

The sensitivity ranges from 80 to 1600 ISO at full resolution, with Olympus sensibly avoiding the nasty-looking higher sensitivities of rival compacts. To see how the quality of the 1050 SW measures-up in practice, take a look at our real-life resolution and high ISO noise results pages, browse the sample images gallery, or skip to the chase and head straight for our verdict.


All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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