Olympus TG Tracker Ken McMahon, June 2016
 
 

Olympus Tough TG-Tracker review

The Tough TG-Tracker is the latest rugged waterproof action camera from Olympus. The Tough brand has proved very successful for Olympus and a decade on from the release of its first Tough model it enjoys a fairly dominant position in the market for compacts that can survive the rigours of extreme environments.

Announced in May 2016, the TG-Tracker is a bit of a departure from the ususal Tough mould. Instead of a zoom it has a fixed focal length lens with an ultra-wide equivalent focal length of 14mm and a maximum f2 aperture. It's essentially a point-and-shoot model, with no control over exposure or sensitivity settings and though it shares some design elements of earlier Tough models it's styled more like a miniature camcorder than a conventional compact.

In terms of quality, the TG Tracker is equipped with a 1/2.3in sensor which can capture 4k video - indeed the sensor itself matches the 16:9 widescreen shape and 3840x2160 pixels of 4k video. This means photos taken in the best quality mode are also 16:9 shaped and contain 8 Megapixels - that may not sound very high, but on a sensor this size, modest resolutions aren't a bad idea.

Other features include a built-in led light, GPS and Wifi, the ability to detect and track acceleration, altitude / depth, temperature and direction of movement, a multitude of video and stills shooting modes including video loop recording, sequence shooting and a time-lapse feature. The TG-Tracker is waterproof to a depth of 30m, can withstand a drop from a height of 2.1m, will operate in temperatures down to -10C and can withstand pressure of up to 100Kg. Given its success with previous Tough models it's no surprise to see Olympus enter the action cam market, but it's got some, er, tough competition to deal with. Market leader GoPro has spawned a plethora of low-cost imitators and Sony, Garmin, TomTom and others haven't been slow to capitalise on our growing desire to capture and log every aspect of our outdoor pursuits. Read my review to find out how the Tough TG-Tracker measures up and whether it's the right model for you.






Olympus Tough TG-Tracker design and controls

My first impression on unboxing the Tough TG-Tracker was wow, it's really small! Compared with earlier Tough models the TG-Tracker is tiny, measuring 35x57x93.2mm - compare that with the Tough TG-4 which measures 112x66x31.2mm and it's immediately apparent that this is a different kind of camera altogether.

A more sensible comparison would be with the Sony X1000V which measures 24x52x89mm, significantly smaller, as is the GoPro Hero4 Black which in its waterproof housing measures 71x71x39mm. If you've been paying close attention to these figures you'll notice that you need to do some shuffling to make the relevant width, height and depth comparisons, that's because the TG-Tracker's layout has the lens at the end of the long axis, like a camcorder, as does the Sony X1000V. I'll talk about that more in a second, but first a word about weight - an important factor for an action camera.

The TG-Tracker weighs 180g with the card and battery fitted. That compares with 152g for the GoPro Hero4 Black in its waterproof housing and a mere 114g for the Sony X1000V. That might be a consideration if you're on a walking or climbing trip and need to travel ultra-light, but I didn't find the TG-Tracker's weight a problem in general use. The only time it really became an issue was when I mounted it on my cycle helmet when its presence, while not exactly a burden, was very obvious.


As I've said, the TG-Tracker's lens is at the end of the long axis. In front of it is a removable protective cover; two of these are supplied - one for use on land and another for underwater shooting. Above the lens is an LED light which can be used for stills or video shooting or turned on independently like a torch, though I'd think twice about that as it takes its toll on the battery.

The controls are all mounted on the top panel; at the front is a big red record button which is used for both stills and video, depending on the mode selected. Behind that there's a four-button panel; two of these activate the main and shooting mode menus, the other two are used for navigation and double up for Wifi activation and the info display.


Which brings us to the TG-Tracker's screen. By conventional compact standards the 1.5 inch LCD panel is small, but by action camera standard it's actually pretty generous. The most interesting thing about the screen though is not its size but the fact that it flips out. Mosat action cameras have fixed screens so this is a real advantage on the TG-Tracker - up to a point.

The flip out screen is great for shooting stills and video as without it you'd have to look at the side of the camera to see what you were shooting. But how I wish Olympus had articulated it so that you could twist it up down and forward, it would have made such a difference to the ability to shoot from low and high angles - something you're nearly always doing with an action camera. And on a camera designed pretty much for self shooting a forward-facing screen would have been a huge advantage. I'd assume it's technicaly tricky because of the sealing required, but if Olympus could do it, an articulated screen is something I'd very much like to see on the next TG-Tracker.

At the rear end there's a full height door to the combined battery and card compartment. The TG-Tracker takes micro SD cards which are tiny. If like me you're in the habit of removing the card from the camera and using a card reader to download photos and video you'll need an adapter, but it's easier just to connect the camera via the USB port using the supplied cable. The TG-Tracker's micro USB port and an HDMI port for connecting to a TV are located just inside the battery compartment.

Connecting the TG-Tracker to a laptop charges the battery while it's switched off; switch the camera on and you can then transfer your photos and video. According to Olympus the TG-Tracker's LI-92B battery has enough power on a full charge for 490 shots or about an hour and a half of 4K video. That compares very favourably with the GoPro Hero 4 Black which will will shoot just over one hour of 4K video on a full charge and 50 minutes on the Sony X1000V.

Being able to charge it via USB is a plus, though that's the norm for action cameras and is the way GoPro do it. One thing you don't get with a GoPro though is a mains charger, there were actually two in the TG-Tracker box - one with a three pin UK plug and another with a socket for a plug lead. The other thing to consider is that the removeable battery gives you the option of carrying a fully charged spare which you can simply replace if you run out of power while you're out and about.

On the bottom plate the TG-Tracker has a standard 1/4inch tripod bush. This can of course be used to mount the camera on a tripod, but is more likely to accommodate the supplied pistol grip. The grip is a handy accessory to have, but I must admit I found it just added to the TG-Tracker's bulk. In most circumstances you can hold the TG-Tracker very comfortably and securely in the palm of your hand. The grip does haver two useful features, however. A silver convex disc mounted at the front can be used as a mirror to frame up selfies, not as useful as a front-facing screen, but better than nothing.


A lot more useful is that the grip comes in two parts and if you remove the handle, but leave the mount attached to the camera you can then mount the TG-Tracker to just about anything using what the Olympus manual calls 'third party mounts' - otherwise known as GoPro mounts. So I was able to easily attach the TG-Tracker to my kayak, surfboard, bike helmet and Van with very little effort and no extra expense, though obviously if you don't already have a GoPro you'll have to buy the mounts. Olympus does make one mount accessory for the TG-Tracker; the CSCH-125 Tracking Holder allows you to carry the TG-Tracker on a harness at waist or shoulder height.

 

Olympus Tough TG-Tracker lens and stabilisation

As I've mentioned, the TG-Tracker has a lens with an equivalent fixed focal length of 14mm. According to the specifications that produces a 204 degree field of view. There are actually two settings for the lens, Wide and Wide underwater, the latter providing a slightly narrower field of view with less distortion - you can see the difference in the comparison below.

     
Olympus TG-Tracker wide
Olympus TG-Tracker Wide Underwater
     

This extreme wide angle field of view is designed to fit in as much as possible from a close up perspective, in other words it's really designed for self-shooting sports and other action. But that doesn't mean it's not suitable for anything else. True, the TG-Tracker lacks the versatility of a compact with even a modest 3 or 4x zoom and is by no means a general purpose camera, but you can shoot decent landscape and interior shots with it.

 

Olympus Tough TG-Tracker 1/320, f2, 100 ISO, 1.6mm (14mm equivalent)

 

The other thing to be aware of is that the TG-Tracker's lens is fixed focus. The extreme wide angle means that everything from 20cm to infinity is in focus and therefore there's no need for any kind of autofocus. So if you like shallow depth of field this really isn't the camera for you. The other thing to take note of is that's it's also not suitable for extreme close ups of small subjects.

The TG-Tracker features five-axis digital image stabilisation, but what a disappointment to discover that it only works for movies. Arguably, with an ultra wide angle lens on a camera designed for action photography, camera shake isn't a big issue, but there were occassions when I felt the situation would have benefitted from it. The TG-Tracker isn't alone in this though. Sony's X1000V has steadyShot image stabilisation, but like the TG-Tracker, it only works with movies. And the GoPro Hero4 Black lacks stabilisation altogether.


Olympus Tough TG-Tracker movie modes

The TG-Tracker has four video modes starting with a best quality 4k mode at 30fps. Next there's 1080p available at 60fps and 30fps followed by 720p also at 60fps and 30fps. Finally there's a 640x480 mode which also offers 60fps and 30fps rates. The 720p and 480p modes both also offer slow motion variants at 240 and 120fps for playback at 1/8th and 1/4 speeds respectively.

As with everything else on the TG Tracker, exposure is fully automatic and the focus is fixed, so there's really very little to do other than select your mode and start shooting. Except that there's a loop function that will continuously shoot clips of a specified length: 3, 5, 10, or 29:59 minutes. It's sequential shooting applied to movies and quite handy if you want short clips of the action but can't, or don't want to operate the camera while you're skydiving or whatever.

It's great to have the option of 4k on an action camera, though Olympus isn't alone in offering it - it's also an option on the GoPro Hero4 Black and the Sony X1000V. But don't expect the same quality from any of them as you'd get from 4k on a camera with a bigger sensor. Despite the TG Tracker's sensor having a native resolution that matches a 4k video frame (3840x2160 pixels), it only captures unscaled footage in its wide and or unstabilised modes. Enable either underwater mode or stabilisation and a small crop is made, therefore requiring subsequent interpolation to get it back to a full 4k resolution, which inevitably has an impact on ultimate detail. It doesn't help when the sensor is very small too.

Below I've made two comparisons of the Tough TG-Tracker's video quality in 4k and 1080p modes. The first set of crops were made from the area shown immediately below on the full 4k image in red. The top crop is from the 4k clip and the one below it from the same scene shot in 1080p. The 1080p clip is lower resolution and therefore shows a larger area with smaller detail (though the field of view is exactly the same in both modes). Both of these clips were shot in the TG-Tracker's Wide mode which provides the widest angle of view at the native sensor resolution in 4k mode. Judging from these crops, the 4k mode may be recording four times the number of pixels, but I can't see any discernable extra detail in the image compared to 1080p.


Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Wide mode 4K
 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Wide mode 1080p


This next set of crops were shot shortly after those above using all the same settings but this time with the Tough TG-Tracker set to its Wide Underwater mode which narrows the field of view, I'd assume by using a slightly smaller area of the sensor and interpolating the results back up to 3840x2160 pixels. You might therefore expect there to be a narrowing in the quality difference between 4k and 1080p. Comparing the Wide and Underwater 4k crops I think there is a slight deterioration, but regardless of that, as before there's no more detail in the 4k crop than the 1080p one, just more pixels.


Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Wide Underwater mode 4K
 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Wide Underwater mode 1080p

Now here's a selection of clips to demonstrate the TG-Tracker's video performance in various conditions.

 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample video: Kayak mount 4k / 30p Wide mode
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To start off here's a short clip taken with the TG-Tracker mounted to the front of my sea kayak on the Truro river. For this clip I set the TG-Tracker to its best quality 4k / 30p mode and enabled the stabilisation. I've set the TG-Tracker to Wide mode and the 204 degree angle of view here is wide enough to accommodate me and almost the full width of my paddle with the camera positioned only arms length in front of me. You can also see a 1080p version of this clip


 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample video: Kayak mount 4k / 30p Wide Underwater mode
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)
 
As for the previous clip, I'm in my Kayak, but this time around I've set the TG-tracker to Wide Underwater mode which reduces the field of view slightly. It's still plenty wide enough to accommodate me in the middle of the frame and show some background, but with the reduced field of view there's a little less distortion at the edges. You can also see a similar clip shot in 1080p.


 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample video: hand-held 1080 / 60p Wide mode
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This clip was shot in a shallow rock pool hand-held in 1080 / 60p Wide underwater mode. The difference between Wide and Wide underwater mode is simply the angle of view, which is slightly narrower with less edge distortion in Wide Underwater mode. The TG-Tracker can sense when it's more than a metre or two under water and sets the white balance accordingly, at this shallow depth it's probably set for daylight, which is fine. With small subjects like this is easy to make the mistake of getting too close. The TG-Tracker's close focussing distance is 20cm.



 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample video: hand-held 1080 / 60p Wide mode with light
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)
 
For this clip I activated the TG-Tracker's LED light which is mounted above the lens. The light output is 20 lumens which is bright enough to illuminate anything within a couple of meters. This clip was shot in a rock pool quite close to the surface, but in the shade of a big rock, so the extra illumination definitely improved the result.


 
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample video: hand-held 1080 / 30p time-lapse
Download the original file (Registered members of Vimeo only)
 
Finally, here's the Tough TG-Tracker's time-lapse feature in action. For this clip I set the TG-Tracker's time-lapse interval to half a second and mounted it on my bike helmet. There are seven interval settings available from .05 seconds up to a minute and you can choose to save the video in any format including 4k.



Olympus Tough TG-Tracker shooting experience

The TG-Tracker's big selling point is that it can log a huge amount of data about the environment - more than you get with most other action cameras. First let's talk about the practicalities of shooting with the TG-Tracker outdoors while doing stuff. I used the TG-Tracker whilst kayaking, surfing and cycling, as well as for taking snaps while walking in the country and in central London.

As an action camera, the TG-Tracker performs pretty well. With no exposure controls to worry about you can get on with doing what you enjoy and spend the the minimum of time setting up the camera; there's nothing worse than having to hunt through menus looking for settings when you're in the water. The TG-Tracker has a very audible (the volume is adjustable) single beep that tells you when recording has started and a triple-beep to tell you when it has ended.

One of the key features of an action camera is sequence shooting, it's so much easier to set things up in advance so that you can enjoy yourself without worrying about the camera. In this respect the TG-Tracker does very well. With a good selection of sequence shooting intervals between half a second and a minute as well as loop recording for video. It also has a time-lapse option that combines a sequence into a movie. I was disappointed to discover that it doesn't retain the individual frames, though if you set the video mode to 4K you could always grab frames form the movie later.


Fixed focus means you don't have to worry about that side of things, but you have to remember to keep at least 20cm between you and your subject, the temptation to get close in, particularly with an ultra-wide angle lens was difficult for me to overcome.

One aspect of the TG-Tracker that didn't particulalry impress me was the review and playback features. The TG-Tracker has a larger screen than many action cameras I felt Olympus could have made more of it. There's no review feature, so you can't see an image on the screen immediately after you've taken it.

To do that you need to enter playback mode an operation that requires no fewer than six button pushes to display the last taken image on the screen. If you want to look at other images it's also a bit of a faff as you can't cycle through the images in full screen view, you have to return to a screen of thumbnails, select the next image and press the OK button to display it and so on for image you want to look at. There's also no way to display the logged data for images.



To be fair, this is par for the course for most action cameras and there are far better options for reviewing images and their metadata on other devices. One thing you can use the TG-Tracker's screen for is to display a wealth of information about your current location. Press the info button and the first screen displays the electronic compass with GPS position co-ordinates. A second press displays a two-axis level, altitude, pressure and, if you're in the water, temperature. Finally a third screen shows the elapsed time since the start of logging and the vertical distance travelled.


Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Wifi and GPS

The TG-Tracker has built-in Wifi which allows you to view and transfer images on your phone and control the camera remotely. To start a Wifi connection you just press one of the double-duty Navigation buttons on the top panel - a blue LED flashes to indicate the Wifi is active and the screen displays a QR code which the Olympus OI. Share app can read to establish a connection. Failing that you can just connect to the camera's Wifi in your settings by entering the displayed password. Once connected the app offers four main options: Remote Control, Import Photos, Edit Photo and Add Geotag.

Select Import photos and images are displayed on a grid with a low resolution preview which you can tap to see a full-screen version. Unlike when viewing images on the TG-Tracker you can swipe to navigate through full screen images. You can't play back video remotely but you can copy files to your phone and then play them.


Remote control displays the camera view on your phone screen and allows you to switch between photo and movie modes. You can also set the white balance but, although there's an ISO setting sadly the only option, as on the camera itself, is Auto.

As when using the app with other Tough models you can configure a basic interval timer or trigger a short movie recording of up to 16 seconds. The interval timer is more like an advanced self-timer, taking no more than ten shots at intervals no greater than 3 seconds, you can also configure it to capture bursts (for burst shooting the maximum interval is 30 seconds) or movies instead if preferred.

Choosing Edit Photo lets you perform a number of adjustments on images that have already been copied onto your handset. You can apply Art Filters, superimpose text, logos, even signatures written on your phone's touchscreen, and play around with composite Photo Story arrangements.

Add Geotag gives you the option of applying GPS data logged on your phone to images on the camera card, but given the TG-Tracker has its own built-in GPS receiver this isn't something you're likely to want to take advantage of.

The TG-Tracker automatically appends the positional data it logs onto photos and you can view them on a map using third party software such as Lightroom for example. The on/off switch has a third Log position which allows you to log data even when you’re not using the camera. So when you’ve finished shooting you can continue to log by pushing the switch through ‘off to the ‘log’ position. This also saves time re-acquiring satellites when you turn the camera back on, but will result in reduced battery life.

The GPS and sensor data logs are stored in separate folders on the card and I’d assume you could make use of these in third party applications. You can of course also use the Olympus Image Track app which is available for Android and IOS to display photos both from the camera and your phone on a map as well to display a graph of the elevations data. 

I used the the Image Track app on my iPhone 6. Once you've established a Wifi connection with camera you can view all of the tracklogs on the card. Selecting one displays your route on an Apple map with position markers for each image or video. The first issue I had with this was loading time once you've selected a track to view. For several of my logged trips, the app was still displaying the loading message several minutes after I'd selected the tracklog, I assume because there were several lengthy video clips. If that is the reason, it would good to have an option to just choose photos so you can speed things up. The video when it is downloaded is displayed as a low resolution preview which is fine, but I was a little disappointed to discover there was no audio with the preview file.



Clicking a pin on the map shows you photos or video shot at that location and you can also display an elevation map. For my Kayaking trip this was of course a sea-level flat line, but this display would make more interesting viewing for climbers, or fliers of one kind or another.

The Tracker app also provides a readout of data from the camera's other sensors including start and finish times and duration, Horizontal and vertical distance, minimum, maximum and average temperature and pressure, and maximum and average horizontal and vertical speed. For lots of sports and outdoor activities this information can be useful, or at the very least interesting. While GPS-equipped action cameras like the GoPro series and the Sony X1000V can provide the positional info and speed, you'll only get the pressure and temperature data with the TG-Tracker. And though it's true that GPS can report depth and altitude, the TG-Tracker's built-in manometer provides more reliable and accurate data.

On the whole the TG-Tracker tells you more about the environment you’re using it in than any other action camera I can think of. Whether you actually need it all and how useful it is is another question. The GPS worked faultlessly (even on the London underground, which was pretty impressive) and I like that you can log when you’re not taking pictures at the flick of a switch. The other sensor data - direction, altitude, temperature and vertical distance travelled is novel and very accessible from the camera. It’s fun to have, but probably not all crucial for most people.



Olympus Tough TG-Tracker results

Now it's time to look at the image quality with my Olympus Tough TG-Tracker quality results, Olympus Tough TG-Tracker noise comparison, and Olympus Tough TG-Tracker sample images. Alternatively if you've already seen enough, skip straight ahead to my verdict!

 

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