While your current digital camera may be OK for ordinary photos and videos, do you have an underwater camcorder to capture your kids swimming with dolphins or to take snapshots of those beautiful coral reefs that you're snorkeling through?
Unlike normal camcorders that may offer higher-quality video or a top-of-the-line lens, underwater devices are specifically designed to give you a good picture (usually without all the extras) in an underwater environment. In fact, many of the devices are capable of plunging up to 200 feet into a pool, lake or ocean.
To keep all of the precious components inside the device safe, an underwater camcorder features a rugged outer shell and is sealed tightly with a host of doors that cover the battery, memory card and transfer ports. To ensure everything is ready for submersion, some cameras, such as the Panasonic SDR-SW20, have switches on each door that will show red when open and black when closed.
I tested three devices -- the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 and the SeaLife DC800 -- to see how each handled still photos and videos while being immersed. Although the Panasonic is the only device that's specifically a video camera, the other two products are capable of capturing video as well, even though their main function is to take stills.
How we tested
To compare the three devices, each was submerged in about 3 feet of water in a private pool while I recorded multicolored falling rings as they sank to the bottom.
To test how rugged each product was, the cameras were kept underwater for 30 minutes, and then taken out and placed back in the water for 15 minutes. After that, I left them in the pool at a depth of about 9 feet for another 30 minutes (except for the Panasonic, which is only rated for 5 feet) and then yanked them out to see how well they reacted to the pressure change.
Also, since accidents are a lot more likely with cameras held by wet, slippery hands, I "accidentally" dropped the cameras from about 5 feet.
Finally, to measure how well each took still photographs, a submerged shark was placed at the bottom of the pool along with the aforementioned rings.
Olympus Stylus 1030 SW
Thin yet solid, attractive yet rugged, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is truly a design marvel. The beauty of the 1030 SW put the other two devices I tested to shame. Its chrome finish made it easy on the eyes and its beautiful 2.7-in. LCD display made viewing targets underwater both simple and convenient.
Unlike the other cameras, which are specifically designed for underwater use, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW (according to the literature) can be submerged in 33 feet of water, dropped from 6 feet in the air onto a concrete surface, survive in 14-degree weather and withstand 220 pounds of pressure. In fact, while I was getting ready to submerge the Olympus, I accidentally dropped it on a concrete walkway from eye-level -- about 6 feet high -- and was surprised to see not one scratch or ding on the surface.