By Burt Helm
The Good Works underwater, good for basic snapshots
The Bad Limited features, too big to fit in most pockets
The Bottom Line The WP is an easy choice for tourists looking to shoot photos by the pool or sea
What happens when you dunk an expensive digital camera into a fountain in midtown Manhattan? You get a lot of weird looks. But if that camera happens to be the Pentax Optio WP, you can get some neat photos, too.
With the nearest beach a good hour away, I had little choice but to step out of the office, walk over to the nearest fountain, and startle a few passersby as I tested the underwater capabilities of the Optio WP, a waterproof camera from Pentax that lets you shoot photos up to 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet) under water.
A BIT CLUNKY. It's the fourth camera I'm testing in my search for the perfect slim and compact 5-megapixel camera. The WP, which retails for $350, is a bit unusual: There aren't many waterproof models on the market for the amateur user to take in the pool or on vacation.
Most other point-and-shoot digital cameras have underwater capabilities, but only if you buy a special "marine case" that sells separately for a few hundred dollars. Other than that, there isn't much choice between the cheapo waterproof disposables you see in drugstores and the expensive pro models you see in Jacques Cousteau movies.
Luckily, this camera does well enough on dry land to make it a good choice for any casual tourist -- not just avid snorkelers and beach bunnies. It's not as slim as the other models I've tested, however. The WP's shape is a bit clunky, and it's thicker and wider than the others, measuring 4 inches by 0.9 inches by 2 inches.
BARREN GREEN MODE. But it isn't totally without style: The optical 3X zoom moves inside the camera, so nothing protrudes from the waterproof casing. Plus, the buttons on the camera are oversized and fit nicely in the hand -- the layout is so simple that it almost feels like you're using a child's camera.
The WP has a pretty slim set of features, with the usual presets, such as "portrait," "landscape," and "night" modes, as well as a "soft flash" feature for glare reduction. There isn't much beyond that, though. When I switch over to the camera's basic user mode -- called "green" mode -- it locks off access to many of the other features. All that's left is the ability to turn the flash off (the added red-eye flash feature is disabled, however), go into "portrait" mode, and, of course, zoom in and out.
While Pentax may just be trying to make things as simple as they can, I found green mode too restrictive, even for a basic point-and-shoot model like this one. The expanded feature set was limited to begin with.
UNDERWATER EDGE. Despite the no-frills features, the camera snapped attractive shots in its standard setting. Colors were bright and sharp in a range of light levels, though the autofocus sometimes had trouble locking on quickly. Again, the basic green mode disappointed, as it forces you to reduce the image quality to "two stars," from "three," and there was a noticeable difference. Under water, the camera took decent-looking shots. Then again, I can't compare it to how any of the others would do, and there wasn't much to focus on in the fountain.
The slightly clunky WP does have its shortcomings, but I ended up liking it. Even without many extras, the photos are acceptable, and it's hard to find a nice underwater point-and-shoot anywhere else.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York