The arrival of multi-gigabyte memory cards at pocket-money prices has meant that many of us now shoot everything and ask questions later. So if you want a camera that can go (almost) anywhere you can, and keep on shooting, Olympus's ultra-toughened mju 850SW is a £200 temptation -- it's waterproof, freezeproof and shockproof.
If you've yet to use one of the Olympus ruggedised SW cameras, you might need some shock-proofing yourself. The mju 850SW is no heavier, fatter or harder to use than any comparable style compact, with none of the awkwardness of, say, Ricoh's waterproof models. The case combines matte metal and smooth plastic, eschewing the metal rivets of previous SW cameras for a simple, reassuring solidity.
The camera is fully waterproofed to 3m, which is fine for swimming pools and the surf, but keep it on its wrist-strap in deep water -- it doesn't float. It's also drop-proof from at least 1.5m (though expect a few scratches if you regularly let it fall) and freezeproof for sub-zero snapping.
Shutter, power and menu buttons are small and precise, and the mode dial is difficult to nudge accidentally. If the 8-megapixel sensor feels distinctly entry-level these days, it's more than enough resolution for the average holidaymaker, and images are absolutely fine. Olympus has opted to smooth over the finest details in photos rather than risk grain or jagged edges, and colours could be a touch warmer, but exposure and focus are spot-on. Video clips (up to 640x480 pixels) are also bright, smooth and low on detail.
The 64mm (2.5-inch) display is fine in bright conditions, but less so in the dark, where it gets rather grainy. Olympus is also gradually improving the ease of use of its compacts, moving key settings from its old-fashioned menu screens to the central OK button.
While the ease of use of Olympus compacts is improving, it still has some way to go. The 850SW's shutter delay, at over half a second, is much slower than the best compacts can manage these days -- and is particularly annoying when shooting outdoors sports or in the water. In addition, the small buttons are very fiddly to use when wearing gloves, so skiing and diving photos aren't as straightforward as you might hope.
As the SW range enters its third generation, you might also expect a longer lens than the 3x optics on board the 850SW.
Instead, you get an average face-detection system that's fine for full-face portraits, but more easily confused by complex scenes. There's also a Shadow Adjustment system to boost detail in shaded areas. This is worth using, but lacks both the wow factor and the flexibility of the ground-breaking D-Lighting system from Nikon.
If you're in the market for an all-weather, tough compact camera, there's nothing out there to compete with Olympus' SW range. The mju 850SW's image quality and handling might be a little frustrating in everyday use, but hit the slopes or the surf and you can simply keep on shooting when everyone else is too scared to try.
Edited by Jon Squire