The rugged Sony TX10 is a skinny digital camera that is built to survive the elements thanks to its water, dust, freeze, and shock-proof ratings. It fits easily into a pocket and is designed for convenience with mostly automatic operations and a high-resolution 3-inch touchscreen LCD. The TX10 is a playful fellow, but packs solid specs including a 10 frames-per-second burst mode and 1080i HD videos. With a $329 retail price and a waterproof rating up to 16 feet deep, the Sony TX10 is positioned well in the all-weather category.
Most manufacturers create a range of products based around a few core components. Sony employs this philosophy with its Cyber-shot digital cameras: About half of this year's models, including the all-weather TX10, point-and-shoot WX10, and long-zooming HX9V, among many others, use the same 16-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor. But because they each use different lenses, the results are different from camera to camera. Read on to see how the TX10 fares.
Body & Design
The Sony TX10 looks a lot like its predecessor, the TX5, with its skinny metal shell and sliding lens cover. The lens cover took some effort to open; it isn’t as slippery as other non-rugged T-series models, but that’s probably because its rubber seals cause friction. Those seals are necessary to keep the water out of the critical components, though they do let some water in behind the cover. After a dunk in the drink, we towel-dried the TX10 and then air-dried it for about 20 minutes. We then opened the lens cover, only to find more water. We closed it, and more appeared. We opened and closed the cover another 20 times, wiping a few drops of water off each time.
The Sony TX10 is rated to go 16 feet underwater, can safely operate in temperatures from 14 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and can fall from 5 feet and survive. This is a bit of an upgrade from the TX5, which could only snorkel to 10 feet under, though the other ratings remain the same.
Like the TX5, the TX10 has a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 4x optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization. The tiny internal lens has a dim maximum aperture of f/3.5 and captures even dimmer pictures when my left fingers frequently wandered into pictures -- oops.
The TX5 and TX10 look like twins from behind, too: Both have 3-inch touchscreen LCDs that take up the entire rear of the camera. There are no buttons -- just a screen. The TX10 does have four times the resolution, however, with 921,000 pixels. It also offers excellent contrast and vibrant color.
The touchscreen doesn’t work well. It's less sensitive than gadgets like the iPod Touch, and was a little slow to follow commands. Below water, the touchscreen doesn’t function well at all, which is pretty bad since there is no other way to adjust settings. To turn the flash off while shooting underwater, we had to bring the camera out of the water to change the setting, then go under again.
On the subject of underwater concerns, the USB/HDMI port compartment door on the left side of the camera is another vulnerable area. The two ports are individually sealed with rubber when the compartment door is closed, but the compartment as a whole is not. When we air-dried the camera, we opened up the compartment and found drops of water lining the metal edges. Maybe that’s why Sony instructs users to dry it out after every use.
The main interface on the TX10 is the touchscreen LCD, which is nice to look at, but not as friendly to handle. There are few physical buttons on the body -- just a power toggle, shutter release, zoom tilter, and movie recording -- so all the menus commands and setting adjustments flow through the touchscreen. The on-screen icons are big enough, but it's less sensitive than one would guess.
There are eight modes on the initial mode menu: Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Panorama, Movie, Program, Background Defocus, Scene, and 3D shooting. We generally avoided the Superior Auto mode because it applies extra noise reduction and we wanted to save the integrity of our photos (though some users might prefer the ultra-smooth look); we opted for Intelligent Auto most often. Program mode is as manual as it gets on this camera, offering several white balance presets along with a manual setting (called “one-push”), ISO settings from 125-3200, and the typical +/- 2 exposure compensation range.
The camera’s nine-point autofocus is the same system that’s on the WX10 and several other Cyber-shots, but the Sony TX10’s is a lot slower. It's probably because the TX10’s lens lets in much less light. The WX10’s autofocus was fast and there was hardly any shutter lag at all; because the TX10 and WX10 have many of the same internal components, we were hopeful that the TX10 would follow suit. Alas, the TX10 takes about a half-second to lock onto and snap a shot -- typical for an all-weather camera.
It takes its sweet time to turn on, but once the TX10 fires up it keeps going and going. It can snap 10 full resolution frames per second, thanks to its backlit CMOS sensor. The maximum burst rate and video resolution are dependent on the memory card’s buffer; Sony recommends Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo or SD, SDHC, or SDXC media rated Class 4 or higher.
The Sony TX10 has TransferJet technology that is advertised to wirelessly transfer files between compatible devices; this is something we didn’t test because we don’t have a Sony laptop, but anything that requires fewer wires sounds like a good idea. There's also the traditional USB method of transferring files to computers (or just using a card reader), and it supports USB charging, too; it can transfer files and charge its battery at the same time. The skinny lithium-ion battery can be charged via USB or through a wall-mount adapter. On the subject of connectivity, the Sony TX10 is one of few digital cameras of any brand that is not PictBridge compatible.
Although the TX10 uses the same backlit CMOS sensor as a number of Sony's higher-end Cyber-shots, many of which produce high-quality images, the TX10 has an inferior lens and thus captures inferior images. Shots suffer from the typical compact camera problems: low light shots are inconsistent, moving subjects tend to blur, and high ISO settings highlight some image quality issues.
But compared to other all-weather point-and-shoots, which also use slow, internal lenses, the Sony TX10 comes out toward the top of the pack. Indeed, the TX10’s images could be some of the best from an all-weather digital camera. Colors are accurate, shots are bright, noise is low, and details are fairly crisp.
To get the best shots, turn off the spotty flash and manually white balance the camera. Shoot as much as possible in bright lighting (it is an all-weather camera, after all) and show some patience with shutter lag when shooting in low light. Also keep the ISO setting low when possible; as the ISO increases, details turn to mush. Ocean waves look smoother and the shingles of faraway houses meld together.
Videos from the Sony TX10 look smooth -- as they should, at 1080i/60fps -- and sound good, thanks to the stereo microphone. There is a designated movie recording button, and still images can be captured mid-video. My only complaint with the movie mode was the shutter lag -- it sometimes took up to eight seconds for the video start recording.
The Sony TX10 is a good point-and-shoot camera, and it is even better when measured against its all-weather competitors. Its images outperform any all-weather camera that we've seen, but the TX10 still has quirks typical of a standard point-and-shoot: unnatural-looking flash, shutter lag, and blurred motion, to name a few.
The TX10 aims for consumers that live an active lifestyle, or at least think that they might need a camera that can withstand some extra abuse, and don't want to give up too much image quality or compactness. We haven't necessarily seen any all-weather cameras that do this any better than the TX10, though there are certainly other solid all-weather cameras, some of which might be a better option for a lot of users.
The Panasonic TS3 comes close, as it's the only other all-weather camera with a versatile MOS sensor. It's also much more rugged, rated for 40 feet of submersion and shockproof from 16 feet. GPS is built in as well for geo-tagging purposes. The images we've seen aren't as bright and clear as what the TX10 captures, though. Last year's TS2 model is still available for a few dollars less, though many users reported that the lens fogs easily after any exposure to water.
Olympus offers a few tough models as well, including the TG-610 and tank-like TG-810. They have great build quality, but image quality is another issue. They use ho-hum CCD sensors, which are even more susceptible to image quality problems when combined with dim lenses.
And of course, while it's still around, there's last year's TX5. It's waterproof to 10 feet, and has the same dust, shock, and freeze-proof specs as the TX10. It carries 10 megapixels on a similar backlit CMOS sensor that offers the same 10 fps burst mode. The TX5 doesn’t have full HD video: it has 1280 x 720-pixel movies only. Users frequently complained that water could easily get in behind the LCD (without any damage, however), so buy with caution.