The 720SW is, from the outside, a nice and shiny, fairly compact digital camera with a large LCD on the rear of the camera. It's only if you were to crack it open -- and we wouldn't advise you do that, as it'll void the warranty -- that you'll find what makes the camera truly special. The insides of the camera are all housed in a shock-absorbent and waterproof gel that gives the camera a remarkable level of physical sturdiness that's not normally associated with consumer level cameras.
Normally, in order to make any product robust, the designers have had to skimp on the visual details -- Panasonic's line of undoubtedly strong Toughbooks are the classic example of a design that not even its mother could love -- but in the case of the 720SW, that's not true. As mentioned, externally it looks just like any camera out there, although out of necessity a number of components -- most notably the zoom lens -- are more encased than you'd expect on a normal camera. Our review sample was encased in a silver body, although there is also a "Polar" Blue casing as well.
The rear of the camera body houses the 2.5-inch LCD display screen. There's no true optical viewfinder on the camera itself, which some snappers might find irksome. Camera controls have been kept simple, and like many compact cameras, they're also on the small side, which could be problematic for those with chunky fingers.
The camera within the casing is a 7.1 Megapixel model with a 3x optical zoom. The smallish zoom is an understandable enough compromise when you realise that the entire zoom casing has to be contained within the 91mm x 58.7mm x 19.8mm camera body. It's also got a 5x digital zoom function and 25 preset shooting modes, including quite a few built with the camera's waterproof casing in mind. How many cameras do you know that have an underwater macro mode?
The 720SW uses Olympus' BrightCapture LCD technology, which Olympus claims uses the information captured by the camera's CCD to brighten up the LCD display -- making accurate picture taking easier -- while also reducing the need to utilise the camera's inbuilt flash capabilities.
In terms of durability, Olympus rates the 720SW as being shock resistant to falls of up to 1.5 metres and waterproof for up to 3m -- within a one hour timespan. That puts it solidly within the purview of most surfers, pool swimmers and arguably the best fit for family snapshots, as it'll take a bit of accidental abuse -- and the odd splash -- without complaint.
As with the rest of Olympus' consumer range, the 720SW uses xD format picture cards, although one isn't provided in the box. The 19MB integrated memory will only take around 5 shots at highest quality (3072 x 2304), so you'll realistically need to add the cost of a reasonable capacity xD card to the camera's AU$599 asking price.
The 720SW performed well but not exceptionally during our tests; for most photographic purposes it's quite well suited, although we did notice that the shutter was a touch sluggish when attempting any kind of quick photography. Despite the claims of the BrightCapture technology, we found that the camera also tended to overfill any dark scenes with its admittedly dazzling flash, leading to more than a few washed out pictures.
The Olympus 720SW did perform as advertised in terms of its robustness and waterproof capabilities, although it should be noted that we didn't test a unit to destruction, so it could realistically be a few centimetres either way in terms of its physical sturdiness. For research purposes, we gave it briefly to a small group of toddlers while it was on, and aside from a few grubby jamprints on the camera LCD, it survived quite well. Simple falls didn't seem to bother it at all, although we did find that it wasn't entirely scratch resistant.
Underwater shots work quite well on the camera, although understandably it can be a touch tricky accurately framing your shot in that kind of environment. Undoubtedly, keen underwater photographers -- especially scuba types or those who need longer underwater exposure -- will still be looking for something with a more robust body and better shooting options, but for the average snapshot taker who wants a camera that can take a few knocks and catch a few shots of the kids at the pool, the Olympus 720SW comes highly recommended.