While it might not be as garish as the previous tough models in the series (notably the 850SW), the 1050SW probably won't turn many heads with its boxy exterior. The 1050SW is custom built for surf and snow first and foremost, encased in a tough brushed metal finish on the front, with silver chrome accents on either side — an unfortunate magnet for fingerprints.
It's top heavy, given the hefty sliding flap that covers the lens and flash. Shutter and power on buttons are at the top of the unit, whereas menu controls are located on the back of the camera, next to the 2.7-inch LCD screen.
Shooting modes are all accessed from a rotating dial on the back. It's a little fiddly, especially when trying to operate the camera underwater, but it does the job nonetheless. All the buttons are finished in silver; a classy look that tries to bridge the gap between adventure camera and standard point-and-shoot. They are, however, very small — large fingers will probably have trouble pressing a single button, as opposed to mashing all of them at once.
Though the 1050SW is designed more for the action-lover than the couch potato, it still has the same functions that any other point-and-shoot on the market should have today. Face detection is there (but not underwater), so too is digital image stabilisation and a 3x optical zoom. Things begin to get a little different when considering the 1050SW is waterproof up to a depth of 3 metres, shockproof for drops up to 1.5 metres, and functions at temperatures up to -10 degrees Celcius. It seems that 10.1 megapixels is the standard number in resolution on compact cameras, and the 1050SW doesn't stray from this imperative.
But the real trump card of the 1050SW is tap control. Designed for skiers who don't want to remove their gloves to operate the camera, the 1050SW lets them tap the camera around the sides of the body to activate different controls. Tapping the top of the unit twice activates this mode, and whacking either side allows you to flick through photos and select menu options.
In theory it's a great idea, and in practice it does work — in most situations. While we couldn't head down to the ski slopes to test it in its true environment, it's still a novel function that's sure to start a conversation (and some heavy tap-and-play interaction) when you whip the camera out. We'll save the potential tap-related pick-up lines for you to think of though.
The 1050SW's panorama mode stitches together photos with no visible seams (click for larger image)
Panorama mode is intuitive, with the camera piecing together the image for you based on the first shot you take. Simply move the camera along the same axis and match the dot to the box that appears on the side of the screen. Three frames later and you have yourself a panorama, automatically stitched in-camera. Unfortunately, it's only available if you use Olympus' proprietary xD-Picture Card, not if you use microSD cards with the camera (not provided, but a microSD adapter is in the box).
Performance and Image Quality
For all the whiz-bang features that set it apart from other cameras in its class, the 1050SW is really let down by its standard performance. Turning the 1050SW on takes an acceptable time of around 2 seconds, but shot-to-shot time is grindingly slow. Pressing the shutter button again immediately after taking the first shot will result in a long wait time.
Most pictures come out with accurate colours, and image quality is generally fine. At higher ISO levels like 400 and 800, noise is kept under control but it is noticeable. The on-board flash does tend to be very bright, and washes out detail and colour in very dark situations or when used close to a subject. The spot meter is accurate in measuring exposure when you point it at a subject, but it does struggle in scenes where multiple areas need to be exposed correctly.
Underwater images do tend to have a bluish tinge to them which does make shots look a bit more Three Colours Blue than The Life Aquatic. That said, the 1050SW really does cope underwater, with clear images and a long-reaching flash.
Don't expect to take the 1050SW on long-haul scuba trips though; it's only waterproof to a depth of 3 metres, unlike the 1030SW which is usable up to 10 metres. The 1050SW also falls short of the older model on zoom and skimps on the widest length of the lens, which is only capable of retracting to 38mm as opposed to the 1030SW's 28mm. While this isn't a big difference, it does puzzle us as to why Olympus would downgrade these features on a newer model.
Another thing to be wary about if you do use the camera in an underwater or beach-side environment is that the seals need to be replaced on a yearly basis, to maintain its waterproof properties. Olympus do tell you this; it's buried deep in the annals of the instruction manual.
While the 1050SW has some excellent features for casual swimmers, skiers and action lovers, the older 1030SW is a more robust and tough camera for dedicated divers and enthusiasts. However, the 1050SW is much more capable in normal settings, looking and feeling like a standard point-and-shoot. For a camera that can be thrown about casually in a bag, in the water and at a party, the 1050SW is a good package.