An errant splash can spell instant death for most digital cameras, water and electronics being a combination that's even less compatible than chalk and cheese.

The Olympus mju 850 SW sets out to change all that. Not only is it ruggedised to offer a degree of shock resistance such that you can drop it from a height of 1.5 metres, but it's also fully waterproof.

Underwater photos

So just how waterproof is the Olympus? Naturally, you can expect to be able to use the camera in anything from a fleeting shower to a full-on downpour, with impunity.

But the real excitement comes at dunking time, when you take the camera splashing around, swimming, snorkelling or diving at depths down to three metres.

To make more of its submersible capabilities, there's a wealth of underwater scene modes - including Underwater Snapshot, which uses flash for close-up action, two Underwater Wide settings for taking in the bigger picture, one for watery landscapes, one for fish swimming by, and there's even an Underwater Macro mode for getting up close and personal with smaller sea life.

Sink or swim?

One thing we immediately noticed in our testing is that, if you let go of the mju 850 SW in a pool, it sinks to the bottom. This little drawback hasn't been lost on Olympus, however, and the company offers a neat orange wrist-strap as an optional extra, which keeps the camera afloat.

Conversely, you can take it to even greater depths with the optional PT-041 underwater case, which offers water-fastness down to 40 metres.

We should point out, however, that this particular accessory costs as much as the camera itself, and similar waterproof cases are available for a wide range of other compact cameras.

Can the Olympus survive knocks?

With a new world of carefree possibilities, the first thing we did was to drop the camera, on purpose. It certainly seemed easily able to take the knocks and there are no real question marks over build quality and ruggedness.

It handled life in the freezer equally easily, living up to Olympus's 'freezeproof' claims. In the pool, however, things proved a little more tricky. Metering was a rather hit and miss affair and best results were only obtained very close up using flash.

Use of higher ISO ratings to stabilise images without flash, both on land and underwater, gave rise to very high levels of image noise, and pictures looked equally grainy when switching to the camera's digital Anti-shake mode.

Even at the base setting of ISO 64, there's usually some noise, especially in blue skies, and this gets rapidly worse as you go up the scale, which is presumably why the camera doesn't like to go above ISO 200 in Auto ISO mode, even if it means giving you very slow shutter speeds of around a quarter of a second.

Good image quality

In other areas, image quality is pretty good, with very natural yet lively colour rendition in Standard mode, and punchier colour available in some of the scene modes.

Sharpness is also good, but not exceptional. Access to scene modes and other camera settings are fairly intuitive although there are no options for Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority shooting.

Handling is only mediocre, as the positioning of the lens at the very top right of the body means that it's all too easy to end up with a finger across the lens when you're going for a natural feeling grip on the camera.

The now almost ubiquitous face-recognition focusing option performs reasonably well but, all in all, the Olympus is merely an adequate performer, only really worth considering if underwater exploits are among your 'must haves'.

Via PhotoRadar