Splish, Splash, Oops: Waterproof Electronic Gadgets

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The beach and tech toys go together like, well, electronics and water. A few drops of H20 are Kryptonite to most gadgets. So is it possible to snap photos and enjoy music in the water without resorting to cheap disposable cameras or expensive underwater speaker systems? We asked Daniel Greenberg to dunk some electronics.

Otterbox |

What it is: Plenty of plastic cases will protect your iPod from water as long as you don't want to actually hear any music. However, the Otterbox for iPod lets you listen to your tunes and use the controls (except the hold button) while fully submerged. The waterproof, floating, drop-resistant case works with most recent iPod models.

Pricing varies with size (Shuffle, $20; Mini, $30; Nano, $40; video iPod, $50; etc.). You can secure the case to your arm with an optional $15 waterproof armband. Otterbox also sells waterproof earphones from H2O Audio for $40. Discounted bundles of the case, band and headphones are available.

What it does best: The Otterbox worked fine fully submerged. Splashing and bumping did not allow any leaks. The case also proved durable, protecting our test iPod during some suspenseful drop tests.

Where it falls short: The case adds bulk, which is more noticeable with larger iPods. The hold button is inaccessible. Music from the H2O Audio headset is on the tinny side. The seal in the case requires proper maintenance. Music can be heard by only one person. No iPhone case yet.

Our grade: B. . . Successfully takes your tunes underwater.

Ego Waterproof Sound Case |

What it is: The Ego Waterproof Sound Case ($150) lets you share your taste in iPod music with the rest of the beach or pool party. It's a floating case with speakers, about the size of a large hardback book. It encloses and protects most recent types of iPods while allowing full access to the front controls (no hold button).

What it does best: Audio quality was solid, and better than some similarly sized iPod speakers. Its four AA batteries won't shake the cabana, but they do allow it to pump out sufficient volume for outdoor use; we even had to turn it down to have conversations near it. It has a kickstand for use on dry land and comes with a bag, and wrist and shoulder straps. The cute retro styling hides a tough frame; the rubber corners absorbed multiple drops without damage to it or the iPod.

Where it falls short: The bass is not as punchy as it could be, and audio can get muffled if water is allowed to collect on the speakers. The seal requires proper maintenance.

Our grade: B+. . . A floating music party.

Casio EWC-10 |

What it is: Drop a compatible Casio Exilim camera into the fire-engine-red plastic case and shut the latch for an instant waterproof camera. The $100 EWC-10 case has room for the zoom lens to extend, shows the full LCD through the back and allows the camera buttons to work. It makes the camera buoyant and provides a measure of fallproofing and protection from sand in the keys. The wrist strap is still important, though, since it's easy for it to float away.

What it does best: We tested the case with the $200 Casio Exilim EX-Z75. A few bubbles rose, but the case did not leak. The 7-megapixel photos were sharp, and video was good. It's rated for 10 feet of depth, which is useful for poolside and beach pictures as well as basic snorkeling.

Where it falls short: The case adds bulk. Keys feel mushy. The lens cover fogged once, despite the presence of an absorbent packet in the case. The clear plastic over the LCD adds glare and makes it harder to compose shots in bright sunlight. There is no optical viewfinder to compensate. The seal requires proper maintenance to remain supple and waterproof. Does not work with all Exilim models.

Our grade: B-. . . Convenient enough to use in harsh environments beyond the beach.

Sanyo Xacti E1

What it is: A digital camera that needs no bulky plastic case to work underwater. The $500 camera takes crisp 6 megapixel snapshots and high-quality video even when completely submerged.

What it does best: The Xacti is small and light enough to use one-handed, leaving the other hand free to maneuver underwater. It has a flash, a reasonably long zoom lens, a tilting LCD screen, superior low-light capability and easy-to-navigate menus, and it records to both SD memory and new, high-capacity SDHC memory. It's rugged enough to survive our drop tests, and sand washes right off.

Where it falls short: It may be light and streamlined compared with most waterproof gear, but it's larger, heavier and more expensive than non-waterproof cameras, and the LCD is more reflective. The buttons are somewhat crowded, and it does not come with a memory card, though it can film directly to its built-in memory. It's rated to be fully waterproof at only five feet for up to an hour. Don't let go of it in the ocean without a wrist strap -- it doesn't float.

Our grade: A-. . . The way waterproofing ought to be. If the Xacti E1 can be fully waterproofed without a bulky plastic enclosure, why can't other gadgets?

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