Olympus SP-320 Review
The SP-320 is the latest addition to the "SP" line from Olympus (as of 6/2006), and includes many of the same features we have seen on past models, like a 7-megapixel, 3x optical zoom lens, large 2.5-inch LCD display, and VGA (640x480) movie mode with digital image stabilization. Although this compact model is aimed more towards the novice user with its Program, Aperture priority, Shutter speed priority, and full Manual modes, it still offers a softer side for the less experienced. They can choose the "point-n-shoot" Auto mode or one of the 25 pre-programmed scene modes, to ensure you will capture great photos in a variety of shooting situations.
Like we've seen in the past, with the SP-310 and SP-350, the ergonomics are excellent. Although it is compact, the large handgrip affords a secure and comfortable fit in your hands, and the various controls on the camera fall naturally under your fingertips. The only buttons that I felt were hard to reach were the 4-way controller and OK/Menu buttons. However a quick change in the way you hold the camera takes care of that. I was happy to see that Olympus included both an eye-level optical viewfinder and a LCD screen. The 2.5-inch display works very well outdoors in the sun, and when shooting in marginal lighting conditions it "gains up" well, allowing you to frame your subject.
The SP-320's shooting performance was similar to what we saw on past models, still disappointing. Power up to first image is captured averaged 2.7 seconds. The all important shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter release and actually capturing the image) measured 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 6/10 of a second including autofocus. The shot to shot delay when using single exposure mode was 2.1 seconds without using the flash and 3.2 - 10 seconds depending on subject distance, zoom setting and battery level. Just like the SP-310 and SP-350, I found it was more toward the end of the scale whenever I was shooting people shots using the mid telephoto range of the lens; which was very aggravating. There are three burst or continuous capture modes to choose from (Normal, HI and AF.) With normal mode, I captured 4 images in 2.5 seconds before the buffer was filled. HI speed mode captured 2 frames in approx. 3/10 of a second. Once the buffer is filled it takes about 8 - 10 seconds or more to clear and then you may continue shooting. AF mode is similar to normal mode, however the camera focuses on the subject before it captures an image, where the other modes lock focus once in a series. The LCD is unusable during any of these modes, however the optical viewfinder comes in very handy at times like these. Our tests were done using a 512MB xD-Picture Card, Program mode, SHQ quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default unless otherwise specified. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
The overall image quality of its 7-megapxiel SHQ images is great. Just about every shot I took was sharp and showed good exposure with pleasing color saturation. The White balance system does an excellent job in almost any lighting condition, producing accurate color temperatures. The 3x optical zoom offers versatility in composing your shots. It covers a 35mm equivalent range of 38-114mm, with noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle, but virtually no pincushioning at the telephoto end. Noise levels are very low for a consumer model, especially when using ISO 200 or less. At ISO 400 and 800 noise is much more noticeable, however I feel these images are still usable, and have seen much worse from other models in this class. I also noticed chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was well controlled. You can see for yourself by checking out our samples page.
Our indoor results were also pleasing. The built-in flash has a maximum range of about 12.5 feet with the lens at wide angle. Our indoor portraits showed good flash exposure when shooting from about 6 feet away, using the telephoto end of the zoom range. While it will do great for individual and group portraits, do not expect it to illuminate open rooms. If you want the background illuminated, be sure there is plenty of ambient light. With the redeye pre-flash enabled, redeye wasn't much of an issue, however, as you can see with our model, some people will always show traces of it. One of the new scene modes on the SP-320 that was not featured on past models is the Digital Image Stabilization mode. It boosts the ISO sensitivity to allow for higher shutter speeds in marginal lighting. Our indoor sample does show considerable noise, but it could still produce a pleasing 4x6-inch (or possibly larger) print.
The SP-320 can record QuickTime video at either 640x480 or 320x240 resolution, with a frame rate of 30 or 15 frames per second. Audio is recorded, however you have to enable it via the menu; I found this out the hard way. When using the high-quality 640x480 30fps mode, clip length is limited to a total of twenty seconds, most of the competing cameras have unlimited recording capability. The length of a 320x240 clip is limited only by the amount of available space on your memory card. Overall, it captures great movies that are nice and sharp and show very little compression noise. The digital image stabilization seemed to help us capture a steadier movie but, I would still recommend using some sort or camera support like a monopod when recording.
As with past models, battery life was not the greatest. Olympus does not specify exactly how many images can be captured, but I found this model was only able to capture about 45 samples and conclude just a few of our other tests before having to put in a fresh set of batteries. This was using the LCD 100% of the time and taking several photos with the flash. You could see better results by using the optical viewfinder more often, but where's the fun in that. (Note from Steve: Olympus needs to join the rest of the digicam world and state the battery life of their cameras as per the CIPA standard like the other manufacturers.)
Bottom line - while the Olympus SP-320 offers some very appealing features, it disappoints with its lackluster performance. On the positive side it delivers excellent image quality and has exposure modes to suit the needs of all users. With a street price of $299 or less, I feel it offers an OK value for an entry level 7-megapixel model.
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