Olympus SP-500 UZ Review
By Movable Type Admin
One of the most current "Super-Zoom" models that Olympus has to offer (as of 2/2006), the SP500UZ combines a 6-megapixel imager with a powerful Olympus 10x ED lens. Other features include a larger and brighter 2.5-inch LCD, eye-level EVF (Electronic ViewFinder), focus-assist lamp, and QVGA (320x240) movie mode. This somewhat compact model offers an exposure mode for just about everyone. The Auto and pre-programmed scene modes say "just point me and shoot", while the more advanced modes; Program, Aperture priority, Shutter-speed priority and full Manual will satisfy those who like to have more control over the exposure process.
Like the other "SP" series models, the SP500UZ's ergonomics are great. Measuring 4.15" W x 2.93" H x 2.80", it is compact for a "super zoom", but the enlarged handgrip and well placed controls offer a comfortable feel. The zoom controls are mounted around the shutter release, and the Mode dial is perfectly placed to be operated by your thumb. I found the menu system very easy to navigate, and the shortcut menus allows for quick access to the most often-changed settings. The SP500UZ features a large 2.5-inch color LCD as well as a color EVF. Both displays worked well under a variety of lighting conditions. However, when outdoors, there were some angles which reflected the sun off the surface of the LCD, but a quick push of the display button and you can use the EVF. Indoors they "gain up" when shooting in marginal lighting; something you won't find on a 35mm film camera.
Shooting performance was much better than we expected. Both of its siblings (the SP310 and the SP350) were rather slow in this category, which we feel is due to Olympus using such a slow storage medium (something that has just recently changed with the new Olympus high-speed xD-picture cards.) Power up until the first image is captured was just under 3 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 4/10 of a second including autofocus. The shot to shot delay when using single exposure mode was 1.8 seconds without the flash and 2 - 4 seconds with the flash (depending on the distance of the subject and battery life.)
There are three burst or continuous capture modes to choose from (Normal, HI and AF.) With normal mode, I captured 5 images in 2.6 seconds before the buffer was filled. HI speed mode captured 3 frames in approx. 8/10 of a second. Once the buffer is filled it takes 10 - 12 seconds to clear and then you may continue shooting. AF mode is similar to normal mode, however I observed that the camera focuses on the subject before it captures an image, where the other modes lock focus once in a series. Both the LCD and EVF are all together unusable during any of these modes; this is when an optical viewfinder would come in handy. Our tests were done using a standard 512MB xD-Picture Card, Program mode, SHQ quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default unless specified otherwise. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
Recently Olympus has released a faster, type "H" xD-Picture Card. Using the newer 512MB "H" xD card, our performance timings didn't change much at all. The only areas in which I saw any improvement was when transferring images to my PC and the amount of time it takes the camera to clear its buffer. This was a little disappointing, as we were very excited about this new memory and we hoped it would correct the sluggish performance we have seen on many of the past Olympus models that we reviewed.
I was very pleased with our sample images when using the SHQ image quality mode. The 10x optical zoom lens offers incredible versatility in composing shoots, covering an equivalent focal range of 38 - 380mm. The wide angle extreme will afford nice landscape and interior shots, while its telephoto end will bring distant subjects up close and personal. I noticed moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle as well as slight pincushioning at the telephoto end. CA (Chromatic Aberration) or purple fringing was present in many of our samples, around brightly lit objects. The SP500 lacks the optical image stabilization found on similar super-zoom models from Canon, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Panasonic and Sony and that's a shame because Olympus started the "stabilized super-zoom" revolution with the C-2100UZ back in 2000. It's difficult to hold a camera steady when zoomed out to 10x or 12x, especially at lower shutter speeds, and image stabilization is very important for sharp pictures.
Outdoors, it produced sharp images with accurate exposure. We typically used its Program AE mode, which produced great results. Colors are very natural and the White balance system did very well in various conditions. Only under some very mixed lighting did it produce images that were a bit warm. I noticed very little noise when using ISO speeds of 100 or lower. Any time you up the sensitivity of a camera, these levels will increase also. Our outdoor portraits were awesome with sharp facial features and very natural skin tones.
Although the SP500UZ does not feature a flash hot shoe, the built-in flash has a good range of about 14.5 feet at wide angle. It will work well in small to medium sized rooms (like your typical living room, etc.), just don't expect it to illuminate the court at your kids basketball game. Our indoor people shots showed good flash exposure and skin tones were very pleasing. When using Macro mode, it controls the flash well, ensuring you don't overexpose the subject. (The flash may not be used in SuperMacro mode.)
I was disappointed to see that Olympus did not include a VGA (640x480) sized movie mode - this has become the standard for its peers. You can record video at 320x240 with either HQ (30fps) or SQ (15fps) quality. Sound can re recorded, however you have to make sure you enable this option in the menu. When recording movies with sound, the optical zoom may not be used. However, it can be used if the sound it turned off (default.) The digital image stabilization helped to capture "less shaky" movies, however I would still recommend using some sort of camera support, like a monopod, when recording. Overall our movies samples were good. The smaller resolution means less compression to keep file sizes smaller, making for better looking video. The microphone is in a relatively good position and we didn't have many problems with it picking up wind noise.
Unlike past models, battery life was rather good. The SP500 uses four standard AA-type cells (compared to the SP310 and SP350's two.) This means you can use a variety of different batteries. We highly recommend the use of NiMH cells or one-use lithiums if you are in a bind. Alkalines offer terrible battery life and will more than likely end up in your area's local landfill. Using a set of 2500 mAh cells, we were able to capture a majority of our samples (about 80 shots) and perform some of our other tests before having to swap in a fresh set.
Bottom line - with great image quality, good performance, a versatile and powerful zoom range, and a multitude of exposure modes, the Olympus SP500UZ is quite the compact "super zoom". It will make an excellent choice for any consumer in the market for a 6-megapixel digicam that has plenty of telephoto capabilities. With an average retail cost of about $379, it offers an outstanding value and is sure to be one of Olympus' more popular models this year. It lacks the optical image stabilization found on similar super-zoom models from Canon, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Panasonic and Sony.
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