Steve's Conclusion

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Steve's SnapShot
    Olympus SZ-15 275 wide.jpg
  • 16MP CCD image sensor
  • 25 - 600mm zoom range (35mm equivalent)
  • 24x optical zoom
  • TruePix III+ Image Processor
  • Dual Image Stabilization
  • 720p HD Video Recording
  • 3.0-inch LCD display
  • 11 Magic Filters
  • Beauty Make-up Mode
  • Smart Panorama
Pros
  • Optical zoom lens as large as 24x rarely found in this price range
  • Camera body is small enough to carry in a pocket
  • Nice to have a large zoom lens in a small camera body
  • SZ-15 moves through its full zoom range very quickly
  • Popup flash angle works pretty well for low light photos
  • Magic special effect modes are fun to use
  • Menu structure is pretty easy to use
  • Camera has very few buttons and is easy to use
  • Autofocus mechanism works pretty quickly at wide angle shooting, minimizing shutter lag problems
  • LCD doesn't suffer from significant problems with glare
  • Small right-hand grip works pretty well for shooting one-handed in wide angle shots
  • Good looking camera design
  • Battery life is pretty good
Cons
  • Image quality could be better
  • Large sharp prints aren't really possible with this camera
  • Tiny CCD image sensor struggles in low light without a flash
  • Shot to shot delays are too long and are frustrating to deal with
  • Tough to hold small camera steady when shooting at maximum zoom range, leading to some blur from camera shake
  • No full 1080p HD video mode available
  • Overall movie options are below average
  • Burst mode is very slow at full resolution
  • Limited number of advanced shooting features
  • ISO is limited to a maximum of 1600
Timing Test Results
  • Power up to first image captured = 2.6 seconds
  • Shutter lag when prefocused  = less than 1/10 of a second
  • Shutter lag with autofocus = about 0.2 seconds
  • Shot to shot delay without flash = 4.6 seconds between frames with minimum review time On
  • Shot to shot delay with flash = 5.7 seconds between frames with minimum review time On
  • Continuous Mode (Low) = 5 frames in 10.0 seconds @ 16M
  • Continuous Mode (High 1) = 10 frames in 5.5 seconds @ 3M
  • Continuous Mode (High 2) = 15 frames in 1.7 seconds @ 3M
  • All tests were taken using a PNY Class 10, 16 GB SDHC memory card, Program Mode, Flash off, Review on, ISO Auto and all other settings at the factory defaults unless noted otherwise.
Bottom Line
The Olympus SZ-15 isn't going to impress you with its responsiveness or with its image quality. Some sluggish situations will leave you a bit frustrated with this model from time to time. However, because so few other large zoom cameras have such a small body size in this price point, the SZ-15 is worth considering as a niche camera that fulfills a particular need you may have as a photographer. Just don't expect to make large prints because of image quality issues.
Pick This Up If...
You need a low-priced camera with a large zoom lens, and you don't mind that it lacks advanced features and has some slow performance and image quality issues.
When beginning photographers take a look at the specification list of the Olympus SZ-15, they'll find something to like immediately -- a 24x optical zoom lens in a model that measures only an inch and a half in thickness. Finding an MSRP of about $200 with the SZ-15 is another nice surprise.

If having a large zoom lens in a relatively small camera body and a low starting price is all you want from a camera, the SZ-15 will definitely meet your needs ... and you should probably stop reading here.

Unfortunately it's those pesky other features, such as sluggish performance, inconsistent image quality, and very limited advanced features, that make the SZ-15 a frustrating camera to use at times and really detract from its overall value. 

Considering that nearly every camera in this price point has some flaws, though, the large zoom lens with the SZ-15 makes this camera stand out versus its similarly priced peers. So if you want a large zoom camera to fit in a pocket while traveling, the SZ-15 works well in that narrow usage range. This model just isn't going to be a great all-around camera because of the various drawbacks it has. And if you want to make large prints, this camera will not work well.

Let's start by discussing the positive aspects of the Olympus SZ-15. Having a zoom range of 25-600mm is very impressive with this model. Because the camera is small, I found myself constantly a little surprised at the telephoto capabilities I could achieve while testing this camera. I just have a natural expectation that a small camera can't yield great telephoto results, so this feature is a nice surprise in the SZ-15.

Although there are some aspects of this model that are sluggish, the zoom lens motor isn't one of them. The SZ-15 can move through the entire zoom range in about 2 seconds, which is an above-average performance for a small camera. 

The autofocus mechanism also works pretty quickly, as long as you're shooting in good lighting conditions. You'll notice a bit slower autofocus performance when shooting at the maximum zoom, but this is a common problem for large zoom cameras. At wide angle settings the SZ-15 outperforms its similarly priced peers in terms of its autofocus speed.

The design of the Olympus SZ-15 camera body looks great, and it's easy to hold and use this camera one-handed because of the extended right-hand grip. However you may not want to operate it with one hand too often, as camera shake can be an issue with this model whenever you extend the zoom lens. If you're going to shoot at the full zoom a lot, you may want to invest in a tripod, although having to lug around a tripod will greatly negate one of the best aspects of the SZ-15 -- its small size and ability to fit in a pocket. If you don't want to use a tripod, just try to steady yourself as much as you can when shooting at full zoom, but be prepared for some slight blurring.

Because of the large zoom lens, Olympus included a popup flash unit that's centered above the lens. By extending the flash with the popup design, Olympus has given the flash a better angle to the scene that can help prevent vignetting from the extended lens.

Unless you're able to use the flash with this camera when shooting in low light, you're probably going to be disappointed in the image quality. The SZ-15's CCD image sensor doesn't perform all that well in low light without a flash, and the maximum ISO setting available with this model is only 1600, which is below average. And trust me, you won't want to shoot at ISO 1600 much because of noisy image results.

The camera's image quality in good lighting conditions is better than its low light image quality, but not significantly better. The SZ-15's small 1/2.3-inch image sensor has 16-megapixels of resolution, but don't expect to be able to make large prints with this camera. Images just aren't pin sharp when viewed at large sizes, and the camera seems to overexpose most images. 

Movie recording is a below average feature of this model, too. You're limited to 720p HD movie recording, and Olympus included a small number of control options when shooting movies. Movie clips are limited to 8 minutes of continuous shooting at maximum resolution and frame rate, and the files are ridiculously large in terms of storage size.

The movie recording is easy to use, as this camera is in all shooting modes. Olympus built the SZ-15 with only a few buttons. The labels are engraved onto the silver buttons and they have very little contrast, which unfortunately makes it difficult to read the labels in low light. 

The small number of buttons is not all that surprising when you consider how few advanced features the SZ-15 offers. There's no full manual control feature, and although you can use Program Auto to set a few things manually like white balance or ISO, the SZ-15 certainly isn't aimed at intermediate or advanced level photographers.

Because of the lack of buttons, you're going to end up changing the vast majority of the settings using the onscreen menus. A popup menu along the right side of the screen works well for gaining access to the majority of the SZ-15's settings. Through the popup menu you will have access to several special effect shooting features through what Olympus calls Magic Filter mode, and these are fun to use. You also can shoot at four aspect ratios with resolutions ranging from 16-megapixels to 0.3-megapixels, which is handy. 

The camera's four-way button is a little small, so it's not comfortable to use it to control the camera for long periods of time. The menus also seem to respond sluggishly to your selections.

Once you move to the camera's main menus, you'll see a very limited number of options. Among cameras I've tested in the past 12-18 months, this model probably has the smallest number of options listed in its main menus. This can be frustrating, as Olympus chose to leave out some features that are commonly found on other cameras. For example I could find no way in the menus to prevent the camera from displaying the image you just recorded for a couple of seconds, which causes significant shot to shot delays. Some cameras allow you to press the shutter button with the just recorded image on the screen to return to shooting mode faster, but this technique doesn't work with the SZ-15. 

Don't expect to fix the problems with shot to shot delays by shooting in burst mode, as the SZ-15 is limited to about a photo every 2 seconds when trying to shoot at full resolution in burst mode. There are faster continuous shot options available, but you'll be shooting at significantly reduced resolutions.

At least this camera's LCD screen measures 3.0 inches and has a good resolution while you're being forced to look at the photo you just shot. You shouldn't have too many problems with screen glare when using the SZ-15 in sunlight either, although five different screen brightness settings are available to counteract any glare.

Considering the SZ-15's large zoom lens, thin body design, thin battery, and bright LCD screen, the camera's battery life is good. 

Bottom Line - When making a final determination on the Olympus SZ-15, you have to decide what other types of cameras you want to include in the comparison. If you want to compare this camera to other ultra zoom models, you're probably going to be a bit disappointed because the SZ-15's feature set is going to be well below other large zoom models. If you want to compare this model to other low-priced cameras, you'll be pleased with the telephoto capabilities that aren't typically found in this price point, but the performance levels are still a major drawback. But if you're trying to compare the SZ-15 to other low priced thin cameras with big zoom lenses, you may have to really look around because there are so few models that fit this description, which gives the SZ-15 an advantage. It's very tough to find an easy-to-use low-priced camera that can match this Olympus model's 24x optical zoom lens that also can fit into a pocket. Image quality levels are a disappointment, creating photos only adequate for sharing electronically and for making small prints. This camera's operational controls are so basic that Olympus skipped over a few features found in almost every camera, regardless of price. Shot to shot delays are a significant drawback to the SZ-15, too, and this camera's burst mode isn't going to make up for them. Still, because the Olympus SZ-15 is an inexpensive, thin, ultra zoom camera that doesn't have a lot of models that are similar to it in the market, it will work as a niche camera that helps you fill a particular need.

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