Olympus Stylus Digital 720 SW Review
The latest addition to Olympus' Stylus line is the 720 SW, it's not only water
resistant, it can actually be submerged at depths up to 10 feet and survive a jarring drop
to the ground from 5 feet! Other features include a 7.1-megapixel imager, 3x optical zoom
lens, VGA sized movie mode (15fps) and a stylish all-metal body. Useable by any
anyone with a fully automatic "point-n-shoot" mode plus 24 Scene modes
and a Program AE mode that allows for more control over the exposure process with
settings for ISO, White balance, Metering and Drive mode.
Ergonomics were good. It's compact enough to be carried in the smallest pocket or handbag, while still large enough to fit comfortably in your hands; I found the "pinch" technique worked best. The various controls on the back are well placed and functional, with your thumb falling over them naturally. The Menu system is logically organized, and the new Function shortcut menu is great for making quick changes to ISO, White balance, Metering, or Drive mode. The large 2.5-inch "HyperCrystal" LCD worked well outdoors, but it would benefit from an anti-glare coating, there are still many angles that reflect the sun. When shooting in low-ambient lighting it "gains up" to help brighten your subject; this is a very useful feature considering this is the only viewfinder. Because of the way you have to hold the camera and the location of the lens, it is very prone to fingerprints and needs to be checked and cleaned frequently.
As with all Stylus series cameras, the 720 SW features a durable metal exterior and is made watertight by rubber gaskets on the inside to seal gaps and prevent moisture from entering the body. This allows it to be used in a gentle sprinkle or to be completely submerged up to 10 feet. If your picture taking leads to deeper depths, then the optional PT-033 Underwater Housing is required. It can handle water pressure depths of up to 40 meters. Add that with the 720's various Underwater scene modes, and you have one great little underwater point-n-shoot.
Shooting performance was impressive. From power up to first image captured measured just 2.0 seconds. Shutter lag was 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 3/10 of a second including autofocus. Using single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay averaged about 2.2 seconds without the use of the flash and about 3-4 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery power. The Stylus 720 offers two sequential (burst) modes (Continuous, and High Speed Continuous.) Using the standard mode, I was able to capture 5 frames in about 3.3 seconds. With High Speed mode, the image size is reduced to SQ1, and I was able to capture 12 frames in about 2.5 seconds. When using both modes, the LCD briefly displays the last image captured, which makes following a moving subject somewhat difficult; this is when an optical viewfinder would come in handy. Our tests were done using a High Speed (Type H) Olympus 512MB xD-Picture card, SHQ quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
Image quality was good for a consumer 7-megapixel model. Outdoors, images that were captured were consistently well exposed, with pleasing color saturation. Thanks in part to its TTL autofocus system and 3x optical zoom lens, the majority of our samples were nice and sharp, and I noticed very little edge softness (a common issue with consumer cameras.) The lens covers a 35mm equivalent range of approx. 38-114mm, favoring the telephoto end of the zoom range. While its 38mm wide angle extreme is not as wide as most of its competitors, it will still allow you to capture nice landscapes and group portraits. Overall, I noticed moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle, but relatively no pincushioning at the telephoto end.
Our indoor portraits were good with proper flash exposure and natural skin tones. Olympus claims the flash has a maximum range of 12.5 feet. This is an average range for a camera in this class, but don't expect it to illuminate a large open room. I found shooting portraits from about 4-6 feet produced the best results. Like many of Olympus' newer models, the Stylus 720 features a special scene mode called Digital Image Stabilization Mode. It uses Bright Capture and digital stabilization technology to help reduce the effects of camera shake and subject movement (or blur) in your photos. While it is great for capturing images when you just can't use the flash, image quality does suffer. When shooting the available light shots of our M&M man, I noticed the White balance system produced images that were on the "warm" side; which was just the opposite of what we saw with the Stylus 710. You can see what I mean by taking a look at the indoor portrait shots on the samples page.
Underwater, the 720 surprisingly captured relatively nice shots. Our "bathtub" experiment of three toy frogs produced sharp images that showed good exposure and accurate color temperature (white balance.) We achieved the best results by using either Program mode with the ISO set to Auto or the Underwater Snapshot scene mode. Overall, I feel it did well, and think that its waterproof capabilities really add the appeal of this digicam.
Movie mode produced disappointing results. You have the ability to record video at resolutions of 640x480, 320x240 or 160x120, with a fixed frame rate of 15fps. Our movie samples showed high amounts of compression artifacts and it seemed like the camera did not like anything with a reflective surface. The chainlink fence in the background had purple and yellow lines running vertically across the top. While we did not test it underwater, I feel these results would have also been less than satisfactory.
The 720 is powered by a small 3.7v 660mAh LI-42B rechargeable lithium battery, which is charged by the LI-40C charger. Because the batteries are charged out of camera, this makes it easy to charge a second battery so you always have a fully charged one ready. You can't power the camera with any other battery type so we strongly recommend the purchase of a second pack. Battery life is not specified, but our testing revealed it to be quite good. I was able to capture a large majority of our sample images (approx 126 files) and conduct some of our other tests before the camera posted a low battery warning. Exactly how many pictures you can capture is going to vary depending on how many are taken with flash, how often the lens is zoomed in or out and how frequently you review images. Lithium batteries hold a charge much longer than NiMH type batteries when sitting idle and can be "topped off" whenever desired without shortening their life span.
Bottom line - the Stylus 720 SW is a tempting digicam in the weather resistant/water proof class. While Olympus claims it is also "Shock Proof" up to 5 feet, we opted not to test this feature; we'll take their word for it. The camera's 7-megapixel SHQ images have plenty of resolution to create high-quality prints up to 13x19 inches or larger. The only real issues we had were with the poor position of the lens and the below average results of its VGA movie mode. With an MSRP of $399, it offers a great value for a 7-megapixel underwater capable digicam.
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