Technology rolls on! Slightly less than a year ago, I reviewed the Olympus SP-500UZ, a 6-megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom that cost $379. Now the SP-510UZ has arrived for $50 less and the resolution is bumped up to 7.1MP. I gave the SP-500UZ a 7.5 rating out of 10 and wasn’t impressed with it, given the competition. Today there are fewer digicams with 10x optical zooms to choose from as most manufacturers have moved to 12x with optical image stabilization rather than electronic IS. Your choices in that mega zoom category include the popular 6MP Canon PowerShot S3 IS ($399), 6MP Sony CyberShot DSC-H2 ($379) and 7.2MP -H5 ($479), the 7.1MP Kodak EasyShare P712 ($449) and 6MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 ($349). A more direct competitor for the SP-510UZ is the Kodak EasyShare Z710 that has similar specs but costs $299 list. Take some of these prices with the proverbial grain of salt as camera makers prepare to unload their 2006 models and prepare for 2007. I lean—as does every other reviewer—to optical image stabilization since it does a much better job of preventing blurry photos. Still, the Olympus SP-510UZ could be a sleeper digicam for travelers with its potent zoom, 7.1MP resolution and light weight. Putting four alkalines into the silvery digicam, it was time to see how it performed.
Features and Design
Sad to say, but the Made In Indonesia silver-bodied SP-510UZ feels cheap. I know I typically use and review better cameras but this one feels as light as a feather, with a mostly plastic case. It looks like a candidate for a blister pack in Wal-Mart, rather than resting on a velvet cloth display at your local camera store. That said, it’s similar to the Kodak Z710 but not as solid as other mega zooms. It weighs 11 ounces without battery and card and 15 with both; and it has one of my least favorite features—a lens cap that gets attached to the camera strap with a piece of string. This is so tacky—and annoying–as to defy belief. I realize many mega zoom cameras have this but it still bugs me dealing with a lens cap flapping in the breeze…
The camera is very compact, making it a good candidate for a backpack or a deep pocket as you’re checking out the sights. It measures 4.25 x 3 x 2.88 (WHD, in inches). The front is taken up by the camera’s key feature—a 10x optical zoom that translates to 38-380mm in a 35mm camera. This gives you a lot of options, from macro shots (less than 2 inches) to tight telephotos. Try it out in the store to see what this—or any other—mega zoom offers. Also on the front are a self-timer/AF Assist lamp, a mic and a few logos ticking off the camera’s highlights. You’ll also see a decent-size pistol grip (where the batteries are tucked away) with a faux leather non-slip accent to help hold it properly.
The top of the camera is fairly standard—a power button, another to engage or disengage the digital image stabilization, a sturdy mode dial with solid clicks into position and the wide/tele zoom lever. The flash is here are well. It’s not an auto pop-up variety so you have to hit a button on the rear to open it up. The mode dial has the usual options such as Auto, playback, aperture/shutter priority, manual and access to a variety of scene modes. This camera has 20 of them and when you pick one, the camera shows an example with a brief written description, making it very friendly for new users. There’s also a Shooting Guide setting on the dial that has 13 options such as Shooting Into Backlight, Blurring Background and so on. When you choose one, you’re given parameters to change without the need for searching for the right one. This is a real plus for people getting their digital toes wet—and even for those who know what they’re doing since the SP-510UZ’s menu system is kind of weird. It’s not a disaster but not nearly as intuitive or clean as some competitors such as Casio, Kodak, HP and Sony’s new DSC-T50.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
The rear of the SP-510UZ is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD rated a so-so 115K pixels. Like most mega zoom cameras, the Olympus has a small electronic viewfinder (EVF); unfortunately it doesn’t have a diopter adjustment. Still having the small peep sight is good for those times the LCD wipes out. You’ll also find the ubiquitous four-way controller with center OK/Function button. There are other keys for Menu, the self-timer and Display options (handy grid lines for properly aligning photos are just a touch away). The final keys are to open the flash and to switch between the LCD and viewfinder. Pretty basic and straightforward.
The right side has the xD Picture Card compartment with a solid door. You’re probably familiar with my rants against the xD Card (hard to find, too expensive) but recently prices have dropped a bit so they’re closer to the more popular SD cards. The left side has a USB out that doubles for image transfer and as an A/V out to connect to your TV. These cables are supplied. On the bottom is a tripod mount and battery compartment.
The Olympus SP-510UZ comes with a decent kit. There’s a quick start guide and a Basic Manual. The full manual is on CD ROM, a real pain since most people don’t carry a laptop to discover the camera’s finer points. It comes with four alkalines so go out and purchase rechargeables to save money and the environment. Olympus rates the batteries at 630 shots, an impressive figure. Also purchase at least a 512MB xD Picture card. You’ll also find cables, a neck strap and another CD ROM with Olympus Digital Master software. It’s a good, basic program with RAW support since the camera captures that type of file as well as the more common JPEGs.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
Startup is no problem with this 2006 digicam. In less than 2 seconds, the lens extends and the LCD screen springs to life. As usual, I started shooting in Auto with digital image stabilization engaged and at maximum JPEG resolution (3072 x 2304 pixels). The 512MB card holds 98 of these images, dropping down to half that when shooting in RAW. It was a brisk day so I decided to see if the SP-510UZ could handle some vivid Fall colors, then moved indoors to see how the Bright Capture Technology handled shooting in available light. You can actually use an ISO 4000 setting–D-SLRs usually top out at 3200—but in this case resolution drops to 3-megapixels instead of 10. More on this in a bit.
The Olympus SP-510UZ is comfortable to handle and shooting in a variety of angles is simple. What’s not so great is the LCD screen; there’s blur as it tries to zero in on the subject. In fact, the screen is very poor, not revealing the true colors of what you’re shooting. When I did some quick reviews I thought had taken a load of bum photos—when they were transferred to the computer and shown on screen, it was an entirely different story. Another problem is overall speed. This camera will not win the Daytona 500 of digicams. It really seems to be breathing hard saving the files. And start twiddling your thumbs waiting for a RAW file to be saved (it’s about 8-10 seconds or so). Using this camera for a still life in RAW might be a reasonable task but forget about shooting the kids playing football. Another issue was auto focus; like its predecessor, the camera drifted a bit before locking in. Again this is annoying, something photographers shouldn’t have to deal with in this day and age. Note: you can’t use the RAW setting in Auto; you have to go into one of the manual modes (P, A/S, M) which is good because the average point-and-shooter wouldn’t use RAW on a bet (simply too much effort required). Within the manual settings, there are loads of adjustments but there’s definitely a learning curve to get your hands around them all.
After filling the xD Picture card a few times, it was time to make some prints to check the results. After cranking out many full-bleed 8.5x11s, it was time to make a judgment. First off, you’re probably wondering how an image taken with ISO 4000 looks. In a word, terrible but it would be foolish to think a $329 point-and-shoot digicam could actually capture a quality image at that setting. Worse still, noise reared its ugly head at ISO 200 and at 400 it was much worse. If you buy this camera, don’t push the ISO at all—leave it on Auto.
In general the camera did a decent job outdoors in good sunlight. Focusing was fairly quick and the prints were reasonably accurate. Colors in some instances were a bit muddy, though. As for the indoor images, they were much worse with loads of noise and colors that didn’t resemble real life. The camera had trouble focusing subjects that didn’t have sharp edges.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
Unlike my last review when I had difficulty choosing between the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi and the Sony alpha, the conclusion for the SP-510UZ is much easier—don’t buy it. A quick search found this camera going for around $329 from a legit dealer while the much superior Canon PowerShot S3 IS was $354 at the same site. This is best $25 investment I’ve seen in a long while. The SP-510UZ is a big-time miss by Olympus.
• Not many but it runs on AAs
• Substandard picture quality
• Slow response, especially saving RAW files
• Feels cheap