Olympus SP-500 Review

The 10x Olympus SP-500UZ is in the thick of a tough fight with Canon, Kodak, Konica-Minolta and Sony.
The 10x Olympus SP-500UZ is in the thick of a tough fight with Canon, Kodak, Konica-Minolta and Sony.
The 10x Olympus SP-500UZ is in the thick of a tough fight with Canon, Kodak, Konica-Minolta and Sony.

Highs

  • Compact 6MP 10x optical zoom digicam

Lows

  • Uneven focusing
  • OK picture quality

Summary

Olympus is struggling mightily to keep with the digicam leaders (Kodak, Canon and Sony). Sometimes they win with models like Stylus 800 and E-500 D-SLR while in other instances they fail miserably with IR-500 and M:Robe. Yet you can’t blame them for trying; they can’t just quit the game or they’ll end up in the trash heap of CE companies. Where Olympus really shines is with its Ultra Zoom digicams like the new 6-megapixel SP-500UZ, the company’s latest 10x optical zoom digicam (the ancient 2MP C-700 Ultra Zoom was one of the first in the industry). This equals 38-380mm in 35mm terms, a very nice range. At $379 it’s more expensive than the $299 10x Kodak Z740 with slightly less resolution (5MP). It’s also a bit cheaper than its other ultra zoom competitors, the $499 5MP Sony DSC-H1 and Canon PowerShot S2 IS with 12x optical zooms and image stabilization. Kodak’s new P850 is a non-image stabilized 5MP digicam with a 12x zoom that costs $449 while Konica Minolta’s 6MP DiMage Z6 with a 12x optical zoom is $399. Looking at these prices, you can see the SP-500UZ has a ballpark price battling it out with some tough competitors. Now does it swing and miss or hit it out of the park? (As you can probably tell, I can’t wait for baseball to start again!) Check it out…

Features and Design

The black-bodied SP-500UZ is very compact for an ultra-zoom digicam. Made primarily of plastic, unfortunately it has a chintzy feel. Guess when you’re making these things in Indonesia, it’s hard to ship metal to that Third World country and still keep prices down. The camera measures 4 x 2.9 x 2.8 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 13.4 ounces loaded with four AAs and xD Picture card. It does have a comfortable, sturdy grip. Yet your proof is in the holding–you really have to do a hands-on test with this or any other camera you’re considering.

The front of the camera is dominated by a 10x Olympus ED lens that’s rated 38-380mm in 35mm terms with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. This is good although I wish they leaned a bit more to the wide angle. Olympus has the highly regarded 7MP C-7070 Wide Zoom ($449) with a range of 27-110mm but it’s only 4x. Too bad they didn’t start this one out at 26 or 28mm. Oh, well maybe next year. You’ll also find a built-in mic, an AF Illuminator (or Assist) lamp and various decals promoting lens power and its 6MP resolution. The top has the mode dial, power button, AEL (Auto Exposure Lock)/Custom key and shutter with wide-tele zoom toggle switch. The flash is also here but unfortunately you have to manually open it in dark settings, a dumb move IMHO. The camera does not have a hot shoe either.

The rear of the camera is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD screen rated a so-so 115K pixels (more on this later). There’s also the typical four-way controller with central OK button. Other buttons include the pop open for the flash, one to switch between the LCD and viewfinder, a Display/Guide, Quick View to check your last shot as well as another to change the flash setting or to delete images. The EVF does not have a diopter adjustment, another bummer.

On the right side are doors for DC in and the xD card slot. The left has the USB out (USB 2.0 full speed) and a speaker. On the bottom is the battery compartment door (it uses four AAs) and a tripod mount.

The camera comes with a decent kit. There’s a lens cap that gets attached to the neck strap and dangles there when you’re shooting, a clunky way to handle this task. On the plus side is a Quick Start guide to get you going from setting the date and time through downloading to the PC. It does the job adequately but Kodak does it better. There’s a three-language Basic Manual (27 pages in English) that really is basic. I know companies are trying to save money but they should scrimp elsewhere and provide a full book since not too many people lug their laptops around so they can read their camera manuals! Of the two CD ROMs one has the full manual and the other has Olympus Master software V1.31 with support for RAW files, a real plus especially since so many companies leave you hanging with these large, high-quality files. No xD picture card is supplied so expect to budget around $50 for a 512MB card that holds around 125 6MP SHQ images (2816 x 2112 pixels) or 57 RAW files. Also plan to purchase a set of NiMH batteries and a charger to save money and the environment.

Popping the batteries and card in, setting up for SHQ JPEGs and RAW files, it was time to take some photographs.

Olympus SP-500
Image Courtesy of Olympus America

Performance

The SP-500UZ powers up very quickly; it’s about two seconds for the lens to extend and your subject to appear on the LCD. This is fairly typical for 2005 edition digicams and manufacturers are to be thanked for eliminating this annoying issue. As a 6-megapixel camera, the camera doesn’t have to labor saving huge files to the card expect when you’re in RAW. The camera has a burst mode of 1.75 frames per second for a max of three frames in JPEG; forget a burst in RAW but that’s really the domain of more expensive D-SLRs.

I look a variety of shots indoors and out moving from Auto and then to the Scene Modes. Olympus offers 21 of them ranging from portrait to documents and even auction for eBay shots. The onscreen menu shows an example of scene it should be used for and even offers a text explanation. This is a great example of terrific user friendliness. An even better example of user friendliness would be a macro button on the camera itself, rather than using the menu system but you don’t find that here. The camera also has the usual aperture- and shutter priority modes plus the ability to save custom settings. Unfortunately, the basic manual doesn’t give the newbie user even a clue how to use them; you have to go into the advanced manual on the CD ROM. This was bad news after such a bright start with the Scene modes.

You can put up with these annoyances if the camera takes good photos after all is said and done. The results of the Olympus SP-500UZ were mixed at best. As always I print images directly from the card to a Canon Pixma MP780 printer via my Dell desktop without any editing–just straight borderless 8.5×11 prints on Canon Photo Paper Plus Semi Gloss. A sunset shot in “sunset mode” came out nicely but a close-up of trees against a blue sky in “landscape” was just O.K. with hints of purple fringing. (These were SHQ JPEGs.) While I was shooting (inside and out) I noticed the camera had a tendency to search for the proper focus while in Auto and some macro shots were total misfires. Others came out just right. Digital noise did not rear its ugly head until ISO 200 (400 is the max setting) but this is fairly typical with today’s compact digicams. At 80 and 100 it was not an issue. Response time (saving to the card) was fast and recycling times with the flash were good but this uneven focusing with an unresponsive shutter was annoying. The 10x optical zoom on the other hand offers a very usable range but I’d still like it wider than 38mm but that’s just me.

Switching to RAW was even more of challenge for the camera. Don’t expect to take a series of shots of your child skiing with this one. The camera flashes “busy” for several seconds as it saves the big files. Still the results are worth it for landscapes and other static shots. As noted, Olympus provides software to develop the RAW files and you can adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, color temperature and exposure compensation when you develop them. Olympus is to be commended for this. That said I was happy with the quality but this is no D-SLR.

As noted, the 2.5-inch LCD is rated only 115K pixels and the screen is useable in most lighting conditions. Images tended to blur on the LCD screen. With direct sunlight, I just moved to the viewfinder not bothering to go into the menu to make adjustments. Another downer was the movie mode. Recording 320 x 240 pixels at 30 frames per second is weak compared to so many other cameras with 640 x 480 at 30fps. On the plus side of the ledger battery life was excellent even with standard alkalines.

Olympus SP-500
Image Courtesy of Olympus America

Conclusions

The 10x Olympus SP-500UZ is in the thick of a tough fight with Canon, Kodak, Konica-Minolta and Sony, all battling for photographers who want powerful zooms that are great for all-around use, especially vacations. It has some good things going for it and some negatives. Most you can live with but I had a tough time dealing with the uneven focusing. When I started this review, I used a baseball metaphor and I may as well continue, courtesy of Ernest Lawrence Thayer: “There is no joy in Melville, Mighty Casey has struck out.” (For those who don’t get this inside baseball joke, Olympus HQ are in Melville, NY, not Mudville.–Ed.)

Pros

  • Compact and lightweight
  • 10x optical zoom
  • Extensive list of shooting modes (27)
  • Uses standard AA batteries, excellent battery life

Cons

  • Uneven focusing
  • Plastic body feels chintzy
  • No auto pop-up flash or hot shoe
  • Poor movie mode compared to competition
  • No diopter control
  • Too limited Basic Owner’s Manual
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