Olympus Stylus 800 Review

...the Olympus Stylus 800 is a very good digital 8MP camera that's a major step above the point-and-shoot competition.
...the Olympus Stylus 800 is a very good digital 8MP camera that's a major step above the point-and-shoot competition.
...the Olympus Stylus 800 is a very good digital 8MP camera that's a major step above the point-and-shoot competition.

Highs

  • Compact; fast; weather resistant 8MP digicam with excellent 2.5-inch LCD screen; very high ISO

Lows

  • No optical viewfinder; no AF assist lamp; uses more expensive xD Picture Cards

Summary

The Olympus Stylus was a legendary weather-resistant camera that quickly shed its 35mm film roots earlier this century to morph into a terrific little digicam. In the case of the Stylus 800, it’s a whopping 8-megapixel edition (the first was 3MP). Only topped by the new 9-megapixel Fuji E900 and E9000 as well as a soon-to-be-announced 10MP model from a famous company, it’s about as powerful a point-and-shoot camera as you can buy. I don’t know if we’re at a point of diminishing returns but I’ll always take more technological firepower when it’s available–especially when the price is right. With its 3x optical zoom, weather-resistant case, excellent image quality and extremely fast response, this is one of the best digital sub-$450 cameras available, especially for travelers and vacationers.

Features and Design

The Olympus Stylus 800 is not the prettiest or slimmest baby on the block. With a nondescript shape, the all-metal camera is much thicker than competing slim digicams with 2.5-inch screens such as the Sony Cybershot T series, Fujifilm FinePix Z1 and other popular models (they’re only 5MP models though). The camera measures 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 7.4 ounces with battery. Forget about putting this one in a shirt pocket but it’ll fit nicely in a pants or jacket pocket.

The camera has a 3x optical zoom lens with a built-in lens cover that protects it from the elements. Note: this camera is weather resistant–not waterproof–so it won’t take a dunk in the pool nor should you take it snorkeling. But it’s perfect for walking around and taking snaps in rainy weather. The lens translates to 38mm-114mm, the traditional point-and-shoot zoom ratio.

The front of the Stylus 800 is fairly plain vanilla with a metal accent with an etched Olympus logo on it. The case color is a luminescent gray/pearl that won’t make you think of a Lexus right off the bat. It’s OK, nothing more or less. You’ll also find the centered flash and three pinholes for the microphone. The top of the camera only has the shutter and a tiny power on/off button.

The rear of the camera almost takes the prize but not quite. It’s dominated by a 2.5-inch “HyperCrystal SuperClear” LCD that’s one of the best we’ve seen. It’s rated 215K pixels. Unfortunately there is no optical viewfinder for use in extremely dark situations but it had to get almost pitch black before it became useless and it worked very well in direct sunshine. On the right of the screen are the wide/tele zoom switch, a mode dial and arrow keypad to navigate the menus and make adjustments. On the left are four dedicated keys for Quick View,  Display, Guide, Self timer/delete. Quick View lets you see your last shot so you can check focus (you can zoom in 8x to see if the image is sharp). The DISP (or Display) shows your current settings including shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation, and resolution settings. Click it again and grids appear on the screen to help compose the shot and it turns on the histogram. The Self timer and delete function is pretty standard. What isn’t standard is the Guide key. Click and you get access to an onscreen owner’s manual that tells you how to handle situations such as shooting in backlight, blurring the background and 13 more. Once you choose a subject, you toggle the arrow pad and come to a screen that shows you what to do to get the desired results. This is terrific for photographers of all stripes and Olympus gets a standing “O” for it. Even better when you turn the mode dial to Scene and  choose Landscape, it shows you a thumbnail of the landscape image and tells you why you should (or shouldn’t choose it). Again, this is a wonderful real world benefit for those who don’t know their apertures from a hole in the ground.  The only other negative is the fact the marking above the keys is hard to read and you to angle it to read the lettering.

The right side of the camera has a solid door for the battery compartment and bottom has a sturdy door for the xD card slot, speaker and tripod mount.

The Olympus Stylus 800 is a joy to use from the moment you open the carton. Again let me state this camera is not perfect but it does many things well. For instance, when you open the box, there’s a big folder that states: “Getting Started.” In this package a Quick Start Guide suggests you walk a path from checking the contents of the box to installing the software. This is very nicely done but for some strange reason they don’t tell you how to load a memory card!?! Perhaps they’re embarrassed for using the xD Picture Card. No matter it’s a little switch that pops open the card slot door. The back of the guide tells you how to use the mode dial, adjust the focus, adjust the flash and so on. Like the job done by Kodak, this is a wonderful service for consumers and we give Olympus engineers a gold star for it. Also in the Getting Started folder is the Olympus Master software, and Advanced Manual CD ROMs and a printed Basic Manual (24 pages in English) with French and Spanish versions.

The carton also contains a rechargeable lithium ion battery and charger, wrist strap, USB and A/V cables. There is enough internal memory to handle 10 HQ 3264 x 2448 pixel images so budget for a 256MB or 512MB xD card ($50, $90 respectively from the SanDisk web site) but there are better deals to be had on the web.

Olympus Stylus 800
Image Courtesy of Olympus America

Performance

This camera is a speed demon. Startup is practically instantaneous from when you press the power button with the zoom lens quickly popping out into position (less than two seconds). I only wish the power button was a bit larger since I had to use the edge of a fingernail to engage it. With a fully charged battery it was time to put the camera through its paces. Although point-and-shoot with a ton of Scene modes (19 to be exact) covering almost every option you can think of, the Stylus 800 also has aperture and shutter priority modes, settings not found of most point-and-shoot digicams. There are also white balance options galore and a true standout–ISO options up to 1600, just like the Fujifilm FinePix F10.

In fact, both of these cameras tout their low light and available light shooting capability. After using them both, it’s hard to argue with company claims. Olympus calls it Bright Capture and Fuji dubs it Natural Light. No matter what the companies call the technology, it’s great since you can take much more realistic images without washing everything out with the flash. These features really put a lot on your creative plate and they beg to be experimented with. That said Fuji images had less digital noise than those taken by the 800.

I took some shots on my deck using candlelight and the shots were quite good although you really have to keep the camera very steady. In daylight and in simple Auto, the camera sings. It saves images very quickly and you’d hardly believe it’s an 8MP camera until you enlarge the files on your computer. Colors were very accurate including foliage, cat fur and skin tones. Images were richly saturated and the prints I made (4×6 and 8×10) were top notch. The camera has a burst mode at the highest resolution and can save four shots at 1.3 frames per second without the camera choking. Very impressive. It will do 10 shots in burst but quality drops off. The flash is also impressive, reaching out almost 20 feet. I did notice some focus grabbing in non-contrasty scenes as the camera tried to lock in. This is directly attributable to the lack of an AF Assist beam. Olympus engineers should really include one in the Stylus 1000 (if ever a 10-megapixel edition arrives).

The Stylus 800 also has an anti-shake setting on the mode dial but resolution drops 2048 x 1536 pixels, a huge drop to 3MP versus eight at the highest resolution. When you select the Image Blur Reduction mode on the 800’s mode dial Bright Capture boosts the ISO sensitivity to a whopping 2,250 so that the shutter speed stays above 1/15th of a second in order to eliminate blur. You’d use this in non mission critical situations but still a low-res steady shot is better than a blurry high-quality snapshot.

The camera has a movie mode (640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps) but the sound is mono and the optical zoom is disabled. Results are acceptable but as we’ve said before, digicams are no replacement for MiniDV camcorders.

The Olympus Master V1.2 software supplied with camera is adequate at best. You can do some basic edits, cropping and color correction. However, it makes handling loads of images very easy. It’s a good start but if you feel editing will get in your blood, spring for a version of Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0.

Olympus Stylus 800
Image Courtesy of Olympus America

Conclusion

The search for the digital camera Holy Grail goes on. That said the Olympus Stylus 800 is a very good digital 8MP camera that’s a major step above the point-and-shoot competition. It should be strongly considered by any outdoorsman or woman who looks forward to a nice hike no matter what the weather and wants to capture raindrops or swirling snowflakes. The camera is super fast and takes excellent photos with vibrant colors. You really don’t need much more but we’re picky and suggest Olympus makes the next edition even better.

Pros:

  • Excellent 8MP image quality
  • Great onscreen guides
  • Very fast startup with minimal shutter lag
  • High-quality 2.5-inch LCD screen
  • Top user adjustable ISO of 1600

Cons:

  • No optical viewfinder
  • No memory card supplied
  • Uses more expensive xD Picture Cards
  • No AF Assist lamp
  • Limited software capability
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