Ultra-zoom cameras are becoming increasingly popular and it's easy to see why. All that magnifying power in a compact means you've got everything you need to hand. No swapping lenses or wishing you had a longer zoom.
Historically, ultra-zoom cameras have been fitted with lower-resolution sensors than standard cameras, mainly to keep the price affordable. However, 6-megapixel resolutions are starting to become standard on ultra-zooms - and the Olympus SP500-UZ is one of the first budget cameras to feature this combination.
Nothing with a 10x optical zoom is going to be tiny, but the SP500-UZ is small and light enough to use with one hand. The Mode dial is a decent size but is slightly recessed, so that you can only turn it with your thumb rather than forefinger.
The buttons are limited to the essential few and are well spaced, but we feel Olympus has tried to go a little too minimalist here; the circular buttons are so small that pressing them involves real concentration.
Other than these small quibbles, the camera is a joy to use. Start-up time is around two seconds, which is reasonable for a camera with a motorised zoom. Olympus' zoom system uses a collar around the shutter button; you move a dial left or right to zoom in or out.
Olympus have used this method for years and it's the most intuitive motorised control we've come across. Generally speaking, the zoom is responsive (going from wide to far takes just under three seconds) although zooming out involves a little quarter second hiccup as the camera sorts itself out. Shutter lag is average for this kind of camera.
Composition is via the large, 2.5-inch LCD screen or the electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF image seems a little small compared to some other cameras - and there's no dioptre adjustment, so those of us who wear glasses could have problems. The LCD screen itself is seriously big, although the resolution isn't really high enough so you still need to zoom in to check small details on your shots.
Low-light shooting is a little problematic. The need for a flash seems to kick in earlier than the aperture range suggests, and indoor shots will almost always need flash. There's no hotshoe so you can't upgrade, but the built-in flash is better than on many compact cameras. To get the best results, though, you'll have to fiddle with the exposure compensation.
The biggest potential problem with the SP500-UZ is lack of any image stabilisation. Competitors such as the Konica Minolta Dimage Z6 (only slightly more expensive) have similar specs to the Olympus, plus an anti-shake system that makes handheld shots at the long end of the zoom far easier to take.
That's enough about the handling - what about the images? Colour is excellent, although subject to a little too much punch on bright primaries, but it's easy to dial down the saturation in the menus. Grain is apparent on most shots when viewed at 100% but it isn't really a problem. Images could do with a little more than the default sharpening but it's not something you're going to notice unless you're printing at over A4.
The level of barrel distortion is more than acceptable for an ultra-zoom camera. Macro and SuperMacro modes are excellent and the focus is quick and accurate. All told, image quality is first class - as long as there's enough light and you've held the camera steady enough for long zoom shots.
Horses for courses
It's safe to say that Olympus' new baby is designed for people who want a big zoom with point and shoot simplicity. The Scene modes are clearly explained in the menu and we suspect that Olympus thinks 99.9% of people will use these and the Auto setting.
There is additional functionality (both on the Mode dial and in the menu) but burying such essentials as Macro mode four button presses away in a menu does rather give away its beginner credentials. The lack of a hotshoe means you're completely reliant on the built-in flash. Of course, this isn't a problem if you simply want to get on with taking photos with a minimum of fuss and bother. Adam Evans