Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom

This competitively priced model has a long zoom lens, numerous scene modes that will appeal to beginners, and plenty of manual controls for more serious shutterbugs

The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is the lowest-priced advanced camera we've ever examined. Previously, the PC World Test Center tested the SP-500 as a point-and-shoot model. But after its impressive performance in that category, we chose to test its mettle against advanced cameras--and came away with similar results. The SP-500 matched the image quality of much more expensive models, and it offers such notable features as a remote like the one that accompanies the Canon PowerShot Pro1 (which costs almost twice as much) and the ability to store four customized scene modes.

The biggest thing about the SP-500 is its impressive 10X lens. But because the camera has no image stabilization, this long zoom can be a mixed blessing. In anything other than bright sunlight you may end up with blurry pictures because the long zoom amplifies camera shake, especially with long shutter times. As for freezing quick action, the fastest shutter speed is a disappointing 1/1000 second; most advanced cameras we've tested have a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000 or 1/4000 second.

The long lens expands to 3.5 inches deep when the camera is turned on. Even so, the SP-500 isn't terribly heavy--about 14 ounces with battery and memory card--and the wide grip makes it comfortable to hold while you shoot. You can easily snap a picture, use the zoom, or turn the mode dial with your right hand, but you'll need your other hand to access the on-screen menu. An auto-exposure lock button is conveniently located on the top of the camera.

Though the 2.5-inch LCD screen is viewable in daylight, the electronic viewfinder works much better in that type of setting, and it also saves battery life. You can switch between the two by pressing a button to the right of the viewfinder.

Battery life should not be a worry. Powered by four AA Duracell Ultra batteries, this SP-500 was still going after 500 shots, which is when we stop testing. And its use of standard AA batteries means that you won't have any problem finding replacements.

At US$380, the SP-500 Ultra Zoom is inexpensive for a camera with a long zoom. Its resolution of 6 megapixels is a little behind that of the 7.2- and 8.4-megapixel models that we typically see in this category now, but the Olympus's resolution is more than adequate for most people. You can easily blow up images to 8-by-10-inch size and get photos that will look good on the wall.

You get a selection of 21 scene modes, including "museum" (which turns off the sound and the flash) and the unusual "behind glass." But there is no way to switch from one of them to another; you have to scroll through the list. One workaround is to use the My Mode setting on the dial to create saved groups of settings; this enables you to switch among four groups of customizable settings--a nice touch for advanced photographers, who may prefer a setting that differs in its details from the closest default scene mode.

We were impressed with the color in the photos we took with the SP-500, and the camera accurately exposed the images. We did notice some slight distortion when using the zoom lens at its widest settings, and the photos looked rather soft: Details such as small text and fine lines dissolved in a blurry haze. Switching to the document scene mode, however, improved sharpness by boosting contrast.

Upshot: This competitively priced model has a long zoom lens, numerous scene modes that will appeal to beginners, and plenty of manual controls for more serious shutterbugs.

Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom
Max. Megapixels:6
Optical Zoom:10X
Zoom RangeMin. (mm): 38
Max. (mm): 380
Weight (ounces):13.6
Media Slots:xD-Picture Card
Price When Reviewed:US$350

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Richard Baguley

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