2008-06-06

Olympus 770SW and Friends




Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: For a compact digital camera, it's da bomb-proof.


The Long Version: I own the Olympus 770SW, and have had plenty of opportunities to play with its newer friends, the 850SW and 1030SW. So while this is primarily a review of the 770, it broadly applies to the others as well. These cameras are remarkable for being incredibly tough and waterproof without any sort of accessory case.


A note on nomenclature: In North America Olympus uses the branding "Stylus", apparently thinking that their cameras can be used as a writing instrument, while elsewhere they're called the "µ[mju]" line. If this is the precedent that made Sony call its newly-purchased DSLR camera line the "α", then Olympus has a lot to answer for. But wherever you may be in the world, the name is dumb and best forgotten. I call these cameras by their number designation alone.


I first learned about the SW series - which stands for Shock and Water proof - in early 2007 when the 720SW was already on its way out of the market. So instead of taking the old model, I pre-ordered the new 770SW from a local camera store, sight and images unseen. I took two: one for me and another for a co-worker. I wanted one for a vacation and kayaking camera, he wanted one because he has kids. The third third person working in the warehouse bought his own when he saw ours. It's so different from everything else that it simply has no competitors. Even though a year has passed since my initial decision, there's still nothing on the market that rivals these little cameras. And no, before someone leaves me a nasty comment, the Pentax Optio W series doesn't count. Not by a long fall.


First of all, believe the press release and all the ads you see. These cameras really are waterproof. I've had mine in the Pacific ocean on a couple of continents, scrubbed plaster dust from it after a hard day of kitchen renovations, use it in the rain on a regular basis, and have taken photos from the wet end of a fountain just for fun. I can't say that I've dropped mine onto concrete from 5 feet - which is what the 770 and 850 are good for, the 1030 is rated for six-and-a-half - but I don't doubt that it would survive. And for the sake of this review, I just tested its crush-proof rating by standing on it. No problem.


Before you continue reading this review, please consider getting your own personal point-and-shoot camera out of storage and standing on it.


Admittedly, I'm a little shy of the full 100 kilos (220 pounds for American readers) that the SW series is rated to withstand. But I have a lot of experience with Olympus cameras and how tough they can be. And instead of scaling back their claims for the SW series, the newest model - the 1030SW - is advertised as being even tougher than the others. I have a lot of faith that these cameras can be pushed as far as they say that they can.


When the 770SW was new, anti-shaken / image stabilized / vibration-reductioned compact cameras were exotic. These days some sort of physical stabilization, either optical or sensor-shift, has turned into the oxymoronic mandatory feature. This is one of the two ways that the 850SW and 1030SW fall short of their store-shelf neighbours. I'm sure that if there was a way to get a tough-enough stabilization into its shockproof cameras Olympus wouldn't hesitate to do it, but for now there's only the "digital" option that involves boosting the iso setting. It's not the same thing, and it doesn't work nearly as well.


But to keep this in perspective, I'm not sure how well optical stabilization will work on an Elph after it's been dropped, stepped on, and then kicked into the bottom of the swimming pool. I bet that the greater viscosity of the water would mess with its accelerometers, or perhaps there would be some other disappointment with its performance. (If anyone's tried this, please let me know.)


The other way the SW series falls down is its use of xD cards, which is the vestigial flipper of the memory card world. Everyone else, except for Sony who have their own problems, is using the cheaper and faster SD cards. Of course, Olympus originally pinned their hopes on the Smartmedia card, so they do have a history of not being on the same bus as the rest of the world. It's not a big deal; if you buy an Olympus camera, you'll just have to buy a new memory card that will never be used in another brand of camera. The way memory prices keep dropping, that's probably true anyway.


And yes, the LCD does get washed out by bright sunlight. Short of an optical viewfinder, which only a few Canon and Sony cameras still have, this is a problem for everyone.


Olympus has learned a little about how people use cameras. With the 770SW in review mode, an information overlay appears on each photo as it's called up. This gives detailed information like iso, shutter speed, and aperture: all of which will mean very little to the average user and is completely outside the user's control in any event. (Okay, iso can be controlled, but that's it.) It's annoying. Fortunately the 850 and 1030 don't do this, and instead have a cute little wipe-animation as each new photo comes up. Also annoying, but a little more user-friendly.


But even with those two or three minor issues, I simply adore this camera. It's small enough to carry without being too small to use, and its strong construction gives it a nice heft. The english language lacks a word to describe the satisfaction that comes from using a really well-made tool, which is what I feel when using this jewel. And now that I no longer do any 'serious' lunch-hour photography it has replaced my SLR(s) as the camera that I carry with me when I'm at work or scooting around town. It lives in my backpack or jacket pocket, and I never have to worry about it being set down too suddenly or getting wet from condensation from a beverage or wayward rain. The real reason for someone like me to have a compact camera is to be able to carry it all the time, and this one really meets that requirement.


Olympus also builds a couple of eccentric features into its cameras. For one thing, they double as travel alarm clocks. Feel free to scoff - I did when my mother first told me that her Stylus 800 could do it - but it's surprisingly useful. (If nothing else, set it to go off at 8pm every evening so that you don't lose the little thing.) And holding down one of the buttons with the power off will trigger its little LED illuminator to light for 90 seconds. How can I not love a camera that has a built-in flash light? Sure, it's no LED mag-lite, but it gets the job done when there's nothing else available.


If something tragic happened to my trusty 770SW, I wouldn't hesitate to replace it with the new 1030SW. It has a better lens, as it goes to a wider 28mm-equivalent, which is also the biggest real difference between it and the 850SW. The current cameras also include face recognition, which can be handy if you like people. There's not enough reason for me to outright upgrade from a perfectly good camera quite yet, but I'm sure that eventually there will be a new SW camera in my life.


Finally, A Few Words About Image Quality:


Some people think this is the most important feature of a compact camera. It's not. For the definitive word on the subject, I offer a heavily edited excerpt of this advice from Mike Johnston:


"I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the upshot: they're all shit. And I don't mean "shit" as a pseudo-hip way of registering a connoisseur's disapproval of the demotic or an enthusiast's disdain for the democratic. I mean that despite their cunning little shiny bodies and technologically marvelous innards, as cameras they're little stinking turdlets of fresh, steaming excrement.
[...]
Accordingly, the best advice I can offer with regard to choosing a digital point-and-shoot is: don't waste your time. I am not speaking colloquially—I don't mean you should forego the activity altogether. No. I'm saying if you spend long hours reading reviews, comparing features, gathering opinions, and agonizing over slight advantages and disadvantages, weighing pros and cons, you will be losing precious minutes and hours of your time on Earth that you will never get back. [...] Once you get your new camera home, then spend some time. Spend an hour or two carefully and thoroughly reading the instruction manual, all the way through. [...] Go over it enough times so that you feel you've got it mastered. [...] Good photographers can actually learn to use point-and-shoots reasonably effectively, and you can, too. But only if you try."


(emphasis added.)

So there you have it. Reading this review has probably consumed all of your decision-making time. If you like the sound of an indestructible camera, go buy one. I'd suggest the 1030SW or whatever new model is the current top-of-the-line in the SW series. Remember that you won't break this one, so spend the extra money. If image stabilization is the most important feature, then pick the Panasonic or Canon camera that's closest to the door.

And then have fun with it.



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