DigitalCameraReview.com
Olympus Stylus 790 SW Review
by Howard Creech -  10/17/2007

The first Olympus Stylus was a tough, elegant, and very popular compact 35mm (film) point & shoot camera that produced dependably first-rate snapshots. The earliest digital Stylus models retained the panache of that original “clamshell” Stylus and added twenty-first century imaging technology.  The third generation super-light, ultra-compact, and very thin Olympus Stylus 790 SW shrinks the mystique to shirt-pocket size.  Not only is the 790 SW tiny, it also features robust water/weather/dust seals - the camera is waterproof to 10 feet/3 meters (for up to 1 hour) so it can be taken out in inclement weather, to the beach, to a pool, on a boat, or directly into the water - without damage.  The 790 SW’s tough metal-alloy outer body can withstand a sharp impact without transmitting the injury to the camera's fragile electronic circuitry and delicate optics - making this camera nearly drop-proof (the 790SW can survive a fall of up to 5 ft/1.5 meters).   Finally, for arctic adventurers, glacier trekkers, cross-country skiers, snowboarders, and other winter fun fans the 790 SW is freeze-proof to 14F/-10C.

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NUTS & BOLTS

Sensor/Processor

1/2.3" CCD sensor and Olympus’ 3rd generation TruePic III processor.

Viewfinder/LCD

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW (like many current P&S digicams) doesn't provide an optical viewfinder.

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The 790 SW’s 2.5inch/6.4cm TFT “HyperCrystal” LCD is relatively sharp (230,000 pixels), bright, fluid, hue accurate, and it shows 100 percent of the image frame. When I tested the Stylus 720 SW (last year) I was impressed with Olympus’ Bright Capture Technology - the LCD screen was visible even in bright outdoor lighting and low light screen visibility was also quite good.  That’s not the case with the 790 SW – the LCD screen is so shiny that it is virtually impossible (due to glare/reflections) to use in bright outdoor lighting – and that is a crucial shortcoming, since there’s no optical viewfinder.

Lens

When the Stylus 790 SW is powered-up a built-in lens cover slips out of the way, exposing the front element of the f3.5-f5.0/6.7mm-20.1mm (38mm-114mm 35mm equivalent) optical zoom. When the camera is turned off the built-in lens cover slides over the front element of the lens.  Olympus’ engineers managed to stuff a 3X zoom into a camera that is less than an inch thick by using a unique periscope design lens. Tiny internal focus periscope style zooms are substantially more complex than traditional design digicam zooms (periscope zooms use mirrors and/or prisms to bend/reflect the light entering the lens along an L-shaped up-down axis rather than the traditional linear configuration) and as optical complexity increases lens aberrations are magnified exponentially.  The 790 SW’s periscope design zoom produces images that are a bit soft, overall. Corners are noticeably softer than average. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow outward from the center of the frame) is a bit higher than average at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is nicely controlled at the telephoto end of the zoom. There is some minor visible vignetting (dark corners) and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is slightly above average.

Minimum focusing distance is 2.8 inches/7 centimeters (in Super Macro mode), close enough for e-bay shots, but not tight enough for frame filling bugs & flower interior close-ups.

olympus stylus 790 sw sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Painted Lady Butterfly on Zinnia – note sharper focus in the center of frame and softer focus around the edges.  This is typical of the optical performance of periscope style zooms - but much more obvious up close.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Garden Spider wrapping up a Monarch butterfly she’s just killed – the 790 SW keeps things fairly sharp as long as the shooter doesn’t allow the action to stray to far from the center of the frame.

Image Stabilization

Realistically, there are limitations on just how much mechanics/electronics engineers can stuff into a tiny camera body. Obviously the inherent complexity of the periscope style zoom precludes using either optical IS (lens element shift) or mechanical IS (sensor shift) to counter camera shake. The 790 SW’s lack of image stabilization sometimes results in blurry images. 

olympus stylus 790 sw sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This mid-air grab shot of a BMX biker is a bit soft – due primarily to the 790 SW’s slightly sluggish AF and lack of either optical or mechanical Image Stabilization.

The 790 SW does provide a “digital” image stabilization (DIS) mode – the camera boosts sensitivity (ISO) and increases shutter speed to freeze action and counter camera shake.  The problem with this approach is that as sensitivity increases, so does image noise.

Auto Focus (AF)

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW features a fairly standard TTL contrast detection auto focus system with (default) iESP AF, Spot AF, and Face Detection AF modes. AF is a bit sluggish, but dependably accurate in good light and better than expected in low light. Face Detection AF is almost ubiquitous these days and the 790 SW doesn’t miss the boat on this popular feature.  The camera automatically scans the image frame, isolates faces, and then tracks the faces found.  When the shutter button is pressed the camera locks focus on the faces in the image frame and optimizes all exposure parameters to capture the shot. 

Flash

The 790 SW's built-in multi mode flash features full auto operation and user selectable settings for Red-eye Reduction and Fill flash. Maximum flash range (according to Olympus) is just over 12 feet, which seems fairly accurate based on my very limited artificial lighting tests. Flash recycle time is about 5-8 seconds. Users who enable the 790 SW's red-eye reduction flash mode can use the Red-Eye Fix menu function (post exposure) to ameliorate or eliminate red-eye problems.

File Storage/Memory Media

The 790 SW saves images to xD picture cards or to 15MB of internal storage. No starter card is included. Only Olympus branded xD-Picture Cards can be used with the 790 SW’s Panorama function.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

USB 2.0HS and A/V out

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Power/Battery Life

The 790 SW draws its juice from the same Olympus LI-42B (3.7v/740mAh) Lithium-ion battery that powered its predecessor. I didn't keep track of exposures, but based on my field experiences (heavy review/delete/re-shoot, and very occasional flash use) with the camera, battery life is a bit better than average (for ultra-compact digital cameras).  The remarkably tiny LI-42B (like the famous pink bunny) just keeps on going. The included charger needs about two hours to fully recharge the battery.

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EXPOSURE

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW is an auto exposure only digicam, but for the camera’s target audience the full auto ("point-and-shoot" mode) or Program mode (auto exposure with limited user input) is likely to be all that's needed.

olympus stylus 790 sw sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The 790 SW is a remarkably easy camera to use – as this handheld, program mode, short telephoto (about 80mm equivalent) grab shot of a performing musician at dusk shows.

The camera also features 24 scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Landscape with Portrait, Night Scene, Night Scene with portrait, Sports, Indoor, Candlelight, Self-portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind/Under Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot and Select 1& Shoot and Select 2, Beach and Snow, Underwater Snapshot, Underwater Wide 1, Underwater Wide 2, and Underwater Macro.  In all scene modes the camera assesses what is in the zoom’s field of view and then automatically optimizes all exposure parameters for the specific scene type selected by the shooter.

Movie Mode

The 790 SW's fairly standard movie mode permits users to capture 640x480 video clips (with mono audio) at 30fps – both on land and underwater.  Movie duration is limited only by the capacity of the xD card installed.

Metering

The 790 SW utilizes Olympus' Digital ESP multi-pattern (evaluative) metering system. More advanced users can opt for spot metering which is great for biasing exposure on the most important element of the composition. Metering is dependably accurate in most outdoor lighting, but there is a consistent tendency toward minor over-exposure.

White Balance (WB)

The 790 SW provides TTL Auto WB and user selectable pre-sets for tungsten, overcast, sunlight, and fluorescent 1, 2, & 3 lighting, but no custom/manual WB mode.

Sensitivity

TTL Auto sensitivity and user selectable settings for 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

Experienced photographers know that in-camera image tweaks are much easier than post exposure image manipulation.  The Olympus Stylus 790 SW provides a useful range of real time image adjustment options including Redeye fix, B&W, Sepia tone, image brightness, resizing, adding frames or text, and color saturation.

One new feature that will likely appeal to most shooters is the 790 SW’s Shadow Adjustment option.  Users can preview their images and then automatically compensate for the extreme contrast range between the very light areas and very dark areas of the frame by using the SA option to rescue shadow detail that would otherwise be lost. 

The exposure compensation function is usually overlooked by casual digicam users and that’s a shame.  Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The Olympus Stylus 790 SW's Exposure Compensation function permits users to subtly modify exposure parameters - base exposure can be adjusted over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV steps to compensate (by incrementally lightening or darkening images) for difficult lighting and other environmental exposure variables.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW is a very thin (0.8 inches/21.3mm) extra light (4.8oz/136gr) metal alloy bodied ultra-compact P&S digicam.  The super durable 790 SW is available in four colors - starry silver, midnight black, sunset orange and marine blue.  Olympus touts the camera as retro-elegant, but in my opinion the 790 SW has a minimalist “industro-tech” look.  All controls are logically placed and all shooting functions are easily accessed. Olympus digital cameras have always been menu driven and the Stylus 790 SW is no exception, but menus are presented logically and they are easily navigated. Experienced photographers will have no difficulty using the 790 SW right out of the box and even absolute beginners should be able to shoot good images after a short familiarization with the camera and a fast scan of the user's guide.

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PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Default (native) color interpolation is fairly accurate and saturation is near neutral, but like many P&S digicams the 790 SW can’t correctly render purple.

olympus stylus 790 sw sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The Morning Glory in this intimate landscape shot should have been Royal Purple, not Cobalt Blue.

Shadow detail is pretty good, but there is some minor visible loss of highlight detail in lighter areas in bright sunlight.  ISO 80 - ISO 200 images are dependably good to very good with satisfactory detail capture. ISO 400 images are slightly noisier than average with some noticeable detail loss.

olympus stylus 790 sw sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This low-light Balloon Glow shot is a bit soft and there’s visible noise and some obvious detail loss (high ISO), but the 790 SW (handheld in full auto mode) did a better job in than expected.

ISO 800 images show some obvious loss of detail and very high noise levels. ISO 1600 images are too flat looking and overly noisy for any practical use. Image quality is acceptable, but pictures are a bit soft overall and corners are noticeably softer than average. Pictures with lots of blue sky show visible blotching (Chroma noise).


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

Timing/Shutter Lag

The Stylus 790 SW's boot-up cycle is a bit slow for a camera that doesn't have to extend its zoom. Shutter lag is average - about 1/10th of a second when the camera is pre-focused and about 1/2 a second from scratch. AF lag times (about ½ second from scratch and about 1/4 second with pre-focus) seem a little sluggish when compared to the competition. Shot to shot times are also at the slow end of the average range.

A Few Concerns

The 790 SW has four significant shortcomings - the overall softness of its images, above average corner softness, the super shiny LCD surface, and sluggish AF.

Conclusion

Like the first Stylus, the 790 SW is capable of capturing very good snapshots and memory photos with little effort on the part of the photographer.  If that’s not enough, the diminutive 790SW is built like a tank and can be taken along on active outdoor adventures (like back country hiking, rock climbing, off-road biking, snorkeling, skiing, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, hang gliding, and white water rafting) that would oblige most users to leave the digital camera at home.

How well does the Olympus Stylus 790 SW balance tiny size and toughness with an acceptable level of performance?  Each potential purchaser will have to assess the camera’s negatives (soft images, shiny LCD, and sluggish AF) and its positives (ultra-compact, super tough, waterproof, shockproof, and freezeproof) for themselves, but for active users (who only plan to use the images for e-mail, 4x6 prints, and web use) seeking a super small P&S digicam that can be taken right out of a shirt pocket and straight into the water – the Olympus Stylus 790 SW nicely fits the bill.  

Pros: Waterproof, shockproof, dustproof, ultra-compact, and stylish

Cons: Images slightly soft, sluggish AF, super shiny LCD, and a slight tendency toward over-exposure

 

Technical Specifications

Included

LI-42B rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger, Wrist strap, USB cable, A/V cable, Software CD-ROM, & basic (Printed) user's Manual (the full user's manual is on CD)