For years, point-and-shoot buyers have – if market research from the camera manufacturers is to be believed – wanted one thing, to the exclusion of just about all others: more megapixels. Although the (frightening) prospect of 18 or even, God forbid, 20 megapixel small-sensor cameras continues to loom just beyond the horizon, that race has slowed to a crawl compared to what it was not so long ago.
Which, in turn, opens the door to a kind of cut-throat technological competition between manufacturers that I can really get behind: more zoom range. Once upon a time, a 3x optical zoom on a point-and-shoot was a luxury, but this year's Consumer Electronics Show has seen 10x zooms fitted into a growing list of pocket cameras, and obscenely wide-ranging 20x-plus optics mounted on otherwise moderate and mainstream ultrazooms.
Let me say for the record that I'm fully behind the idea of more zoom range in smaller cameras in a way that I haven't been with more resolution since the six megapixel days came and went. But while adding zoom range – unlike boosting resolution – generally has lots of pros and few if any cons, when you start talking about cameras like the Olympus SP-590 UZ, which covers the equivalent of 26-676mm with a single lens, my unwavering "pro zoom" stance starts to crack just a tiny bit.
The fairly compact 590's 26x optic raises some key questions about image quality and usability, in particular, but Olympus was kind enough to let us explore a pre-production 590 in much greater depth to see what answers we might uncover for our detailed hands-on preview.
Slimmed down waistline, updated interface
It may have a class-leading zoom, but the SP-590's body actually has more in common with the general-purpose Olympus SP-565 than the company's flagship SP-570. Like the SP-565, the 590 relies more on menu functions than dedicated controls. Whereas the SP-570 looks, feels, and (to a degree) operates like a DSLR, the 590's interface and smaller composite body are more in keeping with what you get from cameras like the Nikon P80 and Fujifilm S2000: in streamlining both the camera's form factor and interface, Olympus is seeking to help the 590 co-exist more logically with the large and potentially intimidating 570 by clearly differentiating the two based on the experience level of the user they target.
To this end, Olympus has also (drum roll, please) refreshed and cleaned up its user interface. I'd like to think that my vehemence toward the very confusing GUI used on previous Olympus point-and-shoots may have played some minuscule part in helping the older interface to its grave; in its place, you get high-visibility, high-res icons that don't look like they were borrowed from an Atari, and some restructuring to consolidate menus and options.
The interface update succeeds, on the whole, insofar as it balances the contrapuntal themes of overhauling a generally clunky and date system while retaining enough familiarity to keep legacy users from getting lost in the transition to the 590 from older Olympus models.
Pull the 590's zoom toggle, and the camera's lens rockets from one end of the range to the other: if you disliked the 570 for the pick-up lag introduced by its fly-by-wire zoom control, the SP-590's fast and direct control arrangement will no doubt be welcomed.
Getting to the long end of the zoom in no time is one thing. But getting shots in focus in a reasonable amount of time once you get there is another story. And like most cameras with hugely long lenses, the pre-production SP-590 we played with didn't perform so well at full telephoto when shooting indoors – making us wonder if there might be some general AF sluggishness at longer focal lengths to contend with in this model. Even back when 18x was considered an "ultra-ultrazoom," I expressed concerns about focus speed impairment in the last quarter of the zoom range. With nearly 700mm at the long end, is it possible that the Icarian 590 has simply flown too close to the long-zoom sun?
Somewhat surprisingly, the focus concerns I had after shooting the camera in low light at the long end of the zoom range during our initial experience with the camera largely evaporated in the light of day – with the 590 locking focus quickly on sunlit subjects, even at full telephoto. The camera may still struggle to find focus at longer focal lengths when there's less available light, but under ideal conditions telephoto focus seems to be very quick and predictable.
In fact, the bigger concern may be that while the 590's small composite body encourages traveling light, I had real trouble keeping the camera steady enough to get tack-sharp shots at full telephoto without some form of external stabilization – the 590's Dual Image Stabilization system is solid, but no IS technology known to modern engineering is good enough to brace up a 676mm in my shaky hands.
...and the short of it
At the other extreme, with a 26mm wide-angle optic it was hard to know what to expect in terms of barrel distortion, especially. Would the 590's lens be a fisheye in everything but name at full wide? It will take some actual shot analysis to know for sure, but on-screen evaluation of a straight-line shot taken at full wide angle suggests that the full measure of Olympus's skill in building zoom lenses has been brought to bear on this application as well. It's impossible to know for sure exactly how the lens will perform in every situation, and what other compromise-induced concerns (CA, softness, etc.) may be lurking. But at the very least, it doesn't seem that lens issues will ruin your day with this model right off the bat.
Since the 590 we used to snap with for this evaluation didn't feature production-ready firmware, Olympus asked us – as is typical in such cases – not to publish images taken with the new model. But while this limits most of what we can say about 590 as a picture-taking tool, there's certainly no reason to think that IQ won't meet expectations here.
Olympus has coupled its latest-gen TruePic III image processor to a new 12.0 sensor. In spite of the resolution bump over the 570's 10.0 megapixel variety, I'm hoping that the 590 will clean up some of the noise that has intruded at lower-than-average ISOs when shooting with previous Olympus ultrazooms. If Olympus has, against the odds, managed to improve the SP-590's high-sensitivity shooting, though, that's one more step on the path toward making the feature-rich 590 broadly appealing – not just for beginners looking for an easy long zoom solution, but also to more experienced shooters capable of taking advantage of those P/A/S/M modes.
It's all about the lens
Like most continuation models, there's a lot that is, to put the matter bluntly, unremarkable about the 590. We haven't even made it around to the camera's electronic viewfinder and its 2.7 inch HyperCrystal II LCD, for instance, as neither is especially noteworthy or memorable. Ditto many of the camera's soft features: it's certainly nice (indeed, it's basically expected) to have face detection and dynamic range adjustment technologies on a camera in this price range, but the implementations of these and other similar systems are not unlike those on previous Olympus models.
In short, it wouldn't have taken shooting time with the new model to predict that the 590's stunningly adaptable zoom lens will be the hook that catches most potential buyers: if it's as sharp and performance-focused as we have reason to hope, Olympus should have no trouble keeping excitement around this camera high. With the addition of a slick new interface and user-friendly controls, if you're looking to buy your first serious camera or need a device to capture action shots of your kids, the SP-590 seems, at a glance, to be both powerful enough and user-friendly enough to get the job done admirably. Conversely, if that huge lens doesn't do much for you, there doesn't seem to be a lot else here that you can't find elsewhere.
Olympus is expecting the SP-590 to up for sale in March, and we're cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to put a full review unit through its paces before that time. In the meantime, to get full details on the 590 as announced, check out our product launch write-up.