Olympus has the right idea with their new Stylus-9000 digital compact, and that is to put more optical zoom power into a smaller and more compact body. The idea that is driving their current line of compact ultrazooms is to offer an alternative to the bulkier DSLR-esque bodies (like their SP-590 and SP-570) and provide the photographer with a digital camera that is portable and less cumbersome while still retaining a lot of power. But with the sacrifice of things like a viewfinder and less real estate for the hand, does the Stylus-9000 cut it?
That question will be answered shortly, but the thing to know and like about the Stylus-9000 is what they want you to like, and that is the size and the telephoto range it provides. I tested the Stylus-9000 driving cross-country and I was able to test how it worked in different lighting scenarios and scenes with different contrasts.
The Stylus-9000 has quite a few different bells and whistles, including a 12 megapixel 1/2.33-inch CCD image sensor, a lens with a 10x optical zoom (28-280mm), dual image stabilization, Intelligent Auto, a 2.7 inch LCD, in-camera panorama stitching, face detection, and Shadow Adjustment Technology that helps bring out more detail in dark areas in the frame. With this all included in the Stylus-9000, you get the resolution, image stabilization and an ultra-portable camera that is begging to be taken along for an adventure, and that's just what I did.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The build of the Stylus-9000 is its strongest selling point, packing a 10x optical zoom in a compact camera that resembles a few models equipped only with a 3-5x zoom range. With a sunken-in and retractable lens that extends out when you start up the camera, the small width of the Stylus-9000 makes it easy to carry around in the palm of your hand, or to stow away in a bag when you're on the road.
Among some of its attractive features are the brushed-aluminum body, the HyperCrystal LCD screen, and its lens. Another nice feature, which seems to be more of a flavor of the year than the month, is iAuto shooting mode that automatically chooses the best camera settings for any scenario. This function, as I have seen in other cameras I have reviewed with this mode, seems to be easily fooled by diverse conditions, but more about the Olympus Stylus-9000's later.
Ergonomics and Controls
The first look at the surface and layout of the Stylus-9000 seems pretty standard to most digital cameras made in the past few years. The Stylus-9000 isn't out to revolutionize camera design, but it does try to create a compact body for camera with a lot of zoom power, which is done well with this model.
There is one design element that I find interesting, and mostly unattractive. The 2.7-inch LCD screen protrudes outward on the back of the camera, almost like a picture frame being attached to the back. It seems to serve as a way to keep the collapsible/retractable lens inside the camera.
The Stylus-9000 doesn't break new ground design-wise, but I rarely give much thought to a device in which its only function is to take a good picture, which should be prized above all else. As an Olympus rep once told me, it's about the image, not the megapixels, a statement that when applied to design would suggest that Olympus's first concern is for the image, not all the bells and whistles.
The controls, like I said, are very typical - shutter release, power and lens zoom lever on top. A mode dial that accesses different camera settings and a 4-way button that allows you to access quick functions like exposure, timer, flash and macro settings as well as menu control reside on the back panel of the camera.
As far as hand real estate is concerned, there is a thumb bar on the back and room for your right hand on the front of the camera that will accommodate larger hands. The layout makes sense from a classical standpoint, and won't be hard for new users to get the hang of using all the features within just a few minutes of using the Stylus-9000.
Menus and Modes
Olympus employs the same menu system they've offered on most of their digicams, which is an easy to access menu with sort of a low-rent visual, meaning that it is much more functional looking. However, there is one surprise, when you access the menu by clicking on its button on the back you get a colorful display that gives you icon choices, including Image Quality that allows you to choose image size and what sort of compression you want, the Camera Menu that lets you get to White Balance, ISO, etc.
Then there is the setup that takes you to things like Format and sound settings, and probably the coolest feature, Panorama, which allows you to stitch together three images. Scene Mode allows you to quickly access the different shooting modes, Reset allows you go back quickly to all the default settings, and Silent Mode lets you turn off the sounds of the camera, which is great when you want to make as little noise as possible when shooting (e.g. shooting sports).
The Stylus-9000 is not a camera that offers extensive user controls as it lacks manual settings. Here are some of the different shooting modes of the Stylus-9000:
Although the LCD protrudes a bit from the back end, the screen itself is accurate and vivid, pushing out 230,000-dots of resolution. It features a 5-step brightness control so you can choose the strength of the monitor's light.
The LCD employs HyperCrystal III technology, which is supposed to give you three times the brightness of their previous cameras. Overall, the monitor is accurate and balanced, and gives a pretty good playback of your captured images, although I did have some trouble identifying image blur in a few scenes, which I only found after I uploaded them to my computer.
The road east is filled with dramatic landscapes, and some of the most beautiful can be found in the American Southwest. I had the good fortune of driving cross-country while testing out the Stylus-9000, and got to see how it would handle such a diverse terrain. With the road starting in Venice Beach, CA, I made my northern route through Las Vegas, then onto Utah, which has some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever encountered.
Having the Stylus-9000 with me made taking good images possible with very little hassle. The Stylus-9000 is a great road camera, and proved itself adept at capturing the images the way I saw them.
The Olympus Stylus-9000 fires up quickly, all within a second or so, ready for any shot you may need to capture on the fly. As the lab results show, the Stylus-9000 is an above average performer when it comes to AF acquisition. It's at the top of its class at 0.47 seconds, and press-to-capture testing in the field proved to find focus at both telephoto and wide angles quickly.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.03|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.48|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||0.59|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980||0.61|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.68|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||40||30 fps†|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
|Kodak EasyShare Z980||4||1.3 fps|
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.
The shutter lag shot to shot was right smack dab in the middle, with 0.02 seconds between each shot, a very impressive number. Continuous shooting captured, on average, 3 images non-stop at a 1.4 fps rating, making it a pretty average performer. With the AF being a fast and accurate contrast-based system, it wasn't as impressive in low-light conditions, giving me a lot of lens creep before it found focus, but was not a major issue since it's usually hard to find focus in bad lighting no matter what camera you're using.
The dual-image stabilization in the Stylus-9000 works satisfactorily. It's a combination of sensor-shift and high ISO settings, which is successful on the whole, but often produced an overexposed image at telephoto lengths when the high ISO was employed.
Flash on the Stylus-9000 is also satisfactory, giving you an effective range wide-angle of 17.7 feet and 9.8 feet at the telephoto end at, both at ISO 800. When trying it out, the recycle times were about 4.25 seconds between shots. The flash modes include Auto, Red-eye, Fill-in and Off.
Battery life on the Stylus-9000 is rated at about 250 shots, and I was able to capture about 233 images before the camera warned me. The CIPA rating is accurate and I was able to get off about 250 before the battery died. The Stylus-9000 uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
The Stylus-9000 has a zoom range from 28-280mm (10x optical zoom power) in a retractable lens system with 9 lenses in 6 groups, with 5 aspherical lenses. The lens also allows you to tack on 5x in digital zoom power for an interpolated image. It has a maximum aperture of f/3.2 for wide-angle and f/5.9 telephoto, and is a standard aperture in this grade of camera.
With all the stats put aside, there were some concerns I had with the lens after shooting with it, including vignetting at wide-angles, lens flare and some artifacts in the midtones of my images, and the occasional purple fringes along the border of the images.
The question is, are these acceptable levels for the size of the CCD sensor? I expect to find these sorts of aberrations in my images with point-and-shoots, but the Stylus-9000 did really struggle on both the wide-angle and telephoto end of things, making it a disaster for pixel peepers who really want to scrutinize each pixel.
Video captured with the Stylus-9000 is basic VGA, otherwise known as standard-def, with a resolution 640x480 at 15/30 fps. I would prefer seeing HD video, though some of the cameras I have captured video with HD have proved to be muddy at best. So with that being said, the video was of good quality when played back on my monitor.
As exposure settings are limited in the Stylus-9000, the shooter is somewhat reliant on the camera to find the optimal ones. Out of the camera, the images had a very natural look to them, and were accurate, aside from the aberrations/artifacts I found.
iAuto Exposure Mode
One of the most frustrating things about processing in the Stylus-9000 is that you can only change the color and saturation in playback mode/edit menu. This means you have to rely on the default settings, instead of being able to go through the menu before you capture your image to change its properties. This only allows you to make the image black and white, sepia or a hard or soft saturation after the image is taken, not before. This is an unnecessary menu dive and sort of confusing and frustrating if you don't read the user manual carefully. Olympus now offers some of their creative art filters in their entry-level cameras, so it seems they've made an effort to put more pre-capture creative options in-camera with their most recent models.
As the exposure control is somewhat limited, you do have the ability to change white balance, but frustratingly there is no manual white balance setting. You can also control the ISO up to 1600, but at this high setting the grain and noise found aren't worth it unless you have no other option. You also have control over three forms of AF, including Single shot AF, Sequential and High-Speed for the continuous shooting mode. You also have little control over light metering with two options, including ESP that measures brightness throughout the entire frame, and Spot metering that allows you the meter light for a subject that is backlit.
Auto white balance worked sufficiently for most shooting situations, but was somewhat fooled in lower light conditions. But overall, using Auto white balance for most scenarios coupled with the ESP light metering mode gave me the image I wanted. I found that in high-contrast images where light and dark met, the images looked great with the Auto WB and ESP enabled, and I was pleasantly surprised with the my results. Even with its different issues, the Stylus-9000 reads contrast well.
Auto White Balance, 3200K Incandescent
The ISO performance really started to show image degradation once the camera was pushed past 400. With the range from the low ISO of 64 to 200 the images were fine, but once pushed past 400 to 1600 the images showed an increased amount of grain, while making 1600 in a studio shot look like it was taken in no light.
ISO 64, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
There's always an issue of putting too many megapixel sites on a small CCD image sensor, making noise inherent in point-and-shoot cameras. ISO 800-1600 settings are usually a novelty and a last resort when all else fails, and are mostly unusable.
The Olympus Stylus-9000 finds itself in a category of camera just below the ultrazoom, but has just enough focal power to get itself out of the standard 3x zone. It aims to provide a broad spectrum of zoom range and 12 megapixels of high-resolution. The 12 megapixel club seems to the sweet spot where noise is filtered out because of larger pixel sites on DSLRs, but this mentality doesn't transfer well to the image sensor that is less than an inch on most point-and-shoots, including the Stylus-9000.
There is a lot to like about the Stylus-9000, including ease of use, the zoom power, iAuto function and quick AF. There are also some things that are less desirable, including little to no manual control over exposure settings, poor performance at high ISO sensitivities and the degradation found in some of the images.
With all things being considered, is the Stylus-9000 worth its price of $239 street? I took this camera with me on a three-day trip across the U.S. and never found a problem with it while snap shooting. This camera is geared for the casual shooter looking for focal power and full automatic controls and it doesn't demand all the precision of a more expensive camera with more manual control. The camera is a great travel companion, but it can't be pushed past the limits of a snap shooting camera. The Stylus-9000 is what it is, an entry-level to intermediate point-and-shoot with some cool features.