The Olympus IR-500 wants to be the iPod of digital cameras: cool, convenient, and especially versatile in playback mode. Although it's a competent enough 4-megapixel snapshot camera, with 17 scene modes--but only a limited 2.8X 40mm-to-112mm (35mm-camera equivalent) zoom lens--it really excels as a playback device. Nestled in the bundled docking station, it can display any of 12 different slide shows, each with as many as 100 voice-narrated pictures. Lengthy shows are most practical when you link the dock to the optional 16-ounce 40GB S-HD-100 hard drive. The IR-500 has nine PowerPoint-like transition effects, including zoom up and down, checkerboards, faders, swivels, and Venetian blinds. It can also display your images sorted by shooting date, as a sort of visual diary. The slide show and "diary" modes have their own easy-access positions on the mode dial.
The Olympus IR-500's flip-down-and-around 2.5-inch LCD and flashing green light panel will captivate your friends. This is one camera that begs you to explore unusual shooting angles. When the camera is powered down, the LCD folds up flat in the front, facing the lens. It initially flips down for waist-level viewing in the style of a classic twin-lens camera, such as the Rolleiflex, and it's reversible for overhead shooting. To shoot a self-portrait, you can continue to pivot the bright, 206,000-pixel LCD another notch. A separate self-portrait position on the mode dial flips the image vertically. For a conventional perspective, you can also fold the viewfinder around a full 360 degrees to the back panel.
Apart from its stylish LCD and too-cool-for-school playback prowess, the IR-500's layout and features are fairly standard for a compact 4-megapixel snapshooter. The 3.1-by-5-by-1.3-inch, 7.5-ounce camera fits easily in most pockets. Unfolded for use, it settles comfortably into a two-handed grip. The only two controls on the top are the shutter release and the concentric zoom lever. On the back panel, you'll find only a mode dial, a quick-review button, a menu key, a delete button, and a four-way cursor control with central OK button. As on many cameras in this class, the cursor buttons do double duty setting focus and flash options, activating the self-timer, and accessing a user-selected custom feature, such as exposure compensation. A power button on the movable LCD panel turns the camera on and off when docked; otherwise, folding the LCD away from the lens powers the camera up.
The 2.8X zoom lens doesn't really offer a wide-angle view at 40mm, nor does its 112mm telephoto range provide much of a reach-out-and-touch-someone effect. But the lens will autofocus down to 0.1 inch in supermacro mode.
You'll find few exposure controls on the Olympus IR-500. Setting exposure compensation within a range of plus or minus 2EV requires a trip to a menu, although you can configure the Custom button to move directly to that feature. The automatic shutter speeds range from just 1/2 to 1/1,000 second, which is not good news for snapshot photographers fond of especially fast-moving sports. For long low-light exposures, you can use the Night Scene mode.
The IR-500 lets you choose matrix or spot metering and autozone or spot focus, and you can set white balance manually. The camera automatically selects ISO settings from 50 to 400. The 17 automatic scene modes (in addition to plain-programmed and full-automatic modes) let you tell it what sort of picture it's taking: Landscape, Landscape Plus Portrait, Night Plus Portrait, Indoor, Fireworks, Sunset, Cuisine, Documents, Sport, Beach And Snow, Candle, Available-Light Portrait, Behind Glass, Night Scene, Portrait, Self-Portrait, or Vivid. Turning the mode dial to the Scene position brings up a menu of scene modes; the last four choices have their own positions on the dial.
The VGA-resolution (640x480-pixel) motion pictures are limited to a jerky 15 frames per second (fps), which is a shame because the built-in electronic image stabilization for movie mode helps sharpen clips significantly.
On the performance front, this camera turned in average times in most tests, although its burst mode was more capable than that of many point-and-shoots in this class. We captured 7 full-resolution shots in 4 seconds at a commendable 1.7fps clip; at 640x480-pixel resolution, we were able to grab 68 shots in 45 seconds (1.5fps). The pixel-dense 2.5-inch LCD also performed well, providing bright, viewable images, even with high ambient-light levels. It was harder to view under very dim illumination, gaining up only a little to provide a good image.
Autofocus performance was spotty. Shutter lag measured a commendable 0.6 second under high-contrast lighting but stumbled to 1.9 seconds under more challenging low-light conditions. A focus-assist lamp would have helped here. The built-in flash was good out to 13 feet (ISO unspecified), but the Olympus IR-500's red-eye-prevention feature did a poor job eliminating red pupils. Power-up to first shot was a lengthy 4.38 seconds. Thereafter, we snapped off pictures every 2.2 seconds (4.62 seconds with flash).
We were pleased with the image quality this camera produced; we've seen other 4-megapixel point-and-shoot models that did far worse. Sharpness was good, though JPEG artifacts marred it a bit. Exposures taken outdoors under fairly contrasty lighting looked as pleasing as you could expect. But when the Olympus IR-500 captured highlights without washing them out, shadows tended to be a little dense; similarly, if it revealed detail in the shadows, it tended to wash out the highlights. Our chief optical complaint, though, was with the rampant purple fringing that surrounded backlit subjects, such as barren tree branches, with a violet glow.
Colors were pleasingly vivid, although we noticed a yellow cast to flesh tones. We could see some noise in our shots, but it wasn't much of a problem at lower ISO settings. By ISO 250, however, it became quite objectionable.