I remember a time when Olympus was well known for its well-featured, superzoom cameras. When the company changed its naming conventions recently, its crop of superzooms was cut to only the 6-megapixel SP-500UZ, which has now been joined by the 7.1-megapixel SP-510UZ. The 510UZ looks impressive on paper, with a boatload of features, including manual exposure controls and a 10X optical zoom lens, but a lack of optical image stabilization and unusually high noise mar this camera's outlook. Add to that the fact that cameras such as Sony's Cyber Shot DSC-H2 and DSC-H5 and Canon's excellent PowerShot S3 IS, all sport 12X lenses and yield lower noise, and this Olympus will likely have a rough time in the stores this fall. Like most superzooms, the SP-510UZ has a chunky body with an SLR-style grip on the right side and a pretty big lens up front that extends when you turn the power on and has a rubber grip around it to help you hold on while shooting with two hands. All the control buttons are within reach of your thumb or fingers, so one-handed shooting is possible. Some of the buttons are small, but they are responsive and placed well, so that once you memorize where each one is, you shouldn't have trouble pressing them without looking. One of those buttons lets you switch between the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the 2.5-inch LCD screen. It's worth noting that, unlike some EVF cameras, you can't have both the EVF and LCD on at the same time.
The menus are intuitive and use a nifty graphical interface to shift between setup, image quality, and camera menus, the last of which includes functions that you can also access through the OK/function button on the keypad, such as white balance, ISO, drive mode, and metering. We like the duplication, since the function button provides quick access to the most important settings while shooting, and since the camera menu has everything, it's a great resource if you can't find a setting. It might be nice to offer a menu view that eliminates these duplicates so that you could make the camera menu shorter once you're used to the camera's button layout.
Also, since there are so many menu levels and pressing the menu button backs out one level at a time, it can take a while to back all the way out. We counted five presses of the menu button after we changed the drive mode to bracket across three exposures. It might be nice for Olympus to design a way to jump out of the menus with one button press. To the company's credit, if you press the shutter button while you're in the menu, you can still take a picture, and the camera returns you to the menu exactly where you left off, so you don't have to miss a shot just because you're trying to change a setting.
Four AA batteries provide power and find their home inside the camera grip. Like most Olympus cameras, the SP-510UZ records images to xD picture cards. Olympus's SP-510UZ has an impressive list of features, though some of the most important ones can't quite keep up with the competition. Its lens is definitely high quality, including the same type of extra-low dispersion and aspherical lens elements found in the company's SLR lenses, but at 10X optical zoom, spanning 38mm-to-380mm (35mm equivalent), it neither keeps up with the 12X zooms offered by most of its competitors, nor allows the useful wide angle that we'd become accustomed to with the company's old C-8080, C-7070, and C-5060 wide zoom cameras. Optional conversion lenses, including 0.7X wide, and 1.7X telephoto versions, help overcome this problem, but few people tend to use these lenses. To Olympus's credit, the lens is fast--its maximum aperture spans f/2.8 to f/3.7 across its zoom range, which matches its competitors' offerings and should help some in low light situations.
Worse than the wide-angle woe is this camera's lack of optical image stabilization. For a superzoom in this day and age, this is inexcusable, especially considering that the company includes it in its Stylus 750. Olympus tries to skirt the issue by touting Digital Image Stabilization, but all this does is boost the ISO so that you can shoot at a faster shutter speed. If not for this camera's noise issues (see below), this wouldn't be too bad, but a lack of optical image stabilization would still seem strange.
In addition to the welcome manual exposure controls, the SP-510UZ includes such perks as raw image capture, as well as a raw plus JPEG mode, front- and rear-curtain flash sync, and even a time-lapse setting that lets you shoot up to 99 images at intervals of up to 99 minutes between shots. Of course, since that'd take 6 days, 19 hours, and 21 minutes, you'll have to buy the optional AC adapter if you want to do that. You can adjust flash output to one of 10 levels by choosing the slave flash mode in the camera menu. Most manufacturers refer to this as flash compensation and don't hide it away in the menus.
The 2.5-inch LCD screen washes out in bright daylight but gains up nicely for framing in low light. Also, at 115,000 pixels, it's a bit coarse compared to a lot of the LCDs out there today. Though Olympus doesn't list the pixel resolution of the EVF, it actually seems less coarse than the main LCD. Like most EVFs, this one couldn't keep up with continuous shooting, blanking out sporadically, so that reframing while shooting bursts became a guessing game.