Once you mention the Olympus SP-570's 20x zoom lens, the rest of the camera's feature set seems almost superfluous; with an atypically wide-angle lens for any class of single-body cameras plus an exceptionally long telephoto view, the lens is the raison d'être for the camera. But this top-of-the-line model for Olympus' megazooms has more going for it than just a big lens. And, unfortunately, less.
At 4.7 inches wide by 3.3 inches tall by 3.4 inches deep and weighing 1 pound, 3 ounces, the 10-megapixel SP-570 UZ takes up a lot more space than the SP-560 UZ; in fact, it's almost as big as Olympus' E-420 dSLR. (Much of the design hearkens back to the days before Olympus shortened "Ultra Zoom" to "UZ.") But all that room allows it to have a great, comfortable feeling grip, hot shoe, and a thumbwheel on top for adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and so on. The 2.7-inch LCD also provides a minor step up from the SP-560's 2.5-inch display. That large grip accommodates the four AA batteries that power the camera.
The menu navigation is typical Olympus, which means logically arranged with large, easy-to-read text and explanatory text that you pull up at the press of a button. The help text is small and looks crammed into the left half of the screen, though, as if that part of the firmware were copied directly from another camera with a smaller display. As is becoming common on dSLRs, you can press a button that calls up a grid of the camera's current settings and change them directly via the thumbwheel, which I really like. However, Olympus forgoes a zoom switch in favor of a servoelectronic manual zoom ring on the lens. Unfortunately, the ring isn't nearly as responsive as it needs to be, and I found it inaccurate and hard to use, making for a frustrating shooting experience. (For more comments on the design, click through to the slide show.)
The camera has all the manual and semimanual features you'd expect from an enthusiast model as well as a host of automatic modes targeted at less experienced shooters. (You can find a complete feature list by downloading the PDF manual.) Naturally, it includes mechanical (sensor-shift) image stabilization, without which the 20x lens would be pretty useless. Among the more notable features are Guide mode, which offers task-centric, step-by-step instructions for various shooting scenarios. And I've always been a fan of Olympus' My Mode, which in the SP-570 UZ allows you to store up to four sets of custom settings. As with the SP-560 UZ, this model also supports wireless flash, which can come in quite handy, and it's quite easy to configure; the SP-570 UZ also adds a hot shoe. And it can focus as close as 0.4 inch in Supermacro mode. The camera can capture typical, OK-looking 30fps VGA movies, but you can't zoom while capturing, which seems a waste of that lens.
What really holds the SP-570 UZ back, though, is its performance; it's even slower than the SP-560 UZ, which was pretty sluggish. It takes 3.3 seconds to power on and shoot-- understandable, given the initializing a lens like that must take, but still a bit of a spontaneity killer. Focusing and shooting under optimal conditions takes 0.8 second, and under hard-to-focus conditions, that rises to 1.8 seconds. Both of those times are not only below average, but I found it quite difficult to shoot candids of animals and kids because of the sluggishness. The camera's 2.5-second shot-to-shot time is likewise subpar, though 2.9 seconds including flash recycling is more in line with some competitors. And with burst rates of about 1fps, on top of the slow single-shot performance, you simply don't want to use this camera for action (there's a faster, reduced resolution mode, which we don't test). Though the camera supports raw, it takes 9 seconds between shots, which makes it impractical for all but studio-type work.
Even formatting the xD card feels slower than usual. You can compensate somewhat for focus lags by operating in Fulltime AF, but I don't really like continuous AF modes on any camera for a couple of reasons. First, it's a significant drain on the battery; the battery is CIPA rated for a reasonable 390 shots, but you don't want that dropping a lot. Second, I find the constant vibration of the lens mechanism really annoying. The camera also has a predictive AF mode, in which it can maintain a lock on a subject moving back and forth, but its efficacy is subject to the whims of the camera's other performance issues.