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Olympus mju 790 SW review: Olympus mju 790 SW

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The Olympus mju 790 SW is a compact that loves the active life. It replaces the waterproof, shockproof mju 770 and smoothes out that camera's tank-like styling while keeping the robust character. With 7.1 megapixels, the usual 3x zoom and average-sized screen at an above-average £190, Olympus hopes the mju 790 SW will be tough enough to shoulder aside the glut of similarly specced compacts.

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6.5

Olympus mju 790 SW

The Good

Toughness; respectable picture quality; user-friendly guide function.

The Bad

Subpar screen; meagre macro.

The Bottom Line

The Olympus mju 790 looks good, handles well and takes respectable quality images. A poor screen is the only real let-down, but you're paying a premium for the waterproof, shockproof, even freezeproof ruggedness

Design
The 790 feels like one of the most solid cameras we've tested. Olympus claims it is shockproof up to 1.5m, and certainly dropping the camera from different heights, up to around head height (roughly 2m), had no discernable effect upon operation or picture quality. The 790 is also waterproof to 3m, and immersion didn't affect speed or performance at all. Waterproof cases are available for deeper dives.

To reflect the extreme-sports feel of the 790, styling is sleek but tough. Details such as exposed screws, carried over from the 770 but in a more subtle way, add to the rugged feel. The metal body is available in four colours: starry silver, midnight black, sunset orange or marine blue. It's very slim, and the 3x optical zoom (equivalent to 38-114mm) does not protrude from the body, so there are no exterior moving parts. The USB and battery slots are both concealed behind solid doors.

The screen is the usual 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD with 230,000-pixel resolution. Strangely, it suffers from motion blur when you move the camera around, which won't help with the sort of action photography this camera is intended for. If you were using the camera underwater to track a swimmer or fish, motion blur would make composition difficult. The screen also seems rather dark, with no option to increase brightness.

Features
The 790 SW's mode wheel includes a guide option, which gives a list of common problems, such as shooting into backlighting, and suggests solutions. This mode also allows you to go straight to the relevant functions rather than having to remember them and hunt through menus. It's a useful way of getting to know the 790's functions.

Face detection focuses and exposes for faces, and this works as well as face detection ever does, with subjects required to look directly at the lens, and with glasses occasionally confusing it. BrightCapture technology is designed to adjust for low light conditions, while shadow adjustment brightens shadowy areas to ensure exposure is correct for lighter and darker areas of the image.

The equivalent zoom length of 38-114mm on a 35mm camera isn't particularly wide (some compacts go as wide as 28mm). Macro mode is limited to a wretched 20cm, with super macro taking you in to a still poor 7cm, so you can't get too close to any underwater plants you want to snap.

The internal memory is typically meagre, storing 14.7MB, while xD memory cards handle the real storage.

Performance
Start-up is reasonably quick, with no annoying company logo. There are two different continuous modes. Continuous mode shoots 5 shots in 10 seconds and stores direct on the memory card, without saving any images in the buffer menu. Hi continuous mode captures 20 to 25 extremely fast images, stores them all in the buffer, then dumps them on the memory card. This leads to a short delay as the camera catches up.


This is where the LED light comes into its own, as it means you can illuminate your subject in continuous mode, which is usually impossible because of the time a flash takes to recycle.

Colours are a little undersaturated, but skin tone reproduces well. Portrait mode softens images slightly, but this is only really noticable when viewing on a monitor rather than in prints. There were some traces of purple fringing, but again this was more apparent on screen than in prints.

As always on compacts, the maximum ISO setting of 1,600 is essentially unusable, with noise pebbledashing the images. It seems slightly pointless to include such high settings on compacts when the processor can't deal with the resultant noise. At other settings, the 790 deals with noise reasonably well. ISO 800 shows noise in darker shades, while ISO 200 and 100 give decent quality images. Detail is, as always, sharpest and most free of noise at the lowest setting, ISO 80.

The price of the non-extending lens is some barrel distortion at the wide angle. This means that parallel lines, such as in brickwork, converge slightly at the edges of the image. However, detail does not soften at the boundaries and the distortion is barely noticeable.

Conclusion
The Olympus mju 790 SW may trumpet its tough, waterproof and shockproof characteristics, but it's a more than capable compact on dry land. Respectable image quality and a number of helpful features set it apart from similarly specced 7-megapixel cameras with 3x zooms and 64mm screens, even before the robustness comes in handy.

It may still be too pricey for those of us who never go near the deep end of the pool, but it looks stylish enough and is sturdy enough to justify the expense.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide