Editor's note: This review has been updated to reflect changes in performance based on subsequent testing by our labs.
Olympus continues the Stylus line of digital cameras with the Stylus 820, an attractive 8-megapixel digital camera. This new model sports a 5x lens, a large, bright LCD screen, and a surprisingly useful new feature Olympus is debuting with its current generation of cameras.
As we've come to expect from Olympus' Stylus cameras, the Stylus 820 looks and feels good. The slim, all-metal camera weighs just 4.9 ounces with battery and xD card and measures less than an inch deep. Olympus offers the little camera in four colors: silver, black, blue, and red. Its sturdy body handles splashes and showers with ease, but don't confuse weather-resistant for weatherproof; it won't survive a full dunking. If you plan to soak your camera, consider instead the waterproof, shockproof, freezeproof Stylus 790 SW.
Two features distinguish the 8-megapixel 820: its lens and its screen. A f/3.3-to-f/5.0, 36mm-to-180mm-equivalent, 5x zoom lens provides a longer reach than similarly priced competitors such as the Canon PowerShot SD1000 and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W80, and it features a slightly larger than usual 2.7-inch LCD screen. Among the Stylus family, its 7-megapixel sibling the Stylus 780 delivers a better feature combination for the same money; it's essentially the same camera but adds sensor-shift image stabilization in exchange for dropping down to 7 megapixels and a more typical 2.5-inch display. If you want it all--the stabilization, display, and higher resolution--you'll need to cough up about $80 for an identical step-up model, the Stylus 830.
Like the other members of this generation of Styluses, the Stylus 820 includes a feature called Perfect Shot Preview that shows you how different settings will affect your shots by displaying those effects in four frames onscreen. For example, if you access exposure compensation, it will show you a neutral exposure, plus what the picture will look like at +0.3, +0.7, and +1.0 EV. You can use the control pad to navigate the previews, so you can see how the shot will look at any EV level. You can also look at the different effects of white balance, zoom levels, and even metering settings. Most cameras let you see how these different settings will look before you shoot, but this is the first time I've seen multiple previews on one screen. When shooting in awkward lighting, you'll quickly grow to appreciate the ability to simultaneously preview four different white balance settings, or compare ESP and spot metering. For direct-to-print devotees, a new variant of Olympus' panorama mode will automatically stitch together as many as three shots.
The Stylus 820 fared poorly in our lab tests, taking a painfully long time between shots at the camera's default system settings. After a 2.1-second wait from power-on to first shot, we measured an unacceptably slow 3.5 seconds between every shot thereafter, with the onboard flash turned off. With the flash enabled, that wait increased to 4.1 seconds. The camera's shutter proved responsive enough, lagging just 0.5 second with our high-contrast target and 1.3 seconds with our low-contrast target. The camera includes a burst mode, but that mode cranks down resolution to 3 megapixels, rendering it ineligible for our tests.
The 230,000-pixel display boasts an impressively wide field of view; I could make out the picture it was displaying regardless of the angle of the screen. This wide viewing angle works great when shooting concerts or any other situation that requires you to hold the camera above your head, at your chest, or far to the side. Olympus claims that its LCD screen includes antiglare technology that lets you view it even in sunlight. While the display still suffers from reflections and glare under any direct light source, it indeed remains surprisingly legible in bright light.
The Stylus 820's photos are typical of budget models: decent, but with nothing to distinguish them from most competitors. It possesses a pleasantly broad dynamic range, preserving detail in both shadows and highlights, with neutral if somewhat slightly undersaturated colors. As with many cameras in its class, the lens produces photos that are relatively sharp in the middle, but which rapidly lose sharpness and increase distortion as you move toward the periphery (not to be confused with softness due to shallow depth of field). Shots taken up to and including ISO 200 ISO look okay, though overprocessing leaves broad swathes of details such as grass and leaves with a crunchy digital look. Aggressive noise reduction at ISO 400 and above eradicates color grain at the expense of sharpness and detail; by ISO 800 and ISO 1,600, text and other details look as if they were sanded down. For Web sites, e-mail, and 4x6 prints, though, you probably won't notice most of the effects of the noise reduction.
The Olympus Stylus 820 packs some pretty useful features in its stylish metal case. There aren't a lot of options at this price for an ultracompact with a 5x zoom lens, but the slow performance and so-so photo quality may not be worth the trade-off. You may want to consider a comparably priced 3x zoom model such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W80 or opt to shell out some more cash for a better 5x zoom model such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100.
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Time to first shot||Shutter lag (typical)|