You could never accuse Olympus' designers of changing for the sake of change. The SZ-31MR features the same compact-ish size and large, almost oversized, hand grip as other SZ-branded models. On the SZ-31MR, the hand grip features a lovely machined-metal finish on the front, while there's a rubber thumb grip at the rear. Southpaws will no doubt look on aghast and wonder when, if ever, a camera company will pander to their dominant hand.
At the front is a large barrel housing the 24x zoom lens that, at its widest, is the equivalent of a 25mm lens in the 35mm world. This feeds into a 16-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor. Along the top, there's a zoom toggle, mode dial, shutter and power buttons, as well as a switch to reveal the pop-up flash. A door on the bottom of the camera hides the SD/SDHC/SDXC card and battery slots, while a tripod mount, which is out of line with the centre of the lens barrel, can also be found on the underside. A flap on the right of the camera hides a USB port and a micro-HDMI port.
Dominating the rear of the camera is a 3-inch screen that, thanks to its 920,000-pixel count, is very pleasant on the eye. Although the screen is of the touch variety, most of the camera's menus and settings are driven by the scroll wheel/D-pad combination, as well as by the OK and Menu buttons next to it. On-screen controls are generally restricted on focus selection, panning in review mode and the odd mode-specific function. This may seem a little counter-intuitive at first, but it keeps the on-screen clutter to a minimum and allows the menus to be packed tighter.
First timers to the Olympus brand may take a bit of time to learn that the most commonly used settings are accessed via either the OK button or tapping in three of the four cardinal directions; up, meanwhile, toggles the amount of info shown on screen. In Program mode, the settings available via this method include macro mode, timer (two and 12 seconds), exposure compensation (-2/+2), white balance, ISO (Auto, High, 80 through to 6400), various high speed modes and image size. On the exposure compensation tab, the SZ-31MR displays a preview of what the current scene would look like after adjustment. This is a great idea, but too clever by half as the previews take a few seconds to generate. The result being that if you're tapping down to get to another function, the delay will often result in a few too many taps.
The mode dial on the top of the camera lets you quickly switch between the usual options, like Intelligent Auto, Program Auto, Panorama, a bunch of filters and a plethora of scene modes, including backlit HDR, pet, night, fireworks and documents. To justify its multi-recording tag (hence the MR suffix in the model name), the dial also features some rather unique (and seemingly useless) modes, such as the one that records a few seconds of video either side of a photo, or another that can shoot two differently sized images or videos simultaneously. Of rather more use, the camera is able to, like many camcorders, also record video and take photos simultaneously — at full resolution, no less.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
On a full battery, we managed to coax 250 photos and a few videos out of the SZ-31MR.
The SZ-31MR offers a number of continuous shooting modes: two at maximum resolution and two at a reduced number of pixels. Thanks to its built-in buffer, at its fastest (mode 2), the Olympus SZ-31MR can capture up to 12 images at 7.5fps. Switch to mode 1 and the SZ-31MR will write to the SD card continuously, slowing down the capture rate to 2.5fps, but extending the number of photos taken to the limit offered by your SD card. In the high speed modes, resolution is scaled back to 3.1 megapixels (2048x1536), allowing for an impressive 24.5fps in Hi-1 mode, in which the storage card is consistently written to, and up to 75 photos at 61.6fps in the buffered Hi-2 mode.
Viewed at PC, tablet or phone friendly resolutions, the SZ-31MR's photos are good. Really good. Colours are nicely balanced and punchy without being oversaturated. With the camera in charge of the focus and metering points, the Olympus sometimes refrains from overexposing high contrast outdoor scenes — which is great if cloud-flecked blue skies are more what you're after, rather than the wedding party spread out, in the shade, underneath. Naturally, sharpness and detail are not found wanting at reduced resolutions. What's more impressive is the amount of detail and lack of appreciable grain when images are viewed at 100 per cent.
A 100 per cent crop (inset) from the SZ-31.
The SZ-31MR's ISO range stretches from 80 to 6400. When looked at in all its glory, there's a gradual drop off in quality as we move from ISO 80 to 400. The eagle-eyed will be able to pick out a hint of graininess at ISO 800 on shrunken images, but artefacts don't really become obvious until we head to ISO 1600 and beyond. ISO 6400 should only be used as a last resort.
Click for the full resolution version of the ISO comparison chart.
Unless a tripod is employed, a degree of image degradation due to hand shake and compromises in lens design are impossible to avoid when zooming beyond, say, 10x. Despite the hefty hand grip and sensor shift image stabilisation, photos captured at 10x-plus are noticeably softer than those recorded at lower magnifications. The SZ-31MR can record video at 1920x1080 at 60fps, although each file is limited to a maximum size of 4GB that roughly equates to 29 minutes. The image stabilisation system continues operation in video mode and does a decent job of removing hand judder.
Exposure: 1/200, f/6.9, ISO 100
Exposure: 1/20, f/3, ISO 800
Exposure: 1/80, f/3, ISO 80
Exposure: 1/200, f/6.4, ISO 160
With its blend of pleasing photos (at lower zoom levels), quality build, compact body and high-res screen, this Olympus is an excellent camera, although most of the SZ-31MR's multi-record functions are needless gimmicks.