If there's one thing that you couldn't accuse the review sample of the 850SW that landed in CNET.com.au's offices of being, it's shy. Our review model came in just about the brightest pink we've ever seen on a tech product, and a slightly metallic pink, at that. For those who prefer non-carmine hues, it's also available in silver and black. Sorry, we'll type that again. It's available in "premium" silver or "piano" black, as well as our model, which is described as "cassis" pink.
The 850SW is a compact digital camera, measuring in at 93.6mm by 60.9mm by 21.3mm and weighing 136 grams. The front of the camera is relatively sedate (colours aside), but the rear of the unit is awash with buttons; a slender zoom control above a selection wheel, which itself sits above a five way selector that's ringed by four further selection buttons. All in, you've got a choice of no less than twelve buttons to hit, and all of them are on the rather small side. Given that the top of the 850SW only has a shooting and power button on it, we're not sure why Olympus' designers didn't at least stick the zoom controls on the top. It certainly would have made composing shots on the 850SW's 2.5-inch LCD much easier. You're limited to only the LCD display, which can be a problem in bright light.
The 850SW features an 8 megapixel sensor with a 3x optical zoom. The zoom is entirely enclosed within the lens, as the other big selling point of the 850SW is that it's waterproof (up to 3 metres) and shockproof (up to 1.5 metres). It's even snow proof for up (or is it down?) to -10°C, although the opportunities to properly test that in the Australian climate are going to be few and far between.
The 850SW features 24 different scene modes, and while the small controls mean we wouldn't want to have to select them in a hurry, it's nice to have the variety. They are labelled as Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self Portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select 1, Shoot & Select 2, Beach & Snow, Pre-capture movie, Under Water Snapshot, Under Water Wide 1, Under Water Wide 2, and Under Water Macro, which is quite exhaustive for a point and shoot compact.
Like all of Olympus' compact range, the 850SW uses xD media cards. Given the basic victory of SD cards -- and the emergence of ever-larger SDHC cards -- it's an annoying complication, as a quick web search finds xD cards at higher prices and in much shorter supply than their SD card brethren.
Performance and Image quality
The one thing we noticed -- and we've already commented on -- is the relatively small size of the 850SW's controls. That's a personal observation, and it will differ depending on the manual dexterity of the user, but we'd suggest you give the camera a quick in-store test drive prior to purchase. Many people with larger hands will struggle.
As a basic point and shoot camera, the 850SW has a lot going for it. Its additional toughness is a boon for a camera that can be thrown easily into a bag; not that you want to treat it badly, but simply because it's likely to survive more easily than other compacts will, especially where children are involved.
To test the 850SW's suitability in these situations, we took it swimming, cycling, and for the ultimate in bump testing, onto some dodgem cars. The resultant dodgem photos weren't great, but that's more to do with being bumped than the camera itself. For the most part, the 850SW gave us good basic response, within the limitations of a 3x optical zoom and moderate shutter speed.
Olympus touts the 850SW as having face detection technology that will automatically adjust the exposure of a shot to give better colour reproduction of scenes automatically. In our tests this worked reasonably well, although we did find leaving it on did lead to some pictures with a slightly washed-out appearance.
The 850SW is a good camera, and at AU$399 (RRP) a very competitively priced one. Our only large caveats with it are physical -- the size of the buttons -- and technological - the use of expensive xD memory cards where SD cards are cheaper and more readily available. For those with small children, or people who enjoy an active lifestyle and don't want to destroy a range of compact cameras, the 850SW is just about a perfect match.