At first glance, the Olympus VG-170 would appear to be this year's first photographic bargain, at only £80 or less. Its specs look beefy enough to impress.
Taking it out in the field, however, reveals where compromises have been made to pin it at such a low price.
Build quality and specs
The case is plastic and feels a little hollow in parts -- particularly behind the small bulge at the front that makes it easier to hold. However, it's extremely thin, yet still packs a 5x optical zoom, equivalent to 26-130mm on a regular 35mm camera. There's a 4x digital zoom on top of that if you really need to crop in on your subject. Personally, I'd always do this in post-production and enhance the image from there.
Maximum aperture is a bright f/2.8 at wide-angle, but a comparatively dim f/6.5 at the narrower end. I would have preferred something in the region of f/5.9 at this level.
The shutter speed ranges from 1/2 to 1/2,000 second. We're not so worried about the faster end of the scale, but 1/2 second is fairly inflexible when it comes to shooting at night. Even the 'candle' mode extends this to only four seconds. While sensitivity starts out at an appreciably low ISO 80, it stops at 1,600, and compensation runs only two stops in either direction in 1/3EV steps.
Despite these shortcomings, as far as the specs are concerned, what we have is a 14-megapixel snapper that boasts more features than anything you'd have bought for less than twice the price a couple of years ago.
One worry is that the camera has the charger built in -- there's no separate charging block, which means you have to plug in the camera. If you only ever charge overnight, this isn't going to be a problem. But bear in mind that you won't be able to head out with a spare battery and it takes up to four hours to charge when plugged into the wall (10 hours via USB from your computer). Furthermore, Olympus advises against taking pictures while it's connected.
The menus are logical and well thought out, with settings clearly broken down into groups. The VG-170 also sports the same excellent shortcuts as the Olympus SH-21, so you won't often need to access the full set of options.
These shortcuts are a series of context-sensitive selectors that run down the right-hand edge of the screen. In Intelligent Auto mode, they give you fast access to flash, self-timer and resolution. In Program Auto, they extend this range to take in macro, exposure compensation, white balance, and so on. By using the four-way controller on the rear of the case, you can step through each option and tweak its settings to quickly meet changing shooting conditions. It's a friendly and unthreatening approach for beginners.
The VG-170 does have one particularly neat trick up its sleeve, and that's 3D. In most cameras this only produces images that can be displayed in all their glory on a 3D TV, but here it resorts to the old trick of applying cyan and red filters to the image. Two sets of cardboard glasses are bundled in the box to view them (lacking arms, so you'll have to hold them up to your eyes).
Shooting this way relies on having two slightly offset images overlaid one on top of the other. Olympus has thought carefully about how best to get them lined up. Switching to 3D mode requires you to take your first shot as usual, after which a target and spot appear on the screen. The idea is to move the camera to the right until the spot hits the centre of the target, at which point the VG-170 fires its own shutter without any further intervention from yourself. The two images are then stitched together.
The resulting image is only 2 megapixels, rather than the 14 megapixels the camera is capable of, but it's extremely convincing on the rear display, and just as believable when shown full-size on your computer. This natty feature alone could almost tempt me to buy one.
Close examination of regular shots reveals a few concerns. Even at the lowest sensitivity on a fairly bright day, there was some evidence of noise and fudged detail in my images.
I started with the standard still-life test, shot three times using studio lighting, ambient light and the onboard flash. Even the studio-lit version, which was exposed at the lowest sensitivity -- just ISO 80 -- for 1/50 second, demonstrated some fine dappling in flat surfaces where we would have expected to see a solid colour.
The camera also had some difficulty differentiating tone changes at the brighter end of the spectrum, such as on the end of the handle of the knife. Reflections such as that on the ink bottle and the side of the wooden spice box were well handled. But the text on the Jack Daniel's bottle wasn't as clear as it should have been. Examining the cut glass jam jar at the back of the scene reveals considerable loss of detail, particularly around the rim.