The IR-300 is the second camera in Olympus' Easy Imaging System range, a family of devices that enable you to shoot, print, view and archive digital photographs without a PC. Other Easy Imaging System products include the IR-500 camera, the P-S100 printer, the S-HD-100 hard drive and the S-DVD-100 DVD recorder (although we can't find anyone selling the last two).
The 5-megapixel IR-300 is a very compact, pocketable camera that aims to be simple and accessible. It's attractive and sensibly designed -- the buttons sit under your fingers, but the lens is well away from them. However, the smallish LCD, complicated menus, low-resolution 320x240-pixel movie mode and occasional problems with colour fidelity mean it lags behind competing cameras.
Measuring 99 by 53 by 22mm and weighing 127g with battery and memory card, the IR-300 is smaller than it looks in photographs. It's about the same height as a credit card, but 13mm longer, so it feels like a stretch version of the ubiquitous credit-card-sized ultracompact (such as Canon's Digital IXUS 50 and Pentax's Optio S5z). It's also differentiated by the off-white, pearlescent plastic finish. Although it doesn't have the cachet of stainless steel, it's easier to live with -- you don't have to polish off your fingerprints -- and has an understated elegance. It also feels solidly built; there's nothing flimsy or plasticky about it.
The 3x zoom, 38-114mm (35mm equivalent) lens is protected by a silver cover that slides away automatically when you turn on the camera. Between the whiz-clunk of the lens cover and the electronic sound effect that accompanies it, it's all very Star Trek. The zoom action is internal, so the lens remains within the camera, rather than extending when you turn it on. It's good to have it in the centre of the camera, well away from straying fingers -- unlike, for example, the lens on Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-T7.
The top of the camera offers the standard combination of a power button, set flush with the surface, and a shutter button, surrounded by a zoom controller that can be rotated left or right to zoom the lens. The back houses the 51mm (2-inch) LCD, a slider that lets you select photo, movie or playback mode, a five-way rocker switch and three small buttons for activating menus, deleting files and printing images (you can customise the third button in some modes).
The LCD looks small compared to the 64mm (2.5-inch) screens that are appearing on ultracompacts such as the Pentax Optio S5z. It's sharp and reasonably contrasty, but can be difficult to use in bright sunlight. There isn't an optical viewfinder, so sometimes you have to point and hope.
The IR-300 uses xD memory cards. These are smaller than the SD memory cards used in most other compact cameras, but less versatile, because there are fewer devices that accept them. There isn't a card in the box, so you'll need to budget for that separately (some retailers may bundle one, so hunt around for a good deal). The camera also has 15MB of internal memory.
Charging and downloading is handled via the supplied dock, also finished in white. It's attractive and convenient if you're using the camera at home, but inconvenient if you're travelling. You need to carry the dock, which is quite large, and the accompanying power adaptor and a power cable -- and suddenly your small camera seems much larger.
The lens zooms from a not-especially-wide 38mm to a reasonably telephoto 114m (35mm equivalents). The limited wide angle can feel constrictive when you’re photographing landscapes, interiors or groups of people, but you won't do much better on a camera this small. The zoom action is quite slow, but the IR-300 offers better fine control than many competing cameras, making it easier to frame your scene the way you want.
The system for selecting camera settings tries to put the most common options closest to hand, then bury the rest in progressively more obscure menus. It's a good idea, but we found the menus confusing. In photo mode, the five-way controller provides shortcuts for the flash settings (up), self-timer (down) and scene modes (left or right). When you press the Menu button, you get an on-screen menu with four options -- voice recording, macro, mode menu and scene modes -- also associated with directions on the five-way controller. This time the scene modes are selected by pressing the controller down. If you select Mode Menu (right), you end up in another menu, arranged quite differently, with all the more advanced settings. At this point you'll start looking for the 'get me back to where I started' button.