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.
The options are fairly standard. There are 18 scene modes, including Program, Landscape, Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Candle, Available Light Portrait, Behind Glass and Document. As you scroll through the scene menu, you get an example of each shot. After a couple of seconds the picture shrinks away to make space for a short description that explains when to use that mode. It's very similar to the scene mode menu on the Casio Exilim Zoom EX-Z57, which we liked. We like Olympus' version too.
Under flash, you can choose auto, soft (a less powerful burst), red-eye, fill-in or off. Under macro, you have two options: regular, which gets you as close as 100mm from your subject, or super, which takes you down to 50mm. Once you get into the mode menu, you can change the image size, turn on burst mode, apply exposure compensation, change the white balance, select auto or spot metering and select auto or spot focus. Novelty features hiding in this menu include a 2-in-1 mode that lets you take two half images and join them together. You can also photograph your subject through a decorative frame.
The voice-recording feature enables you to add a sound clip to a photograph -- to make a note of the location, for example. You can also record random voice memos. The microphone is on the front and the speaker is on one end, so you may find yourself conversing with the lens, then pointing the camera at your ear to hear the reply.
The movie mode is disappointing. You can record sound as well as images, but the resolution is only 320x240 pixels, rather than the 640x480 that's becoming standard. There's a digital image stabilisation feature that tries to reduce the effects of camera shake, but we couldn't see any improvement when we turned it on. If recording video clips is important to you, you should choose another camera.
Playback functions include a calendar display that makes it easy to find pictures from a specific date. There's also an album feature that lets you sort pictures into groups. It might be useful if you're travelling and want to show people a selection of your pictures, but given the 51mm LCD, this isn't the best camera for passing around. You can also apply some basic editing functions to your images and movies.
The Olympus documentation makes no claims about battery life, other than to inform you that the number of pictures you can take "may vary depending on the shooting conditions or battery". The battery went flat on one occasion, something that doesn't normally happen to us when testing cameras. The IR-300 will be fine for day-to-day shooting, especially given the ease of recharging, but it isn't ideal for extended trips away from the docking station.
Snapshots were sharp and detailed. Exposure was generally correct, with a good balance of highlight and shadow detail, even on bright sunny days with high contrast. Colours were well saturated, but bright reds tended to shift towards orange. Our local post box and phone box came out an orangey red, rather than a true pillar-box shade. In some shots we also saw problems with excessive noise in areas of solid colour. However, skin tones were natural and pleasing. Overall, we doubt that snapshot photographers will find much to complain about, but if you're looking for a pocket camera as backup for your digital SLR, you can do better elsewhere.
Additional editing by Nick Hide