The 'miniaturised optics, maximised brilliance' philosophy of Olympus certainly applies to the new mju 9000, which packs a 10x optical zoom into a body no bigger than that of the average compact camera. And, at around £260, it's pocket-friendly in every sense.
Panasonic kick-started the whole pocket-superzoom idea with its Lumix TZ series, and it's had that particular niche to itself for quite a while. Not any more, though. The 9000 is just as compact as the latest Panasonics and nearly matches them for focal range, too.
The 9000 looks good and feels good. Ours came in black but you can get a blue version too.
The start-up speed is average, but it's surprisingly quick at zooming from one end of its range to the other, and the autofocus is snappy too.
Round the back, there's a crisp and high-contrast LCD that's easier than most to make out in bright daylight, and, next to that, is an unusual, square-shaped navigational controller that lights up briefly with a green glow when you press it. Buttons for the macro mode, EV compensation, flash and self-timer are clearly marked, and you can make other adjustments (white balance, ISO and more) very quickly using the func button in the middle of the controller.
You can have some fun with the 'beauty' mode, too, either when you're shooting or by applying it to photos in playback mode. We've seen other examples of beauty 'fixes' that simply make your pictures look like they were shot through a tub of Vaseline, but Olympus' version works well.
Pictures are bright and vibrant, and they look sharp at both ends of the zoom range. Superzoom lenses typically soften up quite markedly at maximum focal length, but the 9000's is distinctly above average.
While you're blowing up your images to admire the lens performance, you might be less than impressed with the image processing. At low ISOs, it's alright, even though there's more noise than you might expect. This, alas, is what you get when you cram 12 million pixels into a sensor half the size of your little fingernail (that's how big today's 1/2.3-inch sensors are). Inevitably, the quality quickly deteriorates as the ISO goes up, but, if low-light photography is your bag, you should be looking at a digital SLR, not a compact.
The 9000 also has a tendency to overexpose highlights, and the LCD is so high-contrast that skies appear to be completely washed out when you're shooting outdoors, even though they are recorded in the image.