Superzoom cameras are a more compact alternative to digital SLRs, offering a zoom range that would be prohibitively expensive on an interchangeable-lens model. Most manufacturers still want their superzooms to resemble dSLRs from a distance, though, thereby seducing those looking to trade up from a point-and-shoot compact camera.
Available in silver or black for around £240, Olympus' 14-megapixel SP-800UZ is physically smaller than competing 20x and 24x superzoom cameras, yet offers a better 30x optical range. How does it do it? Principally, by shaving off the dSLR-like curves, lumps and bumps seen on rivals such as the Pentax X90, Nikon Coolpix P100 and Kodak EasyShare Z981, among others.
Olympus has also done away with many of its most obvious conventional controls. The result is a rectangular device with a narrow grip and relatively few buttons, whose largest external component is the lens. Consequently, the SP-800UZ's design looks rather incomplete. Nevertheless, it's still too big to squeeze into any pocket, even if it is the smallest device in its class to offer such an impressive zoom range.
The SP-800UZ also bears a slight resemblance to Olympus' retro-styled Pen compact cameras with interchangeable lenses. The SP-800UZ doesn't have a swappable lens, but, with an equivalent focal range of a wide-angle 28-840mm in 35mm film terms, nor would you want it to.
Although weighing a relatively light 460g, the SP-800UZ feels solid once you've snaked three fingers around its grip, with your forefinger hovering over the shutter-release button, which is encircled by the zoom lever. Where you'd expect a thumb pad at the rear, there's instead a dedicated record button for capturing 720p video. All the SP-800UZ's essential features are readily to hand.
The SP-800UZ is unusual compared to its rivals, in that it omits either an electronic viewfinder or optical alternative. Composing and reviewing shots is handled via the wide-screen-ratio, 76mm (3-inch), 230,000-pixel resolution LCD screen that swallows up most of the back, shunting what few physical controls there are over to the right. When shooting normal 4:3 ratio photos, black bands crop the screen image on the left and right.
The camera powers up in just over a second, but the pared-back buttons unsurprisingly have a detrimental effect on user-friendliness. The key shooting modes (including program, scene, panorama and beauty) lurk beneath a press of the teeny 'menu' button, which is inexplicably ferreted away near the base of the grip. A press of the adjacent '?' button brings up an on-screen guide that explains which setting does what, and lets you jump straight to the setting you want.
The SP-800UZ features 2GB of built-in memory, which is exceedingly generous for a digital camera. Users who've forgotten to buy an SD or SDHC memory card for their camera can usually expect to be left with around 64MB of internal storage space. You can slot a memory card into a compartment that's shared with the SP-800UZ's battery, unobtrusively located in the base of the grip.
Colours in the SP-800UZ's photos are natural rather than warm, while its JPEGs generally look reasonably sharp and clear, although you're bound to get the odd soft shot due to camera shake. You can't shoot raw files. That means the SP-800UZ isn't a true replacement for a digital SLR.
Olympus has devised an unsatisfactory solution for eliminating mechanical noise from the zoom when recording 720p video. Either the zoom itself is disabled, or the microphone is, so you can't zoom in and record sound at the same time. That's rubbish. Incidentally, the lens takes 3 seconds to move steadily through its entire range.
There's a slight pause before video recording commences, after you press the red button. But the video quality is decent, with warm colours and smooth transitions.
At around £240, the Olympus SP-800UZ seems like good value compared to its closest competitor, the £330 Fujifilm FinePix HS10, which also packs a 30x zoom. But the SP-800UZ's build quality and feature set aren't as impressive. The SP-800UZ is still worth considering, though, if you need a camera with a long zoom range and compact form factor, and you're prepared to make a few compromises.
Edited by Charles Kloet