Of Olympus' latest releases, the SZ-14 is my favourite. It strikes a careful balance between features and size, packing a 14-megapixel sensor and an impressive 24x optical zoom into a chassis roughly the size of a pack of cards.
You can get your hands on one for a typical price of around £180, or you could hunt one down online for as little as £160.
Build quality and features
It looks great and feels just as good. The hand grip is smooth and glossy, but chunky enough to still give good purchase. It's perfectly balanced by a small thumb rest at the back, and the shutter and zoom rocker fall right beneath your index finger. The 24x optical zoom itself is equivalent to 25-600mm on a regular 35mm camera.
Around the back, as well as the usual collection of playback, delete and movie record buttons, there's a small thumbwheel for navigating menus and playing back photos. If you turn it quickly enough during playback mode, the pictures shrink down to a series of thumbnails scattered along a timeline. This is an interesting approach, but the timeline scrolls quite slowly, so you'd actually do better clicking back and forth between your full-screen images instead.
There's a regular collection of shooting modes, including fully-automatic, scene mode and program auto, the latter of which gives you the most control.
There's a panorama setting too, as you'd expect of a modern point-and-shoot, which has three distinct modes. The manual mode relies on you lining up the edge of your previous shot with the content of the next. PC shoots individual frames for stitching together on your computer. And auto goes some way to automating the process by presenting a target and spot on screen after each shot. Your job in this third setting is to move the camera until the target and spot align, at which point it fires the shutter automatically and stitches the shots together.
Neither is as easy to use as the sweep panorama function championed by Sony and now rolled out across many competitors. I found even the auto setting somewhat hit and miss. I set the SZ-14 the task of capturing a panorama of this outdoor bathing pool:
It soon became obvious you had to be very careful where you stood to avoid getting kinks in the image, and for the target system to recognise that you had indeed moved the camera. If there wasn't sufficient variation in the scene, the target had a tendency to move as you turned the camera through the arc of the scene. This meant that it never lined up with the spot and so the shutter wouldn't fire.
Of our eight attempts, the one below was the most successful. Clicking to reveal the full-size image will show a slight kink in the back wall of the pool, a third of the way in from the right, and a misalignment of the sea wall, a third of the way in from the left.
There's a 3D mode too, but whereas the Olympus VG-170 shoots old-fashioned 'flat' 3D, with red and cyan overlays that you view through bundled glasses, the SZ-14 instead shoots images designed for playback on 3D-enabled TVs. You can hook it up using an HDMI cable.
It uses a similar principle to the panorama shooting mode, which relies on you turning the camera so that your first and second shots overlap, but this time without the spot and target. Instead, it detects for itself when your two frames are in sync.
Except when using the panorama or 3D settings, I performed all of my tests using the SZ-14's iAuto mode. This chooses the most appropriate exposure and aperture for each shot. In general, it did a good job, although zooming to 100 per cent reveals some very slight dappling, even in well-lit shots taken at low sensitivities.
I started at a deserted fairground where there were plenty of colours and textures. On the whole, the SZ-14 accurately reproduced the vivid tones. However, there was some chromatic aberration on the blades of the red helicopter. That means a fine red fringe is evident, which indicates that the lens hadn't quite lined up each wavelength of the available light at the same point on the sensor.
The fringing effect was more pronounced in this shot of trees, where they overlaid an overcast sky in a local park. Here, it encroaches on the branches themselves to give the tree an overall purple finish.
Its macro performance though was very good, getting as close as 10cm in the regular macro mode and 3cm in super-macro, to reveal a high level of detail. In the image below, edges are sharp, textures are true to the originals and there's plenty of differentiation, even between those parts of the image that are otherwise tonally similar, such as the white petals of these early crocuses.
The SZ-14 did a better job than its cheaper sibling, the VG-170, in capturing detail throughout my tests. This shot of a seafront cafe is generally good, with low levels of noise in the railings that encroach from the edge of the image. The sky is vivid and there's fine detail in both the flag and the blinds at the windows.
The SZ-14's colour recognition was good throughout my tests, with the results in each case closely replicating the originals through the full colour gamut. Skies were well handled, with smooth transitions between different levels. Images characterised by strong contrasts, such as that which exists between the naturally illuminated white house and the shaded fallen leaves in this image, are clearly rendered.
The SZ-14 also performed well in a still-life test, shooting a collection of objects under studio lighting and ambient light, and a third time using the onboard flash. In each case, the results showed plenty of detail and true colours.
As should be expected, the studio-lit results were the best of the lot, with sharp edges and accurate colours. There was some undesirable noise on the cut-glass jam pot at the rear of the scene. Interpolation is evident on the base of the Morph bookend, where we would have expected to see a flat brown colour, but instead see a faint rainbow effect. Otherwise, the results are good, with the writing on the spirit bottle label razor sharp.
When relying solely on the available ambient light, the SZ-14 upped its sensitivity from ISO 125 to ISO 200. In doing so, it introduced a degree more noise. The colours were less vivid. Nonetheless, the tones were accurately balanced. A slight boost in post-production would regain the original vibrancy. There was some loss of detail, however, where the white threads ran through the colour blocks of the underlying fabric runner. These were clear in the studio-lit shot but are subsumed into the surrounding colour in ambient light.
When firing the onboard flash, the SZ-14 found a happy medium, pulling back those lost details and maintaining rich tones.
The SZ-14 has three video resolutions -- high-definition 720p, 640x480 pixels and 160x120. The latter two are best confined to web use. I used 720p, with image quality set to Fine throughout my tests.
The quality of the images produced was good, and it had no problems capturing detail in scenes with plenty of motion. Colours were true to their originals under all external lighting conditions and the soundtrack was well recorded.
However, there was evidence of wind noise in the audio, and no option in the menu to cut this -- only to turn off the mic altogether. Furthermore, although it's not very loud, it's possible to hear the noise of the zoom lens moving, despite the SZ-14 cleverly knocking down the volume slightly when it's in motion to minimise the effect.
The SZ-14 isn't perfect. The automated panorama mode is too fiddly compared to the sweep panoramas that are cropping up on its rivals. And there was a little more fringing than there ought to have been in some of the test results above.
However, it is inexpensive. Yes, it's twice the price of the bargain VG-170, but it's also at least twice as good, despite being similarly afflicted by the lack of a separate charging brick for the battery. This means your choices are to either buy a charging cradle or power-up the battery in-situ. The latter isn't ideal as it puts your camera out of action for the duration.
Admittedly, in opting for the SZ-14, you're buying 14 megapixels rather than the 16 you get with the Olympus SH-21, and you're stepping down from 1080p to 720p in video mode. But you do get a much more capable lens and a more comfortable body overall.
My money is on the SZ-14, but if pixels count for everything in your judgement (they shouldn't), then you won't go far wrong opting for the SH-21 instead.