The first of the weatherproof µ Digital line with a 64mm (2.5-inch) HyperCrystal LCD and an automatic lens barrier, the 5-megapixel Olympus µ Digital 500 nevertheless lags behind the newer µ 600 and µ 800 models, with their built-in help guides, Olympus's Bright Capture technology, and the 800's manual-exposure modes. Still, the µ Digital 500 will fit the bill for snapshot photographers who want an affordable, basic point-and-shoot camera to accompany them on outdoor adventures.
Weatherproofed with special rubberised seals, the Olympus µ (that's pronounced 'myu') Digital 500's compact metal body will resist the elements that often put a damper on outdoor picture taking. For underwater endeavours, you'll need the optional waterproof case, which is rated for use down to 40m underwater.
Small enough to carry in a trouser pocket or a handbag, the µ Digital 500 measures a slender 99 by 56 by 30mm and weighs about 200g when loaded with its tiny rechargeable lithium-ion battery and media card.
Unlike in Olympus's original µ design, the Digital 500's lens cover opens and closes automatically when you hit the power button, so there's no need to slide a barrier door over the lens. The battery and media compartments are located on the bottom of the camera, far enough from the tripod socket to allow access to both when you're using a small tripod. A side door covers the power and USB ports, which are also sealed to prevent water and dust from entering.
Controls on the Olympus µ Digital 500 are by necessity small. A zoom lever, a speaker, a tiny mode dial, a QuickView button for instant playback and a four-way controller occupy the space not gobbled up by the 64mm LCD. The mode dial switches easily between still capture, movie mode, playback and a special album mode. There's no space left on this model for an optical viewfinder.
The Menu button pulls up a four-panel initial menu, which provides direct access to resolution, white-balance and exposure-compensation settings as well as a mode menu that takes you to yet another tabbed system. It can be a little confusing to first-timers, but it works fine once you understand the hierarchy. Fortunately, scene modes are one touch away on the up arrow of the four-way controller. When you select a scene mode, the camera shows a sample picture and displays helpful explanatory text.