At first glance, the Olympus VG-170 would appear to be this year's first photographic bargain, at only £80 or less. Its specs look beefy enough to impress.
Taking it out in the field, however, reveals where compromises have been made to pin it at such a low price.
Build quality and specs
The case is plastic and feels a little hollow in parts -- particularly behind the small bulge at the front that makes it easier to hold. However, it's extremely thin, yet still packs a 5x optical zoom, equivalent to 26-130mm on a regular 35mm camera. There's a 4x digital zoom on top of that if you really need to crop in on your subject. Personally, I'd always do this in post-production and enhance the image from there.
Maximum aperture is a bright f/2.8 at wide-angle, but a comparatively dim f/6.5 at the narrower end. I would have preferred something in the region of f/5.9 at this level.
The shutter speed ranges from 1/2 to 1/2,000 second. We're not so worried about the faster end of the scale, but 1/2 second is fairly inflexible when it comes to shooting at night. Even the 'candle' mode extends this to only four seconds. While sensitivity starts out at an appreciably low ISO 80, it stops at 1,600, and compensation runs only two stops in either direction in 1/3EV steps.
Despite these shortcomings, as far as the specs are concerned, what we have is a 14-megapixel snapper that boasts more features than anything you'd have bought for less than twice the price a couple of years ago.
One worry is that the camera has the charger built in -- there's no separate charging block, which means you have to plug in the camera. If you only ever charge overnight, this isn't going to be a problem. But bear in mind that you won't be able to head out with a spare battery and it takes up to four hours to charge when plugged into the wall (10 hours via USB from your computer). Furthermore, Olympus advises against taking pictures while it's connected.
The menus are logical and well thought out, with settings clearly broken down into groups. The VG-170 also sports the same excellent shortcuts as the Olympus SH-21, so you won't often need to access the full set of options.
These shortcuts are a series of context-sensitive selectors that run down the right-hand edge of the screen. In Intelligent Auto mode, they give you fast access to flash, self-timer and resolution. In Program Auto, they extend this range to take in macro, exposure compensation, white balance, and so on. By using the four-way controller on the rear of the case, you can step through each option and tweak its settings to quickly meet changing shooting conditions. It's a friendly and unthreatening approach for beginners.
The VG-170 does have one particularly neat trick up its sleeve, and that's 3D. In most cameras this only produces images that can be displayed in all their glory on a 3D TV, but here it resorts to the old trick of applying cyan and red filters to the image. Two sets of cardboard glasses are bundled in the box to view them (lacking arms, so you'll have to hold them up to your eyes).
Shooting this way relies on having two slightly offset images overlaid one on top of the other. Olympus has thought carefully about how best to get them lined up. Switching to 3D mode requires you to take your first shot as usual, after which a target and spot appear on the screen. The idea is to move the camera to the right until the spot hits the centre of the target, at which point the VG-170 fires its own shutter without any further intervention from yourself. The two images are then stitched together.
The resulting image is only 2 megapixels, rather than the 14 megapixels the camera is capable of, but it's extremely convincing on the rear display, and just as believable when shown full-size on your computer. This natty feature alone could almost tempt me to buy one.
Close examination of regular shots reveals a few concerns. Even at the lowest sensitivity on a fairly bright day, there was some evidence of noise and fudged detail in my images.
I started with the standard still-life test, shot three times using studio lighting, ambient light and the onboard flash. Even the studio-lit version, which was exposed at the lowest sensitivity -- just ISO 80 -- for 1/50 second, demonstrated some fine dappling in flat surfaces where we would have expected to see a solid colour.
The camera also had some difficulty differentiating tone changes at the brighter end of the spectrum, such as on the end of the handle of the knife. Reflections such as that on the ink bottle and the side of the wooden spice box were well handled. But the text on the Jack Daniel's bottle wasn't as clear as it should have been. Examining the cut glass jam jar at the back of the scene reveals considerable loss of detail, particularly around the rim.
These problems were more pronounced when using ambient light and the onboard flash, where exposures were 1/10 and 1/40 second respectively, each at ISO 200. Although it did a better job of separating similar tones at the brighter end of the spectrum under ambient light, there was more noise on flat surfaces and the detail in the jar was considerably degraded.
Switching to the flash introduced a slight rainbow effect to the foot plate of the Morph bookend. It considerably darkened the back of the scene, leading to an unbalanced result.
Its performance was significantly improved when I moved outside and shot bright subjects, such as the facia of this closed beachside kiosk. In the areas lit by direct sunlight, the colours are vivid, edges are sharp and the noise is more difficult to detect. However, if you look into the shadows, such as the Mars advert at the top of the hoarding, noise is discernible.
When shooting this image of a closed funfair, the VG-170 self-selected an aperture f/2.8, which naturally leads to a shallow depth of field. Therefore, while the yellow 'copter is focused, there is a faster fall-off in focus than we would want in a scene of this type. This leads to considerable dappling in the background -- in particular in the struts of the folded ride to the extreme left of the scene, where we can see its white underside.
Switching to a wider shot, this cafe was well exposed in the bright, direct sunlight, and in the centre of the scene there was minimal noise. However, in examining the extremities of the image, such as the railings coming in from the left of the frame, the dappling effect reappears.
To put this into context, it should be noted that the noise I've picked out in these test results was only ever clearly visible when the images were zoomed to 100 per cent. At 14 megapixels apiece, these images are sufficiently large that, when printed at even generous sizes, and certainly when used at web sizes, they aren't discernible. In that respect, if you're looking for an inexpensive knockabout camera to give to the kids, don't let the noise put you off as it should if it were a more expensive model.
Anyone looking for a sharp shooter for capturing fine detail, or for cropping in close on images, however, should probably opt for a different camera.
The VG-170 shoots high-definition video at 720p resolution, but don't expect to get the same kind of results as you'd see on broadcast-quality HD TV. There was some grain in our footage, and there's no wind noise reduction option, while the zoom is locked during filming.
As can be seen in the test video below, there's also some interference in darker areas, such as the underside of the helicopter hood in the fairground. At the opposite end of the scale, very bright subjects, such as a white seafront building shown in our footage, caused bright stripes to extend into the sky. There was also some fluctuating of light levels, again particularly in the sky, where the illumination fluttered for no apparent reason in the best-illuminated shots.
Overall, the VG-170's video performance left me rather underwhelmed.
The VG-170 certainly looks the part, and it's keenly priced too. When put to the test though, the necessary compromises in a 14-megapixel camera that costs just £80 sadly came to the fore.
There are some neat touches, such as the 3D shooting mode. And while these greatly enhance its appeal, the overall performance unfortunately means it's not something we can recommend, even at this price.
On the evidence of these tests, the VG-170's image quality leaves something to be desired. If you're content not to zoom to 100 per cent, or if you're printing pics or planning to use the images online, then the noise will be less of an issue. If so, the VG-170 would be a good first camera for older kids.