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The µ (Mju) digital series (sold as Stylus in the USA) has been very good for Olympus. With six cameras in the current range, from the pretty little µ-mini Digital S to this, the µ Digital 500, they offer a combination of style, quality and robust construction that few other manufacturers can match. For customers looking for a fashionable camera that they can slip into a pocket the µ cameras are an ideal choice. They are not the cheapest cameras on the market, but for what they offer they are quite reasonably priced. The 500 comes in at just under £220, which is somewhat above average for a five megapixel compact but it is the top-of-the-range model and offers some impressive features such as its aforementioned large CCD sensor and a huge 2.5in LCD monitor. In common with the rest of the range, it features a high quality 3x optical zoom Olympus lens and a tough all-metal, weatherproof body designed to resist water splashes from all directions.
From the outside, the µ 500 simply oozes style. It is one of the most attractively designed cameras on the market, with a simple elegant shape and sleek matt silver finish. The lens is housed behind a powered sliding cover that is flush with the front of the camera, and there are no protruding edges or corners to catch on your pocket lining.
Turning to the back, the layout reflects the same simple elegance of design with only the bare minimum of controls, which is just as well since there isn’t a lot of room for anything next to that large LCD. However, there’s enough space for a small mode dial, the zoom rocker, the menu navigator and a quick view button, but that’s all it needs.
The mode dial is basically a milled wheel that is turned from the side, and despite its diminutive size operating it isn’t a problem. It has only four positions; shooting, movie mode and playback, plus an option to select the album into which pictures will be recorded, a feature which to be honest would probably have been better placed in the menu system.
Olympus menu systems have something of a reputation for being unnecessarily complex and difficult to use, but that is not the case with this camera. The most often used options, including exposure compensation, white balance and picture quality, can all be found with just two button presses, with less frequently used options such as card formatting and drive mode located further down the list.
Since this is strictly a snapshot camera features such as manual exposure or adjustable contrast have been jettisoned in favour of simplicity, but it still has spot metering, spot focusing, adjustable ISO (64-400) and a panorama assist mode. It also has a live histogram function, although how many of this camera’s typical users will ever bother with that is open to question.
The key feature of the µ 500 is its LCD. Olympus’s new HyperCrystal technology is a innovative type of LCD design in which the liquid crystal molecules are laid out in a radial pattern. The advantage of this is that the image on the screen can be viewed clearly from up to 80 degrees on all sides, and it also works well in bright sunlight. This means that you can hold the camera above your head or at virtually any angle and still clearly see what is on the screen.
The LCD possesses 215,000 pixels, giving it a superbly sharp picture, and its 25ms response time helps keep motion smearing down to a minimum. It is without doubt one of the best monitor screens I’ve seen on any digital camera. This is just as well, because the µ 500 has no optical viewfinder. This might not sit well for a number of users who like to frame their subjects with the LCD off in order to increase battery life.