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General handling is very good indeed. The camera is small and light, but not so small that it’s difficult to operate. The matt finish makes the camera easy to grip, and there’s a small ridge on the front that helps you maintain a firm purchase too. Thankfully Olympus has dropped its irritating manual sliding cover-come-power switch arrangement for this camera. Since the camera has no manual modes, creative control consists of choosing one of the 20 different scene modes, or simply leaving it in program auto.
In operation, the µ 500 is relatively slick. It has a start-up time of under a second, and a shot-to-shot time of about four seconds in the highest quality SHQ mode which falls to just one and half seconds in the slightly lower quality HQ mode. Even with the flash on it doesn’t appear to slow down at all. In continuous shooting mode it can fire off six SHQ shots in just under ten seconds, but then has to wait for about six seconds before it can shoot again. In continuous shooting at HQ quality it can keep shooting a frame every 1.2 seconds without pausing until the memory card is full, which in fact exceeds the performance claimed in the specifications.
Focusing is quick and generally very accurate, although the multi-point iESP AF system sometimes hunts around in macro mode and can lock onto the wrong target, but switching to spot autofocus for close-up shots solves that problem. The camera has no AF-assist illuminator, but still copes well with low-light situations. In addition, the monitor brightness increases to help with framing low-light shots.
Image quality is of course the most important consideration for any digital camera, and here the µ 500 scores very well. Olympus exposure systems have always been excellent, and the Digital ESP meter in this camera is no exception. It copes admirably with a wide range of exposure conditions, providing good shadow and highlight detail with only a a touch of noticeable fringing that occurs with many high resolution, optical zoom compacts. Colour reproduction is outstanding, with rich vibrant tones across the whole spectrum. There is noticeable image noise at 400 ISO, but not really more than one might expect.
It’s hard to find any fault with this camera, but inevitably there is one slight niggle. The battery and card hatch has no latch, and on our test sample it came open very easily. There was no danger of the card or battery falling out since they both have their own catches, but it is a small design flaw in this otherwise superb little camera.
The Olympus µ Digital 500 is a superbly designed, well-made camera (apart from the battery and card hatch) with very good overall image quality. It looks the part, handles well, shoots quickly, and although it lacks an optical viewfinder it does offer arguably the best LCD screen of any compact digital camera. If you’re looking for a compact, powerful and stylish digital camera then you should certainly consider this model.