A press of the top plate on/off button, slightly recessed into the top plate to prevent accidental activation and, provided date and time have been preset, the SZ-20 powers up in just under two seconds.
A half press of the raised shutter release button, which is ergonomically encircled by a lever for operating the optical zoom, and focus and exposure is determined nigh instantly. Press down fully to take your picture and, with little in the way of shutter delay, a maximum resolution JPEG is committed to memory in around three seconds, screen briefly blacking out and then freezing to display the captured image.
Nudge the zoom lever with a forefinger and that is also fast to respond, shifting from the maximum wide angle setting to maximum telephoto in around three seconds. Fortunately the zoom can also be used when shooting movies, but its movement is noticeably slower when filming, which isn't a bad thing as it avoids those otherwise lurching transitions and unwanted zoom noises.
The camera offers a respectable light sensitivity range starting out at a lower than most ISO80 and topping out at a standard though respectable ISO3200. Take a look for yourselves at our sample shots to see how well the camera responds, but up to and including ISO1600 the results are more than acceptable, which is arguably all you can really hope for from a point and shoot snapper. The Olympus has some issues with auto white balance performance shifting slightly from shot to shot, but generally we were pleased with the results.
For more general photography there is some evidence of corner softening when shooting at maximum 24mm equivalent wide angle setting and we sometimes had to attempt two or three captures of the same subject at maximum 300mm equivalent telephoto to prevent hand wobble blurring the image, but if you've the patience this Olympus can deliver the goods. That's not to say there aren't better and more consistent travel zooms out there - the Nikon Coolpix S9100 for us has the edge for image quality, and the Canon SX200 HS is better for shot to shot consistency. The SZ-20 isn't a bad camera by any means but apart from a noise free performance at upper ISOs and fun effects achievable with the Magic Filters if used in moderation, it doesn't particularly excel.
The Olympus SZ-20 is one of the more affordable travel zooms out there and for the more demanding of photographers this will be noticeable in the quality of its images. In broad daylight we struggled to get a sharp result at maximum telephoto - each subject benefitting from two or three attempts before we were approaching satisfied. If you are patient and considered in your photographic approach then fair enough, but it can be frustrating if going for that spur-of-the moment shot. In general terms too the images from the SZ-20 were a little soft for our tastes and lacking in contrast unless we opted for one of the fun Magic Filters, though of course this can to an extent be tweaked in Photoshop later. We got more consistent results from the SX220HS we were testing alongside it however, and those from the S9100 and TZ20 are generally sharper and more colourful still. So, unfortunately, the SZ-20 wouldn't be our first choice for a reliable auto everything travel zoom unless we were limited to a tight budget.
On paper undeniably the SZ-20 looks like a good option, packing in a usefully broad if not quite class leading focal range, high resolution stills, plus Full HD video, fun Magic Filters and 3D shooting capability. But in practice it falls short of what it could be.