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Olympus [mju:] 300 DIGITAL

The Olympus {mju:} 300 DIGITAL is a 3 megapixel mid-range camera with a 3X optical zoom, 16MB of memory and a unique all-weather housing. At just £229, it’s also one of the cheapest 3 megapixel / 3X zoom cameras from a big brand name, although understandably it’s missing some of the features sported by its more expensive competitors.

Measuring a mere 99 x 56 x 34mm, it’s one of the smallest cameras in its class, and pretty light too at 220g including batteries. A large sliding cover doubles-up as a lens cap and main power-switch, and once opened provides something for the right hand to grip; that said, the 300’s smooth and tiny body doesn’t make it the most comfortable to hold for long. Olympus throws in a tiny remote control though, which is handy for self portraits.

Uniquely the 300 is weatherproof, surviving splashes from any direction, although not complete immersion. For the latter, there’s an optional underwater housing available that’s good to depths of 40m, although you’ll need to slide-open the 300’s lens cover before placing it inside.

Images are composed using a clear 1.5in screen or optical viewfinder, while the built-in flash offers the usual on, off, auto and red-eye settings. Full marks to Olympus for powering the 300 with a lithium ion battery when most of its rivals rely on two or four AA batteries. Olympus also supplies a mains recharger, although sadly it doesn’t double-up as an AC adapter for the camera – this is an optional extra.

The 300 features a 3X optical zoom with a 35mm equivalent range of 35-105mm. Its actual focal length is 5.8-17.4mm with a slightly dimmer than average focal ratio of f3.1~5.2. The lens extends 1.7cm during its three second power-up. The 300’s closest focussing distance in macro mode is a disappointing 20cm, which isn’t particularly useful for any serious work. There are no additional manual focussing options either.

The 300 employs a (1/2.5in) 3 megapixel sensor which delivers images with a maximum resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels – sufficient to make a good-looking 10 x 8in colour inkjet print. There are four lower resolutions available, along with two levels of JPEG compression; like most mid-range cameras, there’s no RAW or TIFF image mode.

Olympus has fitted the 300 with an XD slot and supplied the camera with a 16MB card. Using the SHQ and HQ modes at the top resolution produces images measuring around 2.6MB and 0.8MB respectively, which means you’ll squeeze on around six or 20 pictures with each mode. That makes the compression with the SHQ mode relatively mild, but the HQ mode is a little fierce.

Unusually, there’s no physical mode dial, but the function of one is replicated graphically on-screen by pressing a button on the rear of the camera. This allows the user to cycle between Program Auto, five scene presets and movie mode which can capture up to 16 seconds of 320 x 240 video at 15fps, although there’s no sound which considerably lessens its usefulness. By delving into the menus you’ll find a panoramic feature (although requiring Olympus brand cards to work), and a 2 in1 mode which records two different half-size images onto one frame.

There’s no manual control over shutter speed or aperture and the camera doesn’t tell you what it has automatically selected either, although you can choose speeds between half a second and 1/1000. Sensitivity is automatically selected between 80 and 320 ISO.

The 300’s images were good but slightly below average in terms of detail captured. Images viewed at 100% also revealed higher than average speckled electronic noise and jagged edges on diagonals – although these were hardly visible on prints. There’s also no sound on movies, nor much manual control.

On the upside, the camera’s small, light and also one of the cheapest around with its specification. Impressively for the price, there’s also a lithium rechargeable battery and a unique weatherproof case. On the whole, the {mju:} 300 is not without its faults, but if your budget strictly won’t allow anything higher, it’s one of the best models for the money.

Verdict

The Olympus {mju:} 300 is one of the cheapest 3 megapixel 3X zoom cameras on the market, and even boasts a lithium rechargeable battery and weatherproof case. The quality and features are unsurprisingly lacking compared with more expensive models, but if your budget is very strict, the {mju:} 300’s one of the better ways to enjoy 3 megapixels and a 3X zoom.

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