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Olympus Stylus 790SW Overview

by Andrew Alexander
Review Date: 02/28/08

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW features a design ensuring wherever you go - regardless of environment - your camera will go right along with you.

The "SW" in the name hints at two of the camera's more unusual features - both shock- and water-proofing. As with past models, the Olympus 790SW is shockproof to the MIL-STD-810F standard - meaning that the camera can withstand drops of up to 5 feet from any angle without harm. The Olympus 790 is also waterproof to a depth of three meters. Despite the array of waterproof seals and shock absorption technology needed to achieve all this, the 790 SW remains pocket-friendly and relatively lightweight.

The '790 includes an Olympus-branded 3x optical zoom with a 38 - 114mm equivalent focal length range and F3.5 - 5.0 maximum aperture, folded by a prism to allow the lens to be mounted at right angles to the front of the camera. This allowed the camera's designers to protect the delicate lens components, as well as to completely seal the camera body with no need for a lens to extend out of the camera body when powered on. The lens is coupled with a 7.1 megapixel imager and 2.5" LCD display that has 230,000 pixels. As is common on many digicams these days, this LCD is the sole method of framing images, as the Stylus 790 SW forgoes any form of optical viewfinder.

Autofocus is via contrast detection, and ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 to 1600 equivalent and can be controlled automatically or manually. The Olympus Stylus 790 SW also offers what the company calls "Digital Image Stabilization" mode - which should not be mistaken for true hardware image stabilization, where either lens elements or the image sensor are moved based on sensors that detect camera shake. The 790 SW is simply boosting ISO sensitivity to gain a faster shutter speed and using software deblurring, both of which will reduce blur at the expense of added noise and/or obscured image detail.

By default, exposures are determined with Olympus' Digital ESP multi-pattern metering, with spot metering also available. Users can also tweak the exposure with +/-2.0EV of exposure compensation, in 1/3EV steps. Shutter speeds range from 1/1000 to 4 seconds, and the Olympus 790 offers automatic or preset white balance control courtesy of six presets, but no custom white balance mode. The 790 SW also includes a four mode internal flash, and offers beginner-friendly control over images courtesy of a rather generous 23 scene modes.

As well as still images, the camera can also capture movies at VGA or lower resolution, at a rate of 30 frames per second. The 790 SW also has a twelve second self-timer to let you get into your own pictures. The camera stores images on xD-Picture cards, or 14.7MB of built-in memory. It also offers video and USB computer connectivity. Power comes from a proprietary lithium-ion battery.

The Olympus Stylus 790 SW ships from September 2007, priced at about US$300.

 

Olympus Stylus 790SW User Report

by Andrew Alexander

The sticker attached to the front of the camera tells the whole story on the design theory behind this camera: Shockproof, Waterproof, Freezeproof, Sandproof, Dustproof. Olympus wants you to be able to take the Stylus SW series anywhere, with tolerances built in to the camera that represent the lion's share of worries faced by camera owners. Dropping a camera can mean a repair that costs as much as the purchase price of the camera itself; dropping a camera into water is a favorite nightmare of many a camera owner.

The Stylus 790SW is Shockproof, meaning you can drop the Stylus 790SW from up to 5 feet; Waterproof, meaning you can submerge the Stylus 790SW in up to 10 feet of water; Freezeproof, which means you can leave the Stylus 790SW overnight in my Canadian backyard: as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius); and it's Sand and Dustproof: Olympus doesn't say how Sand or Dustproof the Stylus 790SW is, but I'll assume that since it's watertight up to 10 feet, that's enough to keep sand and dust out, too.

Look and Feel. The Olympus Stylus 790SW has the deck-of-cards design note firmly in mind: it's a rectangular block with rounded edges. At 5.3 ounces (151g) the Olympus 790SW is very light and small. There are hardly any protruding edges other than control items such as dials and buttons, and a circular shroud surrounding the lens. The camera is set up for right-handed shooting, with all buttons and dials set on the right side of the camera body, and a slight raised surface on the front of the camera gives you a little finger grip. As with most ultra-compact point-and-shoot digicams the viewfinder has been dropped in favor of a larger, 2.5-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels.

The casing of the camera is obviously designed to be tough. It's rated to work after a fall of up to five feet. The model I reviewed had a silvery-gray matte finish, and the Stylus SW line comes in five different colors: green, orange, blue, black, and silver.

Part of the strategy Olympus has employed to toughen up the Stylus 790SW is to use a folded-optic lens design, where all the lens movement is contained in the body of the camera, as opposed to a more conventional protruding lens, where the lens extends out from the camera body. By using the folded-optic design Olympus has removed a major vulnerability to the camera; in some cases, dropping a camera with the lens extended subjects that lens to major damage. When the camera is switched off, an integrated lens cover slides over the lens for protection.

The majority of controls for the Olympus 790SW are set along the right side of the rear face of the camera. As with other cameras with this design, you are meant to support the camera using both thumbs and forefingers, holding the four corners of the camera for optimum stability.

Though you can easily hold the Olympus 790SW with one hand, you need to use both hands for menu navigation and control adjustment, as the majority of the controls sit under the right thumb. On the front of the camera are the flash and a separate lamp, as well as the microphone.

To the right of the LCD screen, you have the zoom rocker control, mode selector, and a four-way controller that's surrounded by four multi-functional buttons. A fifth button is inset into the four-way controller, which serves as the Function/OK button, bringing up a Function menu or acting as the selection confirmation button. A wrist strap attaches to the right side above the playback speaker, and there is a very solid door providing access to the USB port. The left side is blank, and there's not much to speak of on the bottom other than a tripod mount (not aligned with the lens), another solid door allowing access to the battery, and the xD memory card. This particular design makes it impossible to change memory cards or a battery if the camera is mounted on a tripod.

On the top of the Stylus 790SW you find only the power button and shutter release button; all other controls are set onto the rear face of the camera.

While Olympus touts the hardiness of the Stylus 790SW, I'd actually recommend a carrying case: it offers extra protection from scratches and decreases the likelihood that you'll lose it. I also recommend using the Stylus 790SW with its supplied wrist strap.

Interface. For regular use, the Stylus 790SW is activated by pressing the power button on the top of the unit, regardless of whether you want to take or review photographs. Startup time is very quick, at less than one second (aided by the fact that there is no lens to extend). Shooting modes are selected with the mode selector dial; five of the seven selections are different shooting modes, while two are image review modes. While shooting, the user can change shooting parameters (depending on the shooting mode selected) by pressing the central button in the four-way selector, which brings up the Function menu.

Other major changes are made through the Olympus 790SW's menu, accessed with the Menu button. The menu layout includes the ability to change settings related to image quality, white balance, ISO rating, AF mode and the like. You can also enter a silent mode, select a different scene setting (if you're in scene selection mode), and there are basic setup options such as formatting the memory card and assigning a menu them.

Bridging the gap between inexperienced camera users and complicated digital cameras, Olympus offers a guided shooting mode which allows the user to select from dozens of shooting scenarios through a text-based hierarchy, to produce camera settings that will give them the best possible results. Obviously, this kind of system cannot encompass every practical shooting scenario, but it is fairly thorough. In addition to improving the photographic results, it also introduces novice users to various methods of overcoming typical photographic challenges. For example, from the main shooting guide menu, there are fourteen choices:

  1. Shoot w/ effects preview
  2. Brightening subject
  3. Shooting into backlight
  4. Set particular lighting
  5. Blurring background
  6. Adjusting area in focus
  7. Shooting subject in motion
  8. Targeting with assistance
  9. Close up photo
  10. Super close up photo
  11. Shooting at night
  12. Reducing blur
  13. Reducing red-eye
  14. Adjusting image quality

This kind of user interface leaves itself wide open for problems. For example, if I'm a novice user and I read "shoot with effects preview," it may not mean much to me. So while it may not be the best method to make the camera easier-to-use, I have to applaud Olympus for what they're trying to do. Let's take one of their situations a little further. For example, number three: "Shooting into backlight," a fairly typical scenario. The options provided in the next menu:

  1. Activate SHADOW ADJ.
  2. Set to fill-in flash.
  3. Set the metering to [SPOT].
  4. Increase the value of [EXPOSURE COMPENSATION].

So, the user is given a selection of options to choose from that will help to alleviate the problem. The missing link is an explanation of why you might select the given option. Pressing the "?" button doesn't, as I was hoping, supply you with a small section of helpful text setting out why you might choose the fill-in flash over spot metering, so it does assume some user experience after all.

Interface with the computer, printer, or television is all accomplished through the USB port on the right side of the Olympus Stylus 790SW. File download from the camera via the USB cable is a respectably zippy 4,416 kilobytes per second. Helpfully, the camera will power on when it detects a USB connection to a computer or DPOF printer, and provide you with the relevant menu.

Finally, Olympus has added a few design features to the camera that make it useful not just as a camera but as a flashlight and timepiece. Holding down the bottom-left operation button (marked "Disp./?/Light") for two seconds will turn on the lamp, regardless of whether the camera is "powered on." A single press of the same button will bring up a display of the camera's battery life, and the date and time, plus any alarm you have set.

Modes. The basic operational modes of the Olympus Stylus 790SW are set with the mode selector dial. For normal shooting, use the Basic Shooting mode, which allows you the most options if you know what you're doing. Other modes include Digital Image Stabilization mode, Scene mode, Guided shooting mode, Movie Mode, Favorite photo review mode, and Image Review mode.

The Olympus Stylus 790SW has 23 Scene modes: I would normally say that this is somewhat excessive, but Olympus does a good job of describing each of the modes, and supplying helpful text to explain exactly what kind of scenario for which the mode is specifically useful. For example, Auction mode "Captures 3 pictures sequentially at different exposures in the appropriate size for e-auction."

The Digital Image Stabilization mode mode gears the camera specifically to the function of counteracting low-light blur problems. It does this by resetting flash mode to automatic, and setting ISO to AUTO so that the camera can raise the ISO to increase shutter speed. That's not really image stabilization, so it's mis-named, to be kind. Don't be tricked into thinking that it's doing more than raising the ISO in low light.

In the My Favorite mode, any photograph you take can be added to your list of up to nine favorites; these images are copied to the camera's internal memory, so playback of these is very quick. When you select the favorite mode selection, your image review is restricted to only images you have marked as your favorites. It's very useful if you find yourself showing the same set of photographs all the time (ie., the kids). It's not as useful if you have more than nine favorite photographs. Any one of these favorites can be used as the camera's startup image.

One tough camera. The Olympus Stylus series stands alone among the major manufacturers as the only "toughened" camera, designed to withstand drops, water, cold, sand, and dust. Whether or not it actually lives up to those claims is another matter. We decided not to toss around our review model, but it does submerge under water and work quite handily, and it also works outside on some pretty cold days as well. The question is, are other cameras hardened to the same extent? Only the Pentax Optio series makes great claims to its water resistance, but it isn't advised that you drop one from five feet.

Face Detection. In practice, the Olympus Stylus 790SW's Face Detection mode does a fairly good job detecting a single face looking directly at the camera. Olympus doesn't supply any stats as to how many faces the Olympus 790SW can detect, and in practice I found it only did one, while other manufacturers can detect several. The advantage to detecting several is probably not huge, but you could set the aperture to make sure more faces are in focus, as well as make sure that the faces are all exposed well. Still, not a great loss, and the single face detection is pretty fast.

Storage and Battery. The Olympus Stylus 790SW uses the proprietary xD memory card as its storage standard, so you'll have to spend a little bit more for memory than other cameras using the ubiquitous SD/MMC standard, and as of this writing the maximum card size is 2GB. Olympus has decided not to ship the camera with a memory card, opting to include 14.7MB of internal storage instead. The lithium-ion battery is rated to capture 200 shots per charge.

Shooting. With a few exceptions, the Olympus Stylus 790SW is as easy to use as any other point-and-shoot digital camera. Controls are well-placed, and the grip out front does help you keep a hold on the handsome little shooter without being a nuisance in a pocket.

Forgetting that the lens is in the upper right corner of the camera (when viewed from the front) will result in an obscured upper left corner to most of your photos, but once you get used to it, it'll be a rare occurrence.

The LCD was easily viewable in direct sunlight. Changing menu themes made that aspect a little more useful; unfortunately for us guys, the Pink theme was the most viewable of all in sunlight.

One of my favorite aspects of the Olympus Stylus 790SW is the EV adjustment feature. Most cameras give you a graduated bar across the bottom of the screen which you can set to the available values, and see the change onscreen. But the Olympus 790SW puts up four live thumbnail views on the screen, with the respective Exposure Values shown in the lower right corner of each. Scroll left to see negative values, right to see even brighter values. If you press the OK button, the highlighted EV is locked in; but if you just highlight the one you want, you can just press the shutter button and the camera will take a picture at that setting, returning to this special EV display so you can select another. Pretty impressive, allowing you to preview and compare each setting and create your own bracketing sequence.

I found that leaving the Olympus 790SW in Face Detect AF mode kept the mode active while defaulting to iESP AF mode when no face was detected. Most Face Detect systems work this way, but it's worth noting if you find that you like that mode.

Autofocus performance in general gave mixed results. When you shoot the camera in situations that are not that challenging, it performs more or less as intended; a proper focus is obtained and the image is as sharp as this camera can get (which isn't that sharp). However, there were shooting situations where the camera did not autofocus on the subject as required. Frustratingly, you could actually see the subject in focus as the camera racked through the focus and decided on something else. My analysis of this situation has led me to believe that you will see this situation where you are attempting to focus on a subject within the close-focus distance of the camera, but you are not in the proper macro mode.

LED illuminator. Most digital cameras have an AF-assist lamp, which is usually amber, that comes on when the camera has trouble focusing in low light. The Olympus Stylus 790SW has an AF and exposure-assist lamp that you have to activate manually, but is admittedly more useful than the usual AF-assist lamp. To turn the LED illuminator on, just press the Display button and hold it down for a few seconds. It then stays on for a minute, unless you turn it off again manually (or switch to image review, where it turns itself off).

Super macro modeSuper macro mode with LED lamp

In a shooting context, everything else about the Olympus Stylus 790SW functions well enough. The Stylus 790 SW's optical zoom covers the equivalent of 38-114mm, which covers the most-used focal lengths, but doesn't make it a star in either the wide-angle or telephoto category. It takes about a second to go from wide-angle to telephoto.

Image Quality. We were discouraged by the very soft optical quality of the Stylus 790SW's 38-114mm equivalent lens. Looking at the range of ISO shots we took of our Still Life target, the ISO 80 image is so soft that it looks little different from the ISO 400 shot. From our perspective, this is unprecedented. Noise suppression is part of the story, but so is optical quality, because normally ISO 80 is significantly better than 400. Outdoor shots sometimes appear as if they're shot through a watery medium, rather than a quality optical glass. Put simply, the lens isn't very good, despite its very low distortion numbers. It's a shame, because the camera is otherwise just what many of us need: a rugged, waterproof design for the general photographer.

Printed results are actually worse than we expected from the Olympus Stylus 790SW. Only a 4 x 6-inch print at ISO 80 could be called acceptable. It's the worst printed performance we've seen from a brand name digital camera.

Appraisal. While we really like the looks, function, and ruggedness of the Olympus Stylus 790SW, it doesn't deliver pictures of sufficient quality for a 7.1-megapixel camera. Images are almost always soft in some part of the frame, thanks to excessive noise suppression at all ISO levels. Its LED illuminator is a neat feature, as is its EV adjustment display, but our chief index for all cameras is of course image quality, and the Olympus Stylus 790SW does not measure up. This is the second sample of the Olympus 790SW we have tested, and it's equally soft when compared to the first. While we gave the Stylus 720SW and 770SW passes on their sub-par image quality, their printed results were good enough; certainly better than the 790SW. Though there are no other choices in the waterproof and ruggedized market, we can't recommend the Stylus 790SW unless all you'll ever print are uncropped 4 x 6-inch prints.

 

Basic Features

 

Special Features

 

In the Box

The Olympus Stylus 790SW ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Shockproof
  • Waterproof
  • Freezeproof
  • Sand and dustproof
  • Face detection autofocus
  • LED Lamp super macro mode
  • Internal memory for up to eight favorite photos
  • A mode for every situation, including three underwater modes
  • Good daylight screen visibility
  • Extremely low distortion
  • Slightly confusing guided shooting mode
  • Hit-and-miss autofocus
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Soft corners, chromatic aberration
  • Heavy noise suppression at all ISOs
  • Soft images overall at all ISOs
  • Image quality limits print sizes to 4x6 inches

 

There's a lot to like in the Olympus Stylus 790SW, beginning with the fact that it has been specifically toughened to be taken everywhere: dropped on the ground, submerged in the water, left in the sand -- as the maxim goes, the camera that gets taken is the camera that gets used, and this camera is definitely designed to be taken. It is well-fitted with scene modes, and attempts to initiate a novice user with its guided shooting mode functionality, but in practice I found the textual shorthand that's used to guide the user to be a little too mysterious at times. Olympus has added some interesting touches to the camera, such as the ability to turn on the LED light and check the time while the camera's not switched on, and the "my favorites" selection is useful for showing off up to nine photographs. Its overall image quality, however, is consistently poor across the entire ISO range, with printed results at the lowest ISO only acceptable at 4x6. We've tested two samples and come up with the same unacceptably soft results. If you really need a rugged camera, and will only print 4x6 images, this is an okay choice, but we'd more strongly recommend the Olympus Stylus 770SW, whose images were closer to what we're used to seeing from a 7.1 megapixel camera, and it's even more rugged than the 790SW.