Olympus Stylus SZ-15 Preview
by Mike Tomkins
Are you a fan of tighly-cropped shots that focus the viewer's attention on your subject? If so, a long-zoom camera can be a great tool, and Olympus' 2013 lineup includes two closely-related models you'll want to consider. There's one key difference between the pair, though, and it completely defines their character, so you'll want to choose carefully.
The Olympus Stylus SZ-15 is based around a 1/2.3-inch, 16.0 megapixel CCD image sensor with a 1.34µm pixel pitch. That differs from the SZ-16, which uses a CMOS sensor of approximately the same resolution, size, and pixel pitch. Once upon a time, CMOS sensors were the less desirable, but that time has now passed. CCD sensors typically offer significantly lesser speed, leading them to lag on burst-shooting performance, have less responsive autofocus, lower video frame rates, and more. The advent of backside-illuminated CMOS sensors has also left CCD-based cameras dacing a significant deficit in terms of noise and sensitivity.
That's borne out by the figures. The Olympus SZ-15 has an ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 1,600 equivalents, and its TruePic VI image processor handles only 1.5 frames per second, where the SZ-16 reaches up to an ISO 6,400 maximum, and has double the burst performance. The same's true even if you reduce the resolution to three megapixels; with the SZ-16 you can shoot as many as 28 images at 30 frames per second, but the SZ-15 manages only 20 frames at 15 fps.
We already mentioned that the Olympus SZ-15 is a long-zoom camera, but how much reach does it have? There's a generous 24x optical zoom, which covers everything from 25 to 600mm-equivalents. The maximum aperture is rather dim, but no different to other similar cameras. At wide angle it starts at f/3.0, and by the telephoto position it falls to f/6.9. The lens design includes 11 elements in 10 groups, of which three are extra-low dispersion elements, and three are double-sided aspheric elements. At wide angle, the lens will focus down to 10cm normally, and when locked to ~79mm-equivalent, it'll focus to just 3cm in macro mode. Both face detection and tracking functions are included, and although the Olympus SZ-15's lens isn't stabilized, the sensor is mounted on a movable platter that allows it to provide true mechanical stabilization.
On the rear panel, there's a three-inch LCD monitor with a resolution of approximately 460,000 dots. Exposure modes include Intelligent Auto (albeit only for still imaging) and Program, but Manual or Priority capture isn't possible. Available shutter speeds range from 1/4 to 1/2,000 second, and can be raised as high as two seconds in night mode. (That's only half as long as the SZ-16 manages, again likely due to noise issues.) At ISO 800 equivalent, a built-in flash has a working range of 6.9 meters at wide angle, and 3.0 meters at telephoto.
The Olympus SZ-15 also has some special modes aimed at providing better ease of use, and some extra creative possibilities. There's a selection of 11 Magic Filter effects functions, a Beauty mode that yields more attractive portraits and can simulate details like blush makeup, and a Smart Panorama tool that captures a full 360-degree scene with a simple sweep of your camera. Features of the SZ-16 that relied on its burst performance are absent in the CCD-based camera, though. There are no HDR Backlight Adjustment or Hand-held Starlight modes on offer here.
As well as stills, the Olympus SZ15 also shoots 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) high definition movies, at a rate of 30 frames per second, a significantly lower resolution than the 1080p mode offered on the CMOS version of the camera. These are stored in Motion JPEG-compressed .AVI format> Also, unlike its sibling, the SZ-15 can't shoot high-speed videos.
Images and movies are stored on Secure Digital cards, including SDHC and SDXC types, as well as Wi-Fi capable cards such as those from Eye-Fi and Toshiba's FlashAir line. There's also ~38MB of built-in memory. High-speed UHS-I cards aren't supported, however. Connectivity includes both USB 2.0 High Speed data, and a high-def HDMI output. The latter requires an optional cable, and supports the HDMI CEC standard for controlling your camera via your TV's remote. Power comes from an LI-50B proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack. Battery life had not been stated at press time.
Olympus will sell the Stylus SZ-15 in the US market from March 2012, priced at around US$200. That's only $30 less than the swifter, more feature-rich CMOS version, so unless you have a reason to favor a CCD camera -- some do prefer CCD rendering over that from CMOS chips -- then we'd recommend paying just slightly more for a much more capable body. Three body-color options will be available: silver, black, or red.