Olympus 720 SW Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Olympus Stylus 720 SW
Resolution: 7.10 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/2.33"
Lens: 3.00x zoom
(38-114mm eq.)
Viewfinder: LCD
ISO: 64-1600
Shutter: 4-1/1000
Max Aperture: 3.5
Dimensions: 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 in.
(91 x 59 x 20 mm)
Weight: 5.3 oz (149 g)
MSRP: $400
Availability: 03/2006
Manufacturer: Olympus
Full specs: Olympus 720 SW specifications
7.10
Megapixels
3.00x zoom
1/2.33"
size sensor
image of Olympus Stylus 720 SW
Front side of Olympus Stylus 720 SW digital camera Back side of Olympus Stylus 720 SW digital camera Top side of Olympus Stylus 720 SW digital camera Left side of Olympus Stylus 720 SW digital camera Right side of Olympus Stylus 720 SW digital camera

Olympus Stylus 720 SW Introduction

by Shawn Barnett
Review posted: 07/11/2006

As with the rest of the Stylus line, the Olympus 720 SW design is based around a weatherproof body that ensures wherever you go, your camera will go right along with you, unhindered by rain, sleet, or snow that would see most digicams left at home or in a sealed case, unable to get that chance-of-a-lifetime photo. The "SW" in the model name hints at two more unusual features though: the 720 SW is shock-proof to the MIL-STD-810F standard (which means it can withstand a drop from 5 feet), and it's waterproof to a depth of three meters.

Despite its array of waterproof seals and shock absorption technology, the 720 SW remains pocket-friendly and relatively lightweight. It 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 115,000 pixels. As is common on many digicams these days, this LCD is the sole method of framing images, as the Stylus 720 SW forgoes any form of optical viewfinder. Read on to see how the 720 SW handled the rigors of the IR lab.

 

Olympus Stylus 720 SW User Report

Olympus has produced some excellent digital cameras over the years, and has a broad base of loyal customers. It's a loyalty Olympus deserves, because they've produced many innovative and practical camera designs. Perhaps the most compelling design feature the company has built into small pocket cameras started when they first introduced their Infinity Stylus line of film cameras, whose main advantage was weather resistance.

This year they deliver not only weather resistance, but water proofing and shock resistance in a slim, shiny package. The Olympus Stylus 720 SW offers what no other cameras offer, but that all should: The ability to stand up to the real world. I've always argued that the technology exists to make complicated machines like cars and computers withstand the rain, bumps, and spills: it's long past time for camera makers to realize that cameras no longer live in professional studios where they can be pampered and cared for like fine, delicate instruments. The time has passed, because Olympus has realized this and given us the Stylus 720 SW.

I was extremely excited about the advent of the Olympus 720 SW. Not only because it seemed to fit my philosophy of a camera for the real world, but also because I am the father of three children who have the same love of gadgets that I do. That means when they see them, they want to grab them, and both my one- and two-year-old then like to shake them, wave them, and turn them on. Yes, both of these little boys can even seek, locate, and press the power button, regardless of model. The apple doesn't fall far. Despite this dexterity, they have a tendency to drop them unless I'm carefully attending, usually holding the camera. Naturally, I keep all cameras out of their reach when I'm thinking clearly. But the concept of having a camera I didn't have to worry about come heck or high slobber was more than appealing. Add the pool, the kayak, the sailboat and the ever-present pocket where so many cameras die due to shock and compression, and it's clear that a rugged camera just fits my life.

My only qualifier: it needs to capture good images. My benchmark? An Olympus Stylus Verve or a Canon A520, both 4 megapixel cameras. At 7.1 megapixels, the Olympus Stylus 720 SW should have no trouble. All I had to do was wait for the little guy to arrive.

Impressions. Cameras don't get cooler than this. Olympus did it up right in the design department, building a camera that both looks and feels solid. The 720 SW is Olympus's most attractive point and shoot to date. Its shiny metal body with brushed stainless accents make it look and feel like it was machined from a solid block of steel. It's light, yet steel-stiff.

Rugged lens. Olympus employs a folded optic, which keeps the zooming mechanism inside the body so nothing can break.

The lens is not central on the front, nor does it protrude. It's a folded optic design, meaning that the zoom mechanism is stacked inside with the sensor at the bottom looking up just like a periscope on a submarine. That means no fragile external moving parts that can break, an essential design element to a camera that stays rugged even in shooting mode. This opening is protected by a cropped circular bezel and a hefty metal door that swings out of and into place when the camera is powered on and off.

Mounted in the back bezel is a big 2.5 inch LCD. It's disappointingly grainy. Even text appears somewhat disjointed compared to the competition, but it is big and colorful. The buttons on the back of the Olympus Stylus 720 SW, however, are excellent. Though small, they protrude sufficiently and have stiff domes behind them, likely due to their waterproof design, making each press a no-doubt affair. A large metal bar is screwed onto the right side to hold the wrist strap, and serves as an excellent thumb hold. Two large hex screws on the Stylus 720 SW's front bezel make a decent grip for the fingertips.

Slick shutter. I don't often declare love for a shutter button, but this is worthy of a poem.

I used to work closely with a machinist, an unusual but great kind of person to know. Even if they tell you it can't be done, they'll figure out a way that works, and better than you imagined. The top of the Stylus 720 SW seems more machinist-conceived than anything I'd expect from a draftsman. All other elements are CAD, stamp, and mold; all but the wrist strap mount and shutter release surface: these are clearly machined (at least the original mold was made from a machined part). As one who used to build custom machines, I can appreciate the multiple disciplines that went into the design of the Olympus Stylus 720 SW. That's why I say it's Olympus's most refined design yet. The result is a slick looking shutter arrangement that is less likely to be pressed except by the pad of a finger dipping down into the relief.

Waterproof doors. Though made of plastic, it's the shaped urethane pad that protects the USB socket from water.

Least impressive on the Olympus 720 SW are the two port doors. I don't think they're a real liability, but they don't feel as solid as the rest of the camera, molded of plastic rather than metal. They open with a unique sliding lock that forces the rubber gasket beneath into just the right position to maintain a seal. The gasket material inside isn't the usual O-ring arrangement, but a molded pad that comes to a sharp edge all around the area to be sealed. My trip to the pool proved it works just fine. You just have to remember to shake most of the water off when you go to open the doors to change the batteries, card, or access the USB/AV port.

In terms of external build and design, the Olympus Stylus 720 SW is how all cameras should be built, no question.

Shooting. Taking pictures with the Stylus 720 SW is as simple as it ought to be, except when it comes to changing modes. It's a point-and-shoot auto-everything camera, so that's its main mode. To change modes, you press the mode button just below the Wide zoom button. The Olympus Stylus 720 SW defaults to still shooting mode, always returning to either Auto or Program when the camera is powered off and then on again. A second press takes you to what Olympus calls the Digital Image Stabilization mode. Sounds impressive, but unfortunately all that means is that the camera is going to automatically boost the ISO to as high as 1600 when necessary, resulting in a very soft, grainy image. Not a mode you want to slip into accidentally, but given its position near where your thumb rests on the back of the camera, it is possible to enter this mode unintentionally.

Great buttons. Probably due to their waterproof nature, the buttons on the Stylus 720 SW are firm and sure. I also like the large slab screwed onto the right side, serving as a wrist strap lashing point and a solid thumb grip.

A second press on the Mode button takes you to the Stylus 720 SW's Scene mode, where all the other capture modes are clustered. 25 modes, in fact, including the usual helpful portrait, landscape, night, document and other modes along with four distinct underwater modes. Vexingly last on the list is the Movie mode, meaning that every time you want to use a Scene mode, then switch back to movie mode, you have to scroll through the available entries. I seldom use Scene modes, but underwater modes are more important because they compensate for color loss underwater, so I'd rather have a separate Movie mode available with a quick press. I understand why they didn't use a switch, because it's more difficult to make waterproof, but I'd still like a fourth button press to take me to one of the major modes. Olympus now employs a Function menu much like Canon's. A press of the center button on the Multi-controller brings up this menu, which gives you access to commonly used functions: Mode (Program/Auto), White Balance, ISO, Drive modes, and Metering modes. I like this treatment, and I like the improvements in the Setup Menu. When scrolling through the list of items in the menu, you're no longer required to shift left to access the next tab, you just scroll to the end of the list and the Olympus 720 SW automatically shifts to the next tab. It makes more sense and reduces the likelihood of getting lost.

Waterproof, Shockproof. It took me awhile to finally drop the Stylus 720 SW. Not dropping a camera is a tough habit to break. When I finally did it was on the grass, in a pratfall designed to frighten an audience who knows how I care for cameras. Later I dropped it again by accident, and then it kept happening. I keep looking, but there's not a scuff on the thing despite many impacts. It hasn't hit concrete yet, so that's probably why. But a hard desk, floor, carpet, and grass haven't stopped it working. Nor have my toddlers, which is something. I left it with them for a day accidentally, and the shiny Olympus Stylus 720 SW still works and looks great. I call that a true test. Olympus does warn that a drop to concrete will ding the finish, but the 720 SW should survive nevertheless.

Water movies. You can see the problem of water on the lens here. If your computer can download and play .mov files, you can download and play this 12 second, 4MB file. You can try clicking on the image, or right click and choose something like "Save linked file as..."

Though timid in the gravity testing department, I was anything but in the waterproof zone. I eagerly dunked and swam with the 720 SW, taking both movies and underwater stills. An obvious problem with underwater cameras is that when you take them back out of the water you'll inevitably have a drop or two clinging to the lens. The 720 SW is no exception. A few shakes removed most of this, but small droplets usually remained in the image area. Images and videos taken in the pool also ended up looking like they were taken circa 1970 and aged thirty years. Call it an effect if you like (more on this below).

Audio in the videos was a little weird, with water sometimes blocking the mic opening and muffling audio when switching between underwater and above water recording. Playback was also odd while the camera was wet. But there's no question the Olympus Stylus 720 SW was at home in the water, and fun to use.

Image quality. I mentioned at the outset that Olympus has produced some impressive, ground breaking cameras and built a loyal base. I also mentioned that the 720 SW only had to meet the quality I experienced with the Olympus Stylus Verve or Canon PowerShot A520. Looking back at the images from those cameras and comparing them to what I get from the 720 SW, I'm afraid it's closer than I'd like. Put in the simplest terms: the color is muted and color detail is mushy at best, even at the lowest ISO. Colors on the Macbeth chart not only appear faded next to the sharply oversaturated Verve, it looks like each color was put into a blender and poured back into each square as a pulpy mess. Admittedly, the Verve's sharpness isn't much better, but the vibrant color ads a snap back to the picture. The Canon's colors are more tame, and image sharpness in color areas is considerably better.

Smoosh. While thankfully this doesn't badly affect printed images, noise and its suppression are way too evident at the lowest ISO and highest resolution.

I don't get it. Olympus is capable of making excellent digital cameras. Witness the C-7000, C-8080, and E-500 to name a few. But the image quality coming from the 720 SW doesn't meet the standard. Remember, too, that this is comparing two 4 megapixel cameras to a 7 megapixel camera. When I look at the resolution test chart, however, I see a whole different story, with the 720 SW pulling an impressive 1,400 lines per picture height, while the Verve and A520 manage only a conservative 1,000 and 900 lines respectively. So the camera excels at black and white detail, just not color. I don't know what's happening in the Olympus models, but the mush looks as bad on the Macbeth chart as it does in a vibrant shirt.

The good news is that the extra 3 million pixels means that these mushy areas don't much affect printed images up to about 8x10. You have to look pretty close. Not quite as close on an 11x14, but low ISO images are still acceptable. We even found ISO 1,600 images printed at 4x6 to be reasonably acceptable. It's at the edges of any solid color that you'll notice the pulpy overspill, but it's not obvious when holding the print at a reasonable viewing distance. The higher resolution will allow larger prints from the 720 SW than you'd likely get from either of my benchmark cameras, so the camera does pass the test, just not with flying colors.

Olympus seems to be using the high resolution to make up for image noise in solid colors. You can find defects in any image if you zoom them to 100 percent on a computer monitor. Print is where it really matters, though, so that's why we look at the actual printed output.

My remaining concern is that the color is less saturated. You can tweak this in a photo editing program easily enough, and guys like me are wont to do that anyway. But if you're not one of those folks, know that you'll end up with somewhat muted color. I think those who've experienced other 7 megapixel cameras will be disappointed with the output of the 720 SW.

Tradeoff. I'm disappointed that I have to make excuses for the Olympus Stylus 720 SW. I'd like to say the images are as stunning as the camera. But this is a case where the camera is an excellent hardware design with somewhat mediocre image quality. But our printer tests show clearly that what I see onscreen doesn't really make a huge difference in printed output. Honestly, if you're like most shooters, you'll be happy to have this rugged beauty along for all your activities, getting images where you'd normally not risk having a camera of any kind. And a good majority of shooters are hardly using all those megapixels when they output their stack of 4x6 images (you only need 2 megapixels for a decent 4x6, people), so maybe Olympus is right with their strategy of building the camera not only for the rigors of the real world, but for how the resulting images will be used in the real world.

I look forward to a future model of the Stylus SW-series with slightly better image processing to go with its rugged good looks and practical versatility. Meanwhile, if you need a seriously sturdy camera for your next outing, the Olympus Stylus 720 SW will bring back printable images from places where other cameras would not likely survive.

 

Basic Features

  • 7.1-megapixel CCD.
  • 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • 5x digital zoom.
  • 2.5-inch color LCD monitor.
  • Program AE and Full Auto exposure modes.
  • Built-in flash with four modes.
  • Internal memory (enough to hold 5 full size, low compression images, or 11 medium)
  • xD-Picture Card storage (no card included).
  • USB 2.0 computer connection.
  • One Olympus LiIon rechargeable battery and charger included.
  • Software for Mac and PC.

 

Special Features

  • Shock and water resistant case design.
  • Image Stabilization mode reduces blurring from camera movement.
  • Digital iESP and Spot AF modes.
  • 25 preset Scene modes.
  • Movie recording mode (with sound).
  • Continuous and Hi Speed Continuous modes.
  • Panorama shooting mode.
  • Post-capture image brightness and saturation adjustments, plus black and white and sepia settings.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/1,000 to four seconds.
  • Maximum aperture from f/3.5 to f/5.0, depending on zoom position.
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Macro and Super Macro (close-up) lens adjustments.
  • Spot and Digital ESP metering modes.
  • Auto ISO setting or 64 through 1,600 ISO equivalents.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with seven options.
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), PRINT Image Matching III, and PictBridge printing compatibility.

 

In the Box

Included with the Stylus 720 SW digital camera are the following items:

  • Wrist strap.
  • One lithium-ion rechargeable battery and charger.
  • USB cable.
  • AV cable.
  • Software CDs containing Olympus Master software, USB drivers, and an advanced user manual.
  • Quick-guide manuals and registration information.

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Additional lithium-ion battery pack.
  • AC adaptor.
  • Large capacity xD memory card. (These days, 128MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Waterproofing and Shock resistance make this camera ready for the real world
  • Excellent design appearance
  • Internal lens is protected from impact and compression damage
  • High ISO images are relatively usable even at ISO 800 and 1,600 when printed at 4x6
  • Excellent close-up shooting, especially in Super Macro mode
  • Excellent camera styling, very compact
  • Good battery life for a compact model
  • Simplified user interface includes Function menu for quick access to oft-used items
  • Big LCD display
  • Case design fits both large and small hands well
  • Resolution is high enough that printed output exceeds the quality seen onscreen
  • Full autofocus shutter response is sluggish by current standards
  • Even low ISO images exhibit mushy color
  • Indoor images shot with Auto White Balance are warm to the point of appearing sepia
  • Chromatic aberration is high at wide angle
  • Subdued color gives images a washed out, or faded look
  • Contrast is a little high, tends to lose highlight and shadow detail under harsh lighting (does better than most in its class though)
  • Flash is a weak
  • Close spacing between flash tube and lens may lead to red-eye problems
  • No optical viewfinder
  • No shutter/aperture info displayed, in either record or playback mode
  • Mode button is easily activated accidentally
  • Mic and speaker get waterlogged easily, affecting audio

 

Olympus takes photography to more locations in more conditions than ever before with the Stylus 720 SW, a portable camera that is both Shock and Water resistant. While we're crazy about this capability and the external design and build of the 720 SW, image quality is somewhat lacking when compared to other 7 megapixel cameras on the market, with muted color and a noisy texture to solid colors. The good side is that few shooters actually use resolution this high, even printing up to 8x10 size, and few of these defects are strongly visible at those resolutions. So long as potential buyers are aware of these limitations, they can enjoy the truly excellent aspects of the Olympus Stylus 720 SW, and tweak the color somewhat before printing. The 720 SW's point-and-shoot simplicity and twenty four preset Scene modes will help even novice users bring home great-looking photos, and that twenty-fifth mode allows capture of movies from below or above the water. While its image quality isn't as good as it could be, the Olympus Stylus 720 SW makes up for it with versatility, durability, and just plain good looks. It is currently the best underwater offering on the market, and the only shock resistant model, period, making it a Dave's Pick.

 

Olympus 720-SW

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