Color performance may be the most important factor in digital camera specs. Low resolution isn't a problem for people who make small prints, and noise isn't much of an issue to users who keep the ISO setting turned low. But color matters to everyone. Bright, vivid colors are among the first things shooters get complimented on.

We use Imatest software to measure a camera's color accuracy. We photograph a GretagMacbeth color chart, which shows 24 sample colors that are both similar to real-life colors and challenging to reproduce. Imatest software analyzes the photos to show accuracy for each color, and delivers numerical results indicating the camera's overall performance.

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The Olympus Evolt E-500 has color modes called Vivid, Natural, and Muted. Vivid is the default setting, indicating that Olympus knows many amateurs would rather have bright colors than accurate ones. We tested the E-500 in all three modes.

The first charts are a revised version of the GretagMacbeth chart. The large outer squares show the colors as the E-500 renders them. The inner squares show the colors as they should be rendered, and the rectangles show the ideal colors, corrected for luminance but not hue.

The second set of charts is a better indicator of the Imatest results. The background is a color space chart, and the small squares show the GretagMacbeth color plotted where they should appear on that chart. The circles show where the E-500's colors appear, and the length of the lines between the squares and the circles shows the amount of error. Colors get less saturated toward the center of the chart, and they shift hue as the position rotates. So, if the circle is farther away from the center, the camera oversaturates that color. If the circle is separated from the square either clockwise or counter-clockwise, then its hue is inaccurate.

OlyE500-ColorER.jpg

The E-500's saturation performance is more accurate than typical cameras marketed to consumers. At the Vivid setting, it registered 103.1 percent saturation, a figure comparable to the Natural setting on many cameras. Natural is undersaturated, at 96.03 percent, and Muted is truly muted, with only 90.95 percent saturation. Color accuracy was more of a problem: Vivid mode delivered a mean color error score of 8.13. Natural was nearly the same, at 8.15, and Muted was marginally worse at 8.35. All three scores are poor. The color hue inaccuracy is most pronounced in the green and blue range, so it may not pose a big problem for users most concerned with skin tones.

Still Life Scene

Resolution*(3.53)*

Resolution is a measure of the level of detail a camera can record. It's more complicated than simply the number of pixels in the final image. We measure resolution in line widths per pixel height (lw/ph), a standard measure that allows direct comparison between all digital cameras, no matter what size their image sensors are. We photograph an industry standard resolution chart and analyze the images with Imatest software. We shoot each camera at a variety of focal lengths and apertures and report the best results we get.

The Evolt E-500 delivers 1658 lw/ph horizontally, with 12.2 percent oversharpening. Vertically, it delivered 1607 lw/ph, with 9.89 percent oversharpening. We got these results with the lens set to 33mm and f/6.3, which is toward the middle of the zoom range, and stopped down slightly from the maximum aperture. It's typical to see the best result in the middle of the range.

All cameras run an internal sharpening routine while saving images, and we report sharpening results from less than a dozen percent undersharpened to as high as 25 percent oversharpened. The E-500's 12.2 percent result bodes poorly for post-processing – users will probably run into problems in image editing if they try to sharpen E-500 images on their computers.

Noise – Auto ISO*(7.43)*

Noise is variation in color or brightness of an image, where no variation belongs. A blue sky with a grainy texture is an example of noise. We use Imatest software to measure grain, using the same images shot for our color accuracy tests. When the Evolt E-500 is set to Auto ISO, it keeps the setting down to 100 or 125, and so the camera delivers the best noise performance possible in Auto mode.

Noise – Manual ISO*(9.03)*

OlyE500-NoiseGR.jpg

Low Light*(5.75)

*

Speed / Timing

Start-up to First Shot (6.0)

The Olympus Evolt E-500 includes the SWF dust control system, which runs each time the camera starts up. It is meant to jar dust off the glass cover over the sensor. It takes a second or two to run, and it delays the first shot. Our best time was 3.24 seconds. That's a long time, even for compact cameras. For DSLRs, which usually take less than a second, it is very, very slow. Keep the E-500 on whenever a shot might come up.

Shot to Shot Time (6.0)

The Evolt E-500 offers a Burst mode that is capable of 2.5 frames per second (fps), in 5-frame bursts, in the top resolution. Quite a few entry-level DSLRs run between 2.5 and 3 fps. A 5-frame buffer is relatively skimpy, though. In combination, 5 frames over 1.7 seconds won't deliver a really satisfying sports action sequence, but it might help get a nice portrait of an antsy child or someone with fleeting expressions.

Shutter to Shot Time (6.0)

The great advantage of DSLRs should be the minimal delay between the instant the shutter is pressed and the instant the shot is taken. The Evolt E-500 is slow for a DSLR, with a 0.27-second delay, including focusing. A quarter-second delay makes it harder to shoot candids with the Evolt E-500.

Dynamic Range

In music, dynamic range describes the span from the loudest to the softest sounds. In photography, dynamic range is the span from brightest to darkest in a scene or photo. In both music and photography, the ability to capture a wide dynamic range is valuable, and it's not easy in either pursuit. Problems occur at either end of the range – in photography, the dark tones end up pure black and the light tones end up pure white.

We test a camera's dynamic range with a standardized procedure, using Imatest software. We photograph a calibrated test target called a Stouffer chart. The Stouffer chart is a piece of film that has a series of 40 rectangles of graduated tones. When the film is lit from behind, the darkest rectangle is 13.3 EV darker than the lightest one. This 13.3-stop range exceeds the dynamic range of every camera we have tested. Imatest software analyzes the images, counting the number of steps shown at various levels of quality. In this case, quality is measured by noise level. Low noise equals high quality, and vice-versa. The dark end of the range shows increasing noise, so the range with low noise (and therefore, high quality) is narrower than the range with more noise. Both low and high quality ranges are important. High Quality is the range that yields pleasing results for the main subject of an image, but Low Quality indicates the range that shows any detail at all –and even if the detail isn't clear, images look better with vague details in the shadows, rather than large swathes of pure black.

The Evolt E-500 scores poorly on our dynamic range test. Across the range, it records about 1/2 EV less range than Olympus's Evolt E-330, which wasn't stellar. At ISO 400, the E-500 shows only 5 EV of range at High Quality – a rating DSLRs should be able to achieve at ISO 1600, or at least 800.

Front*(6.0)*

The Evolt E-500 has a viewfinder hump, unlike the flat-topped E-300 and E-330, so it is the most conventional-looking Evolt since the E-1. The viewfinder hump holds a pop-up flash, so it is larger and boxier that its optics require. The lens mount is large, given the small sensor size, and set far to the right. The hand grip is wide and thick, and covered with leather-textured rubber. A dark red window between the viewfinder and the grip covers a self-timer light, and a sensor for an infrared remote control. A four-thirds format logo is below the window.

E500_front.jpg

Back* (6.0)*

A wide, soft rubber eyecup surrounds the small eyepiece, with a small diopter control on the left and the exposure and focus lock button on the right. Five buttons run down the left side of the back, beside the 2.5-inch, 215,000-pixel LCD. The buttons control the pop-up flash, image review, image delete, menu, and info display. To the right of the LCD, there's a button to set the Burst mode, self-timer, or remote control. Below that is the four-way controller, which is made up of four separate buttons in a ring and a fifth button in the center. Clockwise from the top, the buttons control white balance, autofocus, ISO, and metering pattern. The center button is the OK button for most camera functions. A status light below the four-way controller blinks as data is written to the memory cards. High on the right are buttons for taking white balance measurements and choosing the AF sensor site to activate. The memory card door makes up the lower part of the right side of the camera, and a notch in the back gives the user a spot to pull it open. There is no locking device on the door.

E500_back.jpg

Left Side* (6.0)*

A flexible rubber cover conceals and protects the combination USB and AV port on the left side of the Evolt E-500, and a wide, stamped-metal strap lug protrudes from the top of the side. Several surface panels meet on the left side of the E-500. The seams are uneven and obvious – on better-made and more attractive cameras, the pieces fit together better.

E500_left.jpg

Right Side*(6.0)*

The memory card door comprises most of the back half of the right side, and the rubber grip makes up most of the front half. The gaps around the door are large, and don't seal well against dirt or moisture. The strap lug is high and out of the way.

E500_right.jpg

Top*(6.0) *

There's a focal plane indicator on the left side of the Evolt E-500's top. It's a feature most E-500 users will ignore, but it is supposed to be useful for focusing by tape measure. The viewfinder hump sports a hot shoe compatible with Olympus's varied line of dedicated flashes. Both the hot shoe and built-in flashes are on the lens axis, which is the ideal placement. To the right of the hump is a small blue light that indicates the function of the dust removal system. The mode dial is next. It's very large and very stiff. It won't turn a full rotation, so if the camera is set to one of the Auto modes, the user can't turn it 90 degrees to get over to the Manual modes – the dial has to go the long way, 270 degrees. The large and apparently durable power switch juts out from underneath the mode dial. The E-500's only control dial is smaller and placed toward the back, where the user's right thumb can reach it. The exposure compensation button is forward, on the grip. The large, chrome shutter release is further forward on the grip.

E500_top.jpg

Bottom*(6.0)*

The battery compartment is in the grip, and its door is on the bottom of the camera. It closes with a large, secure latch, though it is not sealed well against dust or moisture. The E-500 has a bright metal tripod bushing centered on the lens axis and the focal plane, a positioning that can make it easier to center on many tripods. A textured patch around the bushing may grip tripod heads better than a smooth surface would. It may also hide minor scratches from tripod screws.

E500_bottom.jpg

Viewfinder* (6.0) *

E500_viewfinder.jpg
The size of a viewfinder on an SLR bears some relation to the size of the sensor, so it makes sense that the Evolt E-500's viewfinder is relatively small – the four-thirds sensor is considerably smaller than the standard. It is easy to see the whole image in the viewfinder, but we found the text that displays to the right of the image is dim, and we had to shift the camera slightly to see the complete display. The image itself is bright and clear, though we had trouble judging focus. The Evolt E-500's three autofocus sites are clearly marked. The optical viewfinder protrudes from the back of the camera and is cushioned by a rubber eyecup. On its left side is a diopter adjustment that turns from -3 to +1, allowing photographers to shed their glasses when shooting. Like many optical viewfinders, the E-500’s isn’t completely accurate; at 95 percent, the eye-level penta dach mirror type finder has about the same coverage as many other DSLRs.

LCD Screen* (6.0) *

E500_LCD.jpg
The Evolt E-500 has a 2.5-inch, 215,000-pixel HyperCrystal LCD. It's an excellent performer, with good color and brightness and a wide angle of view. The image gets dimmer when viewed from an extreme angle, but we didn't note any solarization, a distracting effect which causes dark areas to turn light gray. The LCD is the only display on the outside of the E-500, so it does double duty, showing camera settings as well as allowing image review. It's convenient for both. The LCD screen, which boasts 100 percent coverage of the recorded field of view, can be adjusted to seven steps brighter or darker.

Flash*(6.0)*

The Evolt E-500's pop-up flash is convenient, but weak. At ISO 100, it's good to about 10 feet at telephoto and about 14 feet at wide angle. Its range increases at higher ISOs, and its power can be adjusted +/- 2 EV in 1/3 increments. The built-in flash and hot shoe are centered over the lens, which is the ideal placement for on-camera flash. A light source directly over the lens casts shadows behind the subject, where they are hidden, whereas a light source placed on either side casts shadows to the side, where they can be distracting.

The shutter syncs flash up to 1/180 of a second – enough for outdoor fill flash very close up in muted daylight. The Olympus E-500 offers a good range of Flash modes: Auto, which pops up and fires the flash automatically, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Shutter Speed, Slow with Red-Eye Reduction, and Manual. The flash can also be synchronized to the second curtain, meaning it goes off at the end of the exposure, rather than the beginning. This is useful for pictures that combine motion blur with action-stopping flash because it makes the blurs seem to follow behind the flash exposure, which looks more natural.

Olympus makes a range of external flashes for the Evolt series. An E-500 user who expects to use flash extensively would do well to get one. The camera is able to control the built-in and external flashes independently.

Lens*(6.0)*

E500_lens.jpg
The Olympus E-500 is most commonly packaged with Olympus's 14-45mm, f/3.5-5.6 zoom, which acts like a 28-90mm zoom on a 35mm camera. It's a wide-angle to mild telephoto. Olympus sells the E-500 for $50 less without the 14-45mm, which gives a rough indication of the lens's value. We note significant barrel distortion and color fringing at the lens's wide-angle setting. The distortion goes away at normal and telephoto settings, and the color error decreases.

Mechanically, the lens is flimsy. When we pointed the camera straight up, the weight of the front elements was enough that the lens crept from telephoto to normal.

Most SLR manufacturers market similar lenses with budget cameras, suggesting they are do-everything optics. They aren't. Their most significant drawback is their limited maximum aperture – f/5.6 just isn't bright enough for available-light photography indoors, and it's barely useful with the built-in flash. So the 14-45 isn't alone in having these drawbacks, but  is a problem just the same. The camera has a Four Thirds mount and accepts all Zuiko Digital and Four Thirds system lenses.

Model Design / Appearance*(6.0)*

With a viewfinder hump, the Evolt E-500 is conventional-looking compared with the flat-topped E-300 and E-330. It's narrow, with the lens set far to one side, and a wide hand grip. While brands like Canon and Pentax have tended to smooth out their DSLR designs, with bodies that look as if the corners and edges have all worn away, Olympus has ladled on the ledges, corners, and bumps, as if the E-500 were made of Lego blocks. The feel is a little old-fashioned and scientific.

E500_Handling.jpg

Size / Portability* (6.0)

*The smallest DSLRs are too big to pocket, and their T-shape is about the most inconvenient shape to store and pack. At 5 x 3.7 x 2.6 inches, the E-500 is on the small side of DSLRs, but requires a carrying case, especially if the user carries an extra lens, external flash, or other accessories which make an SLR worthwhile.

The E-500's Four Thirds sensor is smaller than most of its competition, which leads to shorter-focal-length lenses. All that would logically suggest the camera should be smaller than the competition, but it isn't. The body alone weighs 15.34 oz, and will require the included neck strap for longer photo shoots.

Handling Ability* (6.0)*

Having the lens all the way at the edge of the camera is a benefit on a small camera like the Evolt E-500, because it's easy to cradle the lens and that side of the body with the user's left hand. The hand grip is boxy and thick, and better-suited for large hands than might be expected. The gripping surface on the right side feels sure and sticky. The E-500 isn't likely to fall out of the user's hands. On the back of the grip is a small bowl molded into the body’s plastic housing; this provides a little support for the thumb.

E500_handle2.jpg
E550_handle3.jpg

Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(6.0)*

E550_buttons.jpg
DSLRs usually offer a wide range of control and quick operation. The E-500 offers plenty of control, and as a DSLR, it's much faster than compact cameras and SLR-like super-zooms. Unfortunately, its control interface is slow and inconvenient, which undercuts the camera's advantages.

The Olympus E-500 has only one control dial, which means that in Manual mode, for instance, the user has to press and hold the EV button while turning the dial to set the aperture. To choose the autofocus site, the user must press the autofocus button while turning the dial. Given how close the two are, this movement is inconvenient to do while the camera is at eye level. The control dial would be easier to use if it were larger and overhung the back of the E-500 better, where the user's thumb could run it faster.

The mode dial is large, which is a tradition for Olympus, but is stiff and centered on top of the camera. Most users will need a thumb and index finger to set it.

Menu* (6.0)*

The Evolt E-500's menus are a mess. Tools that ought to have low priority are high up in the hierarchy – card format and custom reset are the first two options. The layout shows relatively few options at a time, and some features have puzzling, non-intuitive names.

Ease of Use*(6.0)*

All cameras are designed by engineers for photographers, but it seems as though the E-500 is designed for engineers. It doesn't seem to be designed for either experienced or beginning photographers. We can't imagine what kind of photographer needs fast access to memory card formatting above all other menu functions – putting it up top gives beginners the opportunity to accidentally delete all their images, and it's useless to advanced users, who have probably learned the lesson of prepping their cards at the computer, right after they download their images and back them up.

The Evolt E-500 has some unique options – focus bracketing pops to mind – which beg the question: why not make the basic control better, rather than add an offbeat gimmick? The E-500's autofocus is slow and ineffective in low light – why not improve that, instead of adding bracketing?

The E-500's quirks don't improve its performance. The aspects that are above average feel beside the point, and the aspects that are inferior are often important to shooting.

On the plus side, the E-500's manual is readable, well organized, and exhaustive.

Auto Mode*(6.0)*

Many beginners' cameras call their Auto mode "Simple" or "Easy.' Those modes generally lock the user out of every decision possible – beyond aperture and shutter speed, these Auto modes determine Focus mode, Flash mode, ISO, white balance, and even Burst mode.

The E-500's Automatic mode doesn't do that. Though it sets aperture and shutter speed, it doesn't prevent the user from setting other parameters. The big difference we could find between Automatic and Program mode was that Automatic doesn't allow slow shutter flash sync. Users who want or need a truly automatic experience should set the ISO, white balance, and flash parameters to Auto or choose an appropriate Scene mode.

Movie Mode* (6.0)*

The E-500 does not offer a Movie mode. With a mechanical shutter, the Evolt's sensor is hidden except when exposures are made, so it can't "see" to record movies.

Drive / Burst Mode*(6.0)*

The E-500 offers single-frame shooting and a Burst mode. In Super-High-Quality JPEG shooting, we got 2.5 fps for bursts of five frames. That speed is a little slow – some comparable cameras hit 3 fps. The length of burst is not as good as some competitors, but it may be enough for most users. The burst shortens one frame when shooting RAW and TIFF files. When using high-quality media (such as the SanDisk Extreme III CF card), Olympus claims the E-500 can shoot to the capacity of the memory card. It isn't the weak link when it comes to shooting action with the E-500.

Playback Mode* (6.0)*

Reviewing images on the Evolt E-500 benefits from the excellent LCD. Single images can be viewed at up to 14x magnification. The four-way controller allows the user to navigate through recorded images one at a time, or skipping 10 images forward or back. The E-500 also shows index displays of four, nine, 16, or 25 images at a time, or on a calendar display that highlights days on which images were shot.

E500_PlaybackDisp_FA.gif

The E-500 allows users to compare sections of images at 10x magnification. Its Editing mode allows RAW file conversion and editing of TIFFs and JPEGs. TIFFs and JPEGs can be cropped, their saturation can be shifted, red-eye can be fixed, and they can be converted to black and white or sepia.

The E-500 also has a slide show function that can show single images or index views of multiple shots. Pictures can be deleted one at a time, all at once, or scrolled through to delete selected images.

Custom Image Presets*(6.0)*

The Evolt E-500 sports a bevy of presets that generally set the camera the way an experienced photographer would when taking a standard picture of a given type. The types are: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Children, Sport, High Key, Low Key, Macro, Candle, Sunset, Fireworks, Documents, and Beach and Snow. The modes set aperture and shutter speed. Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sport, and Night Portrait allow users to set white balance, ISO, Burst mode, and compensation for exposure, flash exposure, white balance, and several other settings. The other custom modes lock out those parameters.

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Some compact cameras add more extensive image-processing to Scene modes. The E-500 doesn't – its modes simply automate the parameters that are available in Manual mode.

Manual Control Options

The E-500 offers full manual control of shooting and digital parameters. As we reviewed in the Menu and Ease of Use sections, the controls aren't all quick or convenient, but they are complete.

**Focus

***Auto Focus (6.0)*

Olympus doesn't seem enthusiastic about autofocus. While other manufacturers have improved speed, low-light sensitivity, and the number and placement of sensors, Olympus hasn't. Instead, it introduced focus bracketing.

The E-500 has three AF sensors arranged in a row across the middle of the frame. They sometimes had a hard time focusing in moderate room light – enough to read by – when trained on a subject's eye. We had to use manual focus for our low-light color test, even at the 60 lux setting, because the autofocus system sporadically shot with the focus completely blurred. Such troubles are common with compact cameras, but rare in DSLRs.

The through-the-lens phase difference detection system can operate singly or continuously. In Continuous mode, focus tracking is available. In very low light, the Olympus E-500 shoots out a red assist beam from a lamp on its front.

Manual Focus*(6.0)*

The focus ring on the E-500 is convenient and comfortable, and since it's electronic, the user can choose whether it turns clockwise or counter-clockwise to get to infinity. The viewfinder is small and fairly bright, given the aperture of the standard lens.

It used to be a rule of thumb that bright finders weren't as contrasty as dark ones, and that designers had to balance the two attributes to make a good viewfinder. The E-500 suggests the problem still exists because, though it is bright, it lacks the snap that better viewfinders show when an image comes into focus.

Users can activate a focus bracketing option in the Recording menu to ensure subjects are sharp in one of the three shots.

Metering*(6.0)*

The Evolt E-500 has five metering patterns. They are: A 49-zone Evaluative mode, which takes 49 readings, compares them, and arrives at a logic-based reading; Center-Weighted Average, which takes a single measurement, with an emphasis on the middle; Spot, which measures a small area at the center of the frame; High Key, a mode designed for scenes that are supposed to look bright; and Low Key, for scenes that should look dark.

E500_Metering_FA.gif

We found the various modes work as described. Evaluative modes are supposed to detect backlighting and other tricky situations. The E-500's Evaluative mode beat its Center-Weighted mode in metering backlighting, but it isn't magic – like competing systems, it's designed to compromise, and retains detail in as much of the frame as possible. In many situations, the better choice would be to let a bright background blow out, and keep the subject better exposed. Low and High Key work, but they don't seem to be a big advantage over judicious use of exposure compensation.

Exposure*(6.0) *

The Manual exposure modes on the E-500 are typical and complete. There's full Manual, for control of both aperture and shutter speed; Aperture Priority, which sets a shutter speed to match the user's chosen aperture; Shutter Priority, which sets an aperture to suit the user's aperture; and Program, which sets both, but allows the user to shift between equivalent shutter/aperture combinations. The E-500 allows the users to set exposure compensation in 1/3 stops from 5 EV below to 5 EV above the meter reading, which is a very wide range of compensation.

White Balance*(6.0)*

Olympus has a good attitude about white balance – it indicates the Kelvin temperature of each of its seven presets, including Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, and three fluorescent shades. The E-500 also allows the user to set Kelvin color temperatures directly, and to take "one-touch" white balance readings.

E500_WhiteBalance_FA.gif

The E-500 adds a two-axis white balance compensation control that adjusts red-to-blue and green-to-magenta up and down seven steps. This control adds a significant range of adjustment. The camera has a white balance bracketing mode that shoots three frames in +/- 4, 8, or 12 mired steps.

ISO* (6.0) *

The Evolt E-500 has its share of noise, and part of Olympus's response to that is to shorten its standard ISO range from 100 to 400. Anything above that is "extended," a range that reaches 1600. The settings can be made in increments of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV. The E-500's full range is standard for entry-level DSLRs, with the Pentax *ist standouts offering an extra EV up to 3200.

E500_ISO_FA.gif

Shutter Speed*(6.0)*

The E-500 shutter ranges from 1/4000 to 60 seconds, and offers a Bulb setting in Manual mode. The range is shorter in some Scene modes, where long exposures aren't appropriate. The range is available in 1/3 and 1/2 EV intervals, and it's appropriate for the E-500's likely users.

Aperture*(6.0)*

The E-500 controls aperture electronically, offering 1/3 and 1/2 EV steps. The kit lens, with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle to f/5.6 at telephoto, is pretty dark, and limited for available-light use. Some compact cameras are nearly as dark, but many of them have image stabilization, allowing longer shutter speeds.

Picture Quality / Size Options*(6.0) *

Olympus invites the user into the guts of image size, allowing the compression ratio for High- and Standard-Quality JPEGs to be set at 1/2.7, 1/4, 1/8, or 1/12 – a choice that has big effect on both image quality and file size. As with other special options on the E-500, it would be easier to get excited about if the Evolt delivered better results on the basics – in this case, image quality.

E500_ImageSizeQual_FA.gif

The E-500 writes TIFFs, RAW files, and JPEGs. In addition to HQ and SQ JPEGs, the E-500 offers a SHQ (Super High Quality) image size as the top resolution. SHQ and HQ JPEGs, like TIFFs and RAW files, can only be written at the E-500's full resolution of 3264 x 2448 pixels. SQ JPEGs can be written at the following sizes: 3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, and 640 x 480.

All this amounts to plenty of flexibility in a cumbersome system.

Picture Effects Mode*(6.0)*

The E-500 offers three Color modes and two Monochrome modes. The Color modes - Vivid, Natural, and Muted - vary both saturation and contrast. Vivid boosts both, and Muted cuts both. All three can be customized, with sliders for contrast, saturation, and sharpness. We noticed significant differences between the settings in our color testing. The monochrome settings are Black & White and Sepia. They can be tuned for sharpness, image tint, and color filter effect – the user can set the camera to shoot the way black and white film behaves with colored filters.

Any of the effects modes can be duplicated in post processing on RAW files. Tweaking images on a computer is generally more flexible and easier to evaluate, and it's reversible.

Connectivity

Software (6.0)

The Evolt E-500 ships with Olympus Master software, an integrated package for downloading, organizing, editing, printing, and distributing images. The software is clunky, opening with a home screen that looks like an operating system window full of program icons. Needless animations make it extremely slow on a slow computer, but even on a fast computer, the home screen feels like an extra step, and it's ugly.

The browsing and download functions work, but it's a lot of work to override the default settings. They may appeal to casual shooters who don't take many pictures. The editing functions are also useful. The RAW conversion module is uninspiring – it's the camera controls, but no better. Users who already have Adobe Photoshop Elements with RAW converter probably won't be tempted by the Olympus package.

Jacks, Ports, Plugs (6.0)

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If the E-500 has an exciting port, it's the hot shoe. Olympus offers a range of external flashes, and users will notice a huge difference between the anemic built-in flash and a capable external one. The combined USB/AV port is boring, by comparison. The E-500 is compatible with two infrared remote controls, which are useful for self-portraits and possibly wildlife photography.

Direct Print Options (6.0)

The E-500 is compatible with both PictBridge and DPOF printing technology. PictBridge allows the E-500 to connect directly to a home inkjet printer, and DPOF is a format for saving a print order on the memory card for download to a commercial printer or lab. The E-500 has options to set print size, number of copies, to print index prints, whether to print with borders, to print multiple copies of an image on a single sheet of paper, or to print date and time on the image. It's a full implementation of the two printing standards.

Battery (6.0)

Olympus fit the Evolt E-500 with a 7.2-volt, 1500 mAh lithium-ion battery. The battery lasts a long time between charges, and we find it a superior choice to AA batteries, which are cheaper but don't last nearly as long. The Evolt E-500's battery takes about 5 hours to recharge.

Memory (6.0)

E500_memory.jpg
The E-500 accepts CompactFlash and xD-Picture media cards. CompactFlash is a broadly popular medium for DSLRs. They're cheap, durable, and widely available. Olympus collaborated on the development of xD cards. They are smaller than CompactFlash, which isn't a big deal – either one can hide in a child's fist.

It's possible to copy images between CF and xD cards in the E-500, but images cannot be recorded on both media at the same time.

Other Features*(6.0)*

Sensor Cleaning Setting - Even though Olympus touts its dust control system, the company bows to the reality that some crud must be removed manually.

Supersonic Wave Filter – This dust removal system activates for about 2 seconds when the camera is turned on and can be manually selected to operate when the camera is powered up. The system vibrates a filter 35,000 times per second to shake dust from the cover in front of the sensor.

Comparisons

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Canon Rebel XT - Though the Rebel XT is relatively old and is being replaced, it's worth comparing with the E-500. Both are 8-megapixel DSLRs aimed at amateurs. They're both small and they're both inexpensive. The Canon costs about $125 more online than the E-500, but it has seven autofocus points rather than three and it can shoot much longer bursts – up to 14 in JPEG, as opposed to five on the E-500. The Rebel XT handles better, and has more sensible menus than the E-500. The E-500 performs very well on our resolution test, and its color saturation is much more accurate than the Rebel XT, but its color error is worse. The E-500 has a much better LCD than the Rebel XT, as well.

 

nikon-d50.jpg
Nikon D50 - The Nikon D50 sells for about the same price as the E-500 sells for online. It's a bit larger and heavier than the E-500, with lower resolution at 6 megapixels. The D50's layout, menus, and controls are more efficient than the E-500's, though its LCD display is smaller and a lower-resolution. The D50's color performance is inferior to the E-500's, with worse oversaturation and color error. On the other hand, the D50 handles noise much better than the E-500, and the D50 has much better autofocus, particularly in low light, than the E-500. The E-500 has better white balance controls, and allows setting ISO in 1/3-EV increments, which the D50 lacks.

 

Pentax-ist.jpg
Pentax *ist DL - The **ist DL is a 6-megapixel entry-level DSLR, so it loses the megapixel race with the E-500. It's a bit smaller than the E-500, however, and is less expensive at some online retailers. The **ist DL has a top ISO rating of 3200, and produces usable images at its high range – looking better than the E-500 on that front. The two cameras have similar slow, 3-point autofocus systems that we find frustrating in low light. On the plus side, both cameras have very good LCD displays.

 

Value* (6.0) *

The Olympus Evolt E-500 is awful doggone cheap. It retails on the Olympus web site for $799, but can be found online for $600 including a kit lens, and $650 with two lenses. Consumers considering ultra-zoom models may be tempted by the E-500. Unfortunately for the E-500, many of the ultra-zoom digital cameras come with image stabilization. With the small maximum apertures on the E-500 lenses, lack of stabilization hurts.

Worse, the E-500 doesn't perform well enough. It's slow, and its autofocus system is limited. It has only 3 autofocus sensors, and handles low light poorly. DSLRs should offer more speed than the E-500.

Who It’s For

Point-and-Shooters - The E-500's custom Scene modes suit point and shooters, but the Automatic mode isn't as foolproof as it should be for this market segment.

Budget Consumers - The E-500 is a cheap DSLR, but in many respects, it's not better than even cheaper compacts. If shooting speed is a major factor, and telephoto capability is not, it might be a good choice.

Gadget Freaks - The E-500 lacks the live preview of the Evolt E-330, Olympus's most exciting technology. The E-500 is a little dull for this crowd.

Manual Control Freaks - With full manual controls, including white balance fine-tuning, the E-500 could be an option, but not a convenient one.

Pros/Serious amateurs - The E-500 falls between the cracks for these users, who gravitate toward excellent image quality and excellent usability on one extreme, and very compact units with good image quality on the other. The E-500 is neither good enough nor inexpensive enough to appeal to this group.

Conclusion

The Olympus EVOLT E-500 is a contender among entry-level DSLRs. Its price, its LCD, and some aspects of its imaging performance put it in the running. Like the less-expensive cameras, it has drawbacks – it's slow, like nearly all of them. It comes with a cheap lens. It has worse autofocus than most, and it has crowded, complicated menus. Like all of the Olympus SLRs we've handled – including film cameras – the EVOLT E-500 feels rugged.

We expect the E-500 will be the first DSLR many of its owners will buy. For users who expect to buy a more advanced DSLR at some point, buying the E-500 will mean committing to the Four-Thirds system. That commitment has gotten a bit easier to make this year, with Panasonic's Four-Thirds system DMC-L1 announced and the ground-breaking EVOLT E-330 already on the market. It seems as though Four-Thirds has a future.

Specifications

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Patrick Singleton

Patrick Singleton

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