Olympus SZ-31MR iHS Review
Olympus' new travel-zoom is feature-rich and a lot of fun.
Olympus' new travel zoom, the SZ-31MR, replaces the SZ-30MR in the company's lineup. This update is relatively minor, offering slight changes to the control layout, a new touchscreen rear monitor, and a small increase in speed. The older model's best features have been carried over, such as the giant 24x zoom lens, the 16 megapixel sensor, and the heavily-advertised "Multi-Recording functionality."
The SZ-31MR is sometimes listed with the "iHS" suffix (though the badge is barely noticeable on the retail box), which supposedly stands for "Intelligent High Speed" or "Intelligent High Sensitivity." Fair enough, the camera is fast for its size and it offers an additional ISO level. However, we'll let our lab tests decide whether this "new technology" is more than just marketing.
Design & Usability
The SZ-31MR looks dated—and not in the charming sense.
The SZ-31MR is a fun, simple camera for beginners, but it looks dated. Body design feels like it has been lifted from ten year-old schematics, so it won't be particularly obvious that your new camera is worth $400. Only minor changes have been made since the design of the SZ-30MR, but the most important addition is a touch screen—a welcome, successful implementation.
On the back, although the convenient rubber thumb rest is ideally placed in the top right corner, a video button resides there too—right in the middle. It's almost impossible to pick up the SZ-31 without striking this button. After repeatedly recording your feet by accident, you'll find yourself avoiding this area of the camera entirely, often at the expense of stability and comfort. On the whole, adjustments to the button layout are not for the better. The power button is very inconvenient, requiring extra effort to turn the camera on or off due to recessed placement. The mode dial is smaller than full size and its weak resistance means it will rotate easily in a bag or pocket. We do appreciate the simplified control scheme on the rear panel though, which features a dual-function rotating dial / directional pad. The menu system isn't the worst either, but Olympus has long struggled in this area, with long, laborious tabbed lists. The quick menu overlay is very convenient, however the white balance bar is too ambitious with the processor, and causes annoying hangs that delay input. The extra detail is welcome, but speed and sleek layout just aren't there yet.
Olympus seldom leaves us longing for more in terms of features.
Though this Olympus offers varied and plentiful features, it does not support full PASM control or RAW shooting. The only way to control exposure with any precision is with exposure compensation, which extends two full stops in either direction, at 1/3-stop intervals. Manual ISO can be used to fool the camera into using faster or slower shutter speeds, and aperture is tied directly to focal length, but these are poor replacements for genuine manual control. Beginners will enjoy the Intelligent Auto setting. We spent most of our time in the Program Auto mode, which is more customizable.
Olympus goes all out when it comes to extra filters and effects. Choose from some great burst modes or 17 scene modes that cover everything from basics like Landscape to niche options like Documents. "Magic Filter" is fun too, overlaying digital effects like Watercolor, Drawing, and Pop Art. For editing, you'll find the basics, but there are also treats like Shadow Adjust, which rescues detail from low-lights. The SZ-31 packs a giant 24x zoom barrel too. This lens also achieves a remarkably wide angle at the closest focal length, making this a highly versatile camera by design. Amazingly, the new touchscreen is not terrible. Instead of building an entire interface around this feature, the SZ-31 limits touch control to basic functions like shutter and focus. Other manufacturers take note—this is the way to integrate a touchscreen. We just wish this one was more sensitive.
ISO sensitivity runs from 80-6400, one stop higher than its predecessor. Shots are barely usable at 6400 due to image noise though, so in practice this is a moot point. And don't be fooled by any spec sheets out there—although an "ISO High" setting is available, this simply unlocks high sensitivities for the Auto ISO function. No extended settings exist. Lastly, but certainly not least, a smooth, gorgeous video mode in 1080p is on offer, and its quality holds up even in low light.
Falling into the "zoom ratio trap."
Like so many travel zooms and ultra zooms, the SZ-31 sacrifices sharpness for zoom, resulting in severely degraded image quality. On the plus side, color accuracy is very impressive and barrel distortion is not severe. Compared to other high quality travel-zoom cameras, this one produced below-average sharpness scores though. Detail was best at the closest focal length, and also near the center of the frame, which is quite typical. The SZ-31's color rendition is excellent, though it has only four white balance presets. Noise tests brought more bad news, because though noise rates were low, they were also very ugly. Unfortunately, when we examine the shots for ourselves, it becomes obvious that the SZ-31's smoothing software is too aggressive. Details are harsh and pixelated and edges are thick and unnatural.
Unattractive fringing, which manifests as little blotches of colorful light, is severe at times. At the closest focal length, where resolution is best, fringing is very noticeable in high contrast areas. Once sharpness starts to deteriorate at the middle and far end of the zoom range, the fringing still exists but it starts to blend into the general blur of the scene. We're not sure which is worse, frankly. In the simplest terms, zooming in makes pictures look worse. Next, shooting speed is one of the selling points of this camera, indicated by the "iHS" or "Intelligent High Speed" moniker. The camera didn't disappoint. The fastest full resolution burst is capable of just over 10 frames per second, however the buffer maxes out at 12 shots. Shooting at full resolution only captures 2.5 frames per second, however the camera's twin TruePic V processors can handle 200 shots in a single burst. If you're willing to sacrifice resolution, the High-speed settings are capable of 60 frames per second for 75 shots, or 15 frames per second for 120 shots.
Olympus' new travel-zoom is feature-rich and tons of fun, but it swaps image quality for zoom.
The Olympus SZ-31MR iHS is a competent, feature-rich travel zoom, but too few improvements have been made since the SZ-30 to earn our complete recommendation. Given this model's problems with sharpness, distortion, and noise reduction, we think $400 is too much for the resulting image quality. Noise is a separate issue, but as for sharpness and chromatic aberration, it's no secret why this is happening. If you frequent the site, you have seen this written a million times: longer zoom typically leads to worse image quality. Squeezing 24x into a compact body like this one stretches the lens to its very limit. Sharpness suffers, fringing is common, and images become less convincing. Like so many other travel zooms, it seems like SZ-31 has fallen into the zoom ratio trap.
These drawbacks are especially tragic because there are many benefits of SZ-31 ownership. Handling is comfortable for the most part, save for the poorly placed video button, and burst mode is very flexible, despite the long buffer delay afterward. Color accuracy is also very strong, and we have to admit, some of Olympus' digital filters are a lot of fun. If optical zoom is your top priority, immediately followed by portability, than the SZ-31 is your best bet. But if, like us, you value image quality most, you'll find much better options on the market for less than this camera's asking price.
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