Olympus Stylus 790SW Digital Camera Review

Read an independent, expert review of the Olympus Stylus 790SW digital camera.

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All cameras reproduce colors differently, from the color of blues skies to the shades of skin tones. We test color accuracy by photographing an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker test chart, and comparing the known colors of the chart with the colors the camera reproduces. The ColorChecker consists of 24 tiles of commonly photographed colors from around the color spectrum. The image below shows the actual colors of the ColorChecker next to the colors the camera reproduces. The outside squares show the colors the Olympus 790SW reproduces, the inside squares show the actual colors of the ColorChecker corrected for exposure error, and the inner rectangles show the ColorChecker colors under an even exposure. We photograph the chart under tungsten lights using the tungsten white balance preset, as the 790SW does not have a manual white balance option.


If you look at the outside squares compared to the inside squares, a number of them are significantly different than their true colors. Especially inaccurate are the highly saturated yellows, greens, and blues on the third row. The graph below shows this information more quantitatively. The ideal colors of the ColorChecker are placed on the color spectrum as squares, and the corresponding colors the 790SW reproduces are shown as circles. The lengths of the lines connecting the squares and circles show the color error.


The graph shows how many of the colors are shifted from what they should be, especially yellows, greens, and blues. This is a significant percentage of the color spectrum that is rendered inaccurately, and will affect photos ranging from outdoor landscapes to family portraits. Blue skies will be shifted purple, and some skin tones may appear greenish.


Resolution*(5.06) *

With 7.1 megapixels, the Olympus 790SW isn’t trying to win the resolution race against similarly-priced high-megapixel cameras. To see how the 790SW’s resolution stands up to the competition, we put the camera to the test by photographing an industry standard resolution test chart and varying focal length and exposure settings. We ran the images through Imatest to determine the ideal settings that produced the sharpest image. Imatest measures resolution in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), which corresponds to the number of equally-spaced alternating black and white lines that can fit across the picture frame before becoming blurred.


Click to view the high resolution image

We found the 790SW to be sharpest at ISO 80, f/5, and a focal length of 20mm. The camera resolves 1487 lw/ph horizontally with 1.6 percent undersharpening, and 1376 lw/ph vertically with 5.1 percent undersharpening. Despite the lack of sharpening, there is still a little image artifacting in the form of color moiré, and some ghosting lines (white lines along edges of high contrast). However, the camera maintains good detail up to the very edge of the image. Overall, the camera is significantly below average in resolving power for a 2007 point-and-shoot. It didn’t perform nearly as well as its predecessor, the Olympus Stylus 770SW.


**Noise – Manual ISO ***(6.85) *

All digital camera sensors produce "noise," which is extraneous electric signal that appears in photographs as sandy looking dots or splotchy patches. It is similar to the static on your TV or the background hiss in your stereo. We measure noise levels in cameras by photographing our test chart under bright, even studio light, at all ISO sensitivities. Noise levels are inherently higher when the ISO sensitivity is increased.

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The graph above shows the noise levels for the 790SW. Noise levels are very low all the way up to ISO 400, but then reach very high levels at ISO 800 and 1600. This is an advantage of not cramming too many pixels onto the sensor, because more pixels often mean more noise. Unfortunately, this camera's noise (like many other Olympus point-and-shoots) is very colored, splotchy, and ugly. There are blue and yellow colored patches, and small sandy spots as well. Keep this camera set to ISO 400 or below as much as possible.



**Noise – Auto ISO ***(3.59) *

We also photographed our test chart under the same studio lights with the camera set to Auto ISO. At ISO 200, the 790SW produces noise that drowns out 1 percent of the image. This is very good, and means you can usually trust the Auto ISO setting to keep noise levels as low as possible.


**White Balance ***(3.68) *

White balance has a huge impact on color accuracy, because a camera needs to be able to adjust its colors for different kinds of light sources. Tungsten light, for example, is very yellow, while many fluorescent lights are bluish. The 790SW has no manual white balance, but it has an Auto setting and white balance presets, found in the Function menu.  To test white balance, we photograph our test chart under four different kinds of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor shade, and tungsten.

Auto (3.51)

Set to Auto white balance, the 790SW’s accuracy is less than stellar. All four types of light were almost equally inaccurate, especially tungsten light. Unfortunately, the presets aren’t much better.

*Preset (3.68)

*The camera's most accurate setting under white fluorescent lights is Fluorescent "3." Outdoor Cloudy and Tungsten are extremely inaccurate. You might as well leave this camera on Auto to save time, because the presets don’t help much.


**Still Life Sequences

**Click to view the high resolution images.


Low Light ***(4.79) *

Because all your photos won’t be taken in ideally lit scenes, we test camera performance in low light. To do this, we photograph the ColorChecker at light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux, and measure the color accuracy and noise levels. 60 lux corresponds roughly to the amount of light illuminating a room with two soft lamps in it, 30 lux approximates a room lit by a single 40-watt bulb, 15 lux is similar to the light given off by a TV screen, and 5 lux is like watching a video iPod in a dark closet. All shots are taken at ISO 1600.

The 790SW has huge trouble exposing properly in low light. It can barely get an even exposure at 30 lux, and anything darker will be underexposed, as you can see in the ColorChecker images above. This is a major problem, because many similarly-priced cameras have no trouble exposing at least down to 15 lux. At 30 and 60 lux, color accuracy suffers a bit, and noise levels are fairly high. This camera does not shoot well in low light.

We also test long exposure performance, but only at ISO 400 so we can compare each camera accurately. In Night Scene mode, the 790SW takes exposures as long as 4 seconds, but ISO cannot be controlled. In Auto mode, the camera can take ISO 400 shots as long as 0.5 seconds. At this exposure, color accuracy is just as good as in bright light, and noise levels are quite low.


**Dynamic Range ***(6.36) *

Dynamic range is an important image quality factor because it describes the range of tonal values a camera can discern. In other words, a camera with good dynamic range can see more shades of gray than another camera. This is especially helpful for scenes with high contrast, such as wedding photos (white dress and black tux), and sunny outdoor landscapes (bright highlights and dark shadows). We test dynamic range by photographing a backlit Stouffer test chart at all ISO sensitivities. The Stouffer chart consists of a long row of rectangles, varying from brightest white to darkest black. The more rectangles the camera can distinguish, the better its dynamic range.


The 790SW has very good dynamic range at ISO 80 and 100, then drops steadily up to high ISO. This is likely associated with the fact that the camera has low noise levels at low ISO settings, which helps dynamic range because noise can drown out detail in dark areas of an image. Overall, the 790SW performs significantly better than the yearly average, and barely edges out its predecessor, the 770 SW.


**Speed/Timing **– All speed tests are conducted using an Olympus 256MB xD-Picture Card, with the camera set to SHQ, unless otherwise noted.

Startup to First Shot (8.2)

The 790SW takes 1.8 seconds to start up before taking its first shot.

Shot-to-Shot (9.0)

In Burst mode, the 790SW takes 4 SHQ photos, each 1 second apart. In HI mode, the camera switches to the much lower resolution SQ1, taking shots every 0.25 seconds for approximately 42 photos.

*Shutter-to-Shot (9.0)

*The 790SW has no measurable lag time when the shutter is held down halfway and prefocused, but waits 0.7 seconds to autofocus when not prefocused.

Processing (5.8)

The camera takes 2.1 seconds to process one 3.0 MB SHQ shot taken at ISO 125. This is a rather long time; you’ll have to wait for the little red light to stop blinking.

**Video Performance ***(2.10) *

*Bright Light – 3000 lux

*While virtually all digital cameras shoot rudimentary video compared to camcorders, Movie modes can be a lot of fun to play with, and can produce video that is perfectly fine for streaming on video sharing sites like YouTube or Google Video. We test video performance by recording footage of our color test charts under bright, even studio lights set to 3000 lux. The 790SW has very poor color error under bright tungsten studio lights, but low noise. It is very common for cameras to have strong color error when shooting under tungsten lights and set to Auto white balance, but the 790SW is even worse than usual.

Low Light – 30 lux

We also test video performance under less-than-ideal shooting conditions. At 30 lux, the 790SW also has tremendous color error, but again, fairly low noise. It can, however, expose properly in such low light.


We record footage of our resolution test chart to determine the sharpness of cameras in Movie mode. Video resolution is always worse than still image resolution because video is shot in Standard Definition, which consists of only 640 x 480 pixels. The camera resolves 239 lw/ph horizontally with 6.6 percent undersharpening, and 260 lw/ph with 34 percent oversharpening. This is way too much oversharpening, and adds tons of image artifacting to the video footage. Notice the jagged edges and abundant image moiré in the crops below.


*We take cameras out of the lab to capture some motion footage outside. When shooting moving cars and pedestrians, the 790SW has many issues. The motion is incredibly jerky, edges look jagged, there is abundant moiré, and the exposure changes very abruptly. However, color looks a little undersaturated, but decent for the most part. Overall, the video looks very ugly, though slightly better than the video of its predecessor, the 770 SW.




There isn’t room on the Olympus Stylus 790SW for an optical viewfinder. When swimming underwater and taking pictures of fish and coral, it’s doubtful anyone would want to use an optical viewfinder rather than the larger LCD.

The LCD has 100 percent accuracy. The refresh rate is a bit slow, however; when the camera is moved, lights leave a streaked trail and colors slide a bit, too; it looks like the view on a camera phone at times.

After a picture is taken, the view blacks out for about a half-second and then the recorded image appears on the screen for about two seconds so users can check it out. The display information can be changed on the 790SW, something that couldn’t be done on the older 770SW.

The info can be changed via the designated button to the lower left of the multi-selector. The screen can be blank, display a rule-of-thirds grid and exposure info, exposure info with a histogram, or exposure info only.

The exposure info displayed on the screen includes Exposure mode, shadow adjustment, Flash mode, white balance, ISO, drive, image quality, memory source, or number of images or video recording time left. When the shutter release button is pushed halfway and the exposure is locked, the selected shutter speed and aperture also appear.

LCD Screen*(7.75)*

The 790SW has the same size 2.5-inch HyperCrystal LCD as the 770SW. It also has the same 230,000-pixel resolution, twice as much as the oldest 720SW camera in Olympus’s waterproof line. The screen on both the 790SW and 770SW can be seen from above, below, and side to side, but the 790SW has a wider 176-degree viewing angle, up from the 770SW’s 140-degree viewing angle.

The 790SW advertises anti-glare technology, but it doesn’t seem to work very well. Or maybe it just works indoors. It was difficult to see the LCD at all outside. It looked washed out, but that might have been because of the overexposed images caused by poor metering. The problem is somewhat alleviated when the LCD brightness is boosted.

The LCD brightness can be adjusted in the Setup menu on a scale of +/- 2 in full steps. Make sure to adjust the brightness before venturing outside, because it’s hard to get to this obscure place in the menu when the screen is difficult to see.


This point-and-shoot has the same weak and spotty flash as the Olympus 770SW. The published specs claim it can reach 0.66 to 12.5 feet in wide and 2 to 8.5 feet in telephoto when the ISO is set to 800, so the flash is actually much weaker than it sounds. Most manufacturers publish flash effectiveness specs using ISO 100 or lower, so Olympus is really trying to pull a fast one by throwing in an odd variable.

If the ISO is set to 80 or 100 (which it should be because of the higher noise levels that correlate with high ISO settings), then the flash is hardly effective beyond an arm’s length. Although subjects within an arm’s length are illuminated, harsh shadows frame them. It takes the flash about five seconds to recover from a shot before taking the next picture.

Pictures using the flash look terribly unnatural. There is a bright spot near the upper portion of the frame, and the corners and left and right sides of the image are darker than the rest. The flash is best avoided. There is an Available Light scene mode that bumps up the ISO and disables the flash, but it also shrinks the image size to 2048 x 1536 pixels, adds ugly noise and leads to overall poor image quality.

The flash be turned off, but there are a few Flash modes in case it is completely unavoidable: On, Auto, and Red-Eye Reduction. There isn’t a Slow Sync mode or flash exposure adjustment like on some other digital cameras. For instance, the Canon PowerShot SD750 has slow sync options and the Canon PowerShot A570 IS adds flash exposure adjustment.

The Olympus Stylus 790SW has a fairly unique solution to illuminating subjects in Macro mode. Most digital cameras can’t effectively light close-up subjects with the flash because it is either too bright or the lens casts long shadows. The 790SW fixes this by offering a bright LED on the front and an LED Super Macro mode, which lights up the scene without overpowering it.


The Olympus 790SW has the same internal 3x optical zoom lens as the 720 and 770 models. It remains sealed inside the body and does not extend from the camera. The placement isn’t smart; it’s located on the front where the left fingers wrap around the camera body.

The lens measures 6.7-20.1mm, equivalent to a 38-114mm lens in the 35mm format. The tiny lens is composed of 10 lenses in 8 groups with 3 aspherical lenses. It has maximum apertures of f/3.5 in wide and f/5 in telephoto.

Olympus’s older 770SW had two buttons to control the lens, but the new 790SW has a single rocker-type control. Pushing the left side of the rocker zooms out, and pushing the right side zooms in. The rocker is fairly sensitive; it stops at nine focal lengths when zooming in and zooming out. There is a big jump from its widest focal length to the next step, though the rest of the range seems well represented.

The camera has a 5x digital zoom that should be avoided, as it degrades image quality. This can be turned on and off. The Fine Zoom function uses optical zoom along with image cropping to allow users to zoom up to 14x. According to Olympus, this function doesn’t impact image quality.

Design / Layout

Model Design / Appearance*(8.75) *

The Olympus Stylus 790SW is small and thin, but certainly not frail. It has a sturdy metal body that looks more functional than sexy. Despite this, Olympus calls it "a must-have vacation and party accessory" in its Aug. 23, 2007 product release. It comes in five colors: silver, black, blue, lime green, and orange. More manufacturers are offering point-and-shoot cameras in multiple colors to tailor to the market of consumers who want to personalize everything they own. The 790SW is the first waterproof camera to offer colors other than black and silver, but there is stiff competition from less sturdy cameras, like the Fujifilm Z10fd, which comes in five colors, and the Kodak V1003, which comes in nine colors.

Size / Portability*(7.5)

*The 790SW has a small and pocket-friendly body with mostly flat surfaces. The buttons protrude slightly, as they should, and a finger grip and the rim around the lens stick out a millimeter or two. These features won’t stop it from being stuffed into a pocket, though.

The camera measures slightly larger than its predecessor at 3.7 x 2.4 x 0.84 inches, but weighs much less at 4.8 ounces unloaded. The older 770SW weighed 5.5 ounces without the battery and memory card and felt heavy for its tiny size.

There are two small holes on the right side for the included wrist strap. It will require excellent eyesight and a lot of patience to thread the strap because the holes are so tiny. The 790SW is small and light enough to dangle from a wrist.

Olympus made this camera incredibly sturdy so it can be taken anywhere. It can be frozen to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, so it can take pictures on most mountains and in frosty conditions. It can be dropped from up to 5 feet, so even toddlers can be trusted to run about with it. It is also waterproof up to 10 feet, so if said toddlers accidentally drop it in the toilet, sink, pool, or puddle, then the $299 digital camera will still work.

Handling Ability* (7.0)*

While portability and durability were given priority when this point-and-shoot was designed, handling seems to have been an afterthought. The body’s measurements are small and its weight light, however, so it can be handled with one or two hands.

The right fingers wrap around the camera and grasp a thin and smooth sliver of chrome that protrudes ever-so-slightly. The index finger rests on the shutter release button much of the time, while the thumb rests on the zoom controls or on the protruding mode dial below it. The dial is a nice addition; it wasn’t included on Olympus’s older models, and its debut makes it easier to handle and find exposure modes.

To aid in underwater handling, Olympus sells a bright red floating wrist strap for $15. If users drop the camera while snorkeling, the camera will sink. The strap sends the camera floating toward the surface, like a buoy.

There are several weak handling features, so the Olympus 790SW isn’t very comfortable for long photo shoots.

Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(7.5)


The buttons and their placement have been completely redesigned on the Olympus Stylus 790SW. The 720 and 770 both have chaotic, cluttered designs and use a traditional bowl-like multi-selector. The new 790SW’s buttons are more organized. There is also a mode dial, a welcome addition because it can be used instead of the confusing menu system.

The zoom control is a single oval shape that rocks side to side, unlike the 770’s dual square-shaped buttons. The 790 has a redesigned multi-selector, too; it’s shaped in a cross with an OK/function button at the intersection and icons at each arm of the cross. From the top and moving clockwise, icons are Exposure Compensation, Flash, Self-Timer, and Macro . The icons are embossed into the chrome, so they are hard to see.

In the small space between each arm of the cross-like multi-selector is a small circular button. From the upper left and moving clockwise, they access the following functions: Menu, Playback/Print, Shadow Adjustment/Delete, and Display/Info/Flashlight.

On top of the camera are the power and shutter release buttons. The power button is recessed into the camera body, while the shutter release protrudes slightly. The shutter release has to be pushed longer than one would think before the picture is taken. If the button is only tapped, it will not take a picture.

The buttons are small but overall are still an improvement to the 790SW’s predecessors. The mode dial is easy to access, the multi-selector is easier to navigate, and the design is cleaner.


The menu system on the Olympus 790 is confusing and therefore best avoided. There are options located in multiple locations and the standard menu system layout is horrendous. We’ll get to that. First let’s discuss the Function menu, found by pushing the button in the middle of the multi-selector. It gives a nice live preview of the options in its background and is much easier to access than the Standard menu.

The Standard menu is accessed by pressing a dedicated button in the upper left quadrant of the multi-selector. It opens to a horizontally-striped background and options scattered across the screen: Camera menu is in the middle with reset to the left, Image Quality above, Setup to the right, Silent mode to the lower right, and Scene directly below it.

The Camera menu isn’t very elaborate. It has two nondescript numbered tabs on the left side that can be scrolled to, but are only useful if users remember what options are located there.

The Setup menu has a lot of useless options. It also has numbered folders that don’t really aid in navigation.

The menus are lengthy and the font is old-fashioned and all in caps. Options are paired with unintuitive icons, as well. Avoid the menus if possible.

Ease of Use* (7.0)*

The addition of a mode dial makes this camera much easier to use than its predecessors. With that control, even beginners can easily get to the Movie mode without digging through a Scene menu. The menu system is best avoided; it is confusing with the dual options in the Function and Camera menus, and the initial screen of options before the Main menu. There is a Guide mode on the dial that is meant to tutor beginners. This menu is very wordy, but also very helpful for those who are willing to dive into it.


Auto Mode*(6.5)*

There is an Auto mode on the Olympus 790SW, but it shares a position on the mode dial with the Program mode. The mode can be switched by entering the Function menu. The Program mode is the Olympus 790SW’s most manually-oriented mode. Once the Auto mode is selected, manual options disappear. The image quality and shadow adjustment can be changed, but that’s about it. Face detection is automatically activated, but it doesn’t work very well.

Movie Mode*(4.25)*

Movie mode is easily accessible on the mode dial, but should generally be avoided because of its poor quality. It records 640 x 480 pixels at 30-frames per second (fps), but only for 10 seconds at a time. The camera records 320 x 240 and 160 x 120 pixel motion JPEG video files until the memory card is full, but only at 15 fps. Users are forced to choose between very short but detailed movies or long choppy ones. The resolution isn’t impressive, either. The footage shows jagged edges and lots of artifacts from poor compression. See the Testing/Performance section for more details.

Audio is recorded with the clips, but it isn’t very good. Even when one person is speaking and the rest of the room is quiet, the sound comes out muffled on the camera.

The optical zoom is locked in the Movie mode, like most other compact digital cameras, but the digital zoom is fully available. Also available in Movie mode are the white balance, metering, and shadow adjustment features (although metering is disabled when shadow adjustment is activated). Exposure compensation, macro, and self-timer are available, too.

Besides the artifacts and unimpressive resolution, the Olympus 790SW’s movies have lots of image moiré. I recorded a video of my toddler son talking in front of a bright window. There were areas so bright in the background that they were blown out, but they caused greenish vertical streaks and bright horizontal streaks that were very distracting.

Movies can be played back frame by frame, normally, and fast-forwarded and rewound. There is an "edit" portion of the menu, but it can only create index prints from frames in the movie.

The 790SW adds the 30 fps VGA movies, as the 770SW had only 15 fps available in its three resolution options. This is a small step up, but is still a few large leaps behind what other manufacturers are offering. Even the waterproof Pentax Optio W30 has a better Movie mode; its 640 x 480-pixel, 30 fps movies can be recorded until the memory card is full and its zoom and shake reduction remain fully functional. The W30 also sells for $299.

Drive / Burst Mode*(5.25)*

The camera defaults to the single drive, but it can be changed to Burst mode in the Function and Camera menus. The Continuous burst can take pictures at a rate of 1 fps, but the length of the burst depends on the quality of the image. At the top resolution, it stops at four shots and then takes about four seconds to recover for the next burst. Most digital cameras can move faster than this at full resolution – and can last longer. The $299 Sony T70 can take two pictures each second for up to 100 shots in a row.

Users can speed up the burst with the High-Speed burst mode, but will have to do so at the expense of high quality pictures. The burst can go as fast as 4 fps, but only at a reduced resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels. The published specs claim the burst shoots 3.5 fps for 11 frames, but it went for 42 shots when we used it. The reduced resolution makes for borderline decent 4 x 6-inch prints.

The bottom of the multi-selector turns on the self-timer, which delays the shutter for 12 seconds.

Playback Mode*(8.0)

*The Playback mode can be accessed through the Playback/Print button or the mode dial. The mode dial makes it easy to find, while the button makes it easier to quickly return to shooting.

Pictures and videos can be displayed one at a time or on index screens of four, nine, 16, or 25. They can also be displayed on a calendar, with the first image taken on each day displayed on the monthly calendar page. Pushing the wide side of the zoom control brings up the calendar page view, and pushing the other side zooms in up to 10x.

Pushing on the sides of the multi-selector scrolls through pictures one by one, and pushing the top and bottom jumps 10 images. There is a quick deletion feature using the button in the lower right corner of the back. This deletes one image at a time. Users can select batches of images to delete or erase all pictures at once.

The menu has a surprising number of options. Users can view slide shows with four different kinds of transitions and even obnoxious background music (best turned off, in our opinion). Users can also edit pictures, create print orders, apply Perfect Fix technology, add images as favorites, erase, and access the Setup and Silent modes. There are options to protect and rotate files, along with a feature that adds a 5-second voice memo.

The editing portion of the menu is where most options are available.

Shadow adjustment and red-eye fix features are also available from the Perfect Fix portion of the menu.

When a movie is selected, this Editing menu is shortened to include only an "index" option, which creates a type of motion print with frames pulled automatically from the clip.

Overall, the Olympus Stylus 790SW’s Playback mode is great, especially considering the wide viewing angles and great resolution on the 2.5-inch LCD screen.

Custom Image Presets*(8.0)

*The Olympus Stylus 790SW has 27 Recording modes, and most of them are Scene modes. There is a designated "SCN" position on the mode dial that pulls up the entire Scene menu. Users can scroll through the Scene modes and view their titles and explanations. For instance, the Underwater Macro mode is "ideal for taking underwater shots close to subjects. Requires underwater housing depth under 3m." This blurb is placed next to an image of a tropical fish.


The following modes are available from this menu: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self Portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select 1, Shoot & Select 2, Beach & Snow, Underwater Snapshot, Underwater Wide 1, Underwater Wide 2, and Underwater Macro. There is also a Digital Image Stabilization mode on the dial, designated by a shaking hand icon. Don’t let the title fool you; this isn’t optical image stabilization system. On this camera, Olympus just uses a combination of image parameters that reduce blur: high ISO, fast shutter speed, and flash. This may reduce blur, but pictures don’t look as good as those that come from cameras with optical image stabilization.

Control Options

Manual Control Options

There aren’t many manual controls. It is designed to be a camera for those on the go: climbing mountains, paddling rivers, traversing continents, and running through rainstorms. For those quickie photo moments, most users won’t stop and think about manual white balance (which doesn’t exist on this camera) or setting the shutter speed (also not an option).


Auto Focus (6.75)

The Olympus 790SW’s autofocus system is slow. When users push the shutter release button down, it takes about 0.7 seconds for the camera to actually record the picture. By then, the rare fish you saw will be hidden in the kelp again. This camera uses a CCD contrast detection autofocus system, so it only gets worse when the lights are low and there isn’t much contrast to work with. There is no manual focus to fall back on in these situations.

A small white bracket shows where the camera is focusing. It chooses the right subject most of the time, even if it is off-center.

Face detection can be turned on in the Camera menu under the AF mode option. It seems to recognize only one face at a time – and sometimes it thinks boxes and other items are faces. It doesn’t work well and only slows the autofocus system down even more. The older 770 didn’t have face detection, but this system isn’t a big step up, anyway.

The tiny 3x lens and the camera’s autofocus system combine to focus as close as 7.9 inches in Macro mode when the lens is zoomed out. When zoomed in, the lens can only focus as close as 11.8 inches. Normally, it can focus from 19.7 inches.

There are Macro, Super Macro, and Super Macro with Flashlight modes. The latter is the most interesting. This is a fairly unique concept. Almost all compact digital cameras’ flashes are ineffective when shooting close-up subjects; this is true for the Stylus 790SW, too. Most cameras have no solution to the problem, though. The 790SW solves the lighting issue by firing its own light: the LED flashlight isn’t bright enough to blow out subjects like the flash does, but is bright enough to illuminate them. The flashlight stays on during the shot. The camera doesn’t have a true autofocus assist lamp that turns off before the shot; this LED stays on until manually turned off.

*Manual Focus (0.0)

*As expected, there is no manual focus on this digital camera. This isn’t surprising for a point-and-shoot that fits in a pocket.


The 790SW has the same ISO range as the older 770SW. The Stylus 790SW has Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 options available at full resolution. These choices can be found in the Function menu or, with a few more strokes of the thumb, in the Camera menu. Bumping up the ISO allows users to turn off the spotty and weak flash, but introduces signal noise from the CCD into the image. There are more details in the test section of this review, but the basic idea is that ISO settings beyond ISO 400 have way too much noise.


There is a so-called Digital Image Stabilization mode on the mode dial, but it doesn’t involve floating optics or shifting sensors. It simply tells the camera to increase the ISO and quicken the shutter speed, which reduces blur but adds noise. In addition, this mode often uses the flash, which instantly makes pictures look bad.

White Balance*(6.25)

*Also available in the separate Function and Camera menus is the white balance. There is an Automatic setting along with Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, and three Fluorescent presets. There isn’t a Manual white balance mode, which is typical of mostly automated point-and-shoot digital cameras. It would have been helpful, though – especially when venturing underwater or in other strangely-lit circumstances.


We tested the accuracy of the white balance; the results are in the Testing/Performance section of this review. Let’s just say that neither the automatic nor the preset modes are that reliable, causing poor overall color accuracy.


*The exposure can be easily adjusted on a +/- 2 scale with a push of the top of the multi-selector. Most cameras show a scale along the bottom of the LCD and show a live preview, but the Olympus 790SW shows three or four thumbnail previews – each with a 1/3 EV increase or 1/3 decrease from the thumbnail next to it. Users can scroll through the tiny previews and pick the one of their choice. This is an interesting but still effective choice.

For those few point-and-shooters who want to monitor the exposure closely, a histogram can be viewed by pushing the display button.



*The camera’s metering control is located in the Function and Camera menus, but it only works when the shadow adjustment option is turned off. There is also a Spot mode available in the menu. When the face detection autofocus option is activated, the metering system bases its measurements on the detected face.

The metering system seemed to have problems in Movie mode; when objects moved across the frame, the exposure flickers.

Shutter Speed*(0.0)*

The Olympus Stylus 790SW has an automated shutter speed range of 4 to 1/1000 of a second. Most of the time, the camera doesn’t flip the shutter any slower than a half-second, but it does slow things down in the Night scene mode. When shutter speeds slow beyond a half-second, the noise reduction system automatically kicks in.


The aperture of this tiny lens isn’t very wide. It maxes out at f/3.5, a few stops smaller than the typical f/2.8 found on most compact digital cameras. When the lens is zoomed in, the aperture shrinks even more, down to f/5. This doesn’t allow as much light to hit the image sensor, so users have to compensate by activating the awful flash or increasing the ISO sensitivity.

Image Parameters

Picture Quality / Size Options*(6.75)*

The Stylus 790SW pairs its TruePic III image processor with a 7.1-megapixel, 1/2.33-inch CCD image sensor. The image sensor allows users to take pictures in the following sizes: 3072 x 2304, 2560 x 1920, 2304 x 1728, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480, and 1920 x 1080 (widescreen). The options are available via the "image quality" portion of the initial Recording menu screen. There are no compression options. In the Playback menu, pictures can be resized to 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels.


The JPEG images come in many sizes, but the resolution doesn’t always stay as large as initially set. The resolution automatically shrinks when certain functions are accessed. When the high-speed burst is activated, the resolution shrinks to 2048 x 1536 pixels. The Candle and Available Light scene modes shrink to that image size, as well, and the Auction mode only takes pictures at 640 x 480-pixel resolution. The camera warns users when it has changed the resolution: "Record Mode Changed" appears in red letters across the top of the LCD screen when the resolution is changed without the user manually doing it.

Picture Effects Mode* (7.0)

*There are several effects that can be applied to pictures taken using the Olympus Stylus 790SW. All are found in the Playback mode. Black & White, Sepia, Vivid, and Neutral color effects can be added, along with 13 frames and several labels appropriate for birthdays, holidays, and romance. Calendar layouts are also available, and can be directly printed from the camera. Although there are more color options on most Canon PowerShot digital cameras, this is still a step up from most budget cameras. The additional frames, labels, and calendars are a nice touch, too.

Connectivity / Extras


*Software (8.5)

*The Stylus 790SW comes with Olympus Master 2 Software that is compatible with Windows and Macintosh operating systems. For Windows users, there is also a trial version of video editing software. This software program took about 10 minutes to install from the CD-ROM and another few minutes to load pictures from other folders on the computer.

The software has been improved from previous models. The program has several easily accessible buttons across the top of the window: Transfer, Slide Show, E-mail, Print Menu, Edit, RAW, Panorama, Option, Update/Language, Quick Guide, and Help.

Pictures and videos can be browsed by folder or album, and the size of the images can be adjusted to small or large. Pictures can also be viewed by the calendar date, like on the camera.

Editing features are abundant on the Olympus Master Software. There are options to resize, crop, insert text, brightness & contrast, color balance, tone curve, gamma, auto tone correction, hue & saturation, monochrome & sepia, sharpness & blur, distortion correction, and red-eye correction. These all work well and have great previews that allow users to judge the effects of their actions on the pictures.

The Master Software is certainly among the best software offerings provided with digital cameras. Most included software has decent browsing options, but only about a half-dozen editing tools. The Olympus 790SW’s software goes above and beyond.

Jacks, ports, plugs (9.75)

The 790SW has a jack to rule them all. The USB and AV cables fit into it, along with the optional 4.8-volt DC-in power adaptor. There is a rubber seal around it that effectively does its job. The rubber seal also protects the camera from dust.

Direct Print Options (6.5)

The Olympus 790SW is designed with direct printing in mind. Frames and labels can be added to make cards, and calendar layouts are available so pages can be printed straight from the camera. It is PictBridge-compatible and can be connected with the included USB cable and the sealed port on the right side of the body.

Battery (5.25)

The Olympus Stylus 790SW comes with a lithium-ion LI-42B battery pack that is small and weak. Its published specs claim it lasts 220 shots, but it doesn’t seem to last that long. There is a two-level battery indicator, but once it appears to be half-full it lasts only about a dozen more shots before shutting down. The lack of warning makes it tough to have adequate time to charge the battery. The camera comes with a battery charger that consists of a charger and a separate cable that plugs into an outlet. This isn’t as convenient as wall-mount-type chargers.

*Memory (4.0)


The 790SW has 14.7 MB of internal memory that can only hold three full-resolution images. More memory will be necessary. Olympus uses xD-Picture cards, which it helped to develop along with Fujifilm. Fujifilm has been phasing out xD-only cameras this year, replacing them with SD/xD compatible models. Olympus, however, remains true to the xD-Picture media, which is generally slower and smaller than competing types of memory. The 790SW accepts up to 2 GB, while most digital cameras accept up to 4 or 8 GB of memory. Even worse, Olympus requires users purchase Olympus-branded xD-Picture cards to use the Panorama mode.

Other features*(8.5)*

Shockproof – If toddlers or other careless, accident-prone people will handle the camera, then this is the one you want to have. The 790SW has a metal body and a floating circuit board that help it absorb shock from up to a 5-foot fall. This extra durability is a welcome feature and should be included on more digital cameras.

Waterproof – With a host of rubber seals and gaskets, the Olympus Stylus 790SW is waterproof, like its predecessors. Like the older 720SW, it can go underwater up to 10 feet for 30 minutes. This is a step down from the Olympus 770SW though, which can travel to depths of 33 feet.

Freezeproof – If you’ve ever ventured into the cold with a compact digital camera and tried to take a picture, you’ll understand how great this feature is. The 790SW is freezeproof, meaning it can take pictures in temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius). It drains the battery faster, but it’s possible. The camera can also operate in temperatures up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. And if it’s accidentally left on the dashboard of the car in the hot sun, don’t fret; it can be stored in places up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shadow Adjustment Technology – This feature is activated from the button in the lower right corner of the back. This is ideal for keeping details in shadows, even on bright sunny days. This seems to work well, although the metering cannot be manually adjusted when this feature is activated.

Panorama Mode – The Panorama mode only functions if an Olympus-branded xD-Picture card is inserted into the card slot. Up to 10 frames can be lined up, but they are not actually stitched together until loaded into the included Olympus Master Software.

Underwater Housing – If users want to explore deeper than 10 feet, the optional PT-041 case can take the 790SW there. At $299, it costs just as much as the camera, but can travel to 130 feet (40 meters).

Perfect Shot Preview – This feature is somewhat hidden in the Guide mode. At the top of the wordy menu is "Shoot with effects preview." This leads to a list of effects that can be seen prior to the shot: zoom, exposure, color (white balance), metering, and movie smoothness. This shows four small previews of options on the LCD screen so users can see potential choices side by side.

Flashlight – The handy Olympus 790SW doubles as a flashlight with an LED on the front. When the LED button is held down on the back, and the LED is turned on in the Setup menu, the LED shines for 30 seconds or until the button is pushed a second time.

Overall Impressions


*At $299, the Olympus Stylus 790SW is the least expensive camera in the manufacturer’s waterproof line. The 720 and 770 models sold for $399. The Pentax W30 sells for the same price. If a waterproof body isn’t a priority, there are plenty of better-looking and better-performing cameras on the market for much less. Consumers should consider purchasing a budget camera with a separate underwater housing; the total cost will likely be less than $300 and the pictures will turn out better.


Olympus Stylus 770SW – This digital camera is also waterproof, but is more expensive at $379. The 770SW can go deeper underwater, up to 33 feet, and can be crushed with up to 220 pounds of weight. It has 7.1 megapixels and many of the same exposure modes and settings found on the newer 790SW. The Stylus 770SW has a 2.5-inch LCD screen and a 3x optical zoom lens that functions internally. The 770SW comes in three colors: silver, bronze, and royal blue. Its specs are slightly different; it doesn’t have face detection and can’t change the display info on the LCD screen.

Olympus Stylus 720SW – This point-and-shoot was the first in Olympus’ line of waterproof digital cameras. It is outfitted with many of the same components, including 7.1 megapixels and an internal 3x optical zoom lens. It also has a 2.5-inch LCD screen, but with a lower 115,000-pixel resolution. The 720SW was introduced prior to the era of fashion accessory cameras, so it only comes in a silver housing. It is not freezeproof, but can be dropped from 5 feet and dunked to 10 feet like the 790SW. It originally retailed for $399 but can be found online for less than $325.

Pentax Optio W30 – This 7.1-megapixel camera comes in a body that resembles a bar of soap. It is waterproof up to 10 feet for two hours, but doesn’t have much going for it in terms of picture quality. When we tested it in our lab, the resolution wasn’t great, there was too much noise, the dynamic range was unimpressive, shutter lag was present, and pictures in low light were underexposed. The colors look decent, but that’s about it. The Pentax W30 has a 3x optical zoom lens, a 2.5-inch LCD screen with 115,000 pixels, and a flash that fires to 11.8 feet. Like the Olympus 790SW, the Pentax has a host of editing effects in the Playback mode, and even cartoon-like frames. There are 20 Scene modes and face recognition autofocus. The W30 comes with the same $299 price tag.

Casio Exilim EX-S880 – The 8.1-megapixel Casio S880 comes in red or black and has an extending 3x optical zoom lens. The lens has a wider f/2.7 max aperture. It is not waterproof but provides an alternative to consumers who simply want a point-and-shoot camera that will fit in a pocket. It has a few dozen Scene modes, along with a YouTube capture mode that records video at settings optimized to the online video sharing site. The S880 has a 2.8-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels and is powered by a 220-shot lithium-ion battery. It accepts SD, SDHC, and MMC media in addition to 10.8 MB of internal memory and includes a "data storage" function that converts e-mail, Web pages, and documents to JPEG files so they can be stored and accessed on the camera. The S880 measures 0.68 inches thick, so it can go just about anywhere. Face detection included, the Casio S880 retails for $279.

Fujifilm FinePix Z10*fd* – This fashion accessory of a digital camera isn’t waterproof, but has a lot of other tempting features and is less expensive at $199. It measures 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.7 inches and comes in five colors including "Wasabi Green" and "Sunset Orange." The 7.2-megapixel Z10*fd* comes with Fujifilm’s signature face detection system. It has a 3x optical zoom lens that doesn’t extend from the camera, making it more durable than the extending types but not quite as sturdy as the Olympus models. The Z10*fd* has a 2.5-inch LCD screen with 150,000 pixels and can record and display 640 x 480-pixel videos at 30 fps. This camera is designed for teens and young adults with its IrSimple wireless transfer technology and Blog mode that automatically makes smaller copies of captured pictures. There are 15 Scene modes, a 1.4 fps Burst mode, and 54 MB of internal memory, in addition to the xD/SD hybrid card slot.

**Who It’s For

***Point-and-Shooters* – This camera is designed for point-and-shooters who are clumsy and frequently drop things. It can point and shoot in the water, snow, or sun.

*Budget Consumers *– With a retail price of $299, the 790SW is one of the most budget-oriented waterproof digital cameras.

Gadget Freaks – It can be frozen, dropped, and drenched; that qualifies it as a camera of interest for this demographic.

Manual Control Freaks – These consumers will pass by the 790SW and perhaps even mock it. There aren’t many manual controls.

Pros/Serious Hobbyists – They won’t even look at the Olympus Stylus 790SW.




The Olympus Stylus 790SW has a lot of interesting features packed into an extremely durable body. It can survive falls, water, sandstorms, and toddlers. The 7.1-megapixel digital camera is unique in that it can go underwater without a separate housing. However, if we came back from an expensive snorkeling trip with an album full of pictures from this camera, we’d be pretty disappointed.

The 790SW is lacking in terms of quality. Its resolution isn’t effective, its components are low-quality, and the resulting pictures don’t look that good. Expect to see blur, noise, moiré, and other artifacts in pictures and videos. Consumers would be better off purchasing a point-and-shoot camera and a separate underwater housing.

The waterproof, freezeproof, dustproof, and shockproof Stylus 790SW may be the best camera on the market in terms of durability, but it ranks among the worst in terms of image quality.

Sample Photos

**Sample Photos

**Click to view the high-resolution image.

Specs / Ratings

Specs Table

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