Cameras

Olympus SZ-31MR iHS Digital Camera Review

Olympus' new travel-zoom is feature-rich and a lot of fun but sacrifices image quality for zoom.

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Introduction

Olympus' brand new SZ-31MR is a moderately expensive travel-zoom that replaces the SZ-30MR in the company's lineup. This is a relatively minor update, offering slight changes to the control layout, the addition of a new touchscreen rear monitor, and a small boost to burst shooting speed. The 30MR's best features have been carried over, such as the giant 24x zoom lens, 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) and this supposedly stands for "Intelligent High Speed" or "Intelligent High Sensitivity." Fair enough, the camera is fast for its size, and offers one additional ISO level over its predecessor. But we'll let our lab tests decide whether this "new technology" is more than just marketing.

Front

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Back

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Sides

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Top

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Bottom

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In the Box

Box Photo

• Olympus SZ-31MR iHS digital camera

• wrist strap

• rechargeable battery

• wall socket adapter

• USB cable

• touchscreen stylus

• composite video cable

• quick start guide

• software CD-ROM

• warranty information

Lens & Sensor

The same lens found on the SZ-30 makes the jump to the SZ-31. This is a 24x zoom barrel, and that's incredibly long for a pocket-friendly travel zoom. The hardware telescopes far away from the rest of the body, and although it doesn't collapse completely to flat, it protrudes no further than the right hand grip when not in use. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lens also achieves a remarkably wide angle at the closest focal length, making this a highly versatile camera by design.

Zoom is adjusted via the small lever surrounding the shutter release, but it's difficult to fine tune. Control is far more precise at low zoom magnifications, and becomes exponentially coarse as you zoom in.

Display(s)

Olympus upgraded to a touchscreen for this model, and the implementation is exactly what we like to see. Too often, whole interfaces are built around a touchscreen, and this leads to imprecise, slow control. The SZ-31 makes few changes to the SZ-30's interface, but simply includes the touchscreen for optional functionality like touch shutter, touch focus, etc. Other manufacturers take note, this is the way to integrate a touchscreen.

Our only gripe is the screen's sensitivity, which is too low. On rare occasions that we did decide to take advantage of the panel, we usually had to make two or three attempts before getting the reaction we were expecting.

Connectivity

All connectivity options are housed underneath a vertical plastic cover on the right side of the body. There's a proprietary USB port which is used for connectivity with a PC, composite video output, and to charge the battery (charging from a computer is possible, in addition to the wall socket adapter). Below that is a microHDMI port for streaming content to an HDTV.

Image Quality

Like so many travel-zooms and ultra-zooms, the SZ-31 sacrifices sharpness for zoom, resulting in severe image quality issues. On the plus side, color accuracy is very impressive and barrel distortion is not severe.

Sharpness

Compared to other high quality travel zoom cameras, this one produced below-average sharpness scores. Raw results barely ever crossed 2000 MTF50s of detail, and were more frequently restricted to the sub-1000 range. Detail was best at the closest focal length, and also near the center of the frame, which are each quite typical. More on how we test sharpness.

Science Section 1 Images

Image Stabilization

We could detect no improvement to sharpness while using the SZ-31's sensor shift image stabilization system. In fact, detail actually fell by 1.5%. Since we don't give negative scores, this metric is stuck at zero. Our current test uses repetitious horizontal motion to measure shake reduction, so it's possible your real world results will vary from our controlled environment.

Color

The SZ-31's color rendition is excellent, posting a minimum error value of only 2.54, way ahead of the 3.00 average. Saturation was also nearly perfect, off by less than half a percent. Yellows were the most inaccurate shades, so if you were to notice any problems with accuracy, they would occur in pictures of people. Light blues were also relatively far off, though these shades aren't usually considered quite as important to image quality. More on how we test color.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Great strides have been made since the now-aging Olympus XZ-1, which posted inferior color scores during last year's review. Even the excellent Canon S100 is at a disadvantage here. In fact only the Sony HX9V is a relatively comparable camera that can match the SZ-31's accuracy.

White Balance

White balance performance is far from perfect, however those with the patience to manually customize their setting will be rewarded. The automatic system struggles in all lighting, but this is especially true under incandescent and fluorescent. Making the jump to custom white balance (as simple as wearing a white watch that day) will allow the SZ-31 to achieve more accurate colors under every light source, than they would've under any light source automatically.

The spread of these results places the SZ-31 below the average of other cameras in this class, especially the Canon S100, which boasts a highly accurate automatic white balance algorithm.

White Balance Options

Only four white balance presets are available, and although we did most of our shooting with the automatic method, setting a custom white balance is a annoying. The SZ-31's quick menu renders a preview of every setting as you scroll through the options, but this slows down the interface considerably.

Noise Reduction

This was a case of our eyes disagreeing with our scores. According to our tests, the SZ-31 actually did a pretty decent job eliminating noise. Artifacting rates are only 0.57% at ISO 80, and this figure doesn't cross the 1.00% noise barrier until ISO 1600. Quite impressive for a compact camera. ISO 3200 falls victim to only 1.49% image noise, but the maximum ISO, 6400, is stricken with 2.17%. More on how we test noise.

Science Section 2 Images

ISO Options

The SZ-31 offers one additional ISO sensitivity over its predecessor, expanding the camera's total range to 80 - 6400. Shots are barely usable at 6400 due to image noise, so in practice this is pretty much a moot point. And don't be fooled by any spec sheets out there, although a "ISO High" setting is available, this simply unlocks high sensitivities for the Auto ISO function, no extended settings exist.

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Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration seems inversely related to sharpness in the SZ-31's case. At the closest focal length, where resolution is best, fringing is very noticeable in high contrast areas that have already been affected by edge enhancement (notice the hard black lines in the 4.5mm crops below). Once sharpness starts to deteriorate at the middle and far end of the zoom range, chromatic aberration still exists but starts to blend into the general blur of the scene. We're not sure which is worse, frankly.

Distortion

In keeping with what seems to be this camera's trend, distortion is barely detectable at the closest focal length, but as the optics struggle to create that incredible 24x zoom, distortion is introduced. Pincushion distortion reaches 1.35% at the middle focal length, and flattens out to 0.99% at the maximum. Casual photographers probably won't notice, but if you're really concerned about distortion, just zoom out.

Motion

The SZ-31MR is capable of 1080/60p video recording, and the resulting clips are therefore very smooth. We detected only the slightest bit of trailing and frequency interference, and no artifacting resulting from compression. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video Sharpness

Video details are very sharp. Under studio illumination, the sensor is capable of resolving 650 lw/ph horizontally and 600 vertically during clips. This places the SZ-31 ahead of even the best cameras in this class. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Under our 60 lux low lights, resolution drops but not by much. Horizontal sharpness is reduced to 575 lw/ph, but vertical holds steady at 600.

Low Light Sensitivity

The SZ-31 requires only 18 lux of ambient illumination to gather 50 IRE of video image data. That's far better than average for a compact camera, though the best we've seen from a competitor is 3 lux. Given how much Olympus is pushing the "iHS" or "Intelligent High Sensitivity" capabilities of this camera, we were pleased to see this translate into a measurable video sensitivity improvement.

Usability

Although the camera looks older than it is, this translates to a very comfortable grip. Shooting controls are more limited than competing models, but high speed shooting is remarkably quick.

Automatic Features

For beginners, an Intelligent Auto setting is available from the mode dial. This is a scene-detecting auto mode, so in addition to automating all shooting variables, the software will also account for ambient lighting conditions and subject. We spent most of our time in the Program Auto mode, which is more customizable but requires more experience. Program shift is not available, leaving no way to directly specify shutter or aperture values.

Buttons & Dials

Olympus adjusted the button layout from the SZ-30's, but this has not been a change for the better. On top, the power button has found its way to an even less convenient position, and is now indented into the frame, requiring that little bit of extra effort to turn the camera on or off. The mode dial is smaller than full size, but has weak resistance, and rotates easily in a bag or pocket.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Olympus sure goes all out when it comes to extra filters and effects. 17 scene modes are available, from basics like Landscape and Sports, to niche options like Documents or two different Pet Modes. But the real treat here is Olympus' "Magic Filter," which overlays some remarkably convincing digital effects like Watercolor, Drawing, and Pop Art.

The menu system isn't bad, but Olympus has long struggled in this area. The quick menu overlay is very convenient, however the white balance bar is too ambitious with the processor, and causes annoying hangs that delayed our inputs. The main menu is a vertical tab-based system, very legible, but falls into the same "long list" configuration that Olympus can't seem to escape. The extra detail is welcome, and simplicity is a good thing, but speed and intuitiveness aren't quite there yet.

Instruction Manual

The SZ-31 ships with an unhelpful quick start guide, but curious owners will want to load the electronic version of the full length instruction manual from the included CD-ROM, or download it from the company's website. This document isn't quite complete either though, and was missing a few bits of information that momentarily hindered our review process.

Handling

There are no rubberized surfaces on the front panel, but that doesn't matter since the large right hand grip provides plenty of stability. The body is very comfortable and will aid in precision framing at full zoom.

Handling Photo 1

The large hand grip makes handling comfortable.

On the rear, there's one major issue that we've already mentioned to some degree. Although a convenient rubber thumb rest is ideally placed in the top right corner, the video button is right in the middle of it. It's almost impossible to pick up the SZ-31 without striking this button. After a few accidentally recorded clips, you'll find yourself entirely avoiding this area of the body, often at the expense of stability and comfort.

Handling Photo 2

We wish the video button wasn't directly where our thumbs want to be.

Buttons & Dials

Olympus adjusted the button layout from the SZ-30's, but this has not been a change for the better. On top, the power button has found its way to an even less convenient position, and is now indented into the frame, requiring that little bit of extra effort to turn the camera on or off. The mode dial is smaller than full size, but has weak resistance, and rotates easily in a bag or pocket.

Buttons Photo 1

The shutter is nice but that power button is inconvenient.

We do appreciate the simplified control scheme on the rear panel, which features a dual-function rotating dial / directional pad. However the video record button has been repositioned to the other side. That's right, directly on top of the thumb rest. It's flush with the rubber too, so you'll find yourself accidentally recording videos of your feet with regularity.

Buttons Photo 2

A simplified, but still fully functional control layout.

Display(s)

Olympus upgraded to a touchscreen for this model, and the implementation is exactly what we like to see. Too often, whole interfaces are built around a touchscreen, and this leads to imprecise, slow control. The SZ-31 makes few changes to the SZ-30's interface, but simply includes the touchscreen for optional functionality like touch shutter, touch focus, etc. Other manufacturers take note, this is the way to integrate a touchscreen.

Our only gripe is the screen's sensitivity, which is too low. On rare occasions that we did decide to take advantage of the panel, we usually had to make two or three attempts before getting the reaction we were expecting.

Image Stabilization

We could detect no improvement to sharpness while using the SZ-31's sensor shift image stabilization system. In fact, detail actually fell by 1.5%. Since we don't give negative scores, this metric is stuck at zero. Our current test uses repetitious horizontal motion to measure shake reduction, so it's possible your real world results will vary from our controlled environment.

Shooting Modes

An abbreviated hardware mode dial rests beside the power and shutter buttons, but it's too loose and easily rotates in a pocket or bag. Despite this dial and the price of the camera, full PASM control is not supported.

Focus

Recording Options

Nine image size options are available, most are varying sizes at a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, though Olympus has included two 16:9 options as well. JPEG compression may be set to either Fine or Normal with an option in the main menu, however lossless RAW encoding is not supported.

Speed and Timing

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, and boasts some very fast burst speeds and a solid variety of options.

Two levels of burst shooting are available at full resolution, Sequential 1 and Sequential 2, plus two more at three megapixels, High-speed 1 and High-speed 2. One final option, Auto Split Shooting, fires a three megapixel continuous burst as long as the shutter is held, but only writes the last 9 frames to memory.

We clocked the SZ-31 at speeds that were generally consistent with Olympus' claims. The fastest full resolution burst is capable of just over 10 frames per second, however the buffer maxes out at 12 shots. The slower full resolution setting is only 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.

Self-timer options are limited to 12 second and 2 second countdowns. No additional customization is available.

Features

Video capabilities are among the best in this class, thanks to 1080/60p recording, and Olympus sure knows how to make digital filters.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Olympus sure goes all out when it comes to extra filters and effects. 17 scene modes are available, from basics like Landscape and Sports, to niche options like Documents or two different Pet Modes. But the real treat here is Olympus' "Magic Filter," which overlays some remarkably convincing digital effects like Watercolor, Drawing, and Pop Art.

Recording Options

Videos may be recorded in 1080p at 60 or 30 frames per second, as well as 720p, and 480p. High-speed recording for slow-motion videos is also possible in 720p, 480p, or 320x240; at 60, 120, or 240 frames per second respectively. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Auto Controls

Video shooting is mostly an automated experience, however it's possible to combine video work with any scene mode or "Magic Filter." This is quite a rare ability for any camera, and makes for some very unique footage.

Zoom

Optical zoom is unlocked while a recording is in progress, however adjustment speed is slowed in order to cut down on mechanical noise picked up by the microphones. It doesn't work though, recordings still include some distracting sounds from the electronic motor.

Focus

Focus is automatic and continuous while a recording is in progress. Conveniently, simply touching the screen will specify a zone on which to lock focus, making this a more flexible implementation than most compacts. Autofocus is smooth and reacts quickly, leaving us with few complaints.

Exposure Controls

Like focus, exposure is automatic but can be assigned to meter from a certain zone with a one touch of the screen. Neither of these features have tracking though, so you'll need to "update" your zone with another touch if framing changes. Although this flexibility is convenient, in practice the actual touch usually causes the camera to shake a bit when filming from the hand, but this should become tolerable with practice.

Other Controls

The SZ-31's heavily-advertised ability to shoot full resolution stills while recording a video works seamlessly. Exposure and focus match the video's, and an onscreen "faux flash" indicates that a still shot has been recorded. Shot to shot is quite fast, ironically, even more so than plain old still shooting.

Audio Features

Stereo microphones are located directly below the flash enclosure. They're decently placed, but the left one could become obstructed by fingers. A wind noise reduction option is available in the main menu but, other than mute, no other audio settings exist.

Conclusion

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'll have seen this written a million times: longer zoom usually 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 mostly very comfortable, 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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