This review appears in the May issue of PC Advisor, on sale now.
The Olympus E-500 is the latest model to join the increasingly competitive budget digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera market, sporting 8Mp (megapixels), a unique antidust system and a great-value twin-lens bundle.
The E-500 employs an 8Mp CCD (charge-coupled device) sensor that delivers 4:3 aspect ratio images with a maximum of 3,264x2,448 pixels – enough to make good-looking A3 inkjet prints. The lens mount will take any FourThirds-compatible lens, which includes no fewer than 15 Olympus Zuiko Digital models. The focal length of all lenses is in effect multiplied by two, so the optionally bundled 14-45mm has a range equivalent to 28-90mm on a 35mm camera.
All FourThirds lenses employ motorised manual focusing. This allows options such as focus bracketing, but some will prefer the more tactile approach of traditional SLRs. If manual focusing's important to you, try it out first.
Unlike the unconventional-looking E-300 and E-330 models, the E-500 has a traditional design, measuring virtually the same as Canon's 350D. The grip's a little wider, though, which makes for more comfortable us. While the body is built from polycarbonate, it feels very solid.
Like traditional digital SLRs, composition is performed using the optical viewfinder alone, but the view through it is quite narrow compared with its rivals. Making up for it is a large, detailed 2.5in screen that's used to show shooting information, as with Konica Minolta's 5D. Again like the 5D, you can switch between basic and detailed information views, although the E-500's display doesn't rotate as you turn the camera. Nor does it automatically turn off as you look through the viewfinder. The screen shows a vast array of information in its detailed mode and it's easy to select an option and change it.
The main command dial offers the usual Auto, Program, Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, along with five direct scene presets and an option to access all 14 presets. Exposures range from 1/4,000 to 60 seconds, while sensitivity runs from 100 to 1,600 ISO. Images can be recorded on to CompactFlash or xD-Picture memory cards in no fewer than seven resolutions, each with the choice of four levels of Jpeg compression. Top-resolution files can be recorded in Tiff or RAW formats. Best-quality Jpegs measure around 5MB; in burst mode the E-500 can capture five of them in just over two seconds.
The E-500 delivers great-quality images that are comparable to those from the Canon 350D, although the latter has a slight edge on noise levels. The antidust system is a great selling point, although because it delays startup by over two seconds, it seems excessive to activate it every time the camera is switched on. Additionally, the motorised manual focus may irritate some people. It's a shame the screen doesn't automatically switch off or rotate in the same way as the Konica Minolta 5D.
On the up side, the E-500 offers a wider array of options than most budget digital SLRs and image quality is excellent. The most compelling aspect, though, is the value of the lens bundles. The E-500 alone costs £580, or only £20 more with the 17.5-45mm lens. Spend £620 and you'll get the wider 14-45mm lens instead. For just £675 Olympus will throw in the 40-150mm zoom. This twin-lens kit is remarkable value, putting the E-500 at the top of any shortlist for a budget digital SLR - and with the antidust system you won't worry about swapping between them, either.
The great benefit of digital SLRs is their ability to swap lenses, but it's also their Achilles' heel: dust can enter the body and settle on the filter in front of the sensor, resulting in out-of-focus blobs on the image. Olympus is one of the only companies actively combating dust with its SSWF, or Supersonic Wave Filter. This actually vibrates the sensor filter every time the camera powers up, thereby shaking any dust off and making life easier for you.