Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.We don't expect the Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom to win--or even be nominated for--any design awards. But at 1 pound, 10 ounces, its basic-black magnesium-alloy body (equipped with an xD-Picture Card and a battery) feels sturdy and comfortable to grip, and most of the buttons, dials, and switches are intelligently placed. You can access oft-needed settings in multiple ways, including button-press/scroll-dial combinations and menu diving. Like the Nikon Coolpix 8700, the C-8080WZ has various controls that fall under your left thumb; but unlike the 8700's, they're relatively easy to differentiate by feel, so you're less likely to accidentally activate them, though the power button is dangerously easy to trigger. We inadvertently turned the camera on several times while trying to put it away in a case.
Unfortunately, the camera's interface groans under the weight of all the features and settings it has to manage. It supports eight groups of custom MyMode settings, each of which has more than 20 configurable options. A nifty control panel will show you all the current settings, but it doesn't let you navigate those for MyMode; you have to remember which is which. This sort of complexity requires the ability to download meaningfully named configurations to the camera from a PC.
Furthermore, you have to dive into menus too often. For instance, you can set the mode dial to MyMode, but you'll still have to delve four levels down into the menu system to select from the eight choices. In addition, when you're using the electronic viewfinder (EVF), it will occasionally show the menu screens, but subsequent submenus appear on only the LCD. As a result, the C-8080WZ has a fairly steep learning curve and a high confusion quotient.
With its fast f/2.4-to-f/3.5, 28mm-to-140mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens and shutter speeds ranging from 16 seconds to 1/4,000 second, the Olympus C-8080WZ can handle almost any shooting situation. It can take both CompactFlash or xD-Picture media, though we can't see why anyone would opt for the latter, given the technology's current maximum capacity of 512MB.
While this camera has an overwhelming number of settings, it doesn't have a purely automatic mode. You'll find many useful and unique features on the C-8080 Wide Zoom, including the ability to set a metering target point separately from a focus target area, record audio simultaneously with capture, display a live overlay on the preview image to indicate clipped highlight and shadow areas, and save four different custom white-balance settings. As for bread-and-butter features, the C-8080WZ provides a full set of manual and semimanual exposure modes (programmed automatic with program shift, aperture and shutter priority, and manual) and four basic scene modes. To fine-tune exposures, it offers exposure and flash compensation to plus or minus 2EV; spot, multispot, center-weighted, and Digital ESP metering; and the ability to temporarily save an exposure setting in the Auto Exposure Lock memory. You can choose light sensitivity from among a whopping 10 values, ranging from ISO 50 to ISO 400. In addition to nine preset and one-touch manual white-balance options, you can adjust and store changes to any existing setting using white-balance compensation. And if you're still not happy, you can play with the sharpness, contrast, hue, and saturation controls.
You can select from more than 20 different combinations of resolution and compression levels: file types include RAW, TIFF, and four JPEG-compressed formats, some of which you can shoot at a 3:2 aspect ratio. The camera also supports simultaneous RAW+JPEG capture. In SuperMacro mode, which locks the lens at its widest angle, the C-8080WZ can focus as close as 1.2 inches--nice for those who shoot very small objects.
Standard macro mode can focus from 8.4 inches. You can also record 15fps VGA-resolution QuickTime movies with audio up to the capacity of the media.
The hotshoe accepts many commercial external flash units, but if you want to use all of features on this camera, you should go with an Olympus FL-series flash. The C-8080WZ's built-in flash can reach as far as 17.4 feet. The Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom has enough performance inconsistencies that it disappoints overall. The fastest the camera can go from shut to shot is about 2 seconds, which is very good, but that's only if the camera remembers to start up with the zoom at its widest angle (you must preconfigure the camera to do so). If it powers up and zooms the lens out to its maximum, it takes 5 seconds, which is pretty mediocre. Under bright conditions, the shutter delay is a reasonable 0.6 second; in dim light using the focus-assist lamp, the delay increases to a not-so-great 1.6 seconds. At the best-quality compressed setting, typical shot-to-shot time runs about 2 seconds, and using the flash ups that to almost 3 seconds, both of which are passable but not great.
However, our biggest gripe is with the C-8080WZ's RAW shooting performance. The camera processes the files serially, and you can't shoot while the camera works on them. After firing off a RAW image in single-shot mode, you must wait an intolerable 15 seconds before you can shoot again. Thankfully, you can opt not to save the image. If you switch into continuous-shooting mode, you can capture 5 frames at about 1.7 frames per second, but you can't refocus for each frame or try to fool the camera by taking single shots in continuous mode. Furthermore, that 5-frame buffer will requires 15 seconds per shot to save, which means you have to wait 1 minute, 15 seconds before you can fire off another shot. At 21 seconds from shot to shot, TIFF isn't an option. The bottom line: Unless you're in a studio photographing fruit, the C-8080WZ is a miserable choice for shooting uncompressed images.
Zooming from wide to telephoto is reasonably quick, though it's stepped rather than continuous (it stops at predetermined locations), which makes composition tricky for perfectionists.
The EVF is decent but suffers from the same flaws as most of its kind: the update delay, though short, is a bit disconcerting, as are the not-quite-right colors and slowness at reflecting changes in exposure. The LCD is bright and crisp, but it's not nearly high-res enough for you to accurately judge if a full-resolution photo is in focus, and it can only tilt up and down. Both the EVF and the LCD show about 100 percent of the frame. Kudos to Olympus--the pervasive artifacts we've seen in photos taken with many of its older digital cameras are gone. Images from the C-8080WZ are among the best we've seen from an Olympus digital camera and--after some custom configuration and when you can get the shot despite its performance--are a cut above what you can get with the average 8-megapixel model. We attribute this in part to the bright lens, which does a very good job of preserving the edge-to-edge sharpness of a photo, and the judicial application of in-camera sharpening, which cleans up pictures without exacerbating the noise.
At its best, the C-8080WZ delivers sharp photos with excellent exposures and very little noise. In our manual white-balance test, the camera delivered neutral results, with good gray balance throughout the entire tonal range; as we moved from white to black, none of the RGB values became big enough to overwhelm the others and produce a local color cast. It rendered hues relatively accurately, as well. Automatic white balance, indoors and out, tended to be cool but acceptable; the tungsten preset under our indoor lights rendered a noticeably pink cast.
Getting good results requires a bit of tweaking, however. You have to use manual white balance, carefully choose the metering mode, and fine-tune the exposure value. At its default settings, the C-8080WZ's photos seem exposed for the darker midtones or shadows rather than the highlights. As a result, outdoor or brightly lit shots can look very overexposed compared to those of many competitors, with blown-out highlights and lost detail. Furthermore, in scenes without extreme light or dark, it looks like Olympus squeezes the tonal distribution to produce a pleasing, high-contrast final image. That's fine if you plan to go straight to print or are simply taking snapshots. But if you plan to retouch or edit the photo somewhere down the line, we recommend that you routinely decrease the exposure value by between a half or a full stop to retain more of the highlight detail during capture.
Photos shot at ISO 50 are extremely clean, and noise doesn't become a serious issue until above ISO 200; depending upon the contents of the photo, even ISO 320 can stand up to a relatively large print. Beyond that, the results are no better or worse than the average digital camera's. There's some purple or cyan fringing at high-contrast edges but not an inordinate amount, and it's usually where you'd expect to see it.