Small enough to carry in a pants pocket or a purse, the Stylus 500 Digital measures a slender 1.3 by 1.8 by 0.4 inches and weighs about 7 ounces when loaded with its tiny rechargeable lithium-ion battery and media card.
Unlike in Olympus's original Stylus design, the 500 Digital's lens cover opens and closes automatically when you hit the power button, so there's no need to slide a barrier door over the lens. The battery and media compartments are located on the bottom of the camera, far enough from the tripod socket to allow access to both when you're using a small tripod. A side door covers the power and USB ports, which are also sealed to prevent water and dust from entering.
Controls on the Olympus Stylus 500 Digital are by necessity small. A zoom lever, a speaker, a tiny mode dial, a QuickView button for instant playback, and a four-way controller occupy the space not gobbled up by the 2.5-inch LCD. The mode dial switches easily between still capture, movie mode, playback, and a special album mode. There's no space left on this model for an optical viewfinder.
The Menu button pulls up a four-panel initial menu, which provides direct access to resolution, white-balance, and exposure-compensation settings as well as a mode menu that takes you to yet another tabbed system. It can be a little confusing to first-timers, but it works fine once you understand the hierarchy. Fortunately, scene modes are one touch away on the up arrow of the four-way controller. When you select a scene mode, the camera shows a sample picture and displays helpful explanatory text. Made for the active snapshot photographer who wants to spend more time taking pictures and less time dodging raindrops or avoiding sand castles, the Olympus Stylus 500 Digital offers a well-rounded set of automatic scene modes. Staples such as Portrait and Landscape are complemented by more unusual modes, including Cuisine for foodies, Documents for businesspeople, and Behind Glass for window shoppers. Underwater Wide and Underwater Macro modes are available for photographers who decide to buy this camera with its optional underwater housing.
Sticking to the basics, the Stylus 500 Digital offers only a few manual options, including selectable ISO (from 64 to 400), two metering modes, dual autofocus modes, exposure compensation, and white-balance presets. Surprisingly, the Stylus 500 Digital provides a live histogram (accessible only via the menu), although it doesn't display aperture and shutter speed during shooting.
With a focal range of 35mm to 105mm (35mm-camera equivalent), the Olympus Stylus 500 Digital balances wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths so that you get a little bit of both. A maximum aperture of f/3.1 to f/5.2 makes this lens pretty slow, however, meaning it won't be the best performer in low light.
This camera's playback mode has some interesting features, and Olympus makes organizing and viewing images easy and fun with its album function. Each of 12 albums holds as many as 200 images and can be played back in a scrapbooklike layout on the LCD or uploaded intact with the Olympus Master software that comes with the camera. A calendar feature organizes images by date, which enables easy chronological retrieval of photos.
For fun, you can apply in-camera effects such as soft focus, black and white, sepia, and fish-eye. You can also crop and resize photos in playback mode, saving computer time if you want to send your images via e-mail or post them on the Web. Although not particularly sprightly, in some ways the Olympus Stylus 500 Digital performed better than expected. Autofocus was surprisingly good in low light, considering the camera doesn't have an AF-assist lamp.
Start-up to first shot was just shy of two seconds, while time between nonflash shots was about the same. Turn on the flash, however, and you'll have to wait almost six seconds for it to recycle.
Continuous-shooting speed was about average at 1.3 frames per second for high-resolution photos, with the buffer maxing out at five shots. Speed picked up only slightly at low resolution, but after 31 shots the camera didn't falter.
The camera's most impressive physical feature is its bright and clear 2.5-inch HyperCrystal LCD; it presents a visible image even at an angle, so it's great for showing off images. The LCD performs well in sunlight and gains up appreciably in low light for better viewing.
In macro mode, the flash powers down enough to avoid overexposure. In fact, some of our macro shots were underexposed because the flash was a little too dim. The Olympus Stylus 500 Digital's photo capabilities were mixed. Some of our test shots were nicely exposed, but the camera has a tendency to expose for the highlights. That's good news for maintaining details in the bright areas, but some shadows were blocked up to the point of being solid black.
The camera accurately reproduced colors for the most part, providing enough saturation to be interesting. Auto white balance worked well, even in outdoor shadows, where there's usually a tendency to tint a scene blue.
Our test images weren't razor sharp, and we saw some noticeable visual noise and minor purple fringing. However, these flaws generally won't affect print quality at smaller sizes.