HandlingWhile the SZ-20 looked like a kind of mini-bridge camera, the SH-21 is 100% compact, with its more classic, smooth design and its built-in flash. Compact it may be, but the SH-21 is nowhere near as stylish as a sleek little pocket snapper—it has a more basic look that's neither bulky nor super-slim and neither ugly nor super-sexy. Although the camera body is made from plastic, the build and finish are actually quite good.
The SH-21 handles in a similar way to other recent Olympus compacts, with a fairly limited choice of settings all of which can be accessed quickly (macro, self-timer, ISO, etc.). There's a mode-selection dial on the top of the camera (P, scene, iAuto, magic filters, etc.), as well as a handy video-record button under your right thumb.
One slight blip that's common to all Olympus compacts is that the Quick menu doesn't remember the last setting you used—you have to scroll down to the same option each time you open the menu. Plus, even if you deactivate the flash manually, it gets reactivated each time you switch on the camera or switch to auto mode.
The screen is a TN LCD panel with a definition of 460,000 dots, which is standard stuff for a mid-range compact. As always with TN screens, viewing angles are tight, especially when you look up at the screen from below. That's quite disappointing, and it makes the SH-21 lose its fourth star in this part of the review.
You'll need to be careful when looking back through your photos onscreen too, as the very low gamma makes it difficult to distinguish light greys from white, and colours aren't reproduced accurately. That said, the colour temperature is almost perfect (at 6143 K, it's a tiny bit warm compared with an ideal reading of 6500 K).
ResponsivenessThe SH-21 starts up in under two seconds, which is pretty good for a mid-range superzoom compact. Saving a photo takes a little under two seconds, which isn't amazing, and the autofocus does a decent job in good light but falls apart completely in low-light conditions.
On the whole, the HS-21 is on par with other current compacts—but that's a little disappointing given the quality of the electronics it uses.
Picture QualityThe Olympus SH-21 is a very similar camera to the SZ-20, with the same internal electronics and lens. Both models therefore give very similar picture quality, and handle digital noise/smoothing in almost the same way.
While still lagging behind Canon, Panasonic and Sony, Olympus has improved the way digital noise is handled in its recent cameras, as we've seen in the SZ-20 and SZ-30 MR. Although smoothing kicks in at 400 ISO, it remains discreet on 8" x 10" prints (20 x 27 cm), and up to 800 ISO, the slight loss in picture quality isn't much of a problem. At 1600 ISO, however, quality drops markedly. Plus, from 800 ISO, there's a visible drop in saturation, which limits chromatic aberration but makes pictures look duller as a result.
The SH-21 has the same lens as the SZ-20 (also seen in the Casio ZR100) but quality seems rather variable between models. In the SH-21 we tested, the lens could have been more consistent at wide-angle settings, but gave nice, sharp results in the middle of the frame. The image became hazier as we zoomed, however. At the maximum focal length, the image does get a little sharper, but quality isn't consistent across the frame. All in all, the SH-21 we were sent actually had the worst version of this lens we've tested yet. Be aware, then, that lens quality can vary!
VideoLike the SZ-30, the SH-21 doesn't use the full width of the sensor in video mode, which means you lose 8° from the horizontal field of view at the widest-angle setting. In other words, the wide-angle drops from 25 mm in photo mode to 32 mm in video mode! Plus, distortion isn't corrected in videos like it is in photos, so footage shot at wide-angle settings is subject to strong barrel distortion.
The videos we shot in our test lab came out very dark, which is a shame—the image was sharp and detailed but ruined by the strong fuzzy noise. The optical zoom can be used in video mode and continuous focusing is effective.
Sound is pretty average. The stereo effect can't be heard all that clearly, metallic sounds seem to ring or jingle, and a continuous hiss spoils quieter scenes. Plus, in trying to mask the noise of the zoom motor, Olympus has managed to muffle the sound in noisy scenes without totally removing the buzz of the motor in very quiet moments.