Entry-level bridges generally aren't the most impressively built cameras out there. The main selling point here is the zoom, so once a manufacturer has bought itself a zoom lens, there's not much money left over to spend on fancy materials, finishes or screens. And the SP-820 is no exception. It's made entirely from plastic and the casing often sounds a bit hollow. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Plus, what looks like a control ring around the lens barrel is actually just a purely decorative feature that's moulded into the design! The mind boggles ...
However, the generous handle with its rubber finish does make for excellent grip and is the only slightly more flattering part of the camera body. Under the handle you'll find a rather disappointing battery compartment (see inset).
It's no surprise to see that this camera has a TN-type LCD screen. Vertical viewing angles are therefore very tight (the screen looks dark when viewed from below). Plus, light greys tend to get overexposed and colours aren't displayed particularly accurately. We therefore wouldn't count on the onscreen image for things like setting the white balance or for sorting and deleting photos.
The SP-820 has the same basic interface as other recent Olympus cameras. It's relatively clear, and lets you choose whether to go back to the last setting you changed (right arrow) or to the start of the quick settings menu (left arrow). There's also a rather long, but still quite clear, general menu. The SP-820 is above all a beginner's camera for general users—it's a far cry from a classic bridge. There's no sign of a viewfinder and you only get a selection of automatic modes with a very limited number of adjustable parameters.
The SP-820 UZ generally excels in this field. Start-up is unusually fast—especially for a camera with a superzoom lens—taking just 1.6 seconds to take a first photo after you hit the "on" button. Only Panasonic's FZ200 does a (marginally) better job! The autofocus works very quickly in all conditions, and photos don't take long to save. All in all, SP-820 does a very good job. Well, almost ...
The burst mode unfortunately lets the side down here. In its fastest burst mode, the SP-820 shoots three fames in two thirds of a second, then stops.
The Stylus SP-820 UZ has a brand new set of specs, with a 14-Megapixel CMOS sensor (not a BSI CMOS, however!)—like the Fuji XP150—and a 40x zoom with a wide-angle setting of 22.4 mm ... according to Olympus. In actual fact, we weren't able to capture a field wider than 71°, which works out as a focal length of 24 mm. You therefore only get an angle of view one degree wider than with the Nikon P510 and the Canon SX50, this year's two other monster zoomers, both announced at 24 mm.
Noise is handled in a very different way here to in the Fuji XP150, and image quality is generally better for it. While smoothing is visible from 400 ISO, a decent level of detail is preserved at 800 ISO, where noise still isn't too much of a problem. But 1600 ISO is a total write-off, as even a 4" x 6" print (11 x 15 cm) will looked smoothed beyond recognition. And don't even get us started on the higher ISO settings. All in all, the results are scarcely any better than the Canon SX500 IS, which uses a CCD sensor and sells for about the same price. Otherwise, quality is far behind what we're used to seeing from BSI (backlit) CMOS sensors.
At wide-angle settings, the lens does a decent job. The image isn't bad quality, with a good level of sharp detail in the middle of the frame, naturally getting softer around the edges. Quality is perfectly fine for 8" x 10" prints (20 x 27 cm). The SX500 gives sharper results, but the highly visible levels of chromatic aberration could end up being more problematic than the slight haze present in the SP-820.
It's the same story at 200 mm too—this Olympus lens is a bit less sharp than the Canon, but it's also less prone to colour fringing. At telephoto, sharpness levels are good in the middle of the frame, but the edges don't hold up as well.
On the whole, the SP-820 lens isn't bad. In fact, we'd say it's satisfactory for a camera at this price point. However, it still lags a good way behind the lenses seen in higher-quality bridges—especially the excellent Panasonic FZ200.
First the good news. The SP-820 films Full HD video with good levels of sharpness and a reasonably effective continuous autofocus.
Now the bad news. Lens distortion isn't automatically corrected in video mode and it's very visible (check out the barrel distortion in the wide-angle shot above). Plus, video noise is a problem in dark parts of the picture and the image is often under-exposed.
Audio is recorded in mono. Quality is pretty mediocre with a rather confused-sounding result. Audio also gets disrupted slightly when you zoom. Plus, the zoom lens is too fast for filming slow, smooth transitions.