Back last year, the 24x (25-600 mm) zoom lens in the SZ-30 MR stood out in a market in which even high-end superzooms maxed out at 18x. One year down the line it's still a record-holder, and now Olympus is rolling out this lens into the mid-range SZ-14.
In terms of design and handling, the SZ-14 is almost identical to last year's SZ-30 MR, and still feels like a cross between a bridge and a compact. It's a pretty simple camera, with a basic interface that's easy to get the hang of using. Plus, the camera's weight feels more nicely balanced than the average bridge. The grip handle is made from smooth plastics which, as well as picking up fingerprints, aren't particularly flattering. That said, build quality is generally good.
The screen uses TN LCD technology, which is no real surprise in this mid-range model. In fact, the higher-end SZ-30 was loaded with the same kind of screen last year. All in all, it's not great. As well as the relatively tight viewing angles that go hand in hand with TN technology, light greys are soon washed out to white and colour fidelity leaves a lot to be desired (we measured the Delta E at 11.8, when it should be 3 or under for accurate colours). All of this means that the pictures you see onscreen won't look exactly like the prints you view on a computer or get developed.
The SZ-14 gets almost the same results as the SZ-30 in this field. Start-up takes just under two seconds, which is quite fast considering the size of that zoom lens. In fact, the SZ-14 is generally quite fast for a mid-range model. Photo-to-photo turnaround takes about two seconds, which is within average. The autofocus is on the better side of average in good light at all focal lengths, although it does get considerably slower in low light.
Although these results are nothing special, they're nicely within average for superzoom compacts.
The Olympus SZ-30 turned out to be a pretty convincing camera with its 24x lens and CMOS sensor. But while the SZ-14 has inherited the lens from 2011's model, it has been downgraded to a 14-Megapixel CCD sensor.
The results hold little surprise. We know Olympus cameras only too well. However, it's clear that the firm has done some serious work on its image processing system, with noise that's visibly handled better in dark parts of the picture. Unfortunately, this comes at a price, as to keep digital noise in check, the SZ-14 gets a bit heavy with the smoothing, in turn blurring finer detail—8" x 12" (20 x 27 cm) prints will look fine up to 200 ISO but we wouldn't advise making prints bigger than 4" x 6" (11 x 15 cm) from shots taken at higher ISO settings.
At wide-angle settings, the middle of the image is sharp but the edges of the frame don't hold up as well, with a slight drop in contrast. However, quality is still good enough for an 8" x 10" (20 x 27 cm) print. Strangely, lens sharpness isn't on par with the SZ-30 MR and SZ-31 MR (the 2012 high-end model) which technically use exactly the same lens. Obviously, small variations in quality occur on any production line, so it looks like we drew a short straw with this particular model ...
At telephoto settings, the lens does a much better job, giving an image that's perfectly sharp and well contrasted with consistent results across the frame.
For video, Olympus has stuck with the bare minimum—which isn't too surprising given this camera's sensor. The SZ-14 films 720p HD at 30 fps. The image has a nice level of contrast, even if dark shades are sometimes flooded to black. Picture quality is generally OK and the autofocus works well.
Sound is recorded in mono and isn't particularly accurate. In quiet scenes, it sounds a bit like you're trapped in a jam jar, and things get worse when there's more than one noise to deal with.