Design & HandlingThe SZ-20 looks and feels very similar to the SZ-30 MR. This model is heavier and bulkier but it has the same deep grip handle and the same 'mini bridge' type design, particularly due to its mechanical pop-up flash housed in a bump above the lens. This is a well-made camera and while the buttons on the back aren't quite as nice as those on the SZ-30, the SZ-20 still has a decent quality build.
Note, however, that there's no mode dial on the top of the camera. Plus, the SZ-20 only has one image processor, so it doesn't have the same 'multi-recording' functions as the higher-end SZ-30 MR. It therefore has the same basic interface and controls as other Olympus compacts, with a nicely designed Quick menu (with image preview for exposure, white balance etc.) that doesn't lag like in previous models.
The SZ-20 is a pleasant and easy-to-use camera with the exception of its naff TN screen (see inset). Enough is enough! Manufacturers take note: this type of poor-quality screen technology will no longer be tolerated by DigitalVersus camera reviewers.
ResponsivenessThis camera takes a little over two seconds to switch on and take its first photo. For a superzoom compact, the SZ-20 is therefore well within average. The autofocus is fast in most day-to-day situations, and you only have to wait 1.3 seconds between two photos. Interestingly, this photo-to-photo turnaround time is slightly quicker than in the SZ-30 MR, even though the higher-end model has two image processors!
The burst mode of 1.8 fps is on the better side of average and the camera's only real drawback is that the autofocus doesn't work quite as well in low light. In fact, at 1.7 seconds, plenty of other cameras do a better job.
Picture QualityThe SZ-20 has the same image processing system as the SZ-30 MR, the only difference is the number of processors in the two cameras.
It's therefore no surprise to see that the two models handle digital noise in a very similar way. A print at 800 ISO would still be OK, even if you'd be able to see some loss in picture quality up close, while 1600 ISO is best avoided in most circumstances. Some cameras do a better job, but this is still a marked improvement on last year's CCD-sensor Olympus cameras.
The SZ-20 lens is very similar to the lens used in the Casio ZR100, with the same focal range, the same aperture, the same three-element construction, the same deployment speed, and the same reflections in bright light ...
Performances are therefore very similar, with a slightly inconsistent image at wide-angle settings (the edges are a little blurred, although it's barely noticeable on an 8" x 10" print) and slightly more consistent sharpness at telephoto settings (due to a small drop in sharpness in the middle of the frame). In any case, the 16-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensor doesn't make the image any more finely detailed than the Casio's 12-Megapixel version, as the lens just isn't good enough to use the pixel-packed sensor to its full potential.
Also note that in our test studio, when set to 100 ISO the camera had a tendency to under-expose shots at long focal lengths, as the SZ-20 refused to shoot at over 1/4 of a second even when on a tripod. This isn't something that'll be a problem in real-life situations though, as you'll probably never set the camera to 100 ISO.
VideoThe video mode is the same as in the SZ-30 MR. The maximum wide angle is reduced from 24 to 30 mm and the same rather conservative exposure helps keep fuzzy noise under control and prevents light, bright shades from being overexposed.
There's stereo sound, recorded by two widely spaced microphones (one on either side of the lens), creating a nice spatial effect. However, there's no filter to reduce the noise of the lens motor in the SZ-20, which means you'll hear a slight buzzing in your videos when you use the optical zoom, especially when filming quiet scenes.