Last year, Olympus released the SZ-30 MR, a kind of "mini bridge" camera with a record-breaking 24x zoom. That camera turned out to be a pretty nice surprise too, even if it was ultimately let down by a few disappointing flaws like a low-quality screen. So Olympus is back for 2012 with the new and improved SZ-31 MR which, on paper, looks to correct most of its predecessor's faults. Will that be enough to rival heavyweight superzoom compacts? Let's take a look.
From the front, it can be hard to tell the Olympus SZ-31 MR apart from its predecessor, the SZ-30 MR. Apart from a few relocated logos ("3D" has been removed from the front face—a sign of the times, no doubt), the main change is the flash lock, which has been moved from the lens barrel to the upper edge of the camera. Being so similar, the SZ-31 has the same strengths and weaknesses in design as the SZ-30. It therefore has a high-quality finish, and while the deep handle can be a bit surprising at first, it ensures excellent grip. The hard, smooth casing isn't particularly flattering though, and a bit of rubber on the handle wouldn't go amiss.
On the back, changes made in the new model are more noticeable. First of all, the "?" button has gone, the video record button has been moved to a handier location and the rubber thumb pad is bigger and generally nicer. The LCD is now a touchscreen and the interface is relatively clear, even if the "Live Guide" beginner's mode still doesn't let you change more than one setting at once.
Now for the technical stuff. The screen has changed completely, with resolution boosted to VGA and decent viewing angles. With the SZ-31 MR, you'll have no trouble lining up a shot over the top of an obstacle, at waist height or in any other position, as the onscreen image remains easy to see from all kinds of angles. Display quality isn't perfect, with crazy colours and light greys that soon get washed out to white, but, most importantly, the screen is comfortable to use from any angle, which was one of our main problems with the SZ-30.
It's good to see that the SZ-31 MR has inherited its predecessor's original "Multi Recording" capabilities, so you can shoot a full-resolution photo while filming video or capture to movies simultaneously at two different focal lengths (see inset), etc.
Start-up takes just over two seconds. That's not too surprising given the size of the lens this camera has to deal with, but the SZ-31 is still a little slower than the lower-end SZ-14—its more complex electronics probably take longer to warm up ...
Last year's SZ-30 MR was a nice surprise. Although digital noise could have been handled better, sharpness levels were generally good in spite of the record-breaking zoom lens. Olympus is clearly playing it safe with this new camera, then, as the lens, sensor and imaging hardware haven't changed.
The image processing system has changed, however, going down the same route as Sony with its 2011 compacts. In other words, the SZ-31 takes pictures that look more visibly processed than those of its predecessor. Digital noise is effectively eliminated, particularly in darker parts of the picture, but this has the inevitable consequence of wiping out a certain amount of finer detail. This is visible in full-sized shots taken at 400 ISO or 8" x 12" (20 x 27 cm) shots taken at 800 ISO. But with smaller-sized prints and photos viewed on a computer (without enlarging them), pictures taken with the SZ-31 do generally look cleaner. Ultimately, it all boils down to compromises ...
The SZ-31 lens isn't quite as sharp as the one used in the SZ-30 we tested last year. So while both cameras technically have the same lens and sensor, this is probably due to the random variations that inevitably arise on any mass production line.
That said, quality is still good. At wide-angle settings, only the Sony HX20V really does any better. Canon's SX260 lens is comparable, while other competitors give results that are visibly less sharp. At 200 mm, quality in the middle of the frame is decent and is maintained well across the frame. The edges are as good as with Sony's superzoom lens, while the Canon gives results that look more accentuated but don't really offer any more detail (but still, that's with 25% fewer pixels). At 600 mm, the SZ-31 does a very good job. Quality isn't entirely consistent over the frame, but the middle of the shot holds up very well, despite aperture at f/6.9. On the whole, this Olympus is sometimes better and sometimes worse than the market leaders from Sony and Canon, but it's generally above average.
One great feature of the le SZ-31 is the "Super Macro" mode for extreme close-ups with the lens fixed at an equivalent focal length of 66 mm for the best reproduction ratio. With this, you can shoot subjects from around 5 cm away. The result is a macro shot that's as close as with macro modes using wide angles, but with no image deformation or distortion. Plus, it's still relatively easy to manage the camera's shadow when taking shots from this kind of distance.
The SZ-31 has two problems in video mode. First of all, distortion isn't corrected, which can be a problem in wide-angle mode (although this is unfortunately still quite a common problem in mid-range cameras). Next, the dynamic range could be better, and light, bright parts of the image are soon overexposed to white.
Otherwise, the SZ-31 films in Full HD resolution with good levels of sharpness and video noise that's kept under control. The continuous autofocus is quite effective too. Audio isn't perfect, with some noises sounding a bit crushed. Plus, the way the camera tries to mask the noise of the zoom motor can end up muffling mid-range frequencies when you zoom in our out. On the upside, though, sound is recorded in stereo, with a clearly audible stereo effect. Plus, you can take full-resolution photos while filming video.