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Olympus Stylus 1040 (µ1040)
10.1MP | 38-114mm (3X) ZOOM | $200

The Stylus 1040 (µ1040 outside the US - often spelled 'mju' to avoid confusing stock control systems or search engines) is part of Olympus's large Stylus/µ range (itself a continuation of the hugely successful film camera range of the same name). The Stylus name is applied to all the company's premium compacts, including a range of card-type cameras, a selection of wide-angle compacts and even some ruggedized cameras for challenging environments. The 1040 fits into that first group - with a glossy plastic-coated slider that conceals the lens and acts as a power switch when pushed open.

The 1040 has exactly the sort of feature set you'd expect in a camera of this level: a 10 megapixel sensor, 3x zoom and a selection of in-camera editing options, such as panorama creation and shadow adjustment technology. The 1040 uses the less common, less capacious and comparatively expensive xD PictureCard format for storing images, and the panorama function only works with Olympus branded cards.

  • 10.0 effective Megapixels
  • 38-114mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 6x digital zoom
  • 2.7-inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • ISO sensitivity up to 3200
  • VGA movies at up to 30fps
  • Face Detection of up to 16 faces and Shadow Adjustment Technology
  • Multi-point Autofocus
  • 10 scene modes including Intelligent Auto Mode
  • In-camera editing including Panorama processing
  • 48MB internal memory
  • TruePic III processor
  • Available in Starry Silver, Midnight Black, Magma Red and Melon Yellow

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Overview

The Olympus µ1040 is one of the smaller cameras in the group, and roughly half way between the slimmest and fattest at around 20mm thick. It's a card-style camera with a lens slider that shifts down the front of the body to reveal the lens and turn the camera on. The color of the model we're reviewing is fairly horrendous (and acquires an unpleasant green tinge under fluorescent lighting), but mercifully there are other options available. What we really liked were the retro design touches: rather than getting bogged-down with 50's nostalgia and chrome fetishism, the µ1040 seems to have taken its inspiration from 1970's sci-fi. So the buttons look like something from Star Wars and the black plastic accents give off a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century vibe.

The µ1040 cements its middle-order position with a 2.7" screen (with the 230,000 dots shared by most of its peers). The screen strikes a good balance, offering lots of detail without dominating the back of the camera. There's still plenty of room for a proper control panel and this is one of the more interesting ones in the test. Like the Canon SD790 IS, the Olympus uses flexible cut-away metal tabs, supported by a thin rubber membrane. The µ1040 scores points for backlighting the buttons, which is actually quite useful in low light as well as being a first-rate gimmick. Unfortunately, the buttons control the standard Olympus compact camera interface that we find unnecessarily complicated, with its additional icon screen before you can get to the menus.

Key Features

While the styling might not be to everyone's taste, we like the fact that Olympus has ventured a little way out on a limb and designed a camera that looks just that little bit different. The buttons are a little too easy to press while you're trying to hold the camera, but it's not a fatal flaw.
The front of the camera isn't exactly anything to write home about. In fact we'd be hard pressed to fill a text message about it.
The cutaways in the metal panel on the back of the camera act as buttons. They're generally well chosen though may be a bit small for anyone with large fingers.
The µ1040 provides this screen if you press the menu button. So rather than actually being offered the menu, you're offered the opportunity to change the image size or enter silent mode (options which clearly couldn't just have been put in the menu, but instead require their own icons in a fashion that'll get in your way every time you just want to reach the menu).

Which is a shame, as the µ1040 has a perfectly nice FUNC sub-menu with all the key functions in it.

And, oh look!, the menu includes image quality. Which makes it even less clear why an additional screen, hindering access to the menu, is necessary.

Image quality and performance

We've no complaints about the 1040's responsiveness or operating speed; it's all broadly in line with most of the other cameras in the group. Focus is fast and assured at the wide end of the zoom in good light, and only a little slower at the tele end. In low light the focus is a lot slower, not helped by the lack of an AF illuminator. Otherwise it's all pretty run of the mill, with startup times and shutter lag that whilst not class-leading, aren't too painful either.

Image quality is a little hit 'n' miss, but is far from terrible. As with most of these cameras it looks pretty unpleasant at 100% (smearing, over sharpening, soft edges at the wide end of the zoom) but unless you're into pixel peeping or producing huge enlargements you won't see it at the lower ISO settings. Outdoors the white balance is slightly less reliable than most of the other cameras here, but I doubt you'd notice unless you were doing what we're doing here; comparing them directly. The biggest problem is highlight clipping, though you can mitigate this somewhat using AE compensation.

Flash exposures are generally spot on, though we found far too many of our indoor portraits were ruined by poor focus, something you really need to be careful with when using the camera socially. High ISO performance is amongst the best here, but honestly that's not saying much, and is mainly down to a hefty dose of noise reduction.

The Stylus 1040 isn't going to win any awards for image quality, but the truth is that for a camera in this class it's not bad at all. The biggest problem in good light is the pretty harsh highlight clipping. You can at least counter this using AE compensation. Less easy to solve is the poor focus in very low light, which hampers social shooting.

Summary

The Stylus 1040 was much admired in our office for its design and lovely build quality, but like most 'card cameras' handling isn't great and image quality offers little to get excited about (though for the target market it's unlikely to disappoint). It can struggle with focus in very low light (especially when using the zoom at anything other than the widest position) and it has the same problem as all the other cameras of this type; fiddly controls and a lens that's way too easy to get your finger in front of if you hold it with both hands. Overall though, this is definitely one of the better cameras of its ilk, and one of the better looking ones to boot.

  • We like: Styling, build, feature set, decent image quality in a range of conditions
  • We don't like: Some highlight clipping, slightly fiddly operation and lack of grip, low light focus slow and occasionally unreliable.
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