The SP-500UZ - unlike virtually all its direct competitors - isn't designed to look like a miniature SLR (though it does sport a fairly sizeable grip), but more like a chunky version of a traditional 'compact' camera. The styling is functional and fairly conservative, but it is well built, is fairly compact and seems very well built. The control layout is pretty basic - the SP-500UZ relies on menus fairly heavily, an inevitable consequence of such a large feature set - and the rear of the camera is dominated by the large, bright screen.
In your hand
The SP-500UZ has a solid feel, despite the fact it is virtually all-plastic, and the materials and construction certainly seem to be of a high quality, typically Olympus. Handling is excellent; the four AA batteries give the grip side of the camera the weight to balance the lens, and the position of the zoom / shutter is much better than appearances might suggest, making single-handed operation surprisingly stable.
The battery compartment accepts four AA cells, and we'd advise picking up a couple of NiMH batteries and a charger if you intend to use the camera seriously (Olympus only supplies a set of alkalines). The battery compartment cover is a little tough to get closed, but it does have a locking switch, so you can't accidentally knock it open. Battery life seems good with NiMH cells, though Olympus doesn't supply CIPA standard figures for the SP-500UZ.
The xD-Picture card slot sits under a sturdy cover on the side of the grip. I'm not a huge fan of xD; it's slow (especially the new type-M cards) and much less commonly available than, say SD, but for the average user needing only one or two cards it's hardly likely to be a deal-breaker.
The SP-500UZ doesn't actually ship with a card, but there is a ridiculously measly 10MB of internal memory (enough for one RAW or 2 SHQ JPEG shots).
On the opposite side of the body is the combined USB / AV port (under a very sturdy rubber cap). The AC-in port is above the card slot door.
The small pop-up flash has a range of around 4.5m (Wide) / 3.4m (Tele) - pretty standard for this class of camera. The flash doesn't pop up automatically - there's a big button next to the viewfinder.
The SP-500UZ sports a small 38-380mm equiv. 10x optical zoom lens that protrudes just over an inch from the body when powered up. At F2.8 - F3.7 it's fairly fast for such a small lens, but not fast enough at the long end to make up for the lack of image stabilization, unfortunately.
The 2.5-inch screen is bright, clear and has a high refresh rate, and remains remarkably usable in bright light. The resolution is low for such a large screen (115,000 pixels), but it's very nice all the same.
The screen automatically 'gains up' in low light - the display gets a bit grainy and the refresh rate drops, but it's better than having a screen you can't use when it gets dark.
The electronic viewfinder is sharp (201k pixels), but the lack of a dioptre adjustment means it's difficult to focus on it (unless you've got perfect eyes). I didn't use the EVF very much when out shooting with the SP-500UZ for this very reason.
The ubiquitous 4-way controller - located to the right of the LCD screen - is used to navigate menus. Above the four-way controller are the flash, display and quick view buttons
On the top of the camera sits the large main mode dial. Here you can switch between the various recording and playback modes. To the right of the main power switch is a 'custom' button (marked AEL, for its default function) that you can assign to pretty much any shooting variable, including ISO or white balance.
The shutter release sits in the middle of a circular zoom rocker switch on the top of the hand grip. It may not look it, but the shutter release is perfectly positioned for comfortable use.