Unlike the last Olympus Stylus (the Stylus Verve) I reviewed, the 800 has a fairly conventional, conservative design (though not without a certain amount of style). Its metal and plastic construction feels very solid indeed, and though by no means the smallest camera on the block, it is very compact. The rear panel is dominated by the large (2.5 inch) LCD screen, but that hasn't stopped Olympus' designers from squeezing as many buttons and controls as they could into the remaining space. The entire thing is 'weatherproofed', meaning that whilst you can't use it underwater, it's perfectly safe for use in the rain or on the beach. After a rather unfortunate incident with a glass of red wine I can confirm that even when fairly thoroughly drenched the Stylus 800 works perfectly.
In your hand
The Stylus 800 feels very solid and well balanced in the hand, and despite the lack of any real 'grip' on the front or rear it is well-designed for single-handed operation. That said, the position of the zoom and shutter release means it's both easier and safer to hold the Stylus 800 with both hands.
The Stylus 800 is available in two colors; Silver (as tested here) and dark blue, though both colors may not be available in all parts of the world.
The large Li-Ion rechargeable battery sits under a sturdy weather-sealed door (you can just about make out the rubber sealing on the inside of the door in this shot). Despite the large screen and lack of optical viewfinder the battery life is pretty good (300 shots / CIPA standard). The battery is charged using an external charger, and takes around 100 minutes from completely flat.
The xD-Picture card slot sits under another sealed door on the bottom of the camera. The Stylus 800 has 32MB of internal memory (of which about 20MB is available for storing pictures), but there's no card in the box. The internal memory is good for around 4 SHQ shots, so budget for a card unless you intend to shoot only at very low resolutions.
Tucked away next to the battery compartment are the Stylus 800's connections; a combined USB / AV port and the socket for the (optional) mains adaptor.
The small flash is a pretty powerful; partly because it's fairly big, partly because the Stylus 800 is less shy than normal about using higher ISO values when the subject distance increases. The quoted range is 3.5m (T) / 6.5m (W), stretching to an impressive 12.8m at the wide end of the lens if you switch to ISO 1600 (more of which later). The red-eye reduction works pretty well, but the flash recycle time (at least 5 seconds in anti-red-eye mode) is a touch too long for our liking.
The Stylus Verve sports a small 38-114mm equiv. 3x optical zoom lens that protrudes just under an inch from the body when powered up. At F2.8 - F4.9 it's on the slow side at the long end, which can be a problem when shooting in low light unless you drop the resolution and use the 'Bright Capture' - powered ISO 800 / 1600 options.
When not in use the lens is very well protected behind a very nifty circular sliding cover. The Stylus 800 is certified 'weatherproof' meaning it can be used happily on the beach or ski slope (the manual is a little vague as to what this actually means, stating that the 'camera is not damaged by water spray from any direction'). In our unscientific tests (involving an elbow and a full glass of red wine) even a fairly serious drenching was mere water off a duck's back.
The 2.5-inch 'HyperCrystal', 215,000 pixel high contrast TFT screen is simply superb; bright and clear and usable in very bright conditions. The 'Bright Capture' technology (which is essentially little more than very high amplification and noise reduction) does a great job of keeping the preview image bright and easy to see in even very low light. refresh rate is a little on the low side, but in truth it's hard to fault this screen when compared to most competitors.
The ubiquitous 4-way controller is used to navigate menus, with the up and down arrows also offering direct access to flash and macro modes.
Above the four-way controller is the main mode dial. Here you can switch between the various recording (anti-blur, scene, auto, shutter priority, aperture priority, movie) and playback modes. Above this you can see the thumb-operated zoom rocker - also used for magnifying images and viewing thumbnails in playback mode.
The top of the camera is fairly free of clutter - just the small power button and the fairly prominent shutter release.
Down the left side of the screen are four additional buttons whose function can seem mysterious in most light (the legends are so close in color to the body it can be a struggle to read them). After a bit of squinting you'll work out they are QUICK VIEW (for looking at the last saved shot when in record mode), GUIDE (for accessing the built-in help system), DISP (for altering the record mode screen display) and self timer / delete.