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Olympus Stylus 9000
12.0MP | 28-280mm (10X) ZOOM | $270/£229

The Stylus 9000 (mju 9000 in Europe) is the long zoom representative in Olympus' Stylus range of 'stylish' compact cameras. It's the smallest of the cameras in this group test but nevertheless boasts an interesting spec sheet. Images are captured on a 12 MP sensor and the lens offers a very versatile zoom range from 28-280mm (35mm equivalent). Like the competition the Stylus 9000 comes with optical image stabilization which helps avoiding blur when shooting in low light but is the only model in this comparison to provide lowly VGA video (640 x 480) when most of the others offer 720p HD recording (WVGA on the Panasonic ZS1).

However, all the camera's electronic and optical innards are boxed up in a compact and solid metal body and, as you would expect from a premium compact camera in 2009, the Stylus 9000 comes with a host of digital helpers and gimmicks such as face detection and shadow adjustment technology. There is also an interesting panorama mode that helps aligning the images while you shoot and then stitches the panorama in-camera.

  • 12.0 effective Megapixels
  • 28-280mm equiv lens with 10x optical zoom and up to 5x Digital Zoom
  • VGA video, AVI format
  • 2.7-inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
  • Dual Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600
  • Perfect Shot Preview, Shadow Adjustment Technology, In-camera Panorama mode
  • Advanced Face Detection of up to 16 persons
  • 14 Scene modes
  • In-camera Image Retouching

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Overview

The Stylus 9000 is by a margin the smallest camera in this comparison. Olympus has done an admirable job by squeezing a 10x zoom lens (28-280mm equivalent) into such a petite body. The Olympus engineers have made this possible by making a lens with three extending sections rather than the two sections used by its competitors. Whether you find the camera's boxy design and chrome accents attractive is very much a question of taste, but you'll certainly be able to slip it into your shirt pocket.

The camera is almost entirely made from metal and its materials and weight give it a premium feel. However, one point of criticism has to be the durability of the surface finish. In the process of writing this group test we have obviously been using all cameras extensively. While at the end of the process most of the contenders do hardly show any marks or scratches the Olympus has visibly suffered more than the competition, with scratches and paint loss on front back and even the OK button. If you get one you should definitely order a well padded case at the same time.

Ergonomically the Stylus 9000 doesn't give any reason for complaint. It features the usual four-way controller for modifying exposure compensation, macro, self-timer and flash settings and a mode dial on the back. The shutter button and zoom rocker on the top plate are unusually small but after you've got used to them work as well as all the others. Menu design has not necessarily been one of Olympus' strengths in the past and the Stylus 9000 is still not the benchmark in this area. However, while the unusual menu screen (see below) might be a little confusing for some, the actual menus are reasonably well structured and intuitive. They could do with a visual overhaul though.

With a 28mm wide-angle and 'only' VGA video the Stylus 9000's is not one of the most highly specified cameras in this test, but its in-camera panorama mode is quite fun and worth a mention. It allows you to shoot three consecutive photographs which are then automatically stitched to create a panorama. At close inspection the results are not always 100% perfect but it is certainly a nice party-trick and good for those who can't be bothered with creating their panoramas in post processing.

Key Features

The Olympus has only the lightest plastic strip down its front to act as a grip, yet it does a pretty good job of providing anchorage. Unlike every other camera in this test, the Stylus's zoom rocker isn't built around the shutter button. Instead it's a slightly harder-to-reach lever near the corner of the camera.
The Olympus is the most compact camera in this comparison. Olympus made this possible by using a three- segment zoom lens while the competition's lenses have only two.

The Stylus 9000's four-way controller gives quick access to exposure compensation, focus, flash and self-timer settings. A press of the center button takes you to the FUNC menu where you can modify a range of shooting settings including ISO and white balance.

The OR button gives you access to the Panorama, Shadow Adjust and Multi screen modes.

There are only three controls on the camera's top: On/Off button, shutter button and zoom rocker.
The Olympus' three segment lens provides a 10x zoom range starting at a very useful 28mm. At F5.9 it's very slow at the long end though.
We're not huge fans of the icon screen that you hit when you press the menu button. The icons have a slight Windows 3.1 look to them and it's just one additional step to accessing the menus. Once you get there though navigation is fairly intuitive.
The Olympus is the only camera in this test to offer exposure compensation preview. Pressing the exposure compensation button takes you to a preview screen from where you can choose the most suitable setting.

Image quality and performance

The Olympus Stylus 9000 is one of the faster cameras in this test. Our focus test, conducted in moderate indoor light at wide angle, showed it took a perfectly acceptable 0.7 seconds to achieve focus. It was also, by a margin, the fastest camera to zoom through its lens range from wide angle to telephoto; taking a mere 1.6 seconds (though it is a fraction slower to retract). Sadly it's also the slowest camera to switch on, taking around 2.2 seconds before it's ready to shoot - around half a second longer than anything of the other cameras we're testing here. So it's a camera that makes it easy to respond to unexpected things happening, but only if it's already up and shooting. As is often the case with cameras based around xD picture cards, the Stylus 9000 is the slowest at writing its images to the card - expect to wait over 3 seconds per image.

When examining the Olympus' image output in closer detail it becomes clear that the engineers had to compromise in one or two areas when squeezing a 10x zoom into the Stylus 9000's tiny package. The camera offers one of the highest nominal resolutions in this test but in reality the output is the softest of all the cameras in this test with less image detail than the competition. The noise reduction at low ISOs adds its effects to the softness of the lens.

Having said that the Olympus does some things right. Color, exposure and auto white balance are usually good although a little bit of negative exposure compensation helps avoid blown highlights to which the camera is quite prone. All compact cameras do this to a certain degree but the Stylus is a little worse than average. On the Stylus 9000 we also had a higher proportion of slightly out-of-focus images than usual. This is not always easy to spot on the LCD, so zoom into the image to check focus when you're taking this once-in-a-lifetime shot.

The flash shots are decent with good exposure but slightly cool skin tones. High ISO performance is fairly dismal though. None of the cameras in this test perform brilliantly in low light but the Stylus 9000 is located at the bottom end of the scale. The camera applies a lot of noise reduction which results in a lot of detail smearing and even more softness. ISO 400 images are just about usable for normal sized prints but anything higher you should stay away from as the camera, despite all the noise reduction, also starts to introduce fairly large amounts of unpleasant chroma noise at higher sensitivities.

The Olympus Stylus 9000's produces arguably the worst image quality in the test. Images show good colors but look a bit unpleasant up close (at 100%). There is a lack of critical sharpness and some obvious noise reduction artifacts (with the resultant loss of fine, low contrast detail).

The focus can be slightly unreliable from time to time, mainly at the longer end of the zoom. The sensor does clip highlights very harshly, so you might want to apply some negative exposure compensation where necessary.

Summary

The Olympus Stylus 9000's big 'pro' is its compact size. It's noticeably smaller than the competitors and will slip easily into any pocket. It appears though the engineers had to cut some corners in order to squeeze a 10x zoom lens into such a tiny package. While metering is generally fairly reliable and at screen size the images display good colors and contrast close-up the output is very soft with a lot of noise reduction smearing even at low sensitivities. The Stylus 9000 is also more prone to highlight clipping than average and the AF can not always be trusted. If image quality is your number one priority you'll find better alternatives. The Stylus 9000 can really only be an option if pocketability is more important than anthing else.

  • We like: Very compact design, reliable colors, metering, white balance and flash exposures, good speed of operation

  • We don't like: Paint comes off, high ISO performance poor, focus not 100% reliable, very soft output, clipping, smearing of low contrast detail and fringing, no manual white balance
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Comments

Matafuko

Just picked up a second hand SX200 for £35!
I bought it because I was surprised at a 12mp, 12x optical, 720p HD and manual function camera would be available so cheaply these days.
I have an SLR but wanted a smallish carry around thing. I am not - in any way - precious about it being top of the line, but the resolution, zoom and manual functions are perfectly adequate for me.
I'm in pretty much total agreement with your review and once you replace the idea that it's the most expensive in the batch test with the fact that I got it second hand for a steal - there's not a bad word I can say about it!
(It's even in the cool blue colour)

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