My initial impressions of the SP-350 were all good, except photo quality - and it took some serious play-around time to arrive at a judgment on that.
Recommend this product?
My decision: I had to change some of my ways to take advantage of the SP-350's features to get pics that are noticeably better than those I got with my previous camera. More on that later.
Review based on ...
This is my third Olympus digital camera in four years, and lately, I've also used a Nikon Coolpix 4200. And, while I know the difference between shutter speed and film speed (don't laugh, not everybody does) and can tell my jpegs from my mp4s, at this point, I'm a mom who wants to take snapshots. So, my frame of reference is this: I want a camera that's easy to use, with some basic features that will compensate for my lack of time/attention to picture taking.
Reaction Time is Good(!) and Pic Quality (???)
As a mom, I want two basic things that are not often found in a single camera. That is, I want fast reaction time and enough pixels to give good detail when I crop the pic to one tenth of its original size. My previous cam, an Olympus C-60 with 6 megapixels, gave great, sharp pics. (See my review of the C-60 at http://www.epinions.com/content_174222970500 )I could crop to get a sharp 5x7 closeup of my kid from a shot I took of half of the soccer field. THAT's what I want/need. The C-60 was pretty slow to react, though. The SP-350 has much, much better reaction time (although it's slower than the Nikon Coolpix series) but, at 8 megapixels, I expected great pics again. Initially, I was a bit disappointed.
While contrast and sharpness are very good to excellent, I was concerned about noise. Most shots appeared to be cluttered with tiny white dots, almost like dew drops or tiny "sun spots." I hoped something in the manual would offer an easy fix, but it didn't. (The manual is generally helpful, though, and available at: http://www.olympus.co.jp/en/support/imsg/digicamera/download/manual/zoom/man_sp350_e.pdf ) For some (??) reason, there were almost none of the "white dots" in pics I took using Scene mode, and the "dots" appeared much more pronounced on shots taken outdoors... some investigation (with the help of my local camera shop, and a few helpful comments from Epinions readers) helped me to determine that it was not my camera's LCD, nor the CCD. And when I finally got prints, I realized the problem is ... my computer monitor! (Grrrr. Admittedly, at 16 months old, mine is an ancient system.) So, back to the camera.
Body and Buttons
Holding this camera is a pleasure. I disagree with some other comments that it feels like cheap plastic. I find it a good size, good weight, and good grip. The buttons are much easier to navigate than those on my previous Olympus cams, and the on-screen menus are EXCELLENT. While I made perfunctory use of several features on previous cameras, the SP-350 makes them so easy to use, so quick to switch on and off, it's actually practical for a mom-on-the-run to take advantage of these features.
So far, my favorite feature is SCENE. The camera comes with 24 pre-set scenes, which sounds like overkill, but isn't. The litany includes standards like Portrait and Night modes plus specialties like Night Portrait and Underwater Macro. There's also a scene called Self Portrait, designed to be used when you stretch out your arm and turn the camera around to take a picture of yourself! (Well, people do it - now there's a button for it; and I urge folks to use it.) The "Scene" shots I've taken thus far have been great. (Haven't used Landscape or Under Water)
Screen and Viewfinder
The screen is B I G (2.5") and beautiful. While I felt having a viewfinder was important, I haven't had to use it yet as even in bright sunlight, the screen has sufficed.
Video is Good! Really Good!!
I recorded nearly 30 minutes of movies in a poorly-lit school gymnasium, and the quality is really, really good. (Frankly, I'd like to say great, but I've never seen a "great" quality home video.) I took the "movie" in short segments, varying from :20 sec to about two minutes.
Battery Life & other Practicalities
SP-350 runs on two AA batteries, and I didn't like that at first, thinking they'd die fast, and fill up landfills fast. HOWEVER, the cam comes with a lithium battery, which is supposed to take 120-150 shots. Standard AAs should take about 60-75 shots. (I can't verify either; I haven't tried AAs yet, and my lithium battery has so far recorded about 45 minutes of video and 30-50 stills.) I decided the AA batteries would be a good move, anyway, when I thought about traveling. I'd rather deal with AAs than my recharger. (The other cam I considered was the new SW, about the same price, runs on a rechargeable battery. SW also lacks a viewfinder, which factored into my decision, too.)
Someone commented that the neckstrap is uncomfortable. I disagree, and furthermore, it HAS a neckstrap. (The C-60 didn't, and I really missed it! Try juggling a toddler on your hip and a camera on a wrist strap at a soccer field or amusement park - augh!)
One of the interesting features of this camera (that I'll probably never use) is its hotshoe attachment for a flash. As noted above, even in a gymnasium, I was happy with the picture quality, and carrying an extra piece of equipment around to document my kids' activities isn't my cup of tea. But, some users might really dig it.
Silly User Errors ...?
Apparently, you have to turn the microphone ON when you record a movie, and OFF when you're done with the movie. When I left the microphone off, I ended up with a silent movie. When I left the mic on, I recorded a separate sound file with each (still) picture file, too, which ate up a lot of card space, increased time required to access the card (for the next shot), and nearly doubled download time.
Bottom line: For about $300 (watch for rebates), this is a camera with great features, and good enough performance to deliver REALLY GOOD snapshots without much effort, and to provide REALLY GREAT pix when you've got time to read the manual and a few extra seconds to use the easy-to-navigate menu settings.
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Amount Paid (US$): 300
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts