Olympus has had much success with their extended zoom cameras, reaching the incredibly long range of 20x optical without sacrificing quality, style, or ease-of-use. Their SP-570 UZ, which I reviewed very positively several months ago, is probably my favorite digital camera of 2008, as it combined the power and versatility of the high-end with the comfort and approachability of a more modest camera.
The Olympus SP-565 UZ is cut from similar cloth, but leans far more heavily toward the casual, point-and-shoot photographer. It's clear from looking at the SP-565 UZ that Olympus put an emphasis on portability. For an extended zoom camera, the SP-565 UZ is exceptionally small and light. Having recently reviewed Canon's all new SX10 IS, which also boasts 20x optical zoom and a design seemingly geared toward mainstream photographers, I couldn't help but draw many comparisons between the two (as I'm sure most consumers will do as they consider which zoom camera best suits them).
Design: Light and Solid
When it comes to size, the diminutive Olympus SP-565UZ is well ahead of the clunky, surprisingly heavy Canon SX10 IS. The SP-565 feels like it could be easily tucked into a bag or coat pocket, while the SX10 IS is a hefty gadget that almost certainly requires a neck strap while in use. The former allows you to ignore the camera and focus on the action, while the latter requires constant attention and adjustment to support its weight and girth. In fact, the SX10 IS feels larger and heavier than even the SP-570 UZ did.
Olympus is making a statement with the SP-565 UZ: that a powerful, advanced camera need not be large or cumbersome. It's a sentiment that consumers are going to have to catch up with themselves. The idea that improvements in size and weight can be made without sacrifices in image quality or performance is not one people are used to. And there are some sacrifices on the SP-565 UZ, though most are simply cosmetic.
For example, the SLR-like manually controlled zoom ring that operated the 20x lens on the SP-570 UZ has been eliminated, unfortunately, and replaced with a toggle lever familiar to point-and-shoot users. The Canon SX10 also uses this kind of zoom control. Though the SP-565 lacks the in-your-face ergonomics of the SX10, its slightly bulging grip is more than enough of a handle on the camera, and buttons are arranged sparsely and with the thumb well in mind. It's design is far less overwhelming than the SX10.
Overall, the SP-565 UZ is a responsive camera that's easy to use and takes fairly impressive photographs. The image quality is on par with that of the SP-570 UZ, as is the variety of features and functions available to the photographer. The SP-565 UZ features an 'auto' mode, as well as aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual modes, making it a capable camera in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it.
The 20x optical zoom is, like the SP-570's 20x lens, exquisite, capable of taking very detailed long-range shots that look gorgeous. Olympus's image stabilization works very well in reducing the effects of natural shakes and jitters, eliminating any worry of blurring or slurring that might accompany such a long lens.
One minor caveat: the camera's 2.5-inch LCD display, while spacious enough, seemed to lack brightness and vivacity. When viewed through the LCD, scenes took on a somewhat darker than natural hue, and the screen's viewing angle is very shallow, meaning only direct viewing will provide an adequate portrayal of your subjects.
If you're in the market for an extended zoom camera with advanced photographic capabilities that's still comfortable and approachable enough for a novice, the Olympus SP-565 UZ is an excellent choice. The streamlined, efficient design makes it a perfectly portable camera, and gives it an advantage over the competition. Though the slightly larger SP-570 UZ is still a superior camera, and the reductions in size have necessitated a few sacrifices, you'll be hard pressed to find a comparable camera in this class.