2009 Super Zoom Shootout Review
Originally Posted: July 17, 2009
Last Updated: August 4, 2009
One of the fastest growing segments in digital photography is the "super zoom" category. These cameras, with lenses greater han 18X, offer an incredible zoom range in fairly compact bodies. If you even could, an equivalent lens for a digital SLR would not only be very expensive, it would weight a ton. Other common features on super zoom cameras include large LCDs, manual controls, and all the usual point-and-shoot features (face detection, scene modes, etc.).
In this article I will compare four super zoom cameras: the Kodak EasyShare Z980, Nikon Coolpix P90, Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom, and the Pentax X70. This review will be different than what you're used to seeing on the DCRP site. It will be higher level, with very little time spent on mundane details like software bundles and menu options. I'll compare and contrast the four cameras in several areas, including what's in the box, design and ergonomics, features, performance, and photo quality.
Let's start with an overview of the four cameras:
Don't worry, there will be a lot more comparison tables as this article progresses. Ready to see these four Super Zooms go head-to-head? Then keep reading, our special review starts right now!
What's in the Box?
Not surprisingly, all four cameras have similar bundles. Here's what you'll find in the box for each:
None of the cameras include memory cards. Instead, they have memory built right in, ranging from 22MB on the Olympus to 47MB on the Kodak and Nikon. You'll certainly want to add more memory, and all of the cameras except for the SP-590UZ support SD and SDHC cards. Olympus is still stubbornly hanging onto the slow, low capacity xD Picture Card format, though you can use MicroSD cards via an included adapter, if you wish. Regardless of which camera you pick, I'd suggest a 2GB card at the minimum. Spending a little extra on a high speed card isn't a bad idea, though there's no need to go overboard.
Two of the cameras in our group are powered by AA batteries, while the other two use proprietary lithium-ion batteries. Olympus includes alkaline batteries in the box, which will quickly run out of juice and end up in your recycling bin. That means that you'll need to buy a set or two of NiMH rechargeables, plus a charger, in order to get the most out of the camera. Kodak, on the other hand, includes rechargeables in the box, plus a charger. The batteries aren't the most powerful out there, and the charger is very slow, but it's better than nothing. The Nikon and Pentax both use lithium-ion rechargeables, with 4.1 Wh and 3.5 Wh worth of energy, respectively. It takes about two hours to charge each of the camera's batteries using their included chargers. Keep in mind that unlike the AA-based cameras, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when the lithium-ion battery on the P90 or X70 dies.
Here's a look at how these four cameras compare to other super zoom cameras in terms of battery life:
As you can see, the Pentax and Nikon are holding up the rear in the battery life department. It's hard to compare the Olympus with the other cameras, since they used alkaline batteries to come up with the 340 shot number. If history is any indication, using powerful NiMH batteries should yield numbers of over 500 shots per charge, though.
The Kodak EasyShare Z980 with its included vertical grip attached
The other accessories that come with each of the four Super Zooms are standard issue. The one exception is the vertical grip that comes with the Kodak EasyShare Z980. Just screw it on to the bottom of the camera and you can now shoot a bit more comfortably in the portrait orientation. You will have to flip a switch in order to activate the vertical buttons, though -- why they couldn't use an orientation sensor is beyond me. I should also point out that you won't have access to the memory card slot when the grip is attached.
There are just a couple of optional accessories worth mentioning. For the Kodak EasyShare Z980 there's an external flash (priced from $110) as well as an A/V cable (should be a standard feature, but it's not). The Olympus SP-590 is the only one of the cameras that supports conversion lenses, with an available 1.7X teleconverter lens available ($150). This adapter (TCON-17) brings the telephoto end of the lens up to an incredible 1149.2 mm! You'll need to buy the CLA-11 conversion lens adapter (priced from $30) as well, which also allows for the use of 55 mm filters. All four cameras have optional AC adapters as well as the requisite camera case.
Below is a very brief summary of the various software packages included with each of the cameras. Use the tabs to switch between cameras.
Kodak's EasyShare software is one of the oldest and best photo organizers out there. The Windows version is a bit more advanced than the Mac product, offering full integration with their EasyShare Gallery service, but the basics are quite similar.
The main screen has the usual thumbnail view, and here you can quickly print or e-mail photos, burn them to a CD or DVD, or view them in a slideshow. Photos can be tagged and rated, which makes sorting through them a bit easier. You can upload photos and videos directly to EasyShare Gallery and YouTube, if you wish. You can also create greeting cards and other fun projects using EasyShare.
Editing features include auto enhancement, redeye removal, brightness/contrast and hue/saturation adjustment, and more. The software gives you a handy split-screen view so you can get a before and after view of the edits you're making.
Both the Mac and Windows versions of EasyShare can open the RAW files produced by the Z980, but only the Windows software can edit them (and just a little bit). However, the edits aren't saved in the RAW files, and when you convert the file to a JPEG, the resolution is dramatically reduced. You'll want to use Photoshop and its Camera Raw plug-in instead.
The main part of the Nikon software package is called View NX. It's pretty basic software, with photo tagging and ranking, printing and e-mailing, and slideshows. You can also upload photos to Nikon's my Picturetown service.
Editing features are fairly limited: you can adjust sharpness, color, brightness, highlights,and shadows. You can also use the D-Lighting feature to brighten dark areas of your photos. Normally, you can only see the changes on the selected thumbnail, so head to the View menu and select "Image Viewer" for a larger size.
Olympus has been bundling good quality software with their cameras for quite a long time. Though it's getting a bit old, their Olympus Master software is still very capable. Like the other software products I'm covering here, Olympus Master has the standard thumbnail view of photos, and you can organize things by date or into albums. E-mailing and printing is a snap, and you also view a slideshow.
Editing functions include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made. The software also allows you to stitch panoramas together.
Pentax doesn't make their own software -- instead they give you ACDSee 9 Photo Manager (for Windows) and MAC. The Windows version is excellent, featuring a ton of tools for organizing and editing your photos. You can edit brightness, levels, shadows and highlights, color levels, remove redeye and color casts, and reduce noise -- just to name a few things. Naturally, there are functions for e-mailing and printing photos, as well as viewing them in a slideshow.
The Mac version (ACDSee 2) doesn't do nearly as much. It's pretty much just an image browser, with no real editing capabilities. Mac users will be better off using iPhoto.
Documentation varies greatly from camera-to-camera. Kodak's manual is definitely the most user-friendly, but 1) you need to download the full manual from Kodak's website and 2) the manual isn't terribly detailed. The Nikon and Pentax manuals are more detailed than the Kodak's, though not as easy to read. The Olympus manual is probably the worst: it's short, with small type and lots of "notes" on each page.