2009 Super Zoom Shootout Review

Look and Feel

Size, build quality, and ergonomics all vary greatly between each of the four cameras in our group. The best designed camera in the test group (in my opinion) is the Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom. It's made mostly of plastic, but it doesn't feel cheap. The right hand grip is substantial and there's a dedicated spot for your thumb, allowing you to securely hold the camera with one hand. The SP-590 is the only camera in the group that has the memory card slot on the side of the camera, instead of in the battery compartment. My only complaint is that the buttons on the back of the camera are small and very close together.

The Coolpix P90 is the only camera with a adjustable LCD

The Nikon Coolpix P90 and Pentax X70 are so similar that I wonder if they're the same camera. They share the same lens and have nearly identical control placement. About the only differences are the Nikon's tilting LCD and the different batteries the cameras use. Who knows? Both are small, especially the Pentax, and they have grips to match. Control spacing is better on these two than on the Olympus, and everything operates just one function. Kudos to Nikon for using a metal (instead of plastic) tripod mount, though with both of these cameras, you won't be able to access the memory card while its on a tripod.

The EasyShare Z980 is my least favorite in terms of design, due mostly to its bulk and plasticky parts. Despite its size, its grip is on the smaller size. Some controls that are usually mapped to the four-way controller are on the top of the camera instead, and the adjustment dial is not easy to reach. I also found it easy to confuse the power and orientation switches, as they're right next to each other, and feel identical.

I compared the sizes of the four cameras in the table at the start of the review, and here's how they fit into the super zoom group as a whole:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS 5.0 x 3.5 x 3.6 in. 63 cu in. 585 g
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 in. 58.3 cu in. 560 g
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 4.8 x 3.2 x 3.3 in. 50.7 cu in. 483 g
Kodak EasyShare Z980 4.9 x 3.5 x 4.1 in. 70.3 cu in. 415 g
Nikon Coolpix P90 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.9 in. 57.9 cu in. 460 g
Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom 4.3 x 3.5 x 3.9 in. 58.7 cu in. 373 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5 in. 48.3 cu in. 370 g
Pentax X70 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.9 in. 54.9 cu in. 391 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 4.6 x 3.4 x 3.6 in. 56.3 cu in. 453 g

All of the cameras are on the larger end of the size spectrum, but the bulky Kodak wins the award for the largest super zoom on the market (and that's without its grip attached!). Weights are about average, with the Olympus at the bottom and the Nikon at the top.

Alright, let's start our tour of the cameras now -- use the tabs to switch between the photos of each camera.

The Kodak, Nikon, and Pentax all feature the exact same F2.8-5.0, 24X optical zoom lens. The lens carries the Pentax, Nikkor, and Schneider-Kreuznach names, which should remind you to take any lens branding with a grain or three of salt. This lens has a focal range of 4.6 - 110.4 mm, which is equivalent to a very impressive 26 - 624 mm. From indoor photos to bird watching, this lens has you covered. The three cameras do not support lens accessories of any kind.

The Olympus has an even more powerful lens. The SP-590's F2.8-5.0, 26X optical zoom lens has a focal range of 4.6 - 119.6 mm, equivalent to 26 - 676 mm. By using the optional conversion lens adapter and teleconverter, you can transform the camera into something resembling a telescope.

All four of the Super Zooms have sensor-shift image stabilization systems. Tiny movements of your hands can blur your photos, which is a huge issue when you have a camera with a super telephoto lens. The camera detects this motion, and actually shifts the CCD to compensate for it. It won't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second handheld exposures, but it's way better than nothing. I really wanted to do some kind of comparison between the various cameras to see if one has better image stabilization than the other, but I couldn't come up with anything remotely scientific (though I'm open to suggestions).

There are a few caveats to note about image stabilization and movie recording on these cameras. On the Olympus, you cannot record sound and use the stabilizer at the same time. On the Nikon and Pentax, only digital stabilization is available in movie mode. There's no stabilization of any kind in movie mode on the Kodak EasyShare Z980.

All four of the cameras in this group have pop-up flashes. The Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax flashes are released manually, while the one on the EasyShare Z980 is electronic. Comparing flash strength is nearly impossible, since two of the manufacturers don't provide standard numbers (I'm looking at you Kodak and Olympus). Here's all I can give provide:

Camera Flash strength Measured at
Kodak EasyShare Z980 6.2 m (W)
3.5 m (T)
ISO 400
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.5 - 8.0 m (W)
1.7 - 5.0 m (T)
Auto ISO
Olympus SP-590UZ 0.3 - 9.0 m (W)
1.7 - 5.0 m (T)
ISO 800
Pentax X70 0.2 - 9.1 m (W)
1.7 - 5.1 m (T)
Auto ISO

If you want to use an external flash, you'll have to use either the Kodak (which has a hot shoe) or the Olympus (which supports wireless flashes).

All four of the cameras feature AF-assist lamps and front-mounted microphones, as well. For those who don't know, an AF-assist lamp is used by a camera as a focusing aid in low light situations.

The first thing I want to talk about here are the LCDs on each of the camera. The Kodak and Nikon both have large 3-inch screens, with the former having 201,000 pixels and the latter 230,000. The screen on the Nikon can pull away from the back of the camera, and then tilt up more than 90 degrees, or down about 45 degrees. This comes in handy when you're holding the camera above or below you. The Olympus and Pentax screens are smaller, though they have the same resolution as their larger counterparts. Outdoors, the Olympus' screen was a bit easier to see than the others, and its refresh rate was noticeably better. In low light, I found the Olympus and Nikon to be the easiest to see, followed by the Pentax and Kodak.

Each of the cameras also have electronic viewfinders, or EVFs. These are tiny LCD screens that you view as if they were an optical viewfinder. You can see 100% of the frame and view the same information than you can see on the main LCD. Unfortunately, they're nowhere near as large, bright, or sharp as the real thing.

As with the flash, the camera manufacturers divulge as little information about their respective EVFs as possible. Olympus provides neither the size nor the resolution of their viewfinder. Kodak and Pentax don't list the size, but give a resolution of 201,000 and 200,000 pixels, respectively. Only Nikon tells you both the size (0.24") and resolution (230k pixel). The Pentax and Kodak viewfinders both use LCoS technology, so you may notice a "rainbow effect" when you blink or quickly pan the camera around. Something those two cameras don't feature is a diopter correction knob, so those of you who don't have perfect vision, beware.

Everything else on the back of these cameras is fairly standard. There's the usual four-way controller and collection of buttons (menu, playback, delete, display), and the EasyShare Z980 has its zoom controller here, as well. Some of the more unique buttons include:

  • EasyShare Z980: Share button tags a photo as a favorite and can also select it for automatic upload to your favorite online photo sharing site
  • SP-590: Custom button (the small one above the Menu button) can serve many functions; Shadow Adjustment button (lower-right) turns on this image brightening feature
  • X70: Dedicated button for turning face detection and smile capture on and off; "green button" switches to an "easy" shooting mode and can be customized to perform other duties

The first thing I'd like to point out in the top view of the four cameras is the hot shoe on the EasyShare Z980. The only other camera that supports an external flash is the Olympus SP-590UZ, though that's wireless only. It'll allow better flash exposure (especially if you "bounce" the light) and less chance of redeye.

Next let's go over what options each of these cameras has on their respective mode dials:

Shooting mode EasyShare Z980 Coolpix P90 SP-590UZ X70
Auto mode Yes Yes Yes Yes
Program mode Yes Yes, with Program Shift Yes Yes, with Program Shift
Shutter priority mode 16 - 1/2000 sec 8 - 1/2000 sec 4 - 1/1000 sec 4 - 1/4000 sec
Aperture priority mode F2.8 - F8.0 F2.8 - F8.0 F2.8 - F8.0 F2.8 - F8.0
Full manual (M) mode Same as above Same as above Same apertures, 15 - 1/2000 sec, bulb mode Same as above
Custom modes None Two One One
Scene modes Eighteen * Fifteen * Twenty Twenty-one *
Panorama mode Yes Yes (scene mode) Yes (via menu) ** Yes (scene mode)
Movie mode Yes Yes Yes Yes
* Camera can select a scene mode automatically
** Requires Olympus-branded xD card

As you can see, all four cameras have similar shooting modes. Three of them have auto scene selection modes, and all have manual exposure controls. Each of the cameras have panorama modes as well, and both the Kodak and Pentax models can actually stitch together the images in real-time. Some of the notable scene modes include:

  • EasyShare Z980: Manner/museum (quiet, no flash), stage (less blur, more brightness, no flash)
  • Coolpix P90: Sport continuous (low res/high speed burst with ability to save images before shutter release is pressed)
  • SP-590UZ: Beauty mode (improves skin tones and reduces blemishes), multiple exposure (combine two shots into one), smile shot (smile detection)
  • X70: Half-length portrait (head and shoulders shot), frame composite (put a virtual frame around your subject), digital wide (stitches two images together to create a wider angle image)

There are a couple of scene modes to watch out for on some of the cameras. It's best to avoid any digital anti-shake and high sensitivity modes, as they rely on boosting the ISO, which lowers image quality dramatically.

Since three of the four cameras have their zoom controllers on their top side, I can't think of a better time for a little zoom speed face-off. Here's how quickly you can zoom in and out with the four Super Zooms, and how precise the lens movement is:

Camera Zoom travel time Steps in zoom range
Kodak EasyShare Z980 1.1 secs 16 steps
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.9 secs 22 steps
Olympus SP-590UZ 0.8 secs 52 steps
Pentax X70 1.1 secs * 16 steps
* With "Quick Zoom" enabled

The Olympus wins by a nose in the speed department, and big time when it comes to zoom precision. Despite sharing the same lens as the Kodak and Pentax, the Coolpix P90 zooms faster and has more steps in the zoom range, though the controller is too sensitive, in my opinion. The Kodak and Pentax don't have nearly enough steps -- you go from 16X to 20X with a light tap of the controller.

The left side view of the four Super Zooms is fairly similar. Here you'll find such things as the flash release button, speaker, and in the case of the Olympus and Pentax, the I/O ports.

While all four of the cameras have USB and A/V output, only the SP-590UZ offers an HDMI port, which you can use to connect to an HDTV. The cable is not included.

All the cameras have their lenses are the wide-angle position here.

You'll find the I/O ports for the Kodak and Nikon here, plus the memory card slot in the case of the SP-590UZ. While I could knock Olympus all day for still using xD cards, at least they were thoughtful enough to put the slot on the side of the camera, instead of down with the batteries.

The lenses are at full telephoto in these photos.

At last, we've reached the bottom of our four test subjects. Each of the cameras have off-center tripods, and all but the Nikon's are made of plastic. Since the Kodak, Nikon, and Pentax cameras all have their memory card slots down here, you won't be able to get to them when the camera is on a tripod.

As you can see, the Kodak and Olympus use AAs, while the Nikon and Pentax use proprietary lithium-ion batteries.

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