DCRP Review: Olympus D-490Z
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Monday, August 21, 2000
Last Updated: Sunday, October 1, 2000

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There are success stories, then there are success stories. For Olympus, their D-400 series of digital cameras has been a big hit with consumers. People are instantly drawn to D-400 series, thanks to their resemblance to regular 35mm point-and-shoot cameras. They've also taken great pictures and had a 3X optical zoom (where most lower cost cameras used a digital zoom). With the new $499 D-490 Zoom, Olympus has bumped up the resolution to 2.1 Megapixel, added Movie mode, as well as a host of features found on much more expensive cameras. Has Olympus hit this one out of the park too?

What's in the Box?

The D-490Z has an average bundle included with the camera:

  • The 2.1 Mpixel Olympus D-490Z camera
  • 8MB SmartMedia card
  • Two CR-3V "long life" lithium batteries (non-rechargeable)
  • Wrist strap
  • Serial cables for Mac and PC
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus CamediaMaster software
  • User guides (three languages)

The issues I have in this section are just about the only complaints I have with this camera. And here they go:

  1. Why only an 8MB card? It couldn't cost that much more for a 16MB card, could it? Folks, if you buy this camera, you'll want to get a decent sized cards if you want to take more than 16 HQ photos.

  2. While Olympus' long life Li-ion batteries are impressive, they're no substitute for rechargeables. I'd love to see Olympus include them here, but since they don't, buy yourself a set of NiMH batteries.

  3. No USB support is included. The D-490Z inherited lots of features from it's more expensive siblings, but USB was not one of them. Get yourself a card reader to resolve this problem (serial is way too slow).

I can forgive Olympus for the first two, but leaving out USB seems like a no-no to me. You can resolve all these issues yourself, of course, with your credit card.

The great design of the D-490Z means the lens is always covered when the camera is not in use. And no messy lens caps, either!

I've covered Olympus' CamediaMaster v2.0 software in the past, and I won't rehash it here. Look at our Olympus C-3030Z vs. Nikon Coolpix 990 review for the scoop on that.

Olympus provides three different manuals - one in English, one in French, and the other in Spanish. Olympus' manuals have been improving in quality recently.

Look and Feel

The Olympus D-490Z is exceedingly well-designed. It feels solid, everything is well-placed, and it's not too hard on the eyes, either. The camera's dimensions are 5" x 2.6" x 2.1", and it weighs 9.5 ounces when empty. It fits well in the hand, with plenty of room for the right hand, and some spots for your left hand as well (just make sure you don't cover the flash). Let's begin our tour with the back of the camera:

The first thing that sticks out on the back of the camera is the 1.8" LCD display. Well not terribly bright, it's clear and smooth. There is no way to adjust the LCD brightness in record mode -- you need to use playback mode to do this. The LCD is off by default, which saves batteries. Nose smudging will be a problem when you use the optical viewfinder.

Speaking of which, the optical viewfinder includes diopter correction, for those with less than perfect vision.

To the right of the LCD are several buttons, most of which are used for navigating the menu system. The up and down buttons on the four-way switch also double as quick focus buttons -- for infinity and 8 feet respectively. The topmost round button turns the LCD on and off, toggles between record and play mode, and also turns on play mode when the lens cover is shut.

Above that button (and a bit hard to see) are buttons that are used in both record and playback mode. From left to right: Flash, self-timer, and macro/infinity in record mode, and trash, DPOF, and Protect in play mode.

Onto the top of the camera now, where it's business as usual. The LCD info display tells you basic settings about quality, flash, battery status, and remaining photos. To the right of that is the shutter release, which gives good tactile feedback. Just right of that is the zoom lever. While there's a small delay before the lens reacts, the 3X optical zoom is smooth and accurate.

On one side of the camera are ports for DC in, video out, and serial out. Sure wish there was a USB port here too! The door covering these ports stays shut, and is well built.

On the other side is the SmartMedia slot, with the included 8MB card shown. While the door is solid, it's easy to open accidentally (though the card won't fall out). To remove the SmartMedia card, you just grab it and pull it out.

And finally, the bottom of the camera. There you'll find the battery compartment, as well as a plastic tripod mount.

Using the Olympus D-490Z

I'm going to discuss record mode (with the movie function) and playback mode in this section.

Record Mode

It takes just about three seconds for the camera to extend the lens and "boot up" before you can take any pictures. The LCD display doesn't turn on by default, so you'll want to turn it on yourself. Keep in mind that using the LCD will drain your batteries faster than not using it!

Simplicity is the word when taking photos in record mode

The D-490Z is a point-and-shoot camera, so it's easy to use. There isn't any mode wheel, and there are few confusing options to deal with. There are no preprogrammed settings on this camera like on some (Casio most notably) -- just stills and movies, and a few options for each.

Recycle time (between shots) is a bit less than 2 seconds -- which means you can quickly shoot, recompose, and shoot again. The D-490Z seems to be as fast as the C-2020Z that I use occasionally. There was no noticeable lag in focusing or releasing the shutter.

The menus, while well-designed, have little icons that are a bit confusing at first glance. Your choices in the menus in record mode are:

  • Exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV)
  • Metering (ESP and spot)
  • Quality/Resolution (SHQ-TIFF, SHQ, HQ, SQ-HIGH, SQ)
  • White Balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent)
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • "Drive" (single shot, continuous shooting)
  • Function shooting (Movie mode, Panorama Mode)
  • Sharpness (Soft, Normal)
  • File naming and other settings

A few notes on some of these. First, SHQ-TIFF is indeed an uncompressed TIFF mode. You'll only get one of these on that 8MB card though. Panorama mode only works when you have an Olympus-brand SmartMedia card inserted.

In movie mode, you have your choice of two resolutions: 320 x 240, or 160 x 120. You can record for up to 15 and 60 seconds in these modes, respectively. These are silent movies, as no sound is recorded. One nice in-camera feature is an editing mode, where you can trim the beginning or end off a movie you've recorded. Below is a short sample movie:

Click to play movie (2.2MB, 7 seconds, Quicktime format)

The next test is our usual macro test, as you'll see below. The white balancing wasn't great, under an incandescent light here.

And finally, how about not one, but two night shots? The usual spot at Twin Peaks was fogged in, so I tried St. Ignatius Church at USF. There's no night scene mode on this camera -- I used slow sync on the first, and just did a handheld shot on the other one. The sky seemed awfully black for San Francisco, but there isn't any noise to be found.

Playback Mode

Olympus has a pretty good playback mode on the D-490Z. It takes around 3 seconds to move between photos, which is a bit slower than average these days. You can zoom into your photos up to 3X, and you can scroll around in them. There's also slideshows, movie viewing, DPOF printing support, and thumbnail mode.

You can delete one photo, or all of them, but not a group. There is no way to get any extra info about your photos such as exposure settings.

Here you can see some menu options in playback mode

You can adjust the LCD brightness in playback mode, which is strange, since you can't do it in record mode.

I already mentioned the video editing feature, which lets you trim your videos to get rid of any useless footage.

All in all, a typical playback mode -- which is a good thing.

How Does it Compare?

I can say with confidence that Olympus has another hit on their hands. They've taken the already popular D-400 series and added a much needed 2.1 Megapixel CCD, plus some nice features usually not found on midrange cameras, like an uncompressed TIFF mode. My main gripe is the lack of USB support, which can be resolved by purchasing a card reader. If you're looking for a great $500 digital camera, look no more - the D-490Z is a great choice.

What I liked:

  • Great design
  • Good photos day and night
  • Uncompressed TIFF mode
  • Quicktime movie mode
  • Easy to learn & use

What needs work:

  • No USB support!
  • Skimpy 8MB SmartMedia card, no rechargeable batteries
  • No sound in movies

The D-490Z is in the pretty busy midrange camera market. Other cameras to consider are the Olympus D-460Z (which now costs $399), Canon PowerShot S10, Casio QV-2000UX, Kodak DC3400 (review coming soon), and the Sony DSC-S50.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try these cameras yourself before you make any purchases.

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out Steve's Digicams review of the D-490Z.

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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