Chic simplicity belies smart functions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 12:00am

The Olympus AZ-1 is an attractive, compact and deceptively simple camera that most users will come to grips with in no time at all, even without a manual. In short, this is the digital camera your mother has been waiting for.

The reason its simplicity is deceptive is that the apparent lack of features actually hides some pretty smart functionality. Its designers have managed to get rid of almost every external control, moving them to the camera's software. But while most camera interfaces can be confusing to use, this one manages the challenge very well.

The most striking feature of the AZ-1 is its LCD display. At 2.5 inches, this is one of the largest on any camera, so to see it on such a compact system emphasises the size. The 215,000-pixel display has a 300:1 contrast ratio, and images can be viewed easily from almost any angle.

Besides being easy on the eyes, the LCD is big enough for Olympus to have built in some really useful menus. With 22 programme modes to choose from, the user can simply scroll through to find the right situation for a photograph. To help in the choice, each mode displays a photographic example and a brief description of what that mode does.

For example, there are settings for candlelight, snow and beach, or subjects behind glass.

Rather than using arrow keys that are common on many cameras, the AZ-1 uses a jog dial for functions such as scrolling through menus or browsing photos. This works well enough, though making the dial from rubber seems a strange choice.

Among the software features, pictures can be organised into photo albums on the storage card, making it much easier to transfer and name photographs when you move them to your PC. This feature can also be used to set up slideshows, and comes with four transition filters.

The 3x optical zoom lens, being completely built in, is by design, rather limited. But at 5.8mm by 17.4mm, it does allow some remarkably close zooming. The results are good, even for a 3.2-megapixel camera.

The AZ-1 also records continuous video with sound for as long as you have space on your memory card.

There are a couple of minor drawbacks to the camera. The lack of an optical viewfinder can be a problem in some circumstances. The lens cover feels as if it will eventually stop clipping on to the lens and the tripod mount is on the edge of the camera, making horizontal pictures very unlikely. But unless your mother is a big tripod fan, this is no great loss.

Olympus AZ-1


Price: $3,480

Pros: Great big LCD display, easy to use

Cons: No optical viewfinder, only 3.2 megapixels