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The design of Olympus' latest camera needs very little introduction - it has been used on a number of the Japanese optical company's cameras before. In fact, the C-990 shares the same shape and many features with the C-960 Zoom that we tested in last issue. The main selling point remains the powerful 3x zoom. The main difference is the more powerful CCD chip, increasing the number of pixels to 2.1 million. It is interesting to note that as this model is just 80 more expensive than its brother, the extra 800,000 pixels cost just a hundredth of a penny each!
The 35-105mm zoom is hidden completely from sight when not in use - and is hidden behind a large sliding door that covers the front of the camera. When this is opened, the lens creeps out of its shell ready for action. This seems like a clever idea, as this cover effectively works as an on/off switch. But there are disadvantages. To turn the camera off you have to shut the cover - but obviously the lens is in the way - so you wait a frustrating second or so as the zoom gets out of the way.
This would not be such an awful thing - but you have to close the cover to be able to review what you have just shot. Not only does this waste valuable time as you check whether you have the shot that you wanted - but it also uses up the limited power provided by the AA batteries. are also slightly concerned that it is all too easy to press the playback button when carrying the camera around.
The on-screen information when using the camera also leaves a lot to be desired. Difficult-to-understand, intricate icons are used when more meaningful, clear-cut instructions are needed. We hate to admit this in print, but we accidentally deleted all the pictures on the card at one point - simply because the icon for removing every shot is remarkably similar to that of the icon for off-loading a single picture. On other cameras such a faux pas is almost impossible as text prompts and confirmation messages ensure that you know what you are doing.
Such handling difficulties are a disappointment, as this is otherwise an excellent specified camera. To have such a powerful lens in such a portable shell is not commonplace.
Manual overrides on the camera are proficient, but not excessive. Picture brightness can only be changed using exposure compensation - although two different metering modes are provided. Olympus' 'ESP' metering was first introduced onto its SLRs in the 80s - comparing a central spot meter value with readings from the perimeters of the picture it can automatically correct for backlighting. Spot metering is also available on its own. The AF system can be defeated using presets for 2.5m and infinity; the buttons for these are on the back of the camera and have to be pressed in whilst shooting to have an effect. Four white balance settings are also provided - and the flash offers several modes once it is pushed up manually.
Olympus have been rather stingy with the leads for this camera. You get a serial lead for a PC - but you have to buy an optional connector if you want this to work on a Mac. There is no USM support - although an optional reader could be used instead.
The camera produces amazingly detailed pictures, which can be better than any digital camera at this price. However, a proportion of our pictures were let down by inaccurate focusing from the camera - and the macro mode was particularly poor in this respect. The colour balance on foliage and other natural tones was superb - but with brighter man- made colours the hues were not as punchy as we would hope for.
The C-990 Zoom is not for the faint-hearted - as the operating difficulties mean you need patience, and a good familiarity with the controls. However, the size of the camera and the 3x zoom still give the camera appeal.
- 3x zoom
- Small size
- Cumbersome playback
- Poor on-screen menus
- No Mac or USB cables
Test by Chris George