The Bottom Line
Placing an 18X zoom lens in a camera in the sub-$200 price range makes the Olympus SZ-10 a really good option. (Olympus dropped the suggested price of the SZ-10 by more than 10% just before I began my review.) You won't find many cameras that can match such strong telephoto capabilities in this price point.
The biggest drawback with the SZ-10 is an autofocus mechanism that results in some photos being a bit soft. If you're planning to print extremely large photos with your camera, you may want to look elsewhere. However, for smaller prints and for Internet-only photos, the SZ-10's soft focus won't be noticeable most of the time. If you stick to outdoor photos and indoor photos shot with a flash, you'll have pretty good results. Low light photos are not the friend of the SZ-10.
The SZ-10 is a nice camera and performs well. It doesn't really excel in any area, other than offering such a strong zoom lens. However, at this price point, that makes this camera a really good option for a beginner looking for a small, inexpensive model with a big zoom lens.
Image quality is pretty good with the SZ-10 overall, especially for a camera in its price range. As long as the lighting is pretty good or you're using a flash, your photos will turn out well. If the light is a little low, though, camera shake and blurry photos are likely. I would suggest using the flash quite often with indoor photos.
The good results with flash photos occur, in part, because of its popup flash unit, which provides better quality than a built-in flash unit. The flash doesn't work unless you choose to extend it, and I thought it fired automatically in appropriate situations. It doesn't seem to fire needlessly, which can cause glare spots on your images.
I was a little disappointed with the sharpness of the autofocus. I felt like the focus was just a little soft too often, especially in low light photos. When shooting outdoors or with a flash, this softness isn't something you'll notice on smaller prints or when looking at images on a computer screen, but you'll see it in large prints. And, if you're shooting in low light with no flash, the softness is noticeable on almost any type of print.
Olympus typically includes quite a few fun special effect features with its cameras, and the SZ-10 is no exception. You can shoot with effects such as watercolor, pop art, drawing, punk, and sparkle on any photo. Using special effects as you shoot greatly slows down the camera's performance levels, but they can be fun to use.
I like that Olympus included seven different resolution settings within the 4:3 aspect ratio, allowing you to match the resolution to the way you're going to use the photo. With the SZ-10's 16:9 widescreen aspect radio, you have two resolution options, and no other aspect ratios are available, unfortunately.
When shooting movies, you can shoot at three resolutions, with a maximum of 720p HD video. The large zoom lens is not available when shooting movies, unfortunately.
The 18X optical zoom lens is a key feature in the SZ-10, and it moves through its entire zoom range quickly and smoothly.
The camera's response times are pretty good when the light is adequate, although I noticed some slight shot to shot delays, especially when the zoom is fully extended or when using the flash. With flash photos in particular, you will see "busy" displayed on the screen after each photo quite often. You can turn off the photo playback review feature to make it easier to shoot multiple photos in a row.
As I was using the camera, it seemed like the SZ-10's autofocus struggled a bit in low light and with extreme closeups. These autofocus issues can bring forward some problems with shutter lag. However, having some delays in autofocus and between shots is common in large zoom cameras, and the SZ-10's issues here aren't unexpected.
When shooting extreme closeups with the SZ-10, I had the most success when using the camera's Super Macro setting, which, unfortunately, isn't available in the iAuto mode. Super Macro creates sharp images, but it does introduce some shutter lag.
I thought the SZ-10's automatic panoramic mode worked well, and it allows you to shoot horizontal or vertical panoramic photos, which is a really cool feature. This feature does work very slowly, though, as the camera must do quite a bit of processing on the images after you shoot them.
You can prefocus with this model by holding down the shutter button halfway. As an added advantage, when you're shooting in iAuto or P modes, the camera will display the shutter speed and aperture it has selected for the scene. If you don't like the automatic selections, you can change them manually, so it's nice to have this information pop up on the screen.
The SZ-10's design is a bit like the Olympus SZ-30MR, as both cameras are small models with large zoom lenses. The SZ-10 doesn't quite have as large a zoom lens as the SZ-30MR -- 18X versus 24X -- but the SZ-10 carries a much lower price.
The SZ-10 is pretty comfortable to use, and it's easy to use this camera one-handed, thanks to a large handgrip for your right hand. There's a raised area on the back for your right thumb, too.
The top panel has a power button, shutter button, zoom ring, and popup flash. The back panel contains a four-way dial, a movie button, a menu button, and a help button, along with the LCD.
The SZ-10's LCD screen is of a high quality, and you can pick from up to five brightness settings, which makes it easier to shoot outside when the sun is causing some screen glare. It would've been nice if the LCD had a slightly wider screen, but it's a nice LCD for a camera in this price range.
With more cameras starting to take on some of the fun aspects of smartphones, Olympus has included three different sound collections that you can pick from with the SZ-10. Some people will find this feature annoying, while others will think it's fun. I prefer to mute all of the camera's sounds, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
On the topic of sounds, the SZ-10 model I reviewed made a quite a bit of stray noise, even when I had the camera set to silent mode. My test camera made a lot of "whirring" noises as it focused, and whenever the flash was used, it made a loud "popping" sound. In terms of working noise, it was one of the loudest cameras I've tested in a long time. I can't say for sure if every SZ-10 model makes these noises, but, if silent photography is important to you, consider testing this model before you buy it to see whether these noises occur throughout the product line.
One area where the SZ-10's value slips a little bit is in the fact that you must charge the battery inside the camera. If you want a separate charger, you'll have to purchase one.