The Olympus E-500 is a mixed bag with plenty of things going for it, but equally a number of aspects which could be considered deal-breakers by some photographers. Highlights include the SSWF anti-dust system, an impressively high level of information and control for a budget body, along with an increasing number of high quality lenses.
On the downside though, the anti-dust process imposes a serious delay every time the camera powers up, the motorised manual focusing (and lack of anti-shake options) could seriously infuriate some photographers, the lack of detail when zooming during playback is disappointing, while the view through the viewfinder has to be one of the smallest from any digital SLR; it's also a missed opportunity not to automatically switch off the monitor when you go to compose a shot.
Viewed in isolation, many of the bad points could easily outweigh the good ones for some people, but to truly measure the E-500 you have to compare it against the competition. As our tests show, the eight megapixel E-500 out-resolves rival six megapixel digital SLRs and compares well with the popular Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT. Canon's sensor and image processing may continue to enjoy an edge on noise levels, but the E-500 still performs well.
Interestingly, while the E-500's roughly the same size as the Canon, improved ergonomics make it more comfortable to hold, and of course it also sports a considerably larger screen. Throw in the anti-dust system and you've got a camera which looks strong against the competition.
Probably the most compelling aspect though are the lens bundles. In the UK, the E-500 body alone carries a recommended price of £580. The cheapest lens bundle with the 17.5-45mm comes in at £600, while another £20 gets you the slightly wider 14-45mm lens instead. So far so good, but for just £675 you'll get both the 14-45mm and 40-150mm giving you an effective range equivalent to 28-300mm for less than £100 more than the body price alone.
To be fair, most budget digital SLR bundles come across as cheap compared to the body-only price, but the Olympus twin lens package remains undoubtedly good value. The best part is you can happily switch between the two lenses without ever worrying about getting dust on the sensor. Make sure you check exactly which lenses are being offered by your supplier though, as some substitute the Zuiko Digital models for others.
So is it a better camera than the 350D? In terms of handling and ultimate image quality we'd have to say not. The delayed startup, motorised focusing, current lack of anti-shake options, restricted playback zoom and tiny viewfinder will also rule out the E-500 for some.
But it must be said the overall image quality is very good, the affordable twin lens bundle will cover most eventualities, while that short delay at startup ensures you'll rarely if ever worry about dust - and that's something the 350D/Rebel XT and its rivals can only dream of. That said, anyone seriously considering the E-500 should also compare it with Panasonic's long-awaited digital SLR. This camera also employs the FourThirds standard and we look forward to seeing if Panasonic's managed to address the E-500's shortcomings while retaining its best aspects.