The Olympus VG-170 is a budget digital compact that sports some beefy-looking specification, but what exactly is it you get for a penny shy of £100, and is it any good? Doug Harman finds out.
Olympus’ VG-170 looks, at first glance, just like many of the other point and shoot digital cameras on the market, and to a degree it is. But this 14-megapixel compact has a better range of features and higher resolution than any camera you’d have been able to buy just a few ears back for double the price.
But there are a couple of other things that make the VG-170 stand out from the oh so crowded marketplace apart from an eye catching price point and high-resolution sensor.
The first is the sub £100 price tag another is a powerful flash system (for a camera of this ilk) that Olympus claims can illuminate up to 15-meters thanks to a guide number (GN) of 8.8, almost double that of many other compacts. And last up is a neat 3D mode, more of which later.
Olympus VG-170 Review – Design and Features
What you’ll get for your £99.99 (though expect to pay around £80 online and by shopping around) is a sleek camera with an all plastic body that feel solid enough in the hand, that is in all but the sculpted hand grip, which seems rather hollow. It’s not though because this grip houses the camera’s Li-50B rechargeable battery pack and the SD/SDHC memory card.
The camera is otherwise very thin at just 22.2mm and yet it still manages to cram in a 5x optical zoom lens with the equivalent focal range (in 35mm terms) to 26-130mm. This is backed up with a 4x digital zoom but as always, I’d advise you leave that alone and stick to adjusting the crop on PC later (effectively all a digital zoom does is crop into the centre of the sensor to varying degrees, and blowing that bit up) where you have more control and the chance to make a better fist of any adjustments you might want to make.
The maximum aperture available is a respectably bright F/2.8 shooting at the wide, 26mm end of the zoom. However, things are less bright at full zoom, where the maximum aperture drops to just F/6.5, which makes that big flash all the more important since you could be needing it a lot even with bumping the sensitivity up higher in low light or at longer focal lengths.
In terms of controls, the camera has a simple top plate with just an on/off button and shutter release with encircling zoom lever. The back is dominated by a relatively 460k-dot 3-inch colour display with a protective coating.
To its right are nestled the playback, menu and four-way jog controls with the ‘OK’ button that sits in its middle. A direct movie record button sits at the top right of the camera’s back, completes the control complement, and allows you to quickly shoot movies without having to tinker elsewhere in menus for example.
All the controls are large and easy to use, the movie record button being a little too easy to activate, as I found it’s easy to accidentally hit the button with your thumb shooting one handed, say. As a result, I had a few odd snatches of unwanted video of my feet and the sky.
In terms of other kit the VG-170 comes armed with a shutter speed range that in all shooting modes other than some Scene modes, starts at half a second; more than a little limiting if shooting night scenes, say, and if you simply wanted to shoot a long exposure at night on a tripod.
Longer shutter speeds are available in some Scene modes, the ‘Candle’ mode providing a maximum four-second exposure time for example; so slow shutter work is rather limited. Thankfully the top shutter speeds reach 1/2000th second, so actually rather good and able to freeze fleeting action with aplomb.
Sensitivity settings available have a lowest setting of ISO 80; low enough to keep noise issues to a minimum (in theory at least) with ISO running up to a maximum ISO1600. In other words, an ISO range is enough to encompass most conditions, all the while controlling the excesses of image noise.
As you might expect however, manual control options are all but non-existent given this camera’s ethos, but even so, there is still an exposure compensation feature that provides 2EV of compensation (in 1/3rd stop steps) over and under the as metered setting. This is effective in helping control the exposure for subjects that are more of a challenge for the camera’s metering system.
Exposure compensation can be used in Program AE, the Digital Image Stabilisation (DIS) mode; in Panorama shooting and from within the Magic filters too, keeping it handy even if to get to it, (and like much else on this camera) you must dip into the shooting menus; more on these in a moment.
In order to keep the pricing as low as they have, Olympus have designed the battery to be charged in-camera, saving costs on supplying a charger in the box. That’s all well and good, as you can plug the camera into a USB port on your PC to charge overnight (be warned though, it takes up to 10 hours) or from a mains plug (a mains plug with USB socket it supplied) where it takes four hours to complete one full charge.
Like the recently tested SP-620UZ, the menu system employed on the VG-170 has an interactive on-screen shooting menu on the right side that can be scrolled through using the four-way jog buttons to browse through and the OK button used to select options you want to change.
At the top are the main shooting options such as Program, the very accurate iAuto mode (which picks the shooting mode for you based upon what the camera can ìseeî; it works well), the Magic filters Scene modes and a Beauty setting.
The last item can be used to apply a range of digital processes to a portrait such as skin brightening and smoothing, lengthening of a face, even changing the size and colour of a persons eyes, all from within the camera using a set of three menu options you can assign from inside the deeper menus.
Other shooting menu options include the aforementioned exposure compensation; flash control and white balance settings, the Macro and Super Macro modes and self-timer functions.
At the bottom of the on screen menu is a link to the main menu system, also reached through the dedicated menu on the camera’s back.
These menus are logical and well thought out, settings clearly broken down and grouped logically with the use of excellent shortcuts providing a way to quickly adjust things without the need to always access the full set of menu options.
Together it makes for a very user-friendly system that’s easy to learn without sending the more technophobic of you into a dither.
One of the surprise tricks the VG-170 has within its budget priced bodywork is a 3D photography mode. Unlike many of the latest 3D systems on many of the more expensive digital cameras, where two consecutive images are processed and need to be displayed on a 3D compatible TV or display, the VG-170 uses the older duo-tone – red and blue in this case – and coloured glasses to see the 3D effect. The coloured filters are to two images and viewed with the pair of supplied red and blue-lensed glasses.
This system still needs two offset and overlay two images, which are shot by taking one shot as normal, where a target and spot then appear on the screen. You then adjust the camera until the spot is positioned in the centre of the target. Once achieved, you’ll know because then the VG-170 fires the shutter, automatically snapping the second shot. The camera then applies the filters and brigs the two images together, and bingo! A 3D shot is ready to view on the camera’s screen or on any device it is displayed with the aid of the special coloured glasses.
There’s a big caveat on these shot howeverÖ The resulting 3D images are recorded at just 2 megapixels not the full 14 megapixels which the camera can record at so while the effect is very convincing on a display, TV or the back of the camera, printing them out (if you wanted to) is less convincing. Nevertheless, it’s a great feature and fun to play around with and does not require and expensive 3D TV to see them with either.
Olympus VG-170 Review – Image and Video Quality
The old adage that you get what you pay for starts to bear fruit at this point in the VG-170’s test. I write this because on examination, my images all reveal a certain amount of image noise and a lack of detail, presumably from noise processing algorithms, which makes them seem very murky indeed.
These problems show even at the lowest ISO80 setting, where even here, blocks of the same colour or low detail in a shot (blue sky for example) reveals unmistakable noise issues and detail that has been homogenised away to a worry degree.
Another worry is the way colours seem to merge together, particularly on low contrast shots (unfortunately it was such conditions as these which predominated for much of the photography on this test) where it is particularly noticeable.
Once shooting indoors or with the flash, these problems become worse as the camera ramps up the sensitivity and other processing takes hold. Despite these problems, colour capture is natural and my concerns over white balance are partly born out as it seems to vary from shot to shot on some of my auto white balance shots.
The iAuto mode worked well at picking a subject correctly, portraits and landscapes and the like, but the choice of aperture on some shots was odd, F/2.8 on one landscape shot for example where an F/8 aperture would have been more appropriate. Having said that, the amount of sharp detail in the two shots is almost the same, so it made little difference in the end to the image quality.
At higher sensitivity settings, noise becomes very bad indeed and colour starts to leach too and detail becomes even more compromised. Keep this camera to ISO 400 or lower and it’ll provide you with the best results in terms of noise issues.
The focusing is fast enough and accurate though the left to its own devices, the AF will too often select a point in a scene you least want to focus upon. You can set the AF to use a single, central AF point and this I found more usable for cluttered scenes with foreground elements that otherwise confused the focus system.
It’s worth bearing in mind however, that the detail problems and noise is no worse than other similar cameras out there and thanks to the 14-megapixel resolution even printed at quite large sizes ort on screen, unless you examine the shots very closely (100% on screen for example) the problems, in all but the worst vagaries of the higher ~ISO noise, are not overly intrusive.
In terms of video capture quality, things are not really any better, with video being very grainy, rather jumpy and full of noise as well even at the 720p resolution and you cannot record sound and video and zoom the lens. With the sound on, you can shoot and record audio at the focal length selected prior to shooting. If you want to zoom and record video, you must switch off audio recording in the camera’s menu system. Like the recently tested Olympus SP-620UZ, this prevents the lens zoom mechanism from marring the quality of the captured audio.
Other problems include dramatic flaring on bright objects in a scene (the sun in my example) and shadows seem to fill with wriggly dots of noise too, so detail in highlights and shadows is very compromised when shooting video on the VG-170, even at the 720P setting, which is a real shame.
Overall then, the VG-170 looks good and has an even better price, but as we’ve seen there are problems and yet there are also some very neat flourishes, the 3D mode, the powerful flash that make it a more appealing proposition.
If you need a basic snapper, that’s easy to use and you’ll be printing mainly and normal print sizes and have a tighter budget, or you want to buy a less expensive snapper for younger family members, the VG-170 is probably perfect. Anyone more ìadvancedî or requiring finer detail for, say, landscapes, this is not the camera I would recommend.
At just £99.99, the VG-170 has enough clever kit, filters and features to make it an appealing-looking camera for those on a tighter budget. But if image quality, finer detail and tougher build are your bag, look elsewhere.