The recently revealed Olympus Stylus SH-1 has the potential to be a great compact travel camera: it's stylish, pocketable and has a versatile long zoom lens. And while we haven't quite had the chance to put it through its paces on a nice holiday in Venice, we did get the opportunity to spend a bit of time with a pre-production model at the Gadget Show Live in Birmingham, UK.

The Olympus Stylus SH-1 looks and feels great, and not just when compared to traditionally plastic compact cameras. In its silver and black attire it's a particularly attractive camera, which will undoubtedly remind many photographers of the classic PEN F. Its use of aluminum alloy for the top and controls also adds to the quality feel of the camera.

In fact, the camera looks so good I was almost reluctant to turn it on and be disappointed by the sort of mediocre and sluggish performance which has spoiled so many promising compacts in the past. Luckily that isn't what happened. The SH-1 powers on surprisingly fast for a compact camera, and the zippiness continues with pleasingly quick and accurate autofocus. Its 11 fps burst shooting is also plenty fast enough for capturing all but the fastest action.

Something that has the potential to make the Stylus SH-1 a great travel camera, as well as its pocketable size, is the zoom lens which gives a 35-mm-format focal length equivalent of 25-600 mm. But while the lens can go from wide angle to super telephoto, its variable aperture (F8.7 at the telephoto end) showed its limitations in a dark exhibition hall where it struggled. However, most users are unlikely to be shooting at such zooms in dark rooms, and in brighter conditions the lens would perform much better.

The inclusion of 5-axis image stabilization is also a great advantage when using the Stylus SH-1 and makes it possible to hand-hold shots that would otherwise have required a tripod because of low light or zoom length. The image stabilization also does a great job of smoothing out otherwise wobbly video footage which can be recorded at 1080p/60 fps and looked some of the best I have seen from a compact camera.

Of course, the camera's small size and long zoom lens versatility is also going to have an impact on image quality. This is primarily because the Stylus SH-1 has a 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch-type CMOS sensor which, while larger than those in most smartphones, is smaller than you'd typically find in interchangeable lens cameras or enthusiast-focused compacts like the Sony RX100 M2 or Panasonic LF1. As such the image quality appears to sit somewhere in-between the two.

While we weren't able to use our own SD cards and take files away to compare them properly, we were able to look at them on the rear touchscreen. To use the phrase again, for a compact camera, they looked very good. Certainly a step up from most smartphones, and that's before you consider the added benefit of the long zoom lens which allows users to take photos that you can't with smartphones.

Because we were using a pre-production model, not everything was running. Most notably the Wi-Fi had been disabled so we couldn't try the sharing or remote shooting options which will feature in the Stylus SH-1 when it goes on sale. We were, however, able to play with the Photo Story and Art Filter functions which combine a series of images and apply Instagram-style filters.

For a US$400 asking price, the Olympus Stylus SH-1 enables photographers to take better quality photos than they can with their smartphone. Thanks to the optical zoom and image stabilization, they can also take photos that aren't possible with the fixed focal length of most smartphones. The 600 mm equivalent zoom surpasses most other compact cameras too, meaning this could be a better bet for users who would rather have the added versatility over a slight jump in image quality.

The Olympus Stylus SH-1 lives up to the billing of being a great travel camera for those who don't want to lug around an interchangeable lens camera and a selection of lenses. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the best looking compacts out there.

Product page: Olympus Stylus SH-1

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