Olympus VR-310

Looking for a knockabout pocket camera with larger than average zoom that won’t cost the earth? The metallic silver VR-310 we had in for review – with black, red, or purple also available - is both attractive in an unassuming way, bit also an all-too familiar boxy rectangle.

However, it's still relatively rare that we come across a pocket camera that fits in a 10x optical zoom with focal range of a wide angle 24mm to 240mm - in 35mm terms - offers a mostly metal build, yet retails for a suggested £99. Which means the actual street price will be cheaper still. Can the VR-310 really be the bargain it seems, or have too many corners been cut so the product can hit this financial ‘sweet spot’?

Small and sleek

First impressions are good. Held in the palm it’s roughly the size of a bar of Imperial Leather soap, but rather more firm and solid to the touch. It doesn’t obviously feel plasticy or a budget item in any way. Olympus claims a fashionably slender depth of a mere 19.3mm, but that’s at its very narrowest point. Nevertheless this is a camera that will squeeze into jacket or jeans pocket.

There’s no mains charger supplied, Instead we get a mains adapter with plug and USB cable which means that the battery is charged within the VR-310 at all times, but with the added advantage of being able to charge the Olympus via the USB port of your laptop if you’re short on power without a mains electricity point to hand.

Some features are of course run-of-the-mill, such as the 230k-dot resolution 4:3 aspect ratio LCD screen occupying most of the backplate, attendant controls shunted over to a remaining inch on the right. Though the monitor is 3-inches in size, we found it hard to tell whether a shot was properly focused from a quick glance at the screen; it’s not as sharp as we would have liked. Factor in a sunny day, and visibility suffers further.

Control confusion

Another way in which the camera betrays its beginner status is the fact that video is 1280x720 pixels, though, OK, that’s still better than standard definition 640x480. Plus we do handily get a video record button on the back plate, even if there’s no physical shooting mode dial, nor indication of how such a feature is accessed. Fair enough, most of the VR-310’s target audience are likely to switch it on and start shooting without tabbing though function settings, but a button marked ‘mode’ would have been helpful at least.

Instead, such shooting options are summoned with a press of the uppermost edge of the four-way control pad positioned at the bottom right of the backplate, which is generically marked ‘info’. Once summoned these appear in the top right hand corner of the screen, and the user shuffles between them by tabbing right or left on the same pad. But as we say, finding them in the first place not as obvious as could be.

Using the default setting of iAuto (or intelligent auto), the now standard subject recognising mode is fine, but does occasionally get confused. There's also a program mode, for those who want to manually select the likes of white balance and ISO light sensitivity settings, from ISO80 to ISO1600.

Digital effects

This being an Olympus model we also get automatically applied digital effects, or as they’re exotically termed, ‘Magic Filters’. On the VR-310 we’re offered the unique punk, which lends images a crudely photocopied fanzine look complete with bright purple background. pop art, which boosts colours to garish effect, pin hole, which adds corner shading and drawing, which reduces subjects to thin wishy-washy outlines on a white background and is largely unusable.

Plus there are the self explanatory fish eye, softfocus and new addition sparkle, which adds twinkling reflections to shiny objects. Pictures are saved to either SD or SDHC card, a slot for which is provided alongside the battery at the base. They’re a fun addition and add a minor USP.

Simple to use

Otherwise the VR-310’s control layout is as unfussy as you’d expect to find on a £99 camera. The top plate features the shutter release button encircled by a lever for the zoom, an on/off switch and that’s it. The camera powers up from cold in a couple of seconds, finds exposure and focus with a half press of the shutter release in a further second, and commits a full, fine quality, 14 Megapixel JPEG to memory in around two to three seconds; all respectable timings for a snapshot camera.

We weren’t expecting the picture quality from the VR-310 to be any great shakes, and that proved to be the case. Under bright conditions some quite alarmingly obvious pixel fringing is visible between areas of high contrast, highlight detail is burnt out, while at maximum zoom camera shake results in soft and fuzzy imagery. Alternatively, at maximum wide-angle setting there’s a noticeable amount of focus fall-off towards the corners of an image. We found that close ups and portraits worked best, and though good results are achievable, these are the exception rather than the rule.

For low-light shooting, selecting any setting higher than ISO400 introduced image noise/grain into shot. If you do want to use the built-in flash for added illumination, you also have to watch carefully where fingers are placed, as it’s easy to obscure part of it and end up with images where half the shot is bright, the other in shade. Overall image quality isn’t a great deal better than that from an average smartphone – except of course here you get the advantage of the extra zoom power. But we’d argue that you need a flat and level surface or a tripod to get the best out of it.

We were even more disappointed to discover that we could record video when using the Olympus VR-310’s zoom, yet without sound. If we wanted sound, that meant the zoom was disabled. This seemed slightly odd, as the mechanical buzz of the lens making its adjustments was not particularly loud or intrusive.

Verdict

Though the Olympus’s metal exterior outwardly betters what we’d expect from a £99 camera and initially lures us in due to this unexpected promise, the end results unfortunately confirm our pre-conceived prejudices.

This leads us to advise that, if possible, you do dig a little deeper into your pocket than what’s being asked here. Ultimately if you’re at all fussy about image quality, the VR-310 is not quite the bargain it may seem on paper.