Olympus gave four features top priority when developing the E-500, maximum image quality, a sensor cleaning system that ousts dust from the CCD without the need to tinker under the bonnet (or taking the camera back to get it serviced), ease of use and a compact design.
Previous Olympus Es have been large, somewhat blocky machines and while this one is still on the blocky side, it is significantly smaller than predecessors and is looks like slim-line version of the E-1.
The sensor cleaning system removes dirt and dust particles that get into the camera's throat while the lens is removed. It uses Olympus' proprietary Supersonic Wave Filter set up that has the special filter in front of the FourThirds format CCD. Each time the camera is turned on, or the cleaning system invoked by the photographer, the Supersonic Wave Filter puts on a shaggy dog act and gives itself a high frequency shake down. Any dust on the filter falls onto a special membrane and sticks there.
Casting your eye across the fibre-reinforced polycarbonate but the E1 heritage is obvious having as it does the Penta mirror bulge on the top plate that the E-300 and E-330 both lack. The pop-up flash resides in said bulge and features the camera's hotshoe for accessory flash.
The main top plate controls are placed well for ease of use with the main mode dial and associated on/off switch and control dial to the right with the shutter release and exposure compensation button to the fore.
The Zuiko Digital 14-45mm (equivalent to a 28-90mm lens in 35mm) standard kit lens parks on the camera's front balancing the camera nicely in the hand, making it feel very steady in use. The Zuiko Digital optics are specifically designed for the FourThirds system so make the most of the cameras 8-megapixel resolution, enough pixels and therefore detail for prints up to, and over, A2.
In terms of other specification, it's more a case of what's not included as opposed to what is, the camera offers just about everything in its locker of gadgetry. For those who like the camera to do the thinking there's a cupboard full of scene modes, 25 no less, including the usual bits and pieces but backed up by neat help screens that explain what each one's for and when to use it.
There's a full-auto shooting mode too and the full range of Program, Aperture and Shutter priority and full manual controls for the enthusiasts among you. On the camera's back plate sits the extremely good 2.5-inch Hyper Crystal LCD, the various playback and menu buttons, and fast access buttons for metering, AF, ISO and white balance controls.
The viewfinder is poised above this lot and provides a clear, crisp view albeit it will look quite small for anyone that has used a full-frame 35mm style viewfinder. However, you get the main shooting details displayed in here too, as you'd expect.
Some of the camera's other key features include high light and shadow basis spot metering, a new, 49-segment exposure sensor which it must be said performs like a dream, there's one touch white balance control and unlimited sequential shooting at 2.5fps. The camera even boasts built-in colour filters for black and white photography. With this camera, gone are the days of clumsy filter systems stuck over the lens's front element, the E-500 has them built-in and include green (skin tones), red (darker sky tones), orange (telephoto) yellow (contrast between sky and clouds) and neutral.
Other image tweaking kit includes exposure compensation to +/-5EV, sensitivity ISO range from 100 to a boosted ISO 1600 with a noise reduction system included, which works surprisingly well. White balance and exposure bracketing is included as is RAW+JPEG (in four compression setting for the latter) simultaneous capture and there's a lossless TIFF capture mode too.
Image quality easily lives up to all the great gizmos and gadgetry at your disposal with metering and focusing particularly good, the former very pleasing even in very trying situations and the latter crisper than a Pringle crisp in a freezer. Colour modes and setting, which include a vivid, natural and muted modes, with each being further adjustable for contrast, sharpness and saturation.
The E-500 is so packed with kit there's not room to go over it all here, suffice to say this is as comprehensively specified DSLR as you're likely to want (or need). At £600 for the standard kit that includes the 14-45mm lens used in the test, it's great value and with independent lens makers such as Sigma backing the Four Thirds standard, it looks set to grow and grow. In short, if you're looking for a compact, lightweight DSLR that packs a punch in almost all departments, then you would do far worse than stopping your search right here.