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Olympus has been using the same basic form for its high-end compact digital cameras since the 2.1mp C2000Z of 1999. The C5050Z represents a major redesign of last year’s C4040Z with new features that make it a serious contender for professional photography as well as the keen amateur. The magnesium body is brand new, but keeps the family resemblance. The 5mp CCD (2,560-x-1,920 pixels) is new, and is physically smaller than the one Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Minolta use. Olympus’ ‘optimum image enlargement’ setting can further interpolate images up to 8mp. A minimum CCD sensitivity setting of 64 ISO means slower shutter speeds, but helps to keep noise levels down (there’s a built-in noise-killer for long exposures, too). 100, 200 and 400 ISO settings are also available. The lens (inherited from the C4040Z) has a wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the short end (f/2.6 at the long end), so hand-holding at ISO 64 is feasible in daylight. The minimum aperture is a modest f/8, though. It’s a 3:1 zoom, equivalent to 35-105mm, and ours gave extremely sharp images. There are two macro close-up modes, for focusing down to 3cm. Wide angle, macro, and telephoto adaptors are available for between £70 and £150. A new ‘AF area selection’ control lets you steer the target point for the autofocus on the monitor. Manual focus is available with a 1:1 monitor preview, but I found it almost impossible to judge sharpness. A live histogram can be superimposed on the preview so you can judge the exposure balance in advance. Olympus now puts its 1.8-inch LCD monitor on a tilting mount similar to that found on its E-10 and E-20 SLR models. This pops out of the back of the body, and can be tilted either 20 degrees down or through up to 90 degrees up (for waist-level shooting). It’s a big improvement, though not as clever as the super-versatile monitors on the Canon PowerShot G-series and the Nikon CoolPix 5000/5700, which can rotate through practically any angle – including sideways and forward. Just as significant are the redesigned controls, now with a thumbwheel selector dial for main exposure settings. However, the dedicated control buttons that used to be mainly grouped together are now scattered over the top, back, and side. Exposure options include aperture and shutter priority, manual, and five preset scene modes. The shutter range of 16 to 1/2,000 seconds is usefully wide, and white-balance controls have been revised for better skin tones – there are nine presets, plus auto and custom. The 5050 also offers a movie-capture option (for 320-x-240 or 160-x-120 pixels) with sound, and playback of QuickTime JPEGs. The on-screen GUI is a clear and sensible design, now modified for selection from the new dial, with some animation. Also welcome is a standard hotshoe mount for external flashguns – previous models would only accept Olympus guns via an adaptor bracket and special cable. The hotshoe can accept Olympus-compatible guns that interface to the exposure system. There’s also a respectable multi-mode internal flashgun for less demanding work. This camera has two memory card slots. One is for Compact Flash II cards or IBM Microdrives, while the other accepts either SmartMedia or the new miniature xD cards. A 32MB xD card is bundled with the camera. A small infrared remote control unit is provided for shooting and playback. Output formats are the usual TIFF and JPEG, plus a new Raw option that allows post-processing after downloading, using the supplied Camedia Master software. This provides basic image-enhancement and print controls. It runs with Mac OS 9/X and Windows. A Windows-only copy of Ulead’s PhotoImpact is also included. Four AA NiMH batteries and a (rather slow) charger are supplied – battery life seemed very good on our model. The C5050Z is a significant upgrade with attractive new features – such as its range of controls – that put it into the top bracket of digital compacts. Its most direct competitor is the year-old Nikon CoolPix 5000, which has a broadly similar size, specification, and image quality. The Olympus has the widest-aperture lens, but Nikon’s 28-85 mm f/2.8 has a wider angle and a greater choice of accessories. There’s no clear winner, but you’ll get fine results with either model.