Olympus C-5060WZ digital camera

How does it compare with the original '5050?

My other pages related to the Olympus C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, and X-7070WZ

This article was originally written in November, 2003, and updated a number of times since. As of this update (March, 2004) I've been using both the '5050 and '5060 on regular basis. My original conclusions still hold: while I like both cameras a lot, I would give a nod (by a very slight margin) to the older model, the C-5050Z. The reasons are explained below.

You wouldn't believe how many email messages do I receive from people who are trying to choose between these two models. People are asking what I really think. Well, usually I'm not able to help much: the differences are described in detail in the article, and the final choice may depend very much on your own taste and preferences. So read on and draw your own conclusions.

Detailed, technical reviews of the C-5060 and C-5050 are also available here.

The background

With all their previous C-series cameras Olympus would first introduce the first "flagship" model, then adding to it a number of siblings, usually one of them being a bit simplified and with a less advanced lens, and often another, being a small step up.

This certainly was the case with the C-3030Z, accompanied by the C-3000Z (smaller image buffer), and followed by the C-3040Z (brighter, albeit less wide, lens). Then the C-4040Z was followed by the less expensive C-4000Z (less expensive lens of smaller aperture). Actually, the C-4040Z was replaced by the latter model, although many still argue, and with good reasons, that the C-4040Z was a better camera.

Now comes the C-5050Z, the best compact model Olympus had to date, released on the market in November, 2002. Given the significance of this model to the evolution of the genre, many of us were asking a question: what the next '50x0 offering will be?

Last Summer, the C-5000Z appeared in stores. It was surprisingly different from the original '5050 (with an entirely new, smaller and cheaper body), really an entirely different camera, with little, if any, family resemblance. This is, in my book at least, not a real family member, maybe just a kid brother.

Then, early October, the '5050 practically disappeared from the stores, and a new flagship model, the C-5060WZ, was announced. It became available in late November, replacing the C-5050Z. The amount of email I was receiving on the subject prompted me to write this article.

Note that this is not a review. My full C-5060WZ review can be found elsewhere on this site.

Main differences at a glance

This table shows the most meaningful differences between the C-5050Z and C-5060WZ side-by-side, with my annotations following. Actually, you do not need much more than this.

Any features not explicitly shown in the table either remain the same in both models (see my detailed discussion of the C-5050Z, or I am just not aware of them, or, even if I am, but I consider them to have no practical meaning.

Body Black magnesium alloy, 114(W)x80(H) mm, 375 g Black magnesium alloy, 116(W)x87(H) mm, 430 g Still the top in its class. Note that the '5060 is taller.
Zoom lens 3x, 7.1-21.3 mm (EFL 35-105 mm); max. aperture F/1.8 @35mm and F/2.6 @105mm 4x, 5.7-22.8 mm (EFL 27-110 mm); max. aperture F/2.8 @27mm and F/4.8 @110 mm I have mixed feelings here, see a separate section below.
Filter thread None, filters can be used only with a lens adapter tube Yes, the lens has a 40.5 mm filter thread A real improvement, overlooked in most reviews.
Auxiliary lens mount Screw-in, with the lens adapter (CLA-1 or equivalent) Bayonet, using the new CLA-7 adapter tube Any rationale behind the change?
Power source 4xAA (NiMH); alkalines can be used in emergency Proprietary: Li-Ion BLM-1 battery ($70) Great performance, but running out of juice means you are dead!
Storage Two card slots: CF and SM/xD Two card slots: CF and xD Who cares about SM?
LCD display Tiltable up and down Fully articulated in almost any direction; reversible Nice but not essential.
Native resolution 2560x1920: this gives 4,915,200 pixels or 4.69M (binary) 2592x1944: this gives 5,038,848 pixels or 4.81M (binary) A tiny increase (2.5% area-wise), but enough to be proudly advertised on the camera front as "5.1 megapixels".
Exposure-metering patterns Matrix, spot, multi-spot Matrix, center-weighted, spot, multi-spot The new mode may be useful to those who are used to it from their film SLR experience.
Shutter speeds 1-1/1000s
(From 4s in shutter priority mode, 16s in manual)
(From 15s in manual mode)
Additionally, both models double the maximum speed at F/8, but this is a useless feature.
Highlight/shadow control Live and postmortem histogram Same, plus under- and over-exposure area indication I don't find the new addition really useful.
Shifted program autoexposure No Yes Not as useful as it may seem, either.
Autofocus system Passive (contrast detection, using the CCD) Hybrid, adds active (phase detection) with an external sensor This should result in better performance, especially in low light. There must be some, although I yet have to notice it.
CF file system FAT-16 only FAT-16 (default) or FAT-32 (if externally formatted) FAT-32 is for CF cards larger than 2GB. These are still too expensive to be practical.

Before we go into detailed discussion of the most important differences, some brief impressions here.

First of all, the general construction quality and the ergonomics of the new model are the same as those in the original: second to none, at least in my opinion. The image quality also remains high, among the top cameras I've tried.

The bigger body of the C-5060WZ makes it feel more, I dare say, crude, than its predecessor. This is what I disliked a bit in the Nikon 5000; somehow the '5050 feels handier and more elegant. Again, a subjective opinion, and seems like I may be in a minority: judging from my email, most people prefer the new shape. Oh, well.

There is one improvement, though: a more natural position of the shutter release. Still, I wish Olympus had introduced here a softer release button, like the one in the E-10/E-20 cameras, which I like a lot. (This is not just a matter of preferences; softer release allows for longer handheld shutter speeds.)

I suspect two reasons behind the taller body. First, a wider lens needs a larger distance between the built-in flash and the lens axis, to avoid shadows. In the '5050 there was no room to spare: adding a lens adapter tube was enough to have a visible shadow in the bottom-left of the frame. Second, the articulated LCD monitor requires an extra 12 mm or so of room for the hinge below the finder eyepiece. Nothing comes free.

The body (not counting the lens base) is also visibly thicker, so that the sculpted grip, although of the same depth as before, is less protruding. Many, including myself, may find it a setback.

One of the most noticeable improvements in the '5060 seems to be the articulated LCD monitor, which can be adjusted in almost any way you like, very much like in the Canon G-5. (This was achieved with two degrees of freedom: the monitor can be raised up to 180°, and rotated within a 270° range.)

Even if you do not care much about this feature (for example, all I ever use is a tilt-up for table-top photography), it is very nice to be able to invert the display flush with the camera back, to protect the monitor surface from scratches. And it looks better, too.

Now, let me discuss in-depth some of the major differences, and some issues I have with the new model.

It's the lens, stupid!

The digital camera market is somewhat strange. It seems to be all about specs and electronics: how many megapixels, how much noise, how many frames per second, what is the fastest shutter...

The lens, which is the most critical element in photography for the last 150 years, seems to be quite neglected in all this fluff. Yes, a large zoom ratio is generally a sought-after feature, but most of the market does not care about the wide-angle field of view (look, Mom, I got a longer lens, I can get this lion now!), and the maximum aperture, with its impact on not only available-light capacity but also on the depth-of-field control, is almost totally neglected.

Manufacturers do not want to make good cameras; their goal is to make cameras which will sell. If most of the market is ignorant, good — it is easier to make cameras more cheaply and sell them at higher prices. This is the free market, and whoever caters to the bulk of it, wins. (Microsoft discovered this years ago.)

Therefore all "big" camera makers pay much more attention to the zoom lens range than to its other specs. The maximum lens aperture, especially at the long end, is usually hidden somewhere in the fine print of the specs, who cares! Even many of the well-known camera reviewers, people who are technically savvy (some of them were even into photography before the digital era) often forget to mention the lens aperture at the long range, too busy with describing locations of all buttons.

Oh, well, enough complaints, but I had to prepare you for what comes now. I have very mixed feelings about the "improved" lens in the C-5060WZ.

On one hand, the EFL of 27 mm is one of the most useful image angles, for me at least, and the 1:4 zoom ratio is nice to have as well, all other things equal.

On the other, the new lens is much slower than the old one. At the wide end, the difference is 1.3 F-stops (EV), which can be translated into the factor of about 2.4x. Yes, the new lens provides only 41% of the light, compared to the old one! This means that if an available-light scene required an easily handholdable 1/50s shutter speed in the '5050, the same scene will need 1/20s if you shoot with the '5060.

Now, let's make a similar comparison with the lens zoomed all the way out. The difference between F/2.6 and F/4.8 (1.8 F-stops) can be translated into a factor of 3.4x, i.e. the exposure with the new lens is only 29% of that possible with the old one (at maximum aperture, that is). A scene requiring a 1/100s exposure with the '5050 (this is a safe handholding speed for this focal length) will need 1/30s with the new model.

If you don't care about low-light photography (and most of the mass market does not, see the millions of pathetic pictures taken using the built-in flash), then the additional wide-angle capacity is an asset. If you do, however, then check out other cameras; clearly, the C-5060WZ does not excel here.

Speaking about flash, remember that the decrease in lens aperture translates into a proportional one in the maximum flash distance (with the same flash unit and the same ISO setting). For example, while the built-in flash (the same in both cameras, or at least with the same power) provides the maximum distance of 5.6 m at the widest zoom setting in the C-5050Z, in the C-5060WZ this distance shrinks down to 3.7 m, quite a difference (both values at ISO 100).

Some knowledgeable people I've talked to say that the main goal behind Olympus's decision to change the lens might have been the lower cost of manufacturing (and therefore higher profit margin). One of my respondents compared the lenses, or rather images they produce, side by side, claiming the "old" one a winner. Just rumors?

Li-Ion batteries — good for... whom?

One of the my favorite features of all Olympus C-series cameras from the pioneering C-2000Z to C-5050Z was the use of standard AA-sized batteries.

The ever-popular Ni-MH rechargeables can be reused many times, are quite inexpensive, and can be replaced in an emergency with alkalines, easily available at any corner store. Their capacity is also increasing every year: I started using them when 1300 mAh was standard, and now you can get 2300 mAh ones (while the oldest ones I ever bought are still working, not bad!).

Lithim-Ion batteries have some advantages, too. First, they can be made smaller, fitting miniature camera models more easily. Second, they often contain circuitry telling the camera exactly how much energy is left. Last but not least, they hold the charge longer when not in use, convenient for Sunday shooters.

The main advantage of Li-Ion type, however, at least for manufacturers, is that they are proprietary. In simple terms this means that the camera maker may charge you (or, at least, try to) anything they want for a battery carrying their logo. For example, a typical Li-Ion rechargeable carrying a camera manufacturer's logo sells for $50-$60. A set of four NiMH AAs would cost you $10 or so. Go figure.

You may see some claims (often repeated by reviewers) that Li-Ion batteries are replacing AAs in the '5060 because of higher capacity they offer. Let's scrutinize this. The Olympus BLM-1 is rated at 1500 mAh at 7.2V. Multiply these two numbers, and you get the nominal energy stored: 10.8 Wh (watt-hours, or joules). For comparison, a set of four state-of-the-art NiMH AAs will deliver 2300 mAh at 4.8V (4 times 1.2V), which is 11.04 Wh. Go figure again.

True, the Lithium-ion technology offers higher capacity per volume, so that the new Olympus BLM-1 is smaller than four AAs it replaces. The camera, however, was not reduced in size (quite the opposite), so space economy clearly was not a factor here.

All this said, at least two '5060 users reported, after reading the original version of this piece, very impressive results on the camera/battery performance: up to 600 frames from a single charge, with liberal use of the color monitor. After months of using the camera I also feel good about how long a battery charge lasts, although this would really need a quantitative comparison.

Of course, the camera makers (maybe except Sony) do not actually make their batteries; they order them custom-branded from battery-making companies. Therefore many batteries carrying a proprietary designation, really may be the same model differently branded. Making this a public knowledge would, however, generate price competition, therefore hurting margin profits. Camera makers (Olympus in this number) want you to stay unaware of this (barefoot and pregnant would be best); more, they often state that using any other batteries than their own would invalidate the warranty.

It is also possible that the external battery connections may be slightly changed from one custom-branded batch to another; easy enough to modify the assembly line, but enough of a change to make different flavors mutually incompatible. For example, the Olympus BLM-1 looks almost identical to Nikon EN-EL3 or Canon BP-511, but I'm not sure if any of these will connect properly to the '5060. Now, here I can see no engineering reasons whatsoever, but I can hear the cash register ringing.

Some independent manufacturers (most notably Maha) offer exact equivalents of proprietary Li-Ion batteries, at about half the price charged by camera makers. The quality should be, I expect, at least as good: after all, MaHa specializes in batteries. Check with Thomas Distributing and Green Batteries for Olympus-equivalent models.

Anyway, a battery can die for no apparent reason, or it may run out of juice in the most inconvenient moment. I have seen this happen to people at Grand Canyon. Even if you carry a spare, you are not totally safe. If you are running on AAs, all you need is a nearby convenience store; if you use a Li-Ion one, say goodbye to picture-taking through the rest of your vacations. And yes, you have to travel with a separate charger for every camera you take along.

The chances also are that six years from now you will still have a plentiful supply of AAs (most probably nearing the 3000 mAh capacity, much better than today). Will anyone still care to make the proprietary Olympus BLM-1?

(Already after this statement appeared in the original version of this article, the users of older Olympus models, including the '5050, got a nice, unexpected bonus: rechargeable RCR-V3 Lithium-Ion batteries, fitting into the double-AA slots of most older cameras, and with much lower self-discharge rate (their performance, however, does not match NiMH's, see a special piece on that). I wonder if someone will release a better replacement for the Olympus proprietary battery five years from now. Just kidding.

To close my battery divagations: while I consider proprietary Li-Ion batteries acceptable in some cases (first of all, for miniature cameras), for the high-end amateur models I greatly prefer the AAs.

The new lens accessory system

The previous C-series cameras, very much like competing models from Canon, Nikon, and other major players in the field, did not have a filter thread on the lens. In order to use filters, you had to attach a lens adapter tube (either the Olympus CLA-1 with the inevitable step-up/spacer ring, or a third-party equivalent), and mount the lens on that.

This changes in the C-5060WZ: the lens has a front thread of a 40.5 mm diameter. This is one of typical sizes (although not a very popular one), and you should be able to get a UV protector and/or a polarizer, if you need one, from any general source. (Olympus offers, at least on their Japanese site, their own filters. Do not bother, they are overpriced. Hoya or Tiffen will be as good, but less expensive.)

That thread cannot be used to mount auxiliary lenses, which are to heavy for the collapsible lens mechanism. Therefore a provision for a screw-in lens adapter has been also included. You screw the new Olympus CLA-7 adapter into the lens collar, just inside the bright ring on the front of camera body.

Surprise: the front of the CLA-7 is not threaded; it has a bayonet instead. What an ingenious way to cut off independent auxiliary lens makers. At the camera release Olympus announced availability (in Japan, at least) of two attachment lenses fitting the new bayonet: the WCON-07C and TCON-17C (with focal length multipliers being 0.7x and 1.7x, respectively). My original guess here was wrong: they are quite different than the previously available WCON-07 and TCON-17 for the C-5050Z and other C-series cameras, which were respectable pieces of glass.

(Both these lenses, as well as the TCON-30C one (3x multiplier) are now available in the U.S. and elsewhere.)

These Olympus lens attachments, in spite of rather cheap, plastic construction, are good performers; check my report on the "new" WCON/TCON pair and on the TCON-30C.

It took equally long for third-party lens adapters to arrive, with treaded front (as opposed to bayonet fit). They are discussed in brief in a separate article.

Controls and user interface

These remain virtually unchanged from the '5050, and this is good. One visible improvement is that the on/off switch, a collar around the mode dial, is more heavily indented and therefore the camera is less likely to turn itself on by accident. (This happened to me almost every time when I carried the '5050 on a shoulder strap under a jacket.) On the other hand, operating the new switch in gloves may be a problem" the protrusion is too small. Oh, well...

The six buttons used, together with the control wheel, to change various camera settings, remain as they were; no more no less. The location of two of them (exposure compensation and flash mode) was slightly changed: from the top of the left camera side to the middle-rear of that side. I find the new location less convenient and less intuitive, but this may be because I am used to the old one.

All buttons on the back side remain in their old places. There is one addition, though, and a nice one: a new, separate button for a quick preview of the last picture taken. Previously this was done by double-pressing the monitor on/off button. This small change makes the operation more convenient, and the "old" monitor on/off button now toggles the real-time display between three states: off, on without, and on with the overlaid exposure, mode, etc. information. Very nice.

The card selection button at the bottom now has a raised lip around it, which makes an accidental switch between cards less probable. Not that it was a problem in the '5050 — it happened to me just once in a year with the camera.

I'm glad Olympus did not try to radically "improve" their external control interface, well proven in the '5050 and E-10/E-20 cameras.

New settings in the menus

The on-screen menu system is almost identical to that of the previous model. A close scrutiny of the menu reveals just a few new features, as compared to the '5050.

First of all, there is a new "Accessory" submenu. It switches between a "regular" setting, one used with lens attachments, and one for the underwater photography. Following their well-established tradition of meaningless documentation, Olympus does not explain in their Reference Manual what these settings actually do. I find this offending.

The histogram may be replaced with a dense array of small rectangles on the real-time monitor display. Blue ones show areas which will be underexposed, red — overexposed. I don't find this feature too useful, as it disables the histogram display (and that i will not give up); worse, it stays on the screen all time, which is too distracting (while the histogram can be shown by pressing the exposure compensation button, which is the right solution).

There is a "frame assist" option, activating two vertical and two horizontal, dotted lines, trisecting the frame in each direction. This can help preserving verticals in your pictures, but, again, for me the feature just clutters the menu. The same menu also allows to display one of three available head-and-shoulders outlines, supposedly as a composition aid. If you come with an idea for a more useless feature on a digital camera, let me know.

Last but not least, there is also an option to disable the image boost during manual shooting. If the scene is under- or overexposed, it will show as such in the monitor before the picture is taken. This may be marginally useful.

Overall, I'm getting an impression that Olympus wanted desperately to show some changes in their (very good) option set inherited from the '4000 and '5050, and the "improvements" listed above are a result of that desperation. Actually, I would rather prefer to get a printed copy of the Reference Manual, as inadequate as it may be.

Other good news and bad news

The good news is that the sensor noise has been visibly reduced, which makes even the ISO 400 gain setting usable. This improvement, however, has been obliterated by the slower lens: with the '5050 at the same exposure levels and shutter speeds you simply do not need the higher ISO setting, as the lens is 1.5-2 stops faster (see the full review for details).

Another bad news is that the optical viewfinder in the new model is even smaller than in the older one (about which I was already complaining). I believe Olympus thinks they can get away with it, as the finders in competitors' models are equally bad. We'll see.

Note of October, 2004: a significant fraction of the '5060 cameras suffers, after a few months of use, from a critical mode dial malfunction (see a separate article), requiring a factory repair. The '5050 is free of that problem.

The verdict?

Olympus, as always, used the extra year to put a number of small but mostly thoughtful improvements into this camera. I am watching that company for some time (sometimes being accused of pro-Olympus bias in my judgments), and they have a good record here. The new features are, however, of secondary importance.

Have no doubt, the '5060 is a good camera, in terms of both image quality and ease of use. Of course, it could be improved. Do not listen to what the marketing people say; there is never a no-holds-barred excellence on this market. Making cameras is an art of compromises, and I am usually in agreement with the way Olympus engineers make theirs.

As much as I like the C-5060WZ, I still have doubts about some of the choices made. Two major concerns are

  • The lens. Wider angle is nice, but F/4.8 at the long end? Come on. This is what steered me away from the Nikon 5000 (and, later, 5400).
  • Giving up the AA standard batteries. I was happy with the performance of AA NiMH ones in the '5050, and I do not want to be on the mercy of a proprietary solution.

All this said, the C-5060WZ may appeal to those in search of high-quality (almost posh, if not quite) camera, if they are not deterred by the two points raised above. Those who are may be better off with the "old" '5050 (if they can still find it), or with a model from a competing maker: Nikon 5400 and Canon G-5 certainly deserve a serious consideration . The decision is not so easy: the Nikon also has a dark lens (F/4.8 at the long EFL of 85 mm), and the Canon lens starts at EFL of 35 mm). Both these cameras also use proprietary Li-Ion batteries. It turns out that most of my criticism regarding the C-5060WZ applies also to the competing models.

Therefore my final advice (as subjective and biased it may be) is as follows:

  • If you already have a '5050, replacing it with the '5060 does not, I think, make sense, unless you desperately need the shorter focal length.
  • If you were planning to buy the '5050, and now you are tempted with the '5060, carefully consider the pros and cons listed above. The answer may depend on your shooting needs and preferences. Many of the advanced users will be better served with the older model, while many will prefer the new one.
  • If you are considering the '5060 against its competitors in the same class from other makers (notably: Canon G-5 and Nikon 5400), know that all three are very good cameras, and the choice is not so easy. I still would give a nod to the Olympus, although not by a significant margin. Your mileage may vary.

My other pages related to the Olympus C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, and X-7070WZ

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Posted 2003/11/25; last updated 2005/09/06 Copyright © 2003-2005 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak