**The strap eyelets can be seen on both sides of the back, framing all else nicely. There is a lot happening on the back of the SP-550UZ. Buttons, contours, and doors collide on the back along with the 2.5-inch LCD screen on the left side. The screen is framed in glossy black with a white Olympus logo at the bottom. To the left of the LCD screen is the back of the rubber cover that hides the USB and power adaptor ports; there is a tiny slot for a finger grip visible from the back. Above the LCD screen is an electronic viewfinder surrounded by a thick plastic eyecup. To the left of the viewfinder is a tiny diopter adjustment with grooves in it for better gripping. To the right of the viewfinder is the display button that looks lonely on its own contoured edge.
From the back, the thick mode dial is visible at the top with its nicely textured edge. In the top right corner of the back is a wave-like contour that is nicely rounded and makes a smooth, comfortable thumb grip. The rubber surface on the back also aids in gripping. Below the rubber grip is a set of buttons flanked by an LED indicator on the left and a slot to open the memory card compartment on the right. The controls in the middle consist of a central multi-selector with icons on each cardinal direction: exposure compensation at top, flash at right, self-timer at bottom, and macro at left. In the center of the multi-selector is an OK/Func button that makes selections to the menu and calls up its own frequently used settings menu. Above the multi-selector are two trapezoidal buttons: the Menu button is on the left and the playback button is on the right. Below the multi-selector are two more trapezoidal buttons: Info/Display is on the left and Delete is on the right. All of the buttons and multi-selector controls fit together nicely.
**From this side, users can see the different textures and panels incorporated into the camera’s design. The back of the camera body is a polished dark silver color made of plastic. The port cover interrupts this space with its rubber surface. Above the port cover, the viewfinder can be seen protruding from the back and the circular diopter adjustment can be better viewed. In front of the port cover and the dark camera body is a shiny, bright chrome band that looks almost flat from the left side but has a neck strap eyelet on it. In front of the chrome band is a contour covered in rubber and meant for the left fingers to grip. The microphone is on this surface and is barely visible from this angle. The dark silver surface on the back continues on the flash component that crowns the top and down the left side of the lens barrel. It is on this portion that the flash button resides (to open the flash) and a "7.1 Megapixel" label exists. The lens barrel sits at the front and consists of brushed chrome and rubber segments. The number of surfaces on this side makes the Olympus SP-550UZ sound very odd, but it looks quite good.
**The right side is much plainer than the left. The back half of the casing is made of dark silver plastic, while the front is coated in textured rubber. In the middle where the two surfaces merge, a shiny chrome band seals the seam. There is a neck strap eyelet on this seam, but it isn’t visible from this angle. Near the bottom of the right side is a plastic door that covers the memory card slot; this can be opened from the back.
**When the camera is rested upon its back and viewed from the top, it takes on an L-shape. At the top of the "L" is where the lens barrel is, with the specs on its outer rim visible: "Olympus ED Lens, AF Zoom, 4.7-84.2mm, 1:2.8-4.5." Below the lens barrel, the flash component is visible with its release button on the left. Also to the left is the chrome seam that continues on the far right edge of the camera too. Behind the flash component, the viewfinder protrudes. Between the two features is some labeling: "Image Stabilization, 18x Optical Zoom." To the right of this labeling, on the main portion of the camera body, is a silver-colored island on the top. At the top of the island is the model name, "SP-550UZ," with the large mode dial below it and the shutter release/zoom ring to the right. Below the shutter release/zoom ring is the power button and to its right is the image stabilization button.
**The base of the camera is nice and wide, especially on the left side where the battery compartment resides. The compartment is large because it must hold 4 AA batteries, and it has a plastic lock that keeps the batteries from falling out. The bottom of the compartment has grooves so users can grip it better to slide it outward when unlocked. To the right of the battery compartment is a quarter-inch tripod socket. To its right is a flat spot at the base of the lens, perhaps meant to balance the camera nicely on a tripod. The lens barrel protrudes from here with its brushed chrome and rubber segments. On the right side of the bottom are nine holes that serve as the built-in speaker.
**The Olympus SP-550UZ has an electronic viewfinder that measures about a half-inch diagonally. It is surrounded by a plastic eyecup which isn’t that comfortable, but it has a stiff diopter adjustment on the left side that is handy for eyeglass-wearers. The diopter adjustment has 16 different positions, so there should be something for everyone. There is a display button to the right of the viewfinder and above the LCD screen that switches the view from the viewfinder to the LCD. The biggest advantage of the viewfinder is that it is shaded and therefore much easier to see in broad daylight. The SP-550’s electronic viewfinder has great resolution. The information on the display can be changed with the button to the bottom left of the multi-selector. The info cycles from: blank to full info with yellow dashed grid lines, to full info with a live histogram, and to full info only. Overall, the viewfinder is a quality component, offering an abundance of shooting information and great resolution.
**The LCD screen measures 2.5 inches and has 230,000 pixels of resolution. Its display information can be changed just like the electronic viewfinder, and the view can be switched from the viewfinder to the LCD with the button just above the display screen. The LCD can be viewed from side to side just fine because of its wide angle of view, but it doesn’t do well at all when held above or below eye-level. The screen has a glossy finish that makes it difficult to view in bright lighting, but that’s when users will want to switch to the nicely shaded viewfinder anyway. The LCD screen’s brightness can’t be changed with one touch, but it can be changed. Users have to push the Menu button, scroll to the Setup Menu, scroll down for awhile (or skip to tab #3) and access the LCD Brightness option. It has +/- 2 options in full steps and comes with a nice live view. Overall, the 2.5-inch LCD screen provides a nice display with its 230,000 pixels of resolution and wide view – but it doesn’t do well in sunlight and adjusting the brightness isn’t an easy process.
**The Olympus SP-550 has a built-in flash that is much improved over the one on its predecessor. The old SP-500 had a rickety flash that popped up, but it wasn’t very tall and was quite wobbly. The new model’s flash pops up much higher and is much sturdier too. The pop-up flash unit is released with a button on the left side of the flash unit (when viewing from the back). Once up, users can change the flash mode with the right side of the multi-selector. Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, On, On with Red-Eye Reduction, On with Slow Sync, and Off are the available choices. There are three flash options in the recording menu too, all from the third tab down (out of five). The power of the flash can be adjusted on a +/- 2 scale with 1/3 steps. The flash sync mode can be changed to sync 1 or sync 2 to fire the flash at the beginning or end of the shutter’s flip. From the menu, users can inform the camera of up to 10 slave flashes. The pop-up flash does not automatically pop up when needed, but it must be manually opened with its button. This could be a problem for point-and-shooters who may occasionally use this camera. The flash must be manually closed too, and it takes a good bit of force to squash it back into place. The flash can reach to 14.8 ft (wide) and to 9.2 ft (telephoto) at ISO 200. The built-in flash unit is very high-quality with its many options, its even coverage, its compatibility with slave flashes, and its sturdy housing.
**The highlighted feature on the Olympus SP-550UZ is the massive 18x optical zoom lens. It is labeled with its specs: the Olympus ED lens measures 4.7-84.2mm. This is equivalent to a 28-504mm lens in 35mm photography and gives a nice range from end to end. This is much longer than the SP-500’s 10x optical zoom lens. To make things even better, the SP-550 also has optical image stabilization. This is a necessity on such a long lens and will help shots at full telephoto keep from blurring when shooting with a shutter speed less than 1/250 of a second. The image stabilization button is located to the left of the shutter release/zoom ring and can be turned on and off. Olympus also automatically runs digital image stabilization along with the optical to further offset any shake. This system works well, although at the full 18x shakes can still be seen – although not as much as when the system is turned off.
The Olympus zoom lens is composed of 14 elements in 11 groups with 4 aspherical lenses and 2 ED lenses. The 18x lens camera can still fit in the palm of a hand and is surrounded by rubber and chrome rings. They may look like zoom rings, but this lens is controlled via a much smaller ring around the shutter release button. The ring is fairly thick and pushes left to zoom out and right to zoom in. It is fat and fairly comfortable, but it still doesn’t seem to do the 18x lens justice. The zoom lens stops at about 30 different focal lengths because the control is fairly sensitive, and it doesn’t breathe in and out or backfire or do anything strange. When zooming from end to end in the lens, it took almost five seconds. The zoom lens can be used in the movie mode.
Three points in the SP 550-UZ's zoom range (full wide angle (left); 10x (center); 18x (right))
Wide Angle (left); Full 18x telephoto (right)
When zoomed out and photographing a subject in close range and/or in the macro mode, there is some fish-eye effect from the barrel distortion. This is not noticeable at the telephoto end though. The max aperture of the wide end is an ample f/2.8. The telephoto end of the lens is far, far away but the lens still manages a f/4.5 max aperture here. This is quite good considering the 18x optical zoom. If that isn’t enough, users can attach conversion lenses. Olympus has a WCON-07 that is equivalent to 19.6mm for a very wide angle. For even more zoom, the Olympus TCON-17 can be attached for more than 30x optical zoom power. The camera comes with a plastic lens cap and strap that attaches to the main neck strap. The Olympus SP-550UZ really packs in the ultra-zoom with this 18x lens.
**Model Design / Appearance
**This is an area that improved leaps and bounds over the previous model. The new Olympus SP-550UZ has a much more sophisticated look than its predecessor. The SP-500 had a rickety flash, a dark plastic body, a boxy look, and components that weren’t as high-quality. All of that added up to an overall cheap look. The new SP-550 rounds some of the edges, upgrades the flash to a more effective and sturdier version, and adds different colors and textures to put some flare into the design. It worked. This ultra-zoom digital camera is one of the best Olympus models we’ve seen in terms of its design. It’s functional and it looks good too.
**Size / Portability
**The SLR-shaped Olympus SP-550UZ has the largest optical zoom lens on a compact camera to date. The 18x lens doesn’t make the camera an elephant though. It isn’t slim enough to fit in a pocket, but it can still be held in the palm of a hand. The various protrusions of the components make it a necessity to have a designated camera bag – just to make sure nothing gets bumped too badly in transport. When not in a bag, the camera has two neck strap eyelets that emerge from the chrome band that runs down the sides. Thus, the camera can be toted around on the neck. It is a bit hefty at 12.9 oz (without the four AA batteries), but it won’t cause breakage or anything. The Olympus SP-550UZ measures about 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 inches, which makes it look like a baby DSLR.
**Another area of major improvement is handling; the SP-500 was a boxy camera and the SP-550 rounds off the edges and adds several gripping surfaces. The right hand clutches the spacious grip with textured rubber and a wavy contour on the front meant to keep fingers from slipping. On the back where the thumb grips the camera, there is a rubber pad and another wavy contour that helps stabilize the camera. With this setup, users could theoretically shoot one-handed. Of course, it is recommended that two hands stay on the camera. And Olympus didn’t forget the left hand when it came to handling. A segment around the lens barrel and the front portion of the left side has textured rubber. Overall, the handling on the Olympus SP-550UZ is a breeze.
**Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size
**The ultra-zoom digital camera has plenty of buttons on it that is reminiscent of SLRs. There is a fat mode dial on top next to the equally fat shutter release/zoom ring controls. Behind the shutter release button is a half-moon-shaped image stabilization button. The power button is also on top of the camera.
On the back side of the camera is a set of buttons that looks aesthetically pleasing. The multi-selector sits in the center and is surrounded by trapezoidal buttons that bend in shape around the multi-selector. The multi-selector itself is perhaps the only control on the camera that isn’t up to par. It is set within the camera body a bit too far so that users really have to jam their thumbs into it to get it to register a move. The only other complaint is that there is a playback button, as well as a playback position on the mode dial. These access the same thing – the playback mode – but it’s a little confusing to have both of them on the camera body.
In general, though, the buttons and controls are properly sized, labeled, and placed within easy reach of the thumb.
**The menu system on this digital camera is similar to other Olympus models. It is split so that the more frequently used settings are accessed with the OK/Func button in the middle of the multi-selector. It is this menu that features a live view, which makes it a better choice than the standard menu and is much easier to access.
This menu is composed mainly of icons, while the main menu is made up mostly of text. The text is in all capital letters, though, and doesn’t come with the live view. The main menu is accessible from the Menu button to the top left of the multi-selector.
An initial screen appears with all kinds of options on it: Camera Menu in the center, Image Quality at the top, Setup on the right, Silent Mode to the bottom right, Scene on the bottom, and Reset on the left. When the central Camera Menu is selected, the following mode appears with 5 tabs on the left.
The menu is extremely long, and the tabs aren’t labeled with icons. Similar choices seem to linger near each other though. The following is the setup menu that is also divided into 5 tabs which aren’t marked with icons but with numerals.
Overall, the menu system is best avoided. It isn’t easy to get to anything because of the initial screen in the menu, and then navigation is confounded with the stiff multi-selector.
**Ease of Use
**The Olympus SP-550UZ is great to handle, but it can be a pain to use. The menus aren’t very intuitive or neatly organized, which is a drawback. The buttons are nicely labeled and most are quite large, which is a plus. With all these mixed feelings, the SP-550 isn’t all that easy to use unless you’re familiar with Olympus digital cameras and their strange nuances.
**The auto mode is easily found on the mode dial; it is easy to use too. The menus are disabled and only a handful of features can still be accessed: flash, macro, and self-timer. This is by far the easiest mode to use on the SP-550.
**The Olympus SP-550’s movie mode looks quite good. It is also easily found on the mode dial. It records quality video at 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels, and the frame rate is selectable to 30 or 15 fps. Movies can be recorded up to the capacity of the memory card that Olympus states is up to 2 GB in this camera. At top quality, that’s about 15 minutes.
There are more options than usual in the movie mode. The white balance and metering can be adjusted, which is nice. The 18x optical zoom is available too, which is great. And of course, the imperative optical image stabilization system is on call too. There is a noticeable difference when the stabilization is turned on and off, so it is effective. With 18x though, the Olympus SP-550’s movies are still a little bumpy when the full zoom is used.
There is a slight delay when users push the shutter button, so the movie doesn’t start recording as fast as it ought to. Several times, I pushed the button and thought I hadn’t pushed it hard enough because nothing was happening, so I’d push it again. Then the camera would catch up all at once and record a one-second movie. That’s frustrating.
Videos can be played back within the camera with audio, although the volume can’t be adjusted while watching. The SP-550UZ can’t divide video files, but it has an "edit" function that pulls still frames and can create index prints. On a computer, the AVI movies can be played back using Windows Media Player. Overall, movies look good on the Olympus SP-550UZ.
**Drive / Burst Mode
**The Olympus SP-550UZ has several drive modes available including one Olympus claims can shoot 15 frames a second. Sound too good to be true? It is. This is the High-Speed Continuous 2 mode that shoots at this fast rate but at an incredibly small image size of 1.2 megapixels. The High Speed 1 mode isn’t much better. It shoots at half the speed and with more than twice the resolution. The standard Continuous burst mode on this digital camera snaps 1.2 fps at full resolution. Olympus’ specs claim that it will snap 7 pictures at a time, but the pre-production model we toyed with only snapped 3 at a time. The trade-offs and slow burst at full resolution is disappointing for an SLR-like camera that costs just a touch under $500, although it does offer an impressive selection of settings.
But wait, there’s more. The SP-550 has an AF Continuous burst mode that refocuses after each image; it isn’t very fast at all, perhaps even slower than the standard burst mode. Topping off the menu is an exposure bracketing mode that snaps 3 or 5 pictures in exposure value increments of 0.3, 0.7, or 1.
Of note in the camera menu is the Time Lapse option that can be set to take from 2-99 photographs at intervals of 1-99 minutes. There is also a self-timer that delays for 2 or 12 seconds and is activated by pushing the bottom of the multi-selector.
**The playback mode can be accessed 2 ways: with the button on the back or the position on the mode dial. It’s a bit confusing to find the playback mode in two places. Users who go through the button can easily return to shooting by pushing the shutter release button down, while those who use the mode dial will need to rotate it before snapping any pictures. The playback mode offers the following initial menu screen: Playback Menu is in the center, Edit is at the top (moving clockwise now), Print Order, Setup, Silent Mode, Erase, Index, Calendar, and Slide Show. The following is the playback menu.
The Edit menu is much more extensive with its three tabs on the left side.
The Olympus SP-550 does have RAW editing in the camera, which is interesting. Its options aren’t as expansive as an editing software program’s choices, but they’re better than nothing.
The frames and labels may seem a bit gimmicky, but they are handy for making quick family holiday cards and such. Frames are easy to pick out, and the text can change size, color, and orientation.
Movies can be played back on the Olympus SP-550UZ, but its editing options are very limited. The files can’t be divided, but users can pull still images and create index prints of them.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the playback mode is the delay that occurs when entering or navigating through the images. There is also a blinking red LED on the back of the camera that blinks at an alarming rate when the camera is 'thinking.'
Overall, the 2.5-inch LCD screen and high resolution provide a nice display for the playback mode. There is a healthy amount of viewing and editing options too. The delay in the playback mode is disappointing, but it could be a result of the pre-production status of the model we looked at.
**Custom Image Presets
**The Olympus SP-550UZ may be geared more for enthusiasts, but it packs scene modes for newly budding photographers. A scene position on the mode dial makes them very easy to access. The following modes can be found here: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Available Light, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select 1, Shoot & Select 2, Beach, Snow, Underwater Wide 1, Underwater Wide 2, and Underwater Macro. The list of scene modes comes with sample photos and descriptions of what each mode is for. For example, the Available Light mode shows a picture of a sleeping child with this description: "For shooting sensitive subjects in low light conditions without a flash." The SP-550 has an extensive list of scene modes, although none that are entirely suited for good low light photography. The Available Light and Candle modes limit the image size to 3 megapixels.
**Manual Control Options
**Users can choose exactly how much control they want. Auto is the simplest, with scene and Program modes up next with limited control. A little more control is granted in the priority modes, and the full Manual mode has the works. If that isn’t enough, users who access certain manual controls often can save them to four different personalized shooting modes; they can be found on the mode dial at the "My" icon.
*The Olympus SP-550 has a contrast detection auto focus system that is controlled with iESP, Spot, and Area auto focus modes. The iESP mode is the default and focuses on whatever subject the camera thinks is closest. The Spot mode focuses on the center. The Area mode allows users to move green brackets 13 positions across and 11 positions up and down around the frame to pick a focus area. There is a predictive focus option in the camera menu, along with a full-time auto focus option. These can be turned on and off. The predictive auto focus didn’t look very different from the normal modes, and the full-time choice sure sounded different. It wasn’t loud, but it was noticeably different. In the camera menu, the auto focus illuminator can be turned on too. The lamp is placed to the upper left of the lens and shows up as a bright orange beam. The SP-550 can focus as close as 1 cm in the macro mode, which is quite impressive for this length of lens. Normally, it can focus from 3.94 inches (wide) and 47.24 inches (telephoto).
In use, the camera did struggle at times to lock focus at full zoom.
*In the camera menu, the focus can be set manually. A column appears on the left side of the LCD screen with 1, 2, 5, and 10-meter indicators next to it. The center of the image is magnified, although it was still hard to see because of the LCD screen’s resolution. Despite having 230,000 pixels, I still managed to see lots of stair-step-like edges in pictures.
**The old SP-500 topped out at 400 when it came to ISO sensitivity, so the new camera’s offerings seem very expansive. The following manual ISO settings are available from the OK/Func and standard menus: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 5000. The last two options, 3200 and 5000, automatically shrink the image size to 3 megapixels. The Olympus SP-550 also has a new automatic ISO offering called High ISO Auto; other manufacturers have included similar settings for better photography in low light. There is also a standard Auto ISO mode.
**The white balance options can be found in the OK/Func and shooting menus. The following options are available: iESP2 Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, and One-Touch (custom). It is better to select the white balance from the OK/Func menu because it shows a live view and gives you a better idea of the color of the lighting. In the shooting menu, there is also a White Balance Compensation setting that is located nowhere near the normal White Balance settings. The compensation adjusts +/- 7 steps toward blue or red. The one-touch manual white balance setting shows a live view when selected. Users must fill the entire frame with something white; on-screen directions explain how to cancel and set the white balance.
**This digital camera has a lot of ways to monitor and control the exposure. The exposure can be monitored with a live histogram available through the Info/Display button by the multi-selector or through the histogram option in the setup menu. The histogram can be turned on and off, or a "detail" option can be activated. This highlights blown-out areas as red and dark shadows as blue. The exposure settings can be changed in the manual, shutter priority, and aperture priority modes. In the many automated shooting modes, the exposure can be adjusted by pushing the top portion of the multi-selector and moving up and down in 1/3 increments on a +/- 2 scale.
**The metering modes are selectable from the OK/Func and Camera menus, although the live view in the OK/Func menu is much more helpful. Multi-pattern, Spot, and Center-weighted options are offered, which is the typical offering from digital cameras.
**The Olympus SP-550’s shutter speeds range from 1/2000th of a second to 15 seconds, although the range is somewhat shorter in the manual and shutter speed priority modes. The manual mode extends to 1/1000th of a second, and the shutter speed priority mode truncates the range to ½-1/1000. The shutter speed can be changed by pushing the top of the multi-selector (it has an exposure compensation icon on it) and scrolling up and down. There is a noise reduction mode that can be turned on and off in the shooting menu. When it’s on, it affects pictures taken only with shutter speeds slower than a half-second. Overall, the shutter speeds on the Olympus SP-550UZ are about what they are supposed to be. The specs claim there is a bulb option on this camera, but it wasn’t found on the pre-production model.
**The SP-550 may have an incredibly long 18x optical zoom lens, but it still gets plenty of light. The aperture at the lens’ widest is f/2.8, and that only shrinks to f/4.5 when the lens is zoomed in. The exposure compensation portion of the multi-selector shows the apertures, and users can scroll right and left to change the apertures. The choices showed up in increments of a third and were available up to f/8.0.
**Picture Quality / Size Options
**The 7.1-megapixel Olympus SP-550UZ has a host of image sizes available from the initial screen in the menu. Users can scroll up to the Image Quality section of the menu to find these choices.
RAW - 3072 x 2304
SHQ - 3072 x 2304, 3072 x 2048 (3:2)
HQ - 3072 x 2304, 3072 x 2048 (3:2)
SQ1 - 2560 x 1920 High and Normal, 2304 x 1728, 2048 x 1536
SQ2 - 1600 x 1200 High and Normal, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480
16:9 – 1920 x 1080
The RAW files can be shot simultaneously with JPEGs if desired. Users can choose to turn off the duplicate JPEG feature or can choose from the SHQ, HQ, SQ1, and SQ2 image sizes.
**Picture Effects Mode
**In the shooting menu, users can adjust the sharpness, saturation, and contrast on +/- 5 scales with live views. In the playback menu, the saturation and brightness can be adjusted on similar scales. The sharpness, saturation, and contrast can be changed in the playback menu if the file is RAW.
The Olympus SP-550UZ is stocked with a few interesting effects that create print layouts, calendars, and even cards. Cards can be made with the Frame and Label sections of the menu. There are about a dozen card templates and labels ranging from "Congratulations" to "Happy Holidays." These effects make it easier to create projects and print them directly from the camera.
*Like other digital cameras from this manufacturer, this model comes with Olympus Master Software. It is required if users want to stitch their panoramas together, and it is included in the box on a CD-ROM.
*Jacks, ports, plugs
*A thick rubber panel on the left side covers the two jacks on the camera. The Olympus SP-550 has a DC-in jack and a combination USB/AV-out jack. The video-out function can be set to NTSC or PAL standards.
*Direct Print Options
*From the playback screen, users can create DPOF print orders from JPEG files (not RAW files). All pictures can be added to an order at once, or users can scroll through images and crop them before adding 0-10 prints to the order. The Olympus SP-550 is PictBridge compatible.
*The camera comes with 4 AA batteries in the package, but these will soon need to be replaced. They don’t last long (it took me about a day and a half to burn through the included set). The batteries fit into a compartment below the hand grip that has a nice stiff feel and a sliding lock. It doesn’t feel like the batteries are going to fall out of the bottom at any given moment like some other digital cameras.
*On the right side of the camera is a door that opens from the back to reveal the memory card slot. The door feels nice and sturdy. Like other Olympus digital cameras, the SP-550 accepts xD-Picture cards up to 2 GB. For those times when the memory card runs out, there is 20 MB of internal memory.
***Guide Mode – *This is located on the mode dial and acts as a tutorial for beginners. It walks users through common photography situations like "Brightening a subject" and describes solutions step-by-step, setting the proper options as it goes along.
Pre-Capture – This feature is hyped up more than it should be. Why have a pre-capture mode when you could eliminate shutter lag instead? The pre-capture mode is found in the Drive portion of the menu. It limits the image size considerably to only 1280 x 960 pixels – big enough for a computer screen but not enough resolution for even a 4 x 6-inch print. The mode shoots five tiny images before the shutter button is fully pressed similar to a "final 5" burst mode.
Underwater Housing – This camera can fit into an optional underwater housing, the Olympus PT-037. It can take the camera to depths of 130 ft.
Panorama Mode – This shooting mode is found within the Camera Menu rather than among other shooting modes. It can only be used if an Olympus-branded xD-Picture card is inserted in the card slot. Grid lines appear from left to right, but no overlay is present so users have to guess and line up pictures the best they can. Up to 10 pictures can be stitched together using the Olympus Master Software; pictures are not stitched together in the camera itself.
Alarm Clock – An alarm clock can be set in the setup menu. It can be set once or it can be set to go off daily. A snooze function can be turned on or off, and there are three alarm sounds and two volumes to choose from.
**The Olympus SP-550UZ will retail at $499 when it becomes available in March. This seems to be a bit steep, even though the camera does have the world’s first 18x optical zoom lens (on a compact digital camera), and new gadgets generally go for a premium. However, there are a handful of drawbacks that stand out at that price. The camera has 7 megapixels, which is certainly sufficient for most users, but this is a bit below top priced compact cameras, which now commonly pack 8 to 10-megapixel image sensors. The burst mode, while creative in its options, is slow at full resolution, and there was a significant amount of shutter lag in the pre-production model we evaluated. If not improved in the final firmware, this would make if difficult to justify a $500 price tag. In the end, image quality will ultimately determine the true value of the camera. However, it appears the SP-550UZ will be a top competitor in the ultra zoom styling this year.
**Comparison to the Olympus SP-500UZ
**Debuting in August 2005, the Olympus SP-500UZ has 6 megapixels and a 10x optical zoom lens in a cheaply made body. The exposure modes have the same manual to automatic range complete with priority and scene modes. The lens on the SP-500 is much shorter, and it doesn’t have an image stabilization system. Both cameras have a 2.5-inch LCD screen, but the old model doesn’t have as wide a view and has half the resolution. Both cameras have pop-up flash units, but they don’t even look related. The old SP-500 has a rectangular-shaped box that pops out but not very high. It wasn’t very effective and it wasn’t very sturdy either. The flash didn’t fit nicely into the casing so users had to jiggle it to push it back in. The Olympus SP-500 had a boxy design that wasn’t as pleasant to look at or handle, and its cheap look accurately described the pictures that came out of it. They had inaccurate colors, poor resolution, and lots of noise. It took 2.8 seconds to start up, and it had 0.2 seconds of shutter lag. The Olympus SP-500 originally retailed for $379.
**Who It’s For
***Point-and-Shooters –* Consumers who are familiar with Olympus cameras may be able to make the transition to this camera easier, but in general, point-and-shooters will want to avoid this confusing camera.
Budget Consumers – The $499 price tag is a bit steep for these consumers, who may have to pass up the 18x zoom lens for something more affordable.
Gadget Freaks – These consumers may be wowed by the 18x powerful lens but will be disappointed with the other gimmicks: the pre-capture mode and "15 fps burst mode" with limited resolution.
Manual Control Freaks – The Olympus SP-550UZ has manual controls, but they aren’t as easy to access as ones on a DSLR. Still, they are all there so control freaks may take a peek at it.
Pros / Serious Hobbyists – Hobbyists may be interested in the Olympus SP-550UZ as long as they don’t need to shoot action. It has a terrible burst mode but makes a better portrait camera with its ability to sync with up to 10 slave flashes.
The Olympus SP-550UZ may have the longest optical zoom lens on a digital camera with its 18x power, but it has other merits too. The body is sturdier and the components are of higher-quality than its predecessor, the SP-500UZ. The LCD screen and electronic viewfinder have better resolution, the flash pops up higher and provides more even coverage, and the lens is almost twice as long and comes with optical image stabilization. Olympus packs in other great features like manual control, slave flash compatibility, and simultaneous RAW and JPEG shooting. The 7.1-megapixel ultra-zoom digital camera does have some drawbacks as well. It had some serious processing delays, a slow burst mode, and confusing menus. The SP-550UZ comes at a $499 price and that seems to be more for the 18x lens than anything else. Still, the lens is so long that it almost creates a whole new category in the market. There isn’t much out there that can compete with an 18x compact camera with decent video capture. Overall, the Olympus SP-550UZ has a competitive feature set, but it will ultimately have to prove its worth with image quality. Check back in the coming months for our full review of the SP-550 UZ to see if it lives up to the hype.
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