Cameras

Olympus SP-550UZ Digital Camera Review

Read a review of the Olympus SP-550UZ ultrazoom digital camera.

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Testing / Performance

Color ***(7.59)*

**We tested the SP-550UZ to see how accurately it depicted color. We did this by photographing an industry standard color chart manufactured by GretagMacbeth and uploaded the pictures to Imatest imaging software. The program is optimized to the specifications of the color chart. Imatest determines how accurate the colors are and displays the differences between the ideal and those outputted by the camera. Below is a chart produced by Imatest showing the ideal colors in small vertical rectangles, the camera’s colors in the outer squares, and the luminance-corrected ideal colors in the inner squares of each tile.

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Imatest outputs another chart that makes seeing these differences even easier. The following chart shows the ideal colors as squares and the camera’s actual colors as circles. The line connecting them represents the degree of error; the shorter, the better.

550UZ-ColorER-CH.jpg
 
The Olympus SP-550UZ’s colors had a mean color error of 7.9, which is a little below average. This is better than the Olympus SP-500’s 11.5 mean error. The SP-550’s colors were undersaturated by 5.92 percent, which is uncommon among compact digital cameras. Most oversaturate so that colors will look rich and stand out. The SP-550UZ performed decently with an overall color score of 7.59. This is much improved over the awful 5.2 score that the SP-500 received. **White Balance***(7.34)* *Auto (7.25) *The automatic white balance setting performed averagely. It was very accurate when the flash fired, which is good because there is no preset white balance setting for flash. Under most lighting, there wasn’t much difference between the presets and the automatic setting except under fluorescent and tungsten lighting. *Preset (7.44) *The fluorescent presets were much more accurate than the auto setting under such lights. The tungsten preset was the most inaccurate: it was too blue. Under the same lighting, the auto setting made it appear too red though. Possible solutions include either avoiding tungsten lights or manually setting the white balance. **Still Life Sequences ***Click on any of the thumbnails below to view the full resolution images. * **Resolution ***(6.09)* The Olympus SP-550UZ advertises 7.1 megapixels on its 1/2.5-inch CCD. We tested how effective this resolution is by photographing an industry standard resolution chart. After trying several focal lengths and apertures to ensure we got the sharpest shot, we uploaded the dozens of images to Imatest imaging software. The program analyzed the images and chose the sharpest shot, which was taken using an aperture of f/5.0, a focal length of 18mm, and an ISO setting of 50. [
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](https://www.reviewed.com/cameras/viewer.php?picture=550UZ-res-large.jpg) *[Click to view high-resolution image](https://www.reviewed.com/cameras/viewer.php?picture=550UZ-res-large.jpg)*
Imatest outputs resolution results in units of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), which theoretically describes how many alternating black and white lines could fit in the frame. Horizontally, the SP-550UZ can fit 1586 lw/ph with 4.7 percent oversharpening and 1545 lw/ph vertically with 0.21 percent undersharpening. Most digital cameras employ a more aggressive sharpening system, but the results from the Olympus SP-550UZ are ideal. Still, the Olympus SP-550UZ doesn’t perform as well as some other ultra-zoom digital cameras with the same amount of advertised resolution. The 7.1-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 resolved 1793 lw/ph horizontally and 1577 lw/ph vertically. Even the 6-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 read 1912 lw/ph horizontally and 1497 lw/ph vertically. Granted, the Sony and Panasonic digital cameras did use more in-camera sharpening. The Olympus SP-550’s resolution is good, but it’s not the cream of the crop. **Noise – Auto ISO ***(2.52)*** **When tested in bright studio lighting, the Olympus SP-550UZ automatically chose an ISO 125 setting. In this test, many cameras choose the lowest possible ISO setting so the Olympus wasn’t too far off. Unfortunately, there was a lot of noise even at that low setting. The 2.52 overall automatic ISO noise score is disappointing.     **Noise – Manual ISO ***(9.3)* The Olympus SP-550UZ performed much better when the ISO is manually set, as most digital cameras do. Below is a chart showing the camera’s ISO settings on the horizontal axis and the associated noise level on the vertical axis.
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Most digital cameras steadily increase in noise level as the ISO is bumped up. This isn’t entirely true for the SP-550. The noise peaks at ISO 400 and then decreases at ISO 800 and again at ISO 1600, illustrating the impact of the camera's noise reduction algorithm. The Olympus SP-550’s 9.3 overall manual ISO noise score is quite good.

**Low Light ***(7.75)*

Most of our tests are done in the bright lights of a studio, but we switch things up and turn the lights down for this test because that’s how many pictures are taken. We photograph the color chart in light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. The first test of 60 lux is similar to a softly lit room with two shaded lamps. The 30 lux test is equivalent to a single 40-watt bulb in an otherwise dark room. The last two tests are extremely dark and aren’t common shooting situations but test the limits of the image sensor if there are any. Below are the images from the tests.

The images maintain illumination, but the colors suffer horribly and noise is obvious. The 60-lux test used a 1-second exposure and oversaturated by 10.6 percent with a mean color error of 17.5 percent. Surprisingly, the colors improved during the 30 lux test with the longer 5-second exposure. The mean color error dropped to 8.7, and the saturation improved to 98.2 percent.

Below is a chart that shows just how much noise is present in each image. Shutter speeds from 1-15 seconds are shown on the horizontal axis. The percentage of the image that is muddled to noise is represented on the vertical axis. The red line shows the amount of noise when the noise reduction system is activated, and the blue line shows what happens when it is deactivated.

Related content

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Surprisingly, shots taken with the manual noise reduction system engaged actually show more noise in the images. Also surprising is the dip in noise from 1-5 seconds; usually the noise level slopes upward as the exposure time is lengthened. This seems to suggest increasingly aggressive noise reduction as exposure time is prolonged.

Overall, the Olympus SP-550UZ had some surprising results in low light with its ISO 1600 setting. Despite the splotchy look, it received a 7.75 low light score that is much improved over the SP-500’s 6.5 result.

**Dynamic Range ***(5.59)*

To see how the camera handles highlights and shadows in an image, we photographed an industry standard dynamic range chart. This chart shows a series of rectangles from light to dark that represent a range of 13 exposure values. The images were uploaded to Imatest software, which determined how much of the range the Olympus SP-550 can show at high and low quality levels. Like our other tests, this is done in a studio with ideal lighting so users shouldn’t expect the same results from everyday shooting. These tests are more valuable for comparison’s sake than anything else.

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As expected, the dynamic range diminished as the ISO increased. There is a significant drop from ISO 50 to 200 and then it levels off somewhat to ISO 1600. The message to take away from all this would be to keep the ISO as low as possible especially when shooting outdoors or in bright light. An ISO 50 or 100 setting would be very sensible in order to keep a wide range of tones and a relatively low level of noise in images.

Video Performance ***(3.48)*

***Bright Light - 3000 lux

*In the bright lights of the studio, the colors in the video weren’t very accurate. The purples and reds were the most erroneous and led to a 12.1 mean color error, as compared to the camera’s 7.9 color error when shooting still images in the same lighting. When snapping pictures, they were a bit undersaturated but videos produced colors that were slightly oversaturated at 108.3 percent. This performance is decent for a digital camera, although there is more noise in the video than most digital cameras have. The Olympus SP-550UZ had an average of 0.625 percent of noise in its videos.

*Low Light - 30 lux

*With the lights turned low, colors remain fairly true. The mean color error actually dropped from 3000 lux’s 12.1 to 30 lux’s 9.89. More colors seem to be wandering from where they should be, but there isn’t a single color or group within the spectrum that has any particular problems. The saturation is close to perfect at 104.8 percent. Again, colors and saturation fared well here. And again, noise is the only hindrance to a great movie: it jumped to 2.075 percent of the video which is awful.

*Video Resolution

*Imatest analyzed a video test chart that we recorded and it output resolution results as line widths per picture height (lw/ph) just like the still image resolution results. The SP-550’s 640 x 480-pixel video resolved 357 lw/ph horizontally with 2.9 percent undersharpening and 391 lw/ph vertically with 11.6 percent undersharpening. This is quite good for a digital camera. Its good performance could be credited to the movie mode’s access to exposure and metering adjustments: the better the exposure on the video chart, the more promising the results.

Imatest analyzed a video test chart that we recorded and it output resolution results as line widths per picture height (lw/ph) just like the still image resolution results. The SP-550’s 640 x 480-pixel video resolved 357 lw/ph horizontally with 2.9 percent undersharpening and 391 lw/ph vertically with 11.6 percent undersharpening. This is quite good for a digital camera. Its good performance could be credited to the movie mode’s access to exposure and metering adjustments: the better the exposure on the video chart, the more promising the results.

(100% crops)

*Outdoor Motion

*Videoing moving subjects outside translated to somewhat jerky video, although nothing worse than any other 30 fps video. The default metering system had trouble when large subjects moved off of the frame: the metering would change drastically and suddenly and then return to what it was. This phenomenon is fairly common but the SP-550’s expression of it is quite exaggerated.

Speed/Timing

Startup to First Shot (6.6)

This digital camera may be shaped like an SLR, but it certainly isn’t as fast as one. It took 3.4 seconds for the Olympus SP-550UZ to start up and snap its first shot.

Shot-to-Shot (9.1)

The 550UZ has five burst modes. The first burst mode takes 3 shots, with 0.9 seconds between each. This 3-shot burst then takes 6 seconds to fully process, but the camera can continue to shoot as it processes. HI1 mode takes 15 shots in 2 seconds, but at decreased resolution (SQ1), and then takes 15 seconds to process. HI2 mode takes 20 shots in 1 second at even lower resolution (SQ2), and takes 10.5 seconds to process. Pre HI2 also takes 20 frames in 0.7 seconds, 5 of which are recorded before the shutter is even pressed. Pre HI2 can also only be shot at SQ2 quality, and takes 10.5 seconds to process. AF mode automatically focuses between each burst shot, taking three shots total, each shot coming 1.4 seconds after the last. This 3-shot burst also takes another 6 seconds to process.

Shutter-to-shot (8.9)

There is some definite shutter lag on the Olympus SP-550, especially when the camera doesn’t have the exposure locked. Once the exposure is locked, it takes less than a tenth of a second to snap the picture. Between the moment users push the shutter release button and the moment the picture is taken, however, 0.9 seconds can go by. The auto focus system prolongs the shutter lag significantly.

Components

**

SP-550-UZ-Viewfinder.jpg
Viewfinder ***(6.75)*

The Olympus SP-550UZ makes several improvements over its predecessor with its electronic viewfinder. Both cameras have small glass windows centered in plastic protrusions. The eyecup isn’t comfortable since there is no rubber cushion or anything. The new model has better resolution though, making it easier to check the focus and see what’s going on.

For users who wear glasses, there is a diopter control on the SP-550, something that was forgotten on the SP-500. The diopter control sits on the left side of the viewfinder and consists of a circular dial that is a little larger than a pencil’s eraser. The plastic dial has grooves on its edge that make it possible to turn – although not very easily. This isn’t a frequently accessed control though, so comfort isn’t the priority here. Users should only have to set it once and then ignore it. There are 16 different positions on the diopter control, so there is a good selection for a variety of eyeglass prescriptions.

The view on the viewfinder can be modified by pushing the button labeled "?/Disp." This adds shooting information, a live histogram, and yellow dashed grid lines. The histogram and grid lines can’t be displayed at the same time, which is just as well because the screen is too busy anyway.

The viewfinder is small and probably won’t be the first viewing choice for many users, but it’s perhaps the only good choice when in broad daylight. The LCD screen is hardly visible at all in bright light, and it’s too difficult to adjust the screen’s brightness when it can hardly be seen in the first place. The viewfinder is always bright and shaded, though, making it perfect for such situations.

LCD Screen*(7.5)*

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The view can be switched from the electronic viewfinder to the 2.5-inch LCD screen with a push of the designated button, which is located above the top right corner of the LCD. The LCD has 230,000 pixels – twice the amount that the older SP-500 had on its equally sized screen. The excellent resolution is coupled with the wide viewing angle. Images can be seen from side to side, so the family can gather around to view the most recent shots. However, images on the screen can’t be seen when the camera is held above or below eye-level.

Images also can’t be seen when trying to view the screen under bright light. The screen washes out and catches glare easily. When shooting in bright conditions like this, the only feasible option is to use the electronic viewfinder that is nicely shaded and is therefore unaffected by the sunlight.

The Olympus SP-550’s display can have different information superimposed onto it by pushing the "?/Disp." button. The view rotates between the following: blank screen, shooting info with yellow dashed grid lines, shooting info with live histogram, and shooting info only.

The screen’s contrast and brightness seem adequate, but for those who think otherwise, there is a +/- 2 control in the setup menu. It’s hard to get to. It is the umpteenth option down the list, and the fastest way to get to it is by scrolling to the third tab and then over to the third option down the list. But who is going to remember that? The tabs in the setup menu are only labeled by numbers, so it is hard to distinguish which settings are hidden where. Nonetheless, the screen brightness can be changed up and down the scale in full steps with a live view that makes it easier to judge the settings’ effectiveness.

Overall, the LCD is a great viewing mechanism when indoors or in low light. When the sun is shining, though, it is necessary to resort to the undersized electronic viewfinder.

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Flash*(7.75)*

The Olympus SP-550UZ has a pop-up flash that is similar to other ultra-zoom models in terms of its power. It reaches 14.8 feet when the lens is zoomed out and 9.2 feet when it is zoomed in (at ISO 200). This is similar to the flashes on the Canon S3 and the Panasonic FZ7. This is inferior to the unit on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 though; its flash reaches nearly 30 feet.

The Olympus SP-550UZ’s flash is much improved over its predecessor’s. The SP-500’s flash had nearly the same reach and similar modes and options, but the component itself wasn’t very sturdy. It didn’t pop up very high and felt like it would snap and fall off rather than snap back into the camera body.

The SP-550’s flash is much sturdier and pops higher when the button on the flash’s left is pushed. This button must be pushed to use the flash – even if the camera is in auto mode and the flash is needed, the user still has to manually pop up the flash. This may not occur to point-and-shooters. The flash even needs to be pulled up in scene modes like Night + Portrait, where the mode is designed to work with the flash powered on.

The SP-550 has several flash modes that can be changed via 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. Using the flash increases the shutter lag significantly, and using a red-eye reduction mode takes several extra seconds. A little delay is expected, but the Olympus is exceptionally pedestrian.

In the recording menu, there are a few flash options. A flash compensation option allows power adjustment on a +/- 2 scale with 1/3 steps. A flash sync option can add spice to an otherwise dull picture with sync 1 and sync 2 choices to fire the flash at the beginning or end of the shutter’s opening. There is also a slave flash option with 1-10 choices.

Pushing the flash back into the camera requires more force than usual, but the camera makes a pleasant clicking noise that assures it is locked into place.

Overall, the flash is very impressive. The component itself is strong and powerful and is similar to its competitors. It doesn’t blow out highlights normally, and there is a manual compensation adjustment to soften or sharpen the effect of the flash. The coverage is even, so there are no hot spots in images. My only two areas of concern are that the flash needs to be manually opened and it adds a second or two to the shutter lag.

Zoom Lens*(9.0)*

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The defining feature of the Olympus SP-550UZ is its 18x optical zoom lens. The SP-550’s lens is much longer than its predecessor’s. The SP-500 has a 10x optical zoom lens and no optical image stabilization. In the ultra-zoom category of digital cameras, the SP-550 reigns supreme. It has the world’s longest lens on a compact digital camera. Indeed, other manufacturers sell cameras with 12x optical zoom lenses. The Canon PowerShot S3 IS, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5, and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 all have 12x optical zoom lenses and image stabilization systems. The runner-up spot goes to the brand new Sony H9, which has 15x optical zoom. The H9 was announced in February 2007 and has yet to appear in store shelves.

The SP-550’s lens measures 4.7-84.2mm, which is equivalent to 28-504mm on a 35mm camera. This is impressively wide and long. The 550 is the first Olympus compact camera to include image stabilization. This is a necessity on this model, as the long zoom tends to exaggerate any hand shake. The stabilization is activated by pushing the half-moon-shaped button to the right of the shutter release/zoom ring; it is labeled with a shaking hand icon. There are two image stabilization modes that run continuously or only when the exposure is locked. The feature can be turned off too, but it’s a good idea to keep them on.

The image stabilization also works in the movie mode, but only when the audio is turned off. You have to choose: stable and silent or bumpy and audible. The optical zoom is the same way, and it only works when the audio is turned off. This trade-off is extremely disappointing for a camera that touts its long lens as its hottest feature.

Many manufacturers get their lenses from outside sources such as Carl Zeiss or Leica. Others, such as Canon and Olympus, have their own technology. The lens is labeled Olympus ED. It is made of 14 lenses in 11 groups with 4 aspherical elements and 2 ED lenses.

The Olympus SP-550’s 18x zoom lens is large, but it provides a nice handle for the left hand with its textured rubber coating. There are shiny chrome rings for decoration, and the combination of chrome and rubber makes the rubber almost look like a zoom ring. A zoom ring would be preferable to the zooming system on the SP-550. It consists of a ring that surrounds the shutter release button and hardly moves from side to side. It isn’t the most comfortable control to use, but it is effective. It stops at about 30 different focal lengths throughout the 18x range.

Zooming from one end to the other takes about five seconds. The zoom was smooth when moving in, but when zooming out, the lens would backfire a little. There is some barrel distortion noticeable at the wide end of the lens, but this is typical for a camera like this. Users can add conversion lenses if they want more zoom or better macro shots. For example, the Olympus WCON-07 wide angle lens cuts focal length by a factor of .7, and the TCON-17 can be added for a total of 30x optical zoom.

The Olympus SP-550’s lens has an aperture of f/2.8 in wide and f/4.5 in telephoto, which is decent but slower than one of its primary competitors - the Canon S5 IS - at longer focal lengths. At the telephoto end, though, the auto focus system has difficultly focusing, which makes it almost impossible to snap quick candid shots from afar.

In the packaging is a lens cap that has a nice cushion and fits snugly. It falls off when the camera is turned on though, so users will want to connect the cap to the neck strap to avoid losing it.

Overall, the Olympus SP-550’s 18x optical zoom lens is decent. It isn’t amazing. I was disappointed by the slow auto focus at the telephoto end and the fact that it is disabled in the movie mode when the audio is turned on. Still, the image stabilization works well, and it’s the most zoom available on the market.

Design / Layout

**Model Design / Appearance ***(8.5)*

Olympus seems to hit and miss in this area. Its Stylus Verve had a bold design that looked good but wasn’t very functional. Some of Olympus’ E-series DSLRs have flat-topped designs that don’t look good at all but are very functional. The Olympus SP-550UZ seems to get it just right. It looks good, and its looks don’t hinder its function. There are several materials that combine on the camera’s surfaces: rubber, dark gray plastic that has a metallic sheen, and chrome. The rubber grips around the camera are great, but they attract dust and dead skin. Despite the exfoliation factor, the Olympus SP-550UZ is a huge improvement over the homely SP-500 that was boxy and cheap-looking. The new model is assembled tightly so there aren’t cracks in the housing and the buttons are firmly in place. It has curved edges too, unlike the squarish SP-500, and it feels balanced and comfortable in shooting position. 

**Size / Portability ***(5.25)*

The Olympus SP-550 is short and stout with its 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1-inch measurements and 12.9 ounce weight. That weight doesn’t include the four AA batteries, which add a substantial amount to the total. The camera is equally heavy though. It has the batteries on one side and the huge 18x lens on the other. On each side of the SP-550 is a tiny strap lug that is nicely blended into the camera’s design. Olympus included neck and lens cap straps along with two rings that attach the straps to the tiny holes in the camera body. The Olympus SP-550 isn’t very big, but it is large enough to require a camera bag or case of some form.

Handling Ability*(8.75)*

Olympus’ original ultra-zoom digital camera had a boxy look that handled like, um, a box. The SP-500’s lack of contours and gripping surfaces combined with a cheap plastic shell make for an uncomfortable handling experience. Many consumers complained and it

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seems that Olympus took notice. The new SP-550UZ has a tougher shell, although it is still plastic. The camera is noticeably heavier too, which may be a strain on the wrist but makes it feel more substantial than less expensive models. The Olympus SP-550 has rounded edges very unlike the sharper SP-500.

The new ultra-zoom digital camera has plenty of variation in its surfaces that make it better to handle too. The rubber coating covers almost everything on the front of the SP-550. The right hand grip is coated with the textured rubber, along with a thin strip on the left side that gives just enough room for the left fingers to hold. The rubber extends around the barrel of the lens too; this is a nice touch because the lens is so large and will require some support from underneath. To balance in the back, the Olympus SP-550 has a thumb grip that extends from the LCD screen’s top edge to the right side of the camera on a curled protrusion. This feature gives users extra stability and allows them to shoot one-handed if they dare. While it is possible with the grips and placement of the components, the sheer weight of the SP-550 will prevent frequent one-handed shooting. Overall, the comfortable contours and perfectly placed grips make this model one of the best cameras Olympus has made in terms of handling.

Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(6.75)*

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The SLR-shaped Olympus SP-550UZ combines elements from DSLRs and compact digital cameras. Most DSLRs have lots of easily accessible buttons and almost always have a mode dial. The SP-550 has a large mode dial that showcases its manual and automatic modes. Beside the mode dial is the shutter release button and zoom control, the combination of which is just as large as the mode dial.

There are only a few designated buttons on the camera, and they cover the basic point-and-shoot functions: Menu, Delete, Display Info, Playback, Power, Image Stabilization, and LCD/EVF. These buttons aren’t elaborate and all have printed labels, which look like they could rub off after a few years. It is a little confusing that there is a playback mode button on the back of the camera as well as a playback position on the mode dial. It is probably faster to access it with a button but having it located in two separate places is a little strange. All of the buttons on the back seem to be too flush with the camera body. Users have to give a good push for them to register.

The zoom control is definitely more reminiscent of compact cameras than DSLRs. The control is a ring around the shutter release that moves to the right and left to zoom in and out. The control zooms in nicely, but it causes some stuttering when zooming out.

The multiselector looks lifted off a compact camera. It consists of a central OK/Func button with a surrounding ring decorated with icons: exposure compensation on top, flash on right, self-timer on bottom, and macro on left. The multiselector doesn’t protrude much from the camera and the surrounding ring feels a little flimsy – both undesirable characteristics for this control.

The overall size and placement of the controls and buttons seems to be just fine and labeling works well too. All of the buttons are within reach of the right thumb. The biggest problem is the close proximity of the buttons on the back of the camera that are clustered into a tight rectangular pattern.

Menu*(6.0)*

Olympus has a menu system that is a bit baffling. It is split into a short menu of frequently used options and a longer menu cluttered with everything but the kitchen sink. The split menu system isn’t the problem. This same concept is used on Canon and Fujifilm digital cameras, among others. The baffling problem comes in the lengthier menu, where items are crammed tightly and buried under tabs that are only labeled by numbers and not functionality. We’ll get to that later. First, here is the short and more frequently used menu accessed by the OK/Func button in the middle of the multiselector.

The advantage of this menu is not only that it is easy to access, but that it has a live view in its background. While users scan the white balance options, they can view the consequences of the selected choice in real-time. This menu is composed mainly of icons, but they are all quite intuitive.

The main menu is made up mainly of text, although there are some random icons thrown in that aren’t that intuitive. The text is printed in all capital letters, which tends to drive obsessive people like me crazy. The main menu is accessible by pushing the Menu button, and selecting the central Camera Menu option that is mixed with these other options on the initial screen: Image Quality, Setup, Silent Mode, Scene, and Reset.

This is a lengthy menu and it is divided up into five tabs, but they are labeled by numbers rather than icons. In the Canon menu system, the tabs have cameras and memory cards to distinguish the functions of the groups of options. Here, it is hard to remember which tab the Sharpness option is located in, for instance. Scrolling down to it is likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome in the thumb.

I dislike this menu for a few reasons. Yes, the capital letters rub me the wrong way, and the random conversion lens and other icons aren’t intuitive. There is also no live view for options like white balance. This menu is merely a guessing game.

The following setup menu is just as long and divided into five numbered tabs.

The setup menu allows for plenty of customization. Users can choose everything from the sound the alarm clock makes to whether the LCD displays the metric or English measurement system. In general, it is best to avoid the menu altogether because it isn’t very intuitive, and it is likely that users will get lost in the mess.

Ease of Use*(6.25)*

This is one of the easiest-to-use Olympus cameras – but that’s not saying much. Olympus made lots of improvements upon the SP-500 and is moving in the right direction. The Olympus SP-550UZ has a fat mode dial, properly labeled buttons, and rubber grips that make handling pleasant. The Auto mode makes the camera easy to operate for point-and-shooters. For those users who want to access manual controls or the menus, a bit of patience and a briefing with the manual will be necessary.

The camera does include a Guide position on the camera that takes users step-by-step through common shooting problems like brightening subjects and shooting into backlight. Overall, the SP-550 isn’t the easiest camera to use on the market, but it is one of the easiest Olympus models.

Modes

Auto Mode*(6.75)*

The auto mode is the easiest shooting mode on the Olympus SP-550UZ. It automates everything as it should with the exception of a few basic features: macro mode and self-timer. It also allows the flash mode to be changed – but only when the flash unit itself is manually popped open. The auto mode worked well in good lighting and worked even better with static subjects. It still performed decently in low light, but the auto focus system took longer so there was more shutter lag.

Movie Mode*(5.5)*

I’ll admit that I was really excited to pull this camera from the box and shoot some movies. My son has been picking up interesting words lately, and I wanted to capture a few and listen to them over and over on my hard drive. I switched the mode dial to the video icon and pushed the shutter release button to start shooting.

The first thing I noticed was the delay between the moment I hit the button and when the camera actually started recording. The next thing I noticed was the awful red light on the back of the camera that blinked very quickly while recording. This is right next to the LCD screen, making it hard to view without having a seizure.

I zoomed in and out while my toddler son played with his train set and said things like "bye bye choo-choo" and pseudo-words that perhaps only a parent can appreciate. However, I wasn’t very impressed by the zoom. It moved smoothly in but stuttered when I zoomed out. The optical image stabilization did seem very effective but made some funny electronic noises. When I zoomed around, the auto focus didn’t adjust with it so the close-up of my toddler’s intent face was very fuzzy.

The movie’s recording menu looks like this.

Some of the menu options were depicted as icons, such as the microphone that had the same icon as voice memo in the still image recording menu. The conversion lens icon is also a little nonintuitive.

The fulltime auto focus option was turned off, so I turned that on to fix my toddler’s fuzzy face. It only worked about half of the time I zoomed in. It just isn’t very reliable.

A few hours later, I uploaded my movies to my computer and started watching them. I couldn’t hear them though. I fiddled with my computer’s settings. I hooked up the camera to my television and viewed them there just in case. But no, the audio didn’t work on my television either. As a last resort, I dug through the box and found the owner’s manual. Yes, I know this probably shouldn’t be a last resort and somewhere on the box it probably says to read all the instructions in the manual before operating, but who actually does that?

After turning to the section about the movie mode, I discovered that the 18x optical zoom cannot be used when the audio is turned on. And the audio has to be turned on manually with the unlabeled microphone icon in the recording menu. This was very disappointing, as the silent default doesn’t alert users to the fact that no audio is being recorded.

There was other interesting information in the owner’s manual about the movie mode: "When image stabilizer is set to On, continuous movie recording for a long period will cause the camera’s internal temperature to rise and the camera may stop operation automatically. Remove the battery and allow the camera to cool down for some time before you begin shooting again." This never happened while testing.

Besides the silent movies and possibility of an overheated camera, the movie mode does provide a lot of options. White balance, metering, saturation, sharpness, and contrast can all be adjusted. The resolution options are standard, but fine nonetheless, at 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels and 30 or 15 fps.

In the playback mode, movies can be viewed with the audio (if the zoom was disabled and the audio manually turned on). Users can’t divide files like on some cameras, but can pull still images from them and create index prints.

Overall, the Olympus SP-550UZ records the best silent movies with its 18x optical zoom, image stabilization, and variety of white balance and metering options. But when the audio is turned on, the delicate balance of features is disrupted and the movie mode becomes more like the standard fare from a compact digital camera. If consumers are looking for a true ultra-zoom hybrid, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is a better choice because it records stereo audio while allowing adjustments to the 12x optical zoom. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 can also zoom and record mono audio in its movie mode.

Drive / Burst Mode*(4.5)*

Most comparable digital cameras have a designated burst mode button, but the Olympus SP-550UZ chooses to place this option within its recording menu. There are several choices: Single, Continuous, Hi-1 Continuous, Hi-2 Continuous, AF Continuous, and Bracketing.

The Continuous mode is the standard burst setting, but it shoots slower than most digital cameras at 1.2 frames per second. The speed remains constant no matter which image size is chosen, but the burst lengthens as smaller and smaller image sizes are chosen. At full resolution, the Olympus SP-550 can snap 17 pictures continuously before flashing its bright red light on the back for about 8 seconds, indicating that it’s writing to the memory card.

The Hi-1 Continuous mode limits the resolution to 2048 x 1536 pixels, but it snaps 15 frames in about a second. This mode sounds like a machine gun with its speedy flipping of the shutter. The Hi-2 mode records 20 images at 1280 x 960 pixels. This mode doesn’t make any noise at all. Once the shutter is pushed down, the first image taken freezes on the LCD screen. Since there is no noise, it is hard to tell if the camera is still recording or not. These burst modes may be fast, but they are just about useless because they hardly have enough resolution for a wallet print.

The AF Continuous mode is incredibly slow. It takes almost 2 seconds between each picture. It refocuses each time, which makes it similar to the single drive mode – although the single mode takes more than 6 seconds between shots and even displays an annoying "Busy" message on the LCD while flashing the obnoxious red indicator light.

At the bottom of the drive modes is an option for exposure bracketing. This allows users to snap 3 or 5 pictures at intervals of 0.3, 0.7, or 1 EV. This menu item is usually disabled unless the exposure compensation is set to something other than zero.

The self-timer can be activated with the bottom of the multi-selector; it delays the shot by 2 or 12 seconds. There is also a Time Lapse option in the recording menu that can be turned on and off. Once on, users can choose to snap 2-99 pictures at intervals of 1-99 minutes.

Playback Mode*(7.25)*

Reviewing images on the Olympus SP-550 is enhanced with the high-resolution 2.5-inch LCD screen. Its wide viewing angle makes it possible for a few people to gather around and view photos straight from the camera itself. If there’s too large of a crowd, users can hook up the camera to a television with the included AV cable or to a computer with the included USB cable.

The playback mode has two locations, but it’s the same thing. It can be accessed with the designated button on the back of the camera or the position on the mode dial. It is faster to get in and out of the playback mode using the button, as it takes a little longer to rotate the dial.

The last image snapped is the first to appear in the playback mode. By pushing the wide side of the zoom control, users can view several pictures at a time. Pushing it once will show four images on the screen. Pushing twice shows 16, three times shows 25, and a fourth time will display a calendar view. Pushing the telephoto end of the zoom control magnifies images so users can get a closer look at the focus.

Users can scroll through individual pictures by pushing on the right and left sides of the multi-selector. Pushing on the top and bottom sides skips 10 files at a time, so users can navigate through large numbers of photos.

All of the buttons on the back of the camera serve a purpose in the playback mode. The Display button shows file info or a histogram, or no info at all. The Delete button eliminates only one picture at a time, and the option disappears from the screen after a picture is deleted. This can be tedious if deleting a series of pictures because you have to press and re-press the button. If deleting all of the pictures at once, however, it is much easier to enter the playback menu. This can be done by pushing the Menu button. The first screen that appears has dark gray lines in the background and nine options expressed in text around the screen. Playback Menu is in the center and the following surround it from the top and moving clockwise: Edit, Print Order, Setup, Silent Mode, Erase, Index, Calendar, and Slide Show.

The central Playback Menu isn’t very long and is shown in icons.

The Edit menu above it provides many more options. It has three numbered tabs on the left that divide the options, but there’s no simple way of telling which option is filed in which tab so there’s a lot of searching that goes on anyway.

This menu provides a lot of interesting options, but there is a lot of processing time involved too. Every step in this menu seems to take all energy from the SP-550; it chugs slowly along in this menu with delays between when buttons are pushed and when action is actually taken.

Olympus seems to cater to a wide audience with this menu. Those who are fans of manual control can tweak the picture to their hearts’ content by editing RAW files in the playback mode. Those who want to eliminate hours of work with computers and printers can create calendars and cards from the camera, and can even add text and change its color and font size.

The index and calendar modes are located elsewhere in the camera (by pushing the wide end of the zoom control), so it’s a little strange to see them in the playback menu but perhaps that’s more intuitive to some people.

Movies can be played, fast forwarded, and rewound. The playback menu allows users to create index prints, pull still images from movies, and divide files and save them as new files or to overwrite the old ones.

There is a slide show option that plays pictures and can play background music. The "background music" consists of two phrases that sound like the cool-down music in an exercise video from the 1980s. I wouldn’t want to watch family reunion photos roll by to that tune. The music can be turned off, though, and a host of transitions can be added to infuse some interest into the otherwise dull slide show. Movies cannot be viewed in the slide shows.

The processing delay on the SP-550 is disappointing and the flashing indicator light is annoying, but the interface of the playback mode is still high-quality. The LCD screen is nicely sized, stocked with great resolution, and can be viewed from several angles allowing large groups to gather round and check out the pictures and movies.

Custom Image Presets*(6.5)*

The SP-550’s main audience may be photo enthusiasts, but Olympus still wants to attract point-and-shooters with the camera’s long list of scene modes. 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 are found in the "SCN" position on the mode dial. The preset menu shows icons of the modes on the left side and a sample image of the selected mode on the right. When users either hold down the Display button or wait for longer than 2 seconds without pushing anything, a description appears of the mode. For instance, the Night + Portrait mode states: "For shooting both main subject and illuminated background in evening or at night. Shutter speed is slowed." Modes like this are hindered by the flash unit that has to be manually popped open. The present scene mode was designed to work with the flash, but it’s not guaranteed that users will remember to open it. Other low light modes don’t work that well either: Available Light and Candle modes limit the image size to 3 megapixels, which is hardly enough for a 4 x 6-inch print.

Control Options

Manual Control Options

The Olympus SP-550UZ has a nice selection of exposure modes that cover any user’s comfort level with manual controls. The shutter speed, aperture, and options from the recording menu can be adjusted in the manual mode. The shutter speed and aperture priority modes allow access to their respective exposure settings, and the program mode has only exposure compensation control along with full access to the recording menu. An automatic mode is also available for those photographers who are in a rush or just don’t want to be bothered with the manual controls. On the mode dial, there is an icon of a camera with the word "My" next to it; this is where users can save up to 4 customized shooting modes for quick access.

Focus

Auto Focus*(6.5)*

The auto focus system can be set to work only when the shutter release button is pushed halfway or it can be set to function continuously. The latter full-time option isn’t incredibly loud, but is certainly audible. The contrast detection auto focus system can be controlled with these modes: iESP, Spot, and Area. iESP is the default mode that automatically selects an auto focus area from around the frame. The Spot mode is locked to the center, while the Area mode allows users to manually move the green brackets to 143 different points around the frame. A predictive auto focus mode can be selected from the recording menu; it doesn’t seem to be much different from the iESP mode though. Of note is the orange auto focus assist lamp that can be activated in the menu.

The auto focus system works through the lens to focus from 3.94 inches when zoomed out and from 47.24 inches when zoomed in. The focal point can be even closer if the macro mode is activated, in which the SP-550UZ can focus as close as 1cm. The auto focus system caused substantial shutter lag, which only got worse the more the zoom was used. It wasn’t any more reliable in the movie mode either: the focus would often lock – even when set to work full-time – and hardly anything would be focused. Overall, the auto focus system’s pedestrian reaction time and unreliability in the movie mode is disappointing.

Manual Focus*(3.75)*

If users want to avoid the slow and unreliable auto focus system, they can manually focus from the recording menu. Once selected, a column with 1, 2, 5, and 10-meter indicators appears on the left side of the LCD screen. The center of the image is magnified, but it is done digitally so there are stair-step patterns visible. This makes it hard to focus in the preview, but the jagged lines don’t show up in the final images.

**ISO ***(9.0)*

The Olympus SP-550UZ has a variety of ISO sensitivities available that put the camera’s predecessor to shame. The SP-500 has ISO settings up to 400, a short range that is now only found on cheap compact models. More and more digital cameras are including higher ISO sensitivity to cater to photographers that shoot indoors or in low light and don’t want to use the flash. The new SP-550UZ tops much of the competition with manual ISO settings of 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 5000. This is a nice range, but the last two choices only function when the image size shrinks to 3 megapixels or smaller – so you won’t want to print these. Automatic is also available along with a High ISO Auto mode, something new to Olympus digital cameras but that has been included on other manufacturers’ models. Despite the image size shrinkage, the SP-550’s 50-5000 manual ISO offerings are great. To see how well the camera handled noise at high ISOs, check out the Testing/Performance section of this review.

olympus_sp550uz_menus_iso.gif

**White Balance ***(8.0)*

Like many of the other manual controls on this page, the white balance options can be found in two different menus: OK/Func and Shooting. The OK/Func menu is the best place to adjust the white balance because it has a large live preview. The following options can be found: Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, and One-Touch (custom). The custom setting shows on-screen instructions to set the white balance or cancel. Some models require users to fill a tiny bracket in the center of the frame with white, but the SP-550 requires the entire frame to be filled with something white. In the shooting menu, a White Balance Compensation option allows users to move the white balance up and down on a +/- 7 scale toward blue or red. This isn’t as advanced as Panasonic’s white balance compensation system, but it is better than nothing at all. Also note the exclusion of a dedicated flash preset.

olympus_sp550uz_menus_wb.gif

Exposure*(8.0)*

The Olympus SP-550UZ offers an exposure mode for everyone from full manual to priority to automatic and scene modes. In every mode, either the exposure settings (shutter speed and aperture) can be changed or the exposure compensation can be changed on its +/- 2 EV scale. It can be adjusted in steps of a third. The flash component has a similar +/- 2 flash compensation option as well.

olympus_sp550uz_menus_exposure.gif

In the setup menu, histogram and detail options can be turned on and off. When they are both activated, they are accessible by pushing the Info/Display button. A live histogram appears, and the detail function highlights overexposed areas as red and underexposed areas as blue.

**Metering ***(7.25)*

The typical selection of metering modes is available on the SP-550. The through-the-lens metering system has three modes: Multi-pattern, Spot, and Center. They can be found in both the OK/Func and Camera recording menus, although the former menu is the better choice because it provides a live view.

Shutter Speed*(7.5)*

Shutter speeds range from 1/2000th of a second to 15 seconds, and despite the manufacturer’s specs, there isn’t a bulb option. The range is fully available for most automatic exposure modes, but shortens in the manual and priority modes. In the manual mode, shutter speeds can be set from 15-1/1000th of a second. When the noise reduction setting in the recording menu is activated, it works when the shutter speed is slower than a half-second. In the shutter speed priority mode, only ½-1/1000 is accessible. The top of the multiselector has an exposure compensation icon on it. This is where the shutter speed can be changed.

Aperture*(7.0)*

With the 18x optical zoom lens as its highlighted feature, the SP-550 ultra-zoom digital camera offers manual and automatic control over its aperture. Some lengthy lenses have limited apertures, but this Olympus ED lens has a wide f/2.8 setting when the lens is zoomed out. When zoomed in, the maximum aperture shrinks to f/4.5. Throughout the range, the smallest aperture available is f/8.0, and choices come in increments of 1/3. The aperture can be changed by pushing the top of the multiselector with the exposure compensation icon on it and then scrolling right and left with the arrows.

Image Parameters

Picture Quality / Size Options*(9.0)*

The Olympus SP-550 isn’t caught up in the hype of the "megapixel race" with its 7.1-megapixel image sensor. Sure, other manufacturers are releasing models with more and more megapixels, but is it really necessary? Probably not.

The image sizes can be selected immediately from the initial menu that appears. A RAW file of 3072 x 2304 pixels is available along with the following JPEG file sizes: 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, and 16:9 – 1920 x 1080. RAW and JPEG files can be shot simultaneously, which is an interesting feature found on a few Canon DSLRs and hardly any compact cameras.

olympus_sp550uz_menus_image.gif

If users want to quickly resize and upload photos to the Web, there is a resizing option in the playback menu. It saves a copy of a photo at 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 pixels. This is handy for bloggers everywhere.

The image size selection is vast and the ability to shoot RAW and JPEG at once is impressive, but the 7.1-megapixel image size isn’t available in a few situations. The Candle and Available Light scene modes shrink pictures to a maximum size of 2048 x 1536 pixels, hardly enough to print a decent 4 x 6-inch picture. The camera also shrinks images to that size when the ISO 3200 and 5000 settings are used.

Picture Effects Mode*(7.5)*

For an ultra-zoom digital camera that costs $499, the Olympus SP-550 has a lot of picture effects. In the recording menu, the sharpness, saturation, and contrast can be adjusted +/- 5, complete with live views. The same parameters can be changed in the playback menu if the file is RAW. If it’s a JPEG, only the saturation and brightness can be adjusted.

All kinds of projects can be easily conquered with the SP-550UZ. Users can directly print finished calendars, scrapbook pages, and cards. Different layouts can be selected for each of these projects so the main picture doesn’t always have to be at the top of the calendar, for instance. Cards can be made with more than a dozen frames and phrases that cater to most occasions: "Happy Birthday" and "Happy New Year," for example. The frames and text can be customized with color and font size. This is quite extensive for an ultra-zoom model.

Connectivity / Extras

Connectivity

Software*(7.0)*

The SP-550UZ comes with a CD-ROM that includes Olympus Master Software version 2.0. This version is much improved over the first version, which has been sold with previous Olympus models for way too many years. The new software is much more organized and intuitive. When it is first opened, a series of prompts asks users to register and to archive all pictures on the hard drive. A Quick Start Guide appears that looks rather similar to the Guide mode on the dial of the camera itself. It has tutorials on everything from uploading images to editing them.

Images can be viewed as a page of thumbnails or a row of thumbnails across the bottom with a larger preview at the top. The top of the window shows all sorts of things to do with images: slide shows, rotation, printing, and panoramas. Along the right side of the window is the editing menu that is fairly extensive: resize, crop, insert text, brightness & contrast, color balance, tone curve, gamma, auto tone correction, hue & saturation, monochrome & sepia, sharpness & blur, distortion correction, and red-eye reduction.

Overall, the Olympus Master 2 software is a huge improvement on the previous version with its intuitive interface and vast editing

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options for JPEG and RAW files.

Jacks, ports, plugs*(7.0)*

On the left side of the camera is a thick rubber cover. Beneath it are two jacks: one for the DC-in power adaptor and the other for USB and AV-out cables. In the setup menu, the audio visual function can be set to output at NTSC or PAL standard so you can watch your movies wherever you are in the world.

Direct Print Options*(6.25)*

Direct printing will be a tempting option for Olympus SP-550UZ users. Users can create all kinds of projects for direct printing: calendars, cards, movie index prints, and scrapbook pages. Users can choose everything from the layout to the color of the borders to the font size and orientation on these projects. Images can also be touched up (e.g. Bring out colors by upping the saturation in the playback menu), so pictures that are printed directly from the camera will always come out the way you want them. From the initial playback screen, DPOF orders can be made. RAW images cannot be added to the print order – only JPEG. This makes that duplicate RAW + JPEG shooting mode appealing. All images can be added to the print order at once or users can scroll through every image and add them. In this same setup, users can crop pictures and select 0-10 prints of each. The camera transfers images to PictBridge compatible printers when connected with the included USB cable.

Battery*(4.5)*

SP-550-UZ-Battery.jpg
Like several other ultra-zoom digital cameras, the Olympus SP-550UZ runs on four AA batteries. A set is included in the box so you can start shooting right away, but it isn’t rechargeable and won’t last very long. The hand grip is chunky enough to allow room at the bottom for a battery compartment. There is a plastic door with a stiff lock that will likely break a fingernail or two while prying it open.

Memory*(3.0)*

The memory card is located under a door on the right side of the camera rather than in with the batteries like on some digital cameras. The memory card slot is fitted for xD-Picture cards up to 2GB. This capacity isn’t impressive anymore, as many SD-compatible cameras can now accept up to 8GB. Like other Olympus digital cameras, an Olympus-branded xD-Picture card is required for some of the functions to work. This includes panoramas, print orders, formatting, and the backup card function.

Other features*(7.0)*

Guide Mode – With its own position on the mode dial, the Guide Mode is very easy to access and definitely easy to use. Once selected, a list of desired shooting problems and effects appears: "Shooting into backlight" and "Blurring background" are two of them. Users can select a situation from the list and move through a step-by-step tutorial that ends in a snapped picture.

Pre-Capture – With the disappointingly lengthy shutter lag on this camera, a pre-capture mode sounds heaven-sent. It records five pictures before the shutter release button is pushed. Don’t get too excited though: it’s a gimmick. It limits the image size to 1280 x 960 pixels, which is about the size of a printed wallet picture! For those who don’t mind the small prints, the pre-capture mode can be activated in the Drive section of the recording menu.

Underwater Housing – An optional Olympus PT-037 underwater housing can be purchased for the SP-550. This way, photographers can use the three underwater scene modes in depths of up to 130 feet.

Panorama Mode – When the camera is supplemented by an Olympus-branded xD-Picture card, a panorama assist mode appears in the recording menu. This mode isn’t very exciting. Grid lines appear from left to right, but there isn’t a preview of the previous image taken so it’s harder to line shots up. Up to 10 pictures can be taken at a time. Even worse, users can’t see the stitched image on the LCD screen: all of the pictures have to be uploaded to the included software before they can be merged together.

My Mode Customization – There is a camera icon with the word "My" next to it on the mode dial. This is where users can save up to four customized exposure modes for easy access. The modes can be saved in the recording menu.

Alarm Clock – Globetrotters will appreciate the built-in alarm clock that can be activated from the setup menu. Complete with a snooze function, the alarm can be set to sound once or daily. Three alarm sounds and two volumes can be chosen, but there are no waves or serene brooks to wake up to.

Overall Impressions

Value*(6.5)*

The Olympus SP-550UZ sets a new precedent with its 18x optical zoom lens. It’s almost a new category of ultra-ultra-zooms. Most competitors have 12x zoom lenses, but Sony just announced a model with 15x. The Olympus still reigns though. It also reigns as one of the priciest ultra-zooms on the market. It has a steep $499 retail price. The SP-550 does snap decent pictures, but its movie mode is disappointingly silent unless the zoom is disabled, and the weight is deceivingly heavy for its relatively small body.

Comparisons

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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. It 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.

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 - Sony is heating up the competition with its recent (Feb. 27, 2007) announcement of the Cyber-shot DSC-H9. This digital camera has a 15x optical zoom lens that is optically stabilized. The 8.1-megapixel model also has a 3-inch LCD screen that can fold up and down from the camera’s body. The flashy components are backed up by solid specs too. The Sony H9 includes the same image processor that is in Sony’s alpha DSLR camera. It has ISO up to 3200 and an auto focus mode that automatically tracks where the action is headed and keeps the focus on it. The H9 has a 9-point auto focus system, new face detection technology, and even HD viewing capabilities. The H9 will be available in a black only for $479 in April. This camera was also announced with a sibling, the Sony H7, which will sell for $399 and have a smaller 2.5-inch LCD screen that doesn’t fold out from the camera body.

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Canon PowerShot S3 IS - This digital camera performed well whether shooting pictures for an album or video for the television. The 6.1-megapixel digital camera has a 12x optical zoom lens with an optical image stabilization system that outperformed the Sony H5’s and Panasonic FZ7’s stabilization systems. It keeps pictures steady, colors almost perfectly accurate, and videos shake-free. The hybrid S3 IS shoots television-quality resolution video with stereo audio, and even allows users to adjust the zoom while recording. It has a 2-inch LCD screen that folds out from the camera body and rotates similar to those on camcorders. The Canon PowerShot S3 IS has a few drawbacks. Its ISO sensitivity only reaches 800, and it doesn’t control noise very effectively. Its burst mode isn’t very fast at only 1.6 fps (although still faster than the SP-550), and sometimes the shutter lag can take up to a half-second. Still, the Canon S3’s video capabilities are impressive and the sub-$350 price is very appealing.

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 - The 6-megapixel Panasonic FZ7 is an ultra-zoom digital camera with a 12x lens and an optical image stabilization system. The 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1-inch model has a 2.5-inch LCD screen that has less than half the resolution of the SP-550’s equally sized component. Its flash can reach almost 20 feet, and like the Olympus, it does not have a hot shoe. It does have a great auto focus system that performs well whether the lights are on or off. With fast startup, the Panasonic FZ7 can grab spontaneous moments much faster than the Olympus SP-550. The FZ7 has a shorter 12x optical zoom lens that is disabled in the movie mode, but it does record audio and television-quality resolution along with a widescreen-optimized movie mode. The sharp Leica lens is also great for very close-up pictures. The FZ7 is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that gets 320 shots per charge and is much lighter than the hefty four AAs that the SP-550 uses. This digital camera isn’t nearly as nice-looking, but it costs less with its sub-$300 price.

**Differences between the pre-production model and the real deal…

**We looked at the Olympus SP-550UZ not too long ago, but it was a "pre-production model" meaning that its specs weren’t finalized so we couldn’t grill it through our rigorous testing procedures or provide more than first impressions of it. Now that we’ve seen the production SP-550, we can give you the full review. The two cameras didn’t differ all that much. Here are the differences.

  1. In the setup menu, the pre-production model had only Japanese and English menus. The production model does not have a Japanese language, but it adds a few others instead.

  2. There wasn’t a user manual with the pre-production model, so we found all kinds of interesting facts (such as the overheating image stabilization system) when we received it with the production camera.

  3. The burst mode on the pre-production model shot only 3 full-resolution pictures at a time. This improved to 17 shots on the production SP-550.

Who It’s For

Point-and-Shooters – The Guide mode will be especially handy for these users, or perhaps the traditional Auto mode will be just fine. These modes are both easy to use and provide way more zoom than most models.

Budget Consumers – With a $499 retail price, these consumers will have to wait until the price drops, or a competitor tempts them with something cheaper.

Gadget Freaks – The lure of the massive 18x optical zoom lens is there, but there isn’t much else to satisfy the gadget freaks.

Manual Control Freaks – Serious freaks may miss the control dial setup, but manual control can still be found on the Olympus SP-550 with the multi-selector.

Pros/ Serious Hobbyists – The SP-550UZ does pack the most optical zoom into a compact body, so there’s a tiny chance that some pro somewhere will use it as a backup. It’s meant for the consumer market though.

Conclusion

Conclusion

The 7.1-megapixel Olympus SP-550UZ is a huge improvement upon its predecessor with a sturdier, more attractive body and a longer 18x optical zoom lens. An optical image stabilization system complements the lens, which is currently the longest available on a compact SLR-shaped digital camera. The SP-550 reaches a wide audience with its guide mode that offers step-by-step tutorials and an array of exposure modes that range from fully manual to automatic and scene modes.

Olympus throws in a lot of gimmicks that make this ultra-zoom model look even better: a 15 fps burst mode, ISO settings up to 5000, and a pre-capture mode that snaps pictures before you push the shutter release button. However, all of these features are so flawed that they are hardly worth using.

The 18x lens makes the SP-550 a tempting choice for sports shooters, but the slow auto focus system and 1.2 fps full-resolution burst mode will most likely botch action shots. The number of movie modes, available controls, and long lens may tempt consumers who want a hybrid camera, but the inability to use the audio and the optical zoom at the same time should deter them. Point-and-shooters may appreciate the Olympus SP-550UZ with its tutorials, picture effects, and direct printing capability – but the $499 retail price is too much to justify this model over the cheaper competition.

Sample Photos

Sample photos

Click on the thumbnails below to view the full resolution images.

Specs / Ratings

Specs Table

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