Olympus SP-550UZ Hands On

My, what a big zoom you have.

The box said 18x wide angle zoom lens. Being a zoom kinda guy, it was love at first sight. The Olympus SP-550UZ is the very first wide 18x optical zoom (28mm to 504mm) ranging from real wide-angle to long telephoto and is without a doubt awesome. In fact it’s amazing; 28mm is wider than any compact on the market and at 504mm brings you closer than any of its competitors, without a doubt, period.

Even with a dSLR you would need two separate lenses to have such flexibility. Periodically a digital camera comes along that tries to be a little of both compact and dSLR. The Olympus SP-550UZ is such a camera. Brilliant, when you consider that there are only two options when buying a digital camera. Either you go for a compact that is small and fits in your palm with so-so pictures or a dSLR that requires two hands but takes great photos. Either way it’s a compromise and that sucks.

A good camera with a great zoom. 7.1 Megapixels, RAW capture, accurate color and a viewfinder is what we’re looking for, and this is what you get with the SP-550UZ. The EVF (electric viewfinder) is dimmer than the main LCD but the contrast is fine and very workable. Of course, like any LCD, fast movement requires redraw time but it is pretty good. When you hit the shutter it blanks out for a moment to refresh before coming back. The main LCD is nice and bright at 2.5 inches (230,000 pixels) and adjusts quickly in changing light. Of course you still have the standard exposure modes, program, aperture priority shutter priority and manual, full auto, scene and guide mode.

Even though the 550UZ is mostly plastic, it feels solid with rubbery grip and metal trim. The lens barrel is sturdy while being surprisingly long and zooms with a nice smooth mechanism. The buttons and dials are intuitive and logical. The built-in flash pops up nicely. It takes 4 AA batteries, allowing for about 450 shots.

The 550UZ comes with a list of impressive features but sadly there is a bit of hype with the meat. More and more I’m seeing this trend where camera manufacturers indulge in marketing double talk and off-the-freaking-wall explanations. Olympus unfortunately is no exception; witness Olympus’ claim of the 550UZ’s brags burst rate of 15fps. At face value this is very impressive, but in order to accomplish this feat the 550UZ is shooting at a lowly 1.2 megapixels making the much ballyhooed burst a bust.

If you want a burst at full resolution then you have to slow the burst down to three frames in two seconds. Even more hyped are the ISO speeds up to 3200 or 5000, but at that ISO your resolution is only 3.1 megapixels. The camera’s ISO speeds are unreliable often resulting in blurred and grainy shoots. In fact, only the lower ISO speeds are usable. Are you kidding me?!

Same goes for Dual Image Stabilization: It works well, but in fact the dual part is a stretch. The sensor-shift mechanical IS is the hardware that detects camera motion and moves the CCD sensor to compensate which reduces blur. Effective and important when using long-zoom lengths or shooting in low light when shutter speed is slow. The other half, the BS part, is software. It’s ISO boosting that gets you faster shutter speed with some beefed up noise processing. No big deal.

Also, I didn’t see any difference between High-Quality (HQ) and Super High-Quality JPEG image settings, so I’d stick to HQ and get three times the amount of shots on the xD memory card. The xD card! Only Fujifilm and Olympus use xD cards (though Fujifilm is switching to SD/xD slots on its newer cameras) and while the cards work fine, it is certainly an obscure format. While on the subject of memory, the 550UZ has 20MB on-board.

Olympus has always had slow auto-focus and although the 550UZ is better than previous Olympus models, I don’t consider it fast, just passable, quicker in the day than at night.

The feature ‘’MyMode’’ allows you to save up to four settings — everything from metering modes, to color adjustment and ISO speeds, all very advanced. Then there is the guide mode for users who don’t want to think about what the modes mean. This list of common shooting situations allows the user to pick the situation and the camera picks the mode. Want to shoot into back light or blur the background and more. This is an easy-to-understand function but will people use it? I doubt if many do. If they can’t be bothered with modes how many of them are going to stumble across this feature?

Don’t get me wrong, I like this camera. It is a good consumer camera with a kick-ass zoom, but it’s not the camera that wet dreams are made of.

Check out more pictures of the SP-550UZ from our PMA 2007 coverage here.