The S5500/5100 has a the same 'SLR-like' appearance as its predecessor (to which it is virtually identical externally). The serious black body, molded hand grip and all-round rubberized coating give it a rugged, professional appearance - and feel. The camera's proportions are in my opinion just right as are the subtle design hints and practical touches like the finger grip indent on the front of the camera and thumb grip on the rear. The S5000 looks and feels like a modernized, lightweight and compact version of the S7000 (and the S602 that came before it). The camera is supplied with a screw-on lens hood / thread adapter which is designed to protect the lens system but also gives the camera a more solid appearance (though leaving it on makes the camera more bulky when powered down).
In your hand
In your hand the S5500/5100 feels very nicely balanced, the weight of the camera almost equally split between the lens system and the four AA batteries (which are in the camera's hand grip). For extra stability there is a rubber ring around the lens barrel (it doesn't move and isn't a manual focus or zoom ring). Fujifilm has implemented a similar grip design to the S7000 Zoom with a notable 'bump' at the top rear of the camera which sits in the V formed by your thumb and forefinger. The entire camera is 'wrapped' in a textured, rubberized coating which helps single-handed shooting feel very secure and stable.
On the base of the hand grip is the battery compartment door which slides to the left to open. As you can see from this image the S5500/5100 takes four AA batteries, and though it works very well with alkaline cells (as supplied), we would recommend a good set of NiMH rechargeables. Battery life is excellent for a camera with an electronic viewfinder; a good (2300 mAh) set of NiMH batteries should give you around 400 shots (using the CIPA standard testing).
On the left side of the camera beside the speaker and just above the connectors is a small, well built door, covering the xD-Picture Card storage slot. Unlike the S7000, the S5500/5100 accepts only xD-Picture card, though with prices settling down this is no longer the issue it once was.
Directly below the storage compartment are the three connectors shielded behind a rubber cover. Connectors are: Mini-USB, DC-IN and A/V out.
The pop-up flash is manually released (using a button on right side). You can see the flash unit and flash sensor mounted just below. There is a large - and very bright - autofocus illuminator on the main camera body, to the left of the flash unit. This bathes the scene in green light when the camera senses low light levels, and allows the S5500/5100 to focus in total darkness at distances of up to around 1.5 meters.
The S5500/5100 has a bright and sharp 115,000 pixel 1.5" LCD monitor on the rear. It's protected by a stiff plastic window but has no anti-reflective coating. Unlike the S5000, the LCD monitor now provides approximately 100% frame coverage.
The S5500/5100 has an improved electronic viewfinder which provides the exact same view as the LCD monitor but at eye level (and size). The S5000's EVF is a 0.33" unit with 115,000 pixels. It's better than the S5000's EVF, and is perfectly usable despite being rather small and suffering from a small amount of video lag and a touch of 'choppiness'. It's not the best EVF we've ever seen, but on a budget model it's by no means the worst!
The S5500/5100 has a 10x optical zoom, which provides an equivalent focal length range (on a 35 mm camera) of 37 to 370 mm. All the more impressive is maximum aperture which is F2.8 at wide angle and just F3.1 at telephoto. Supplied with the camera is the AR-FX5 adapter ring which continues the dimensions of the outer lens barrel and helps to protect the lens as well as providing a 55 mm thread. The lens itself extends by around 24mm when powered up.
The shutter release sits at the top of the grip, in the middle of the main power/mode switch. The rather aggressive power saving system means that after two minutes of inactivity the camera doesn't merely go to sleep; it powers down entirely, meaning you have to turn it off and then on again to take another picture (a process that takes the best part of five seconds). Fortunately this 'helpful' feature can be turned off or the time before activation extended to 5 minutes.
The zoom controls are large and well positioned behind the grip, and are easy to use with your thumb. The zooming action is very quiet and - though nowhere near stepless - does allow fairly fine control over focal length. There are approximately 18 steps between the two extremes of the zoom range.
The 10-position mode dial is a distinct improvement over the S5000, both in functionality (it now offers direct access to the four scene modes) and in ergonomics (it has much more positive click-stops and is much harder to move by accident). Directly in front of the mode dial are two small buttons offering direct access to the camera's continuous shooting/bracketing functions and AE compensation. On the opposite shoulder sits a focus mode button with a locking switch.