Conclusion - Pros
- Amazing 18x zoom range
- Truly versatile 28-504mm range, with real wideangle
- Comprehensive and extensive feature set
- Effective Image Stabilization system (good for two stops)
- Decent resolution
- Good, though by no means class-leading results at lower ISO settings
- Generally natural color rendition (slightly anemic reds aside)
- Raw mode (with JPEG duplicate options)
- Superb battery life
- Excellent handling & build quality
- Decent electronic viewfinder
- Nice screen - gains up well in low light
- Good level of customization available
- Excellent flash exposures
- In-camera editing (including raw conversion) of saved files
- Decent movie quality
Conclusion - Cons
- Images lack biting crispness, some loss of fine detail to noise reduction
- Some corner softness at long end of zoom
- Distortion throughout the zoom range
- Focus slow at long end of zoom and in low light
- Occasional focus errors (where the camera says it's in focus and it isn't)
- Full resolution burst mode unimpressive
- Purple fringing and chromatic aberration (fairly mild, but visible)
- Slow file writing (xD-Picture Card)
- Poor artificial light Auto White Balance and slightly unreliable Custom White Balance
- Screen blooming and slow reaction to brightness changes in live preview
- Movie mode restrictions (can't use sound with IS or zoom turned on)
- Mild overexposure of bright scenes leading to highlight clipping (can be fixed with AE-C)
- Supplied raw converter produces unimpressive results
- HIgher ISO settings noisy and soft (due to noise reduction)
- Almost pointless low-resolution ISO 3200 and ISO 5000 settings
- Disappointing macro performance
You have to be careful when reviewing cameras that you take a realistic view of how the typical buyer will actually use it, and what they can realistically expect it to do. I say this because the SP-550UZ gave us one of the most time-consuming, frustrating lab tests we've ever done. Why? Because it doesn't like focusing on charts, its custom white balance has a somewhat laid-back approach to accuracy and the mild distortion and curvature of field make shooting anything square and flat difficult. It also doesn't show a full 100% preview on screen (which again, makes shooting charts a nightmare).
Of course for 99.9% of 'normal' users none of this is going to make the slightest bit of difference; they won't be shooting test charts or constantly re-shooting because the custom white balance is 10% out or the framing a few pixels too wide.
But there is another danger when reviewing cameras, one that the average user might get caught by; that of disappointment caused by having your expectations raised too high in the first place. The excitement surrounding the SP-550UZ's headline-creating specification (18x zoom, ISO 5000, 15fps) meant that even though I should have known better, I was excited to get my hands on what seemed like the ultimate 'super zoom' compact. It was kind of inevitable that the reality would struggle to match the hype.
So let's put the preconceptions - and the painful experience of producing a usable set of test results - behind us, and look at the SP-550UZ objectively. It's obvious that after so many years in the 'super zoom' wilderness Olympus decided it had to come back with a bang, and that the marketing men looked at the existing market leaders and decreed that the SP-550UZ had to be bigger and better in every respect - even if doing so required more than a little smoke and mirrors. And so we got a camera with the highest sensitivity (albeit at massively reduced resolution), the highest frame rate (erm, albeit at reduced resolution) and, of course, the biggest zoom range (albeit one that struggles to focus at the long end).
It's important not to lose sight of what Olympus got right; the inclusion of a real 28mm (equiv.) wideangle is a huge improvement over most of the SP-550UZ's competitors, and opens up far more creative opportunities than the extra reach at the long end. It has excellent handling, a superb feature set and produces perfectly decent results that are roughly in the middle of the super zoom pack (not the best, by no means the worst). It has, on paper, a spec sheet that puts pretty much all its competitors to shame. And many of the image quality issues are fairly minor, only occur in fairly specific situations, or are common to pretty much all cameras in this sector.
But the more I used the SP-550UZ the more I wished that Olympus had made performance and image quality considerations a priority, not headline specification. Sure, the wide end of that world-beating 18x zoom is very welcome, but do most users really need a lens that long (504mm equiv.)? Those that do (for sports or wildlife, for example) will find the slow, faltering focus makes the SP-550UZ almost unusable - or frustrating to say the least. The slow raw performance and card writing in general means Olympus should have put a much bigger, fast buffer into the SP-550UZ, which would have seriously helped overcome the bottleneck caused by xD's poor performance. And at the same time they should have looked a little more closely at the user interface - if you like to change apertures and shutter speeds you'll soon wish Olympus had put a control dial of some sort onto the body to cut down on the button pressing that makes rapid changes difficult.
And so to the final conclusion. Whether the SP-550UZ is a camera you will love or hate depends a lot on what you intend to use it for. If you're likely to spend a lot of time at the long end of the zoom (or in low light) it's hard to recommend, because it's here where the performance and image quality niggles are at their worst. For more general snapping - and if you don't intend to produce large prints or get down to a pixel level on-screen - it's unlikely to disappoint, especially for typical unchallenging 'walk around' photography. Just don't expect to be able to shoot fast-moving kids or produce poster prints that look like they came from an SLR. And don't expect to get the best results in program mode and with all the settings on default; this is a camera that demands you know at least a little about exposure and so on before it delivers the goods.
The SP-550UZ is, then, a camera that tries a little to hard to be a true jack of all trades, and ends up being master of none; a perfect example of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. And yet the funny thing is, that after all that, I actually quite liked it. I guess - in a perverse way - it's sometimes nice to use a camera that forces you out of the lazy 'point and shoot' mentality and reminds you that photographers, not cameras, take pictures.
Ultimately however, after a lot of debate here, we decided that the SP-550UZ has just too many flaws where it matters (image quality and performance) for a $500 camera, and that (though a close call) it fell short of a Recommended rating. As always we'd recommend having a good look at all the sample images before deciding if you agree.
|Detail||Rating (out of 10)|
|Ergonomics & handling||8.5|