From a design point of view the SP-550UZ represents a fairly big departure from previous 'SP' big zoom generations, with a more 'SLR-like' shape, textured rubberized body panels and much more ;serious' styling. Not that these things really matter but I personally think the SP-550UZ is one of the more handsome cameras in its class, and one of the best-looking Olympus has produced in a long time. The control layout has been considerably neatened up since the SP-510UZ, but the external controls themselves are essentially the same.
In your hand
Of all the 'super zoom' compacts I've tried in the last couple of years (which is just about all of them) the SP-550UZ has perhaps the best handling, thanks to the physical shape (including a sizeable thumb grip) and the 'soft touch' finish, which make it comfortable and stable in the hand. The downside of this is that it is far from pocketable and - at over 450g fully loaded - hardly a lightweight either (to be fair it is very similar in both respects to the Canon S3 IS). But it is very well balanced, and unless you really do want to keep it in your pocket - offers an excellent compromise between size/weight and handling.
The SP-550UZ is powered by four AA batteries, held in place by a sturdy lockable door. Battery life is excellent at up to 490 shots (CIPA standard) using non-rechargeables, even more with a good set of NiMH cells. We were surprised, to say the least, at how long a single set of batteries last in this camera.
The 2.5-inch screen boasts 230,000 pixels and is pretty good, though not fantastic. As well as fairly unpleasant blooming (purple streaks when there's something bright in the frame), the screen doesn't react very quickly to changes in brightness in the scene, meaning it often gets blown out (this seems to happen almost every time you focus, presumably when the aperture is opened). We also found the screen hard to use in bright light... but that's nothing new.
The electronic viewfinder is surprisingly good, and I found myself using it more often than usual on a camera like this when the sun came out (see above). According to Olympus the EVF uses a new type of 'octagonal pixels', which may explain why it looks so smooth (we have no idea how many pixels there are, but I'm guessing somewhere in the 200,000 region). There is a dioptre adjustment for the viewfinder.
The pop-up flash is activated manually by a small button on the side. The range covers around 30cm to 4.5m (11.8 inches to 14.7 feet). There is no provision for the connection of an external flash, but there is an unusual 'slave flash' menu setting. This removes the pre-flash and allows you to set the power manually, which makes using studio slave flash systems pretty easy.
In a camera full of 'bigger and better' specification the SP-550's real claim to fame is that huge lens range, covering an unprecedented 28-504mm (equiv.) range. The maximum aperture is a respectable F2.8 at the wide end and a slightly less useful (but still pretty impressive) F4.5 at the long end. The zoom extends by around an inch when powered up, stretching to 2.5 inches at full zoom.
The SP-550UZ - in common with all current Olympus compacts - uses xD-Picture Cards for storage, and there is a (not so) generous 20MB of internal memory to get you started - enough for a whole 4 SHQ JPEGs, or a single RAW file. That's useful then.
The top plate is home to the shutter release, which sits in the center of the circular zoom rocker. To the right is the stabilization button, which is actually a custom function button - you can choose to have it control something more useful. To the left of the shutter release is the main mode dial, and below is the main power (on/off) button.
The rear controls are similar to most recent high-end Olympus compacts (though as mentioned above they've been tidied up). Macro, flash, self-timer and AE compensation get their own controls, and there is an OK/FUNC button in the middle of the four-way controller that brings up a useful Function menu offering quick access to white balance, ISO, metering and drive modes.
The (plastic) tripod bush is located roughly in the center of the camera, but not in the center of the optical path (this is important if you like to shoot panoramas).
Squirreled away under a rubber flap on the end of the body are the ports; a DC-in socket (for the optional mains adaptor) and a combined USB 2.0 / AV socket.