Movie mode

The SP-550UZ has a now-standard 640x480 pixel / 30fps movie mode, and you can keep shooting until the card is full as long as you use one of the faster Type H xD-Picture Cards (with slower cards the recording stops at around the 15 second mark. The manual warns that extended use of the movie mode with image stabilization turned on will cause the camera to overheat and shut down, but we didn't experience this (to be honest it's so cold here at the moment I doubt overheating is an issue for anything).

The movies are recorded using motion JPEG (M-JPEG) and saved as .AVI files. The files are fairly big; at the best quality setting you're looking at just under 10 minutes on a 1.0GB card. Of course you can reduce the file size (to 320 x 240 pixels) and / or the frame rate (down to 15 fps) if you need to, which extends the shooting time considerably. Oh, and whilst we're on the subject of quality settings it's worth noting that Olympus still doesn't set the movie quality to maximum by default (the default setting is 15fps) which is REALLY annoying if you don't notice. Do I sound like I'm speaking from bitter experience? Well spotted.

Movie quality is actually pretty good (in SHQ mode) - they look reasonably smooth and are free of obvious artefacts, though there is noise in low light and the exposure system can struggle to keep up with rapidly-changing brightness levels. If you're shooting at the long end of the zoom and leave the focus on continuous there's some hunting, so I wouldn't bother, but there's only so much you can expect when using a 500mm equiv. lens.

There are a couple of important limitations when shooting movies; if you want to use the zoom you can't record sound, likewise you can't use the image stabilizer if you want to record sound with your movies. And if you switch on continuous autofocus (essential if you're trying to keep things sharp at the long end of the zoom range) be warned that you can hear the sound of the focus motor in the clips. It's worth noting that zooming whilst filming invariably results in lots of focus hunting, so I'd suggest forgetting it and going for the sound option instead.

In movie mode you get a simplified display showing the mode, focus brackets, memory in use, time remaining and (if you're using it) AE compensation setting.
There's a fairly comprehensive set of options (including sound, zoom, focus, metering and - unusually - image parameters such as sharpening and contrast).
Pressing the OK button brings up the Function menu, where you can set white balance and metering pattern.
There are four quality settings (640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels at 15 or 30 frames per second).
Playback mode shows a thumbnail of the first frame in the movie. Pressing OK starts playback (with sound, through the built-in speaker).
There are some basic editing functions (for trimming clips).

Sample movies

640x480 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 8.9MB
Duration: 5.2 seconds

Shot at wideangle, with sound

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: large file!)

640x480 pixels @ 15 fps
File size: 5.6MB
Duration: 7.2 seconds

Shot at with zooming (focus hunting can be seen), no sound.

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: large file!)

640x480 pixels @ 15 fps
File size: 5.8MB
Duration: 7.8 seconds

Shot at telephoto with image stabilizer, no sound.

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie (caution: large file!)