2010 Budget Camera Shootout Review
Kodak EasyShare M550
The EasyShare M550 is a midrange camera in Kodak's M-series. The big difference between the M550 and its cheaper sibling (the M530) is the former's longer lens. While I've always liked the ease-of-use and value of Kodak's cameras, image quality has usually been disappointing.
Kodak has performed some sneaky tricks to keep the amount of stuff in the M550's box to a minimum. Here's what you'll find when you open it up:
- The 12.3 effective Megapixel Kodak EasyShare M550 digital camera
- KLIC-7006 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- USB AC adapter for in-camera charging
- USB cable
- Wrist strap
- 29 page basic manual + full manual via download
While the EasyShare M550 has 32MB of onboard memory, only 20MB worth is actually available for photo storage. You're going to want a lot more memory, and the camera can use SD or the higher capacity SDHC cards. You don't need to spend extra money on a high speed memory card.
The camera uses the KLIC-7006 lithium-ion battery for power. This battery allows you to take 220 shots on a single charge, which is on the low end of the spectrum in this comparison.
Battery charging is a bit different than what you may be used to. Instead of using an external charger, the battery is charged while inside the M550 (some other cameras in this article work the same way). You take the included USB cable, plug one end into a special USB to AC adapter, and the other end goes into the camera. Kodak does not disclose how long it takes for the battery to be charged, but it was at least a few hours when I did it. It's not clear whether you can charge the camera while it's connected to your computer.
Want an external charger instead? Kodak would be happy to sell you one for as little as $23. Other accessories include an A/V output cable ($25) and a variety of camera cases.
Kodak's EasyShare software has long been one of the best bundled software suites on the market. Instead of giving you a CD-ROM with EasyShare on it, a link to download it as well as the Share Button app is built into the camera itself. Plug the camera into you computer via USB and a window will pop up offering you the chance to download the software. The Share Button App is what uploads photos you've tagged to popular sharing and social networking websites. EasyShare is a capable photo organizer and editor for Mac and Windows, with a good selection of tools. You can remove redeye, adjust color/sharpness/saturation/contrast, or just use an auto enhancement feature. The Windows version is integrated with Kodak Gallery, making it easy to manage the photos you've got stored there.
The manual situation isn't great. You get a very basic "user guide" in the box, which explains that if you want the full manual, you must download it from Kodak's website! Once you get the full manual, you'll find that it's longer, but not very detailed (though the target audience for the M550 may not even notice).
Look and Feel
The EasyShare M550 is one of the larger cameras in this comparison, though it will still travel easily in your pocket. The camera is made almost entirely of metal, though the door over the battery and memory card compartment feels like it could snap off at any moment. As with the majority of the cameras in this comparison, the M550 has a plastic tripod mount. The M550 comes in four relatively muted colors, which include dark grey, purple (pictured here), light blue, and tan.
Kodak takes a relatively minimalist approach with the M550's control layout. I'm not really a fan of the buttons: the ones on top all look the same (which makes the shutter release hard to pick out), while the four-way and zoom controllers on the back quite small. I also don't like how the camera always starts in Smart Capture mode -- so if you want to use Program mode (which opens up all the shooting options), you have to switch to it every time you turn on the camera.
The EasyShare M550 has a little more zoom power than most of the cameras in this comparison. Unfortunately, it's also one of the slower lenses in the group, with a maximum aperture range of F3.5 - F5.9. The focal range of the lens is 5.1 - 25.3 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 140 mm. As with the majority of the camera in this comparison, the M550 does not have optical image stabilization.
At the upper-left of the photo you'll spot the camera's microphone, flash, and self-timer/video recording lamp. The flash has a working range of 0.3- 3.5 m at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 2.0 m at telephoto, though that's at ISO 400 (everyone else uses Auto ISO, so I can't really compare the M550 with other cameras in this regard). You cannot attach an external flash to the M550.
The EasyShare M550 lacks an AF-assist lamp, which will no doubt affect its low light focusing abilities (we'll see later on).
On the back of the camera is a 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 pixels. The screen is sharp, fluid, and colorful. Low light and outdoor visibility were both average.
Immediately to the right of the LCD are four buttons, which are for deleting a photo, entering the menu system, opening a shortcut menu (that has a few more options in Program mode), and switching to playback mode.
At the top-right of the photo is the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.7 seconds. I counted ten steps in the 5X zoom range, which doesn't allow for much precision.
Under that is the four-way controller, which is solely used for menu navigation, and moving through photos that you've taken. No direct buttons here!
Tagging a photo for sharing
That red-colored button opens the Share menu, which allows you to tag photos for uploading to flickr, Facebook, or Kodak Gallery, e-mailing them to addresses you've added to the camera, or transferring images to a Kodak photo frame. Of course, you still have to connect to a computer to do all this, but sharing your photos doesn't get much easier than this.
There's nothing but buttons on the top of the M550. We've got the power, flash, and mode buttons, with the nondescript shutter release to their upper-right. The mode button switches between Smart Capture (which the camera always uses when you power it up, even if you were in another mode previously), movie mode, Program mode, and scene mode.
The Smart Capture mode automatically selects a scene mode for you. It also detects any faces, and makes sure they're properly focused. The EasyShare M550's face detection system does a good job -- it easily found five of the six faces in our test scene. You'd rather select a scene mode yourself, there are plenty to choose from. Some of the notable ones include:
- Panorama: combine two or three photos into a single image, no computer needed!
- Blur reduction: employs some kind of digital image stabilization to reduce blur
- High ISO: boosts the sensitivity for sharp photos in low light, but image quality will not be good
- Panning shot: emphasizes horizontal motion, while blurring hte background
The only thing to see here is the camera's speaker. The lens is at the full wide-angle position.
On the opposite side we find the USB + A/V output port, which is under a plastic cover. Remember that Kodak does not include the video output cable in the box -- you have to buy it for $25 instead.
The lens is at the telephoto position here.
On the bottom of the camera is a plastic tripod mount (mostly hidden in this photo), as well as the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is about as flimsy as you can find. You won't be able to access what's inside this compartment while the camera is on a tripod.
The KLIC-7006 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
I've already touched on a few of the camera's features in the previous section, with the most interesting being the Smart Capture and panorama modes, plus the one-touch photo sharing capability. Other items of note include:
- Long time exposure: allows you to select a shutter speed between 0.5 and 8 secs; the ISO is locked, though, which may lead to noisy images
- Keyword tagging: create keywords and then attach them to photos; allows for easier organization when they are transferred into the EasyShare software
- People tagging: the camera can learn to recognize faces, and photos with those people in them can have names attached to them
- Perfect Touch: instant photo enhancement in playback mode
- Video edit: you can remove unwanted footage from a video, or turn a frame into a still image
The EasyShare M550 has a VGA movie mode. You can record videos at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until the file size reaches 4GB. Kodak doesn't say how long it takes to reach that limit, but it seems to be around an hour.
The optical zoom lens cannot be used in movie mode, though a digital zoom is available (that reduces video quality, though). Unlike some of the other IS-less cameras, there's no electronic image stabilization available on the M550. There's a continuous autofocus option available, but this only affects focusing before recording begins.
Here's a sample video from the EasyShare M550. The quality isn't great -- the scene isn't very sharp, and the lack of image stabilization is quite evident.
Performance and Photo Quality
The EasyShare M550 takes approximately 1.9 seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. Autofocus speeds were average, ranging from 0.4 - 0.6 seconds at wide-angle to around twice that at the telephoto end of the lens. The M550 really struggled to focus in low light situations. And by "struggled", I mean failed completely. It's not a great camera for shooting in dim light, that's for sure!
Shutter lag was minimal, and shot-to-shot delays were very brief (around one second) -- even with the flash. You can delete a photo immediately after taking it by pressing the appropriately named delete button on the back of the camera.
The M550 has a somewhat disappointing burst mode. While you can take three photos in a row at 2 frames/second, the LCD is black the entire time, making it essentially useless for taking action shots.
Now I'll discuss the EasyShare M550's photo quality. Don't forget that you can compare the test photos between all eight cameras later in this article.
From a distance, the EasyShare M550's macro shot looks pretty good, but upon closer inspection you'll spot some flaws. The figurine has an overprocessed look to it, which could be due to JPEG compression, noise reduction, or some combination of the two. The cutoff between the figurine and the background looks rather unnatural, as well. Colors aren't bad, though. The M550 has the longest macro focus distance in the group: 10 cm. It also doesn't have a dedicated macro feature that you turn on and off: it's all automatic.
Like the PowerShot SD1300, the EasyShare M550 has a slow shutter speed option. Unlike that camera, the M550's shutter speed selection isn't nearly as large. For the night scene above, the 8 second exposure is a bit too long, so the photo ends up overexposed. Unfortunately, the next choice is 4 seconds, which is too fast. While having some control over shutter speed is better than nothing, I wish Kodak gave users a bit more flexibility. As for the image quality, you'll find strong purple and cyan fringing, plenty of highlight clipping (though the photo is overexposed), and some detail loss from noise reduction.
The EasyShare M550 gives you the choice of preflash-based or digital redeye removal. You can have one or the other, but not both. From my tests, neither of them worked effectively. Unfortunately, there's no redeye removal tool in playback mode, so you'll have to fix annoyance this on your computer.
The M550's lens shows moderate levels of barrel distortion at its wide end. You can see what this looks like in the real world by looking at the building on the right side of this photo. The camera has very noticeable corner blurring and vignetting (dark corners) as well, both of which are illustrated in this photo.
Now let's take a look at our studio test scene. As you can see above, there's noticeable fall-off around the corners of the frame, which you'll see in most of my real world photos as well. The color is also off here, due to the M550's lack of a custom white balance mode. Now let's see how the noise levels look as we travel from ISO 64 to 1000:
The M550's test photos are unappealing to my eyes right away. It's hard to describe, but the images have so much noise reduction applied to them that they lack depth and texture, if that makes any sense. Of course, they also lack the grain-style noise that many people don't want in their photos! This overly smooth look starts to disappear at ISO 400, where details start to go south. This is probably as high as I'd take the EasyShare M550, and that's in good light. ISO 800 has quite a bit of detail loss, and ISO 1000 is a total mess.
As you'd expect, my real world photos weren't much better. Exposure was hit-and-miss (though not horribly), and the camera clips highlights as one would expect in this class. Color is the usual hyper-saturated Kodak style -- and this is at the default "low color" setting, too! The M550's images are not terribly sharp, especially in areas of fine detail or low contrast. This photo illustrates the smudged details (look at the grass and shrubs) and mottled sky that come from too much noise reduction. That noise reduction helps to keep grain-style noise at bay but, frankly, I'd rather have some grain in my photos than the detail flattening that you'll find here. The M550 also has a lot of light fall-off and vignetting, which is a bit odd, since the Pentax camera (which I assume has the same lens) isn't nearly as bad. On a more positive note, purple fringing was not a problem.
Check out the EasyShare M550's real world photo quality for yourself in its gallery.
The Kodak EasyShare M550 has a lot of nice features, such as easy photo sharing, face recognition, in-camera panorama stitching, and a scene-selecting Smart Capture mode, but all that is overshadowed by its poor photo quality and sluggish performance. The M550 is one of the larger cameras in this group, though it's still small enough to fit into a jeans pocket. Build quality is decent, save for the weak door over the battery/memory card compartment and the plastic tripod mount. The controls could use some work, as well: the buttons on the top of the camera (as well as those to the immediate right of the LCD) are hard to distinguish between, so you have to hunt to make sure you're hitting the right thing. The silver-colored controls (zoom and four-way controller) could be larger, as well. The M550 features one of the most powerful lenses in the group: an F3.5-5.9 (yes, that's on the slow side) 5X lens, with a focal range of 28 - 140 mm. The camera does not have optical image stabilization, instead offering a digital version which is not nearly as effective. Something else the M550 is missing is an AF-assist lamp, which makes low light focusing nearly impossible. On the back of the camera is a 2.7-inch LCD with average outdoor and low light visibility.
The EasyShare M550 is 95% point-and-shoot, with the only manual control being a small selection of slow shutter speeds you can choose from. The camera's default mode is Smart Auto, which picks a scene mode for you. Naturally, the camera has face detection, and it works quite well. It also has the ability to "learn" faces, so they can be matched to a name, and stored in the metadata of photos. Sharing photos has always been easy on Kodak cameras, and you can send photos to photo sharing and social networking sites (plus e-mail recipients) at the push of a button. The M550 has a handy in-camera panorama stitching feature, which saves you a trip to the computer. The camera has a run-of-the-mill VGA movie mode, with below average quality. I do like how you can edit videos right on the camera, though. The camera's bundle is a bit lacking, too: there's no video cable included, and you have to download both the software and the camera manual from Kodak's website. While user-friendly, the M550's manual doesn't go into a lot of detail (though I'm not sure if the target audience cares that much).
The M550 isn't a great performer, with a slow startup time, average AF speeds, and miserable low light focusing. The camera's burst mode does shoot at 2 frames/second, but 1) it's only for three photos and 2) the LCD is blacked out the entire time, making it pretty hard to see what you're trying to photograph. Battery life was below average, as well. On a more positive note, the M550 doesn't have much in the line of shutter lag, and shot-to-shot delays were brief. By far, the camera's biggest weakness is in terms of photo quality. It's hard to put into words, but it's like the camera takes a sledgehammer and flattens any detail in a photo. Everything just looks soft and overprocessed. My M550 had quite a bit of vignetting/light fall-off near the corners of the frame, though that may be specific to my camera. There was also noticeable barrel distortion and corner blurring. Redeye is a problem, even when using the automatic digital removal system.
In case you haven't gathered, I wasn't a big fan of the EasyShare M550. While it offers some compelling point-and-shoot features, it needs work in way too many areas for me to recommend it.