DCRP Review: Pentax Optio 550
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: July 7, 2003
Last Updated: July 8, 2003

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The Pentax Optio 550 ($599) may look like just another compact camera, but it has one "big" feature that makes it stand out from the crowd: a 5X optical zoom lens. That's a nice change from the usual 2X or 3X lenses found on cameras of this size. The 550 is a nice compromise between an ultra-compact and an ultra-zoom camera.

In addition to the lens, the 550 also features a 5.0 Megapixel CCD, full suite of manual controls, and a unique 3D image mode.

For those want don't need all those pixels, Pentax offers the Optio 450 for $100 less.

Is the Optio 550 perfect for those looking for zoom power and portability? Find out in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Optio 550 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 (effective) Mpixel Pentax Optio 550 camera
  • D-LI7 rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Neck strap
  • 3D Image Viewer
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring ACDSee software + drivers
  • 155 page camera manual (printed)

The Optio 550 includes a skimpy 16MB Secure Digital (SD) card in the box. That's barely enough to get started with, so I recommend picking up a larger card (256MB is a good place to start) right away.

The Optio's lithium-ion battery has a lot of juice, giving the camera impressive battery life. The battery has 6.7 Wh of power (more than most larger cameras), and Pentax estimates that you can take around 400 shots (LCD on, 50% flash), or spend 210 minutes in playback mode.


Battery charger + battery

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it in the included external charger. It takes about 3 hours to recharge.

Two other things to note about these proprietary batteries: for one, they are very expensive. Buying another one (which I recommend) will set you back $40. Also, when you're low on power, you can't stuff in a regular AA battery to get you through the rest of the day.

The Optio 550 has a built-in lens cover, so there is no lens cap to worry about. You'll probably notice throughout this review that photographing the front of this camera is not easy.

So what's the deal with the 3D Image Viewer that's included in the box? The Optio has a unique feature which lets you take two shots in a row and combine them into a 3D image. To view the images in 3D, you can print them out and then use the 3D image viewer. Once you get the hang of it, you can probably do it without the image viewer.

I could only locate three accessories for the Optio 550. They are a remote control, camera case, and AC adapter. There are no lens or flash accessories available.

Pentax includes ACD System's ACDSee for both Mac and PC. The software is great for viewing and organizing your photos, but it's no substitute for something like Photoshop Elements when it comes to retouching. ACDSee is Mac OS X native.

Windows users will also get ACD Photostitcher, which can be used for creating panoramic images. I did not try it.

The manual included with the Optio 550 is about average. Everything you need to know is in it, but it can be confusing at times.

Look and Feel

The Optio 550 is an attractive, compact metal camera. The front is brushed metal, with chrome accents around the lens (which makes it hard for me to photograph). The camera is well built, and should be able to take whatever you throw at it. Do note that these metal cameras tend to scratch easily, so a camera case is recommended.

The camera can fit into most any pocket, and can easily be operated with just one hand. The dimensions of the Optio 550 are 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.6 inches (W x H x D, without protrusions), and it weighs 205 grams empty. For the sake of comparison, the old, 3X zoom Optio 330GS' numbers are 4.1 x 2.5 x 1.7 and 180 grams, respectively.

A bigger lens on a smaller body? Not bad! Let's begin our tour now:

I don't know how they did it, but the Pentax engineers managed to put a 5X zoom lens in the same space as a typical 3X lens. This F2.8 - F4.6 lens has a focal range of 7.8 - 39 mm, which is equivalent to 37.5 - 187.5 mm. The 550 does not support add-on lenses.

To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.4 - 5.2 m at wide-angle, and 0.15 - 3.2 m at telephoto. There are no external flash options for this camera.

Directly above the flash is the optical viewfinder. To the right of that is the "passive autofocus sensor". I assume this uses infrared light to assist the camera with focusing, in much the same way as an AF illuminator. Regardless of how it works, it's a welcome feature.

To the left of the AF sensor are the self-timer lamp and remote control receiver. Below the sensor is the microphone.

Here's the back of the camera. The Optio 550 has a high resolution, 1.5" LCD display. The LCD is bright, fluid, and sharp. Like all LCDs, it can be hard to view outdoors. The LCD brightness is not adjustable.

Above-left of the LCD is the optical viewfinder. It's pretty large for a compact camera, and as an added bonus, there's even a diopter correction feature.

Moving to the right, we find three multifunction buttons, plus the zoom controller. The three buttons are for:

Record mode function Playback mode function
Flash setting (Auto, off, on, auto w/redeye reduction, on w/redeye reduction) Protect image
- Self-timer
- Remote control
- Continuous shooting
- Multiple exposure
DPOF print marking
- Macro mode
- Super macro mode
- Infinity-landscape focus
- Move focusing area
- Manual focus
Delete image

I'll cover most of the above later in the review. But first, a few notes about some of those.

Continuous shooting mode will take shots sequentially until the memory card is full. The frame rate will vary depending on the image resolution and quality setting. At the highest JPEG setting, it seemed like the rate was around 1 frame/sec, which isn't terribly impressive.

The multiple exposure feature allows you to superimpose an image on top of one you've already recorded. You can give priority to the brighter image, the darker image, or you can just average their exposures.

The "move focusing area" will let you choose one of five focus points on the LCD (center, left, right, top, bottom). Manual focus will let you use the four-way switch to choose a focus distance. The center of the frame is enlarged so you can be sure that your subject is in focus. A little gauge on the LCD will report the current focus distance.

Back to our tour now: the zoom controller is well-placed, and it quickly moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under two seconds.

To the right of the LCD is the playback mode button. It does just what it sounds like. Below that is the four-way switch, used for menu navigation, manipulating manual controls, and setting the exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV, 1/3EV increments).

The two buttons below the LCD are for Menu/Function and Display (turns LCD on and off). The function button allows you to quickly access your favorite settings, by pressing it along with one of the directions on the four-way switch. You can put most menu functions in this spot.

On the top of the camera, you'll see the speaker, diopter control slider, power button, mode wheel, and shutter release button.

The mode wheel has the following options:

  • Manual mode - you choose both shutter speed and aperture, using the ranges below
  • Shutter priority (Tv) mode - you choose shutter speed, camera chooses aperture. Shutter speed range is 4 - 1/1000 sec.
  • Aperture priority (Av) mode - you choose aperture, camera chooses shutter speed. Aperture range is F2.8 - F7.9
  • Program mode - fully automatic, with full access to camera settings
  • Picture (scene) mode
    • Landscape
    • Night scene (the only way to get the 8 sec max exposure time)
    • Flower
    • Portrait
    • Self-portrait
    • Surf & snow
    • Autumn colors
    • Sunset
    • Fireworks
    • Text
  • Movie mode
  • Panorama assist mode
  • 3D image mode - for creating the 3D stereo images that I described earlier
  • Digital filter mode
    • Color filters
      • Black & white
      • Sepia
      • Red
      • Pink
      • Violet
      • Blue
      • Green
      • Yellow
    • Soft Filter - gives pictures a "fuzzy" look
  • User mode - quickly access your favorite settings
  • Voice recording - save audio clips in WAV format. Record until the memory card is full (which is about 30 minutes on a 16MB card)

The only thing to note here is the 4 second shutter speed limitation in the manual modes. The camera can actually go as slow as 8 secs, but apparently the only way to do so is by using the night scene mode.

Not much to see on this side of the camera. You can see how compact the lens is, though!

On the other side of the camera you'll find the I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The ports include USB/video out, as well as DC-in for the optional AC adapter.

On the bottom of the camera is the battery compartment, memory card slot, and tripod mount.

It's a shame that with such a nice metal body, Pentax chose to put a cheap plastic tripod mount on the Optio. The mount is toward in the center of the camera. The plastic door covering the battery/memory card slot seems rather flimsy as well.

The memory card slot can use SD or MMC (MultiMediaCard) formats.

One important thing to note: you cannot change the memory card (or battery for that matter) while the camera is on a tripod.

Using the Pentax Optio 550

Record Mode

It takes a little over 5.5 seconds for the Optio to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can begin shooting.

Press the shutter release button halfway, and the camera locks focus in under a second -- about average. Low light autofocus wasn't bad, and I think we have the passive AF sensor to thank for that.

In terms of shutter lag, the Optio 550 did well. At faster shutter speeds, there was no major lag. When the shutter speed approaches "tripod levels", there will be a bit of lag, but you probably shouldn't be hand-holding the camera anyway.


The Optio's LCD can show a lot of info in record mode, including a histogram

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent as well. Assuming you have the post-shot review feature turned off, you can take another picture in about one second.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Optio 550. Pentax uses a "star system" to represent image quality. Here are the number of shots that you can store on the included 16MB memory card.

Resolution Compression # shots on 16MB card
2592 x 1944 TIFF 0
Best (***) 4
Better (**) 8
Good (*) 14
2048 x 1536 Best (***) 7
Better (**) 12
Good (*) 18

1600 x 1200

Best (***) 11
Better (**) 20
Good (*) 27
1024 x 768 Best (***) 25
Better (**) 45
Good (*) 56
640 x 480 Best (***) 53
Better (**) 82
Good (*) 100

As you can see, there's a TIFF mode on the Optio 550. You can also see that you can't actually fit one of these images on the included memory card.

As far as file numbering goes, the camera names files as IMGP####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The camera maintains the numbering even if you erase the card.

While not the best looking menu system, the Optio 550's system is easy to navigate. The menu items include:

  • Recorded pixels (see chart)
  • Quality level (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, manual)
  • Focusing area (Wide, spot)
  • AE metering (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Sensitivity (Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400)
  • Auto bracket - see below
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this lowers the quality of your photos
  • Interval shooting
  • Instant review (Off, 0.5, 1-5 sec)
  • Fast fwd movie (Off, x2, x5, x10, x20, x50, x100) - see below
  • 3D mode (Parallel, cross) - choose the viewing method for 3D images
  • Memory - the camera will store the selected settings in memory so they aren't lost when you turn off the camera. The available settings include:
    • Flash
    • White balance
    • Exposure compensation
    • Digital zoom
    • AE Metering
    • Sensitivity
    • Focus mode
    • Zoom position
    • Manual focus position
    • Display mode
    • File numbering
  • Sharpness (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Saturation (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Contrast (Soft, normal, hard)
  • User - store your favorite camera settings to the "user" spot on the mode wheel.

Time for some further explanation.

As you can see, the Optio has manual white balance controls. That's the best way to get perfect white balance under any lighting.

Pentax's bracketing system is excellent. Not only can you bracket exposure, but you can also do it for white balance, sharpness, saturation, and contrast as well. The camera takes three shots in a row, with an interval you can choose (for white balance and exposure). If you've got enough room on your memory card, this is a great way to ensure perfect pictures.

The interval shooting feature will take a set number of shots at a chosen interval. You can even tell the camera when to start, up to 24 hours ahead of time. Up to 99 pictures can be taken in this mode. An AC adapter is basically a requirement.

The "fast forward movie" feature is like a "time lapse" movie. You can reduce the frame rate by a factor of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100. When you play the movie back, they are played back at 15 frames/sec multiplied by the chosen factor. Sound is not recorded. I hope this makes sense -- try it and you'll see.

In addition to the record menu, there's also a setup menu. The interesting choices in that menu include:

  • Sound - adjust the annoying beep sounds
  • World time - view the time around the world
  • Language (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese)
  • Start-up screen (on/off) - use the default Optio picture, or one of your own
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Sleep timeout (Off, 30 sec, 1-2 min) - turn the LCD off after inactivity
  • Auto power off (Off, 3, 5 min) - turn off the camera after inactivity
  • Quick delete (on/off) - took me a while to figure this one out. When on, it shortens the photo deletion process by one button press.
  • Quick zoom (on/off) - when on, "zoom and scroll" feature automatically jumps to highest zoom ratio
  • Function setting (Exposure compensation, recorded pixels, quality level, white balance, focusing area, AE metering, instant review, fast fwd movie) - define what the various directions on the four-way controller do.
  • Focus limiter (on/off) - limits the movement of the lens when shooting. I'm not sure what this is really for.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The Optio 550 did an excellent job with the macro test shot. Color, sharpness, and detail are all excellent. You can easily make out the dust and hair on the figurine. The 550 has two macro modes: regular and super. Regular macro mode gives you a focus distance of 15 - 65 cm. Super macro mode gets you even closer: just 2 cm from your subject. The catch is that the lens is locked at wide-angle in super macro mode.

The Optio produced a well-exposed, though somewhat noisy night test shot. It took in plenty of light, which is easy with the 550's shutter speed controls. There's a bit of purple fringing here as well.

There was definitely some redeye in our flash test shot, which is not terribly surprising, given the proximity of the flash to the lens. You can remove redeye pretty well in software.

The distortion test shows moderate barrel distortion and just a slight hint of vignetting (dark corners). I saw a little bit of vignetting in my real world photos, but it wasn't bad.

Overall I was very pleased with the photo quality on the Optio 550. Colors and detail were both excellent. I was also impressed with how well it exposed some very challenging scenes (see the various BART pictures in the gallery). Noise levels were a little higher than I like to see, but Pentax is going for the ultra-sharp look, which tends to raise the noise a bit. Purple fringing was apparent, which is common with these longer zoom lenses. It wasn't horrible, but just be aware of it.

Don't just take my words as gospel: view the pictures in the gallery and make your own decision about he Optio 550's photo quality!

Movie Mode

I covered one part of the Optio's movie mode in the previous section, when I tried (not very well) to explain the fast forward movie feature. Now here's some info about the standard movie mode.

You can record up to 10 minutes of video at 320 x 240, with sound. Do note that the 16MB card can only hold 40 seconds of video.

Files are saved in QuickTime format, at a frame rate of 15 frames/sec. You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Here's a sample movie for you. It's not terribly exciting, but it's all I've got:


Click to play movie (3.2MB, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Optio 550 has a very nice playback mode. The Optio has the basic playback features nailed: slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, and image protection are all here.

The zoom and scroll feature is here too, allow you to zoom in as much as 8X into your photo, and then scroll around. Zoom and scroll speeds are about average.

Two of the more advanced features include resizing and trimming. You can resize an image to any of the smaller resolutions (plus 320 x 240), and you can change the quality as well. The trimming feature allows you to crop a photo -- the resolution and quality settings are the same as the original image. In both cases, the original image is kept.

The Optio can show plenty of information about your photos, including a histogram -- just press the display button. The camera moves through images extremely quickly, with virtually no delay between images.

How Does it Compare?

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Pentax Optio 550. I really enjoyed using it. It's pretty much the ultra-compact camera out there with a "big zoom" lens on it (though it's only 5X). The photo quality was impressive, as were the performance, full manual controls, build quality, and battery life. The movie and playback modes were pretty good too, and I appreciate the live histogram in record mode. Downsides include the redeye, noise, and purple fringing in some images (not major though), and the skimpy 16MB memory card included with the camera. In other words, there isn't a lot to complain about. If you want more zoom in a smaller package, you definitely should check out the 550, or its 4 Megapixel sibling, the Optio 450.

What I liked:

  • 5X zoom in an attractive, compact body
  • Impressive battery life for a compact camera
  • Full manual controls
  • Movies can be 10 min long
  • Passive AF sensor helps with focusing
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • Super macro mode allows you to get as close as 2 cm to subject
  • Impressive playback mode
  • Unique 3D photo, fast forward movie features

What I didn't care for:

  • Some purple fringing and noise in photos
  • Metal body scratches easily
  • Redeye may be a problem
  • Plastic tripod mount
  • Skimpy 16MB SD card included

Other compact 5 Megapixel cameras include the Canon PowerShot S50, HP Photosmart 935, Konica KD-500Z, Kyocera Finecam S5, Minolta DiMAGE F300, Olympus C-50Z, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P10, DSC-P92, and DSC-V1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Optio 550 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality stacks up in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read reviews of the Optio 550 over at Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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