DCRP Review: Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom
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This is the final review of the Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom. Product shots and screenshots that were featured in the preview have been re-shot, and all sample photos are from a production model. Thank you for your patience (well, most of you).
Several years ago, if you wanted an ultra zoom camera, there was only one name to know: Olympus. One of their cameras even developed a sort of cult following: the C-2100UZ. Sadly, the cameras that followed weren't nearly as interesting, with their biggest flaw being a lack of image stabilization. Since then, the ultra zoom market has been taken over by the likes of Canon, Panasonic, and Sony.
Olympus wants to change all that with the SP-550 Ultra Zoom ($499). On paper, it may have the most impressive specs of any ultra zoom out there. It packs a whopping 18X optical zoom lens (that starts at 28mm no less) into a relatively small body and throws in -- get ready -- image stabilization as well. Instead of using lens-shift image stabilization like most ultra zooms, Olympus used CCD-shift technology to reduce blurry photos. We'll see how well the system works later in the review.
Other features on the camera include a 7.1 Megapixel CCD, 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, RAW support, and a VGA movie mode.
Is the SP550 the ultimate ultra zoom camera? FInd out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The SP-550UZ has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Like the majority of cameras these days, the SP-550UZ has built-in memory in lieu of a bundled memory card -- 20MB of memory, to be exact. Unfortunately that holds just 4 photos at the highest JPEG quality setting (and one RAW image), so you'll want to buy a memory card right away. Like all Olympus cameras, the SP-550 uses xD Picture Cards, which currently come as large as 2GB. I'd recommend a 1GB card as a good starter size. Buying a "Type H" high speed card is highly recommended, as it lets you record movies until you run out of memory, and it improves overall camera performance as well.
The SP-550UZ uses four AA batteries for power. Olympus gives you alkalines in the box, which will quickly end up in the trash. Thus, you'll want to buy yourself a set or two of NiMH rechargeables (2500 mAh or above) and a fast charger. You'll save both money and the environment in the long run. Now, here's a look at what kind of battery life numbers you'll get out of the SP-550:
The SP-550UZ's battery life numbers are above average, even with the relatively anemic batteries Olympus used in their testing. Put in more powerful batteries (say, 2700 mAh) and you'll get best-in-class battery life out of the camera.
If you've been around here for a while then you'll know that I love cameras that use AA batteries. They're cheaper than proprietary lithium-ion cells, and you can use off-the-shelf batteries when your rechargeables die. Hurrah for AA!
Olympus includes a big 'ol lens cap and retaining strap to protect the SP-550's 18X zoom lens. If I have one complaint about the lens cap, it's that the thing likes to fall off.
Let's talk about accessories now. There are quite a few available for the SP-550, including:
Not too shabby, eh? Only things missing here are a wide-angle conversion lens and an external flash.
Olympus Master 2.0
Olympus includes the brand new version 2.0 of their Olympus Master software with the SP-550. The software is, for the most part, a nice upgrade over the previous version. It's pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about everything you could ever want. The downside is that it is buggy (it crashed frequently on my Mac Pro) and that the RAW editor is truly lousy (more on this below).
After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. For some reason (bug?), the thumbnails of RAW images are really low resolution. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related newsfeeds, though it wasn't yet working when I tried it.
Here you can organize photos into albums, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a bunch of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.
Olympus Master also lets you update the firmware on our camera from within the software.
Like a lot of photo viewers, Olympus Master lets you view you images in a calendar format. There's even a "diary" for each day for you to record notes in.
Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.
That brings us to the RAW editor in Olympus Master 2.0. While the new version of OM offers more RAW editing tools than the old one, the conversions themselves are, well, lousy. First, here's what you can adjust: exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, noise filter, and color space. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master quickly shows you the results. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.
Now, the bad news. The quality of the RAW image conversions created by Olympus Master are poor. Rather than try to describe it, I'll just show you:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG using Olympus Master (no changes)
I think it's pretty obvious what the problem is with the RAW converter in OM: softness. Images are so soft that they look out-of-focus -- and that's not what you'd expect when shooting in RAW mode. I found that turning the noise filter option OFF helped a great deal, though the JPEGs were still much sharper. So, if you're using OM for RAW conversions, turn that off and turn the sharpness setting up -- way up (+4 or +5 is nice) and you'll get better results. Let's hope Olympus gets their act together and corrects this obvious flaw in their software, otherwise folks will be forced to use something else for RAW conversion (Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in was not compatible with the camera when this was written).
Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Another thing to note about RAW images is their size: they're four times as large as a super high quality JPEG.
While I really shouldn't be criticizing the quality of the SP-550's manual (after all, they do give you a printed one in the box), I just have to mention that it's not terribly user-friendly. While you will most likely get your question answered, expected a cluttered layout with lots of "notes" and fine print. Heck, there's not even a real table of contents.
Look and Feel
The SP-550 Ultra Zoom is a compact, SLR-style ultra zoom camera that reminds me of some Fuji and Kodak models. The body is made of plastic, but still feels pretty solid in your hands. Speaking of hands, the large, rubberized right hand grip makes the SP-550 easy to hold. There aren't too many buttons, and the important ones are within easy reach of your fingers.
Now let's take a look at how the SP-550 compares to other ultra zooms in terms of size and weight: