Last year we had a separate Editor's Choice category for high-res EVF cameras, because most such models with high-magnification zooms offered a now-modest five or six megapixels of resolution. This year seven megapixels seems to be the minimum resolution for an EVF model, which produces its eyepiece image not with optical zooming or reflex mirrors but instead with a tiny LCD. And you get that higher resolution with cameras that zoom up to 12X, 15X, and even, as with this year's winner, a record-setting 18X.
This model should catch the eye of photographers who've become blasé about the routinely huge zoom ranges of EVF cameras: Its lens is the equivalent, in 35mm, of 28-504mm. And that category-leading 18X range is entirely optical, achieved without add-on converters or resolution-reducing digital zooming. Even with the SP550's fairly fast maximum aperture of f/2.8-4.5, shooting at such high magnifications would be a recipe for blurry handheld photos if the camera didn't have image stabilization -- a task it accomplishes by shifting its CCD image sensor. Longer focal lengths also benefit from higher ISO settings, so it's a good thing the new Olympus goes up to ISO 1600 at its full 7.1-megapixel resolution. It can be set to ISO 3200 and 5000 with resolution reduced to three megapixels. Four aspheric and two extra-low dispersion elements (out of a total of 14) aid sharpness through the lens's optical range.
The SP550 looks like a chunky little D-SLR, but the resemblance is more than skin-deep. It can capture high-speed, SLR-like bursts: Set to three-megapixel resolution it fires off up to 15 shots at seven frames-per-second; downsize to 1.2 megapixels and it doubles that speed to 15fps, capturing up to 20 shots at once. It has sophisticated autofocus, metering, and exposure modes, the latter including special-purpose settings for candlelight, self-portrait, documents, and cuisine. There's even an "auction" mode, for flattering shots of stuff you're selling on eBay.
Several underwater modes provide proper focusing and corrected color balance when the camera is used in the PT-037 Underwater Housing (about $380), which is rated to a depth of 130 feet. The SP550's big 2.5-inch LCD monitor is handy for composition in the deep. Another accessory, the TCON-17 Telephoto Conversion Lens, increases magnification by 1.7X, for 30X zooming. That colossal optical range is the equivalent of a 28-857mm zoom in 35mm. We don't think you'll be needing the SP550's 5.6X digital zoom.