The first digital camera to boast an 18x optical zoom, the Olympus SP-550 UZ
($499 MSRP) looks like a very impressive EVF.
The just-announced 7.1 megapixel Olympus SP-550 UZ (MSRP: $499.00) is certain to get people talking long before it hits the shelves. Why? Because its lens is long, but not just long -- loooooooooong is more like it. The Olympus SP-550 UZ (UZ=Ultra Zoom) is the first digital camera to boast an 18x optical zoom, which seamlessly covers a respectably wide 28mm to an impressive 504mm at the long end (35mm equivalents). It also close focuses to 1cm in super macro mode.
It covers this huge focal range with a very respectable maximum aperture range of f/2.8 at wide to f/4.5 fully extended -- not too slow to severely limit the usefulness of the tele's reach.
Combine this lens' reach and apertures with mechanical sensor-shift shake reduction, and this is starting to look like a very impressive EVF.
Add in full manual controls and RAW capture, and the specs keep getting better and better.
We were lucky enough to get a chance to spend an afternoon with a pre-production sample, and upon our initial inspection, this camera appears to merit its price. The lens barrel is well-damped and glides smoothly while it extends more than you'd think possible. The buttons and overall build feel solid. It's not quite as rock-solid feeling as the mostly metal Canon PowerShot G7, but feels exceptionally solid for a composite body. The only exception to the overall feeling of build quality is the battery cover, which felt stiff and didn't open and shut as smoothly as we'd like -- but this being a pre-prod, its possible that this battery cover issue will be resolved before the unit ships.
Interestingly, this camera will appeal to both beginners and advanced photographers. Aside from the full manual controls, 1/3 stop increments, RAW capture, histogram preview and other advanced-user features, the UZ also includes GUIDE mode, which helpfully offers suggestions for a particular shooting situation, and navigates the user straight from the guide to the settings adjustment for that situation. Add in-camera editing options, a wealth of scene modes and an assortment of accessory lenses, and it's an appealing all-in-one for the beginner who isn't quite ready to jump up to a DSLR.
The 18x lens and mechanical stabilization ensure that this is a notable camera, so ignore the unnecessary marketing hype surrounding the SP-550. The camera's press release includes a number of other impressive-sounding features and specs that require asterisks and explanations: capture at up to 15 frames per second (at a measly 1.2 megapixels), extremely high sensitivity range including ISOs 3200 and 5000 (at 3 megapixels), and 100x total zoom (5.6x digital zoom combined with the optical 18x).
These pseudo- or semi-features do not change the actual full-resolution specifications of this camera, so take them with a grain of salt. Olympus isn't alone in this type of marketing hype, but really, we're most impressed with full-resolution, non-asterisked specs and features, and we think our readers are, too.
We are eager to test a production unit in the Pop Photo labs, and we will post our certified test results as soon as possible. This is a significant-sounding camera on paper, but the image quality and performance are what matter most. Check back soon for a full camera test.