It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything from Olympus other than several fantastic E-system digital SLRs and several more slightly disappointing mju and FE compacts, so it’s refreshing to see the company return to a style of camera it practically invented, the semi-professional compact ultra-zoom.
From around 2002 to 2004 Olympus had a whole string of successful UZ models featuring high quality 8x and 10x zoom lenses, but this was in the days before image stabilization, so naturally camera shake was a major drawback for all of these models. These days the company seems to restrict itself to just one UZ model a year, and in January it announced the launch of the 7.1-megapixel, 18x zoom SP-550UZ, the latest in this line.
The SP-550UZ has only just appeared in the shops with a suggested retail price of £375, but already it is available from some online retailers for as little as £299. There aren’t many cameras that compete with the 550UZ directly, but perhaps the closest matches are the 6-megapixel 12x zoom Canon S3 IS at £269, the 7-megapixel 12x zoom Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 at £250 or the 6-megapixel 10x zoom Fuji FinePix S6500fd at around £220.
Just one look at the 550UZ and you can see that Olympus has decided to take the UZ series in a whole new direction. The camera bears little resemblance to its predecessor the SP-510UZ or any of the previous models. Instead it looks a little like a miniature DSLR, although with a style that is completely new and – at least in my opinion – very attractive.
The camera body is made of high-strength plastic finished in a shiny metallic grey, but with metal details including a chrome strip that runs vertically around the seam of the body and incorporates the strap lugs. Virtually the whole of the front half of the camera is covered in a high-friction textured rubber coating, including a ring around the lens barrel. The same material is applied to a large thumb-grip area on the back of the camera, and combined with the well-designed ergonomic handgrip it makes the camera extremely secure and comfortable to hold. It also protects the camera from knocks and scratches, and looks pretty darned cool at the same time.