The SP-560UZ's overall performance is also similar to the 550. It starts up in just under three seconds, and takes about the same to shut down again, which is identical to the S8000fd but a bit slower than the FZ-18. Focusing is quick and reliable in good light, and the iESP auto focus system is very good at picking the right subject. However it does slow down significantly in lower light, although its low-light focusing ability is very good, achieving focus fairly reliably in a candle-lit room. The AF assist lamp has a range of approximately three metres in darkness.
The shot-to-shot time in single-shot mode is two seconds, but in continuous shooting mode the performance is more complicated, since it depends heavily on the type of memory card used. There are two types of xD Picture card available, Type M and Type H. The Type H cards are much faster, and installing one has a dramatic effect on the camera's performance. Using the slower Type M card, in standard continuous mode it can manage to shoot seven frames at 1.2 frames per second, but using the faster Type H cards it can shoot 19 frames at 1.25 frames per second. Similarly in the 3MP-only High Speed mode, using Type M cards allows 23 frames at an impressive 7fps, while with the Type H card this becomes an even more impressive 49 frames at 8fps. There is an even faster High Speed mode offering 15fps, but only at 1.2MP resolution. Video mode performance is up to standard with 30fps at VGA resolution. Interestingly the zoom lens can be used while shooting video, but only if sound recording is turned off.
I was, as I've said, a bit disappointed with the picture quality of the SP-550UZ, so I'm happy to report that there has been a big improvement in this area for the new model. The lens seems to suit the new larger sensor better than before, and both the barrel distortion at the wide angle end and the pincushion distortion at telephoto are reduced. Corner sharpness is also much improved, and there is less chromatic aberration. The level of detail is extremely good, and directly comparing identical shots from the S8000fd and FZ-18 shows a distinct advantage in favour of the Olympus. It does exhibit a slight tendency to over-expose some shots, losing some highlight detail, but the dynamic range of the sensor and image processor is very good, with excellent shadow detail. Noise control is very good at lower ISO settings, although like most small-sensor 8MP cameras, it does degrade fairly quickly above 200 ISO, and the maximum 6400 ISO setting resembles a low-quality webcam, and is best avoided. The SHQ JPEG files are a bit over-compressed at around 3MB, but this can be side-stepped by using the RAW mode. I really don't envy anyone who has to decide between the SP-560UZ and its main rivals, but if you choose this camera you won't be disappointed.
The Olympus SP-560UZ is an extremely accomplished camera, and more than makes up for its slightly disappointing predecessor. Outstanding design and handling, good performance and a huge degree of versatility make it a superb tool for the keen hobbyist. Image quality is at least as good as its main rivals, and the inclusion of RAW mode means that you can get the best from your photos. If you weren't already stumped trying to decide between a Fuji S8000fd and a Panasonic FZ-18, now your decision is even harder.