Pentax Optio 550 Review
The Pentax Optio 550 packs a high resolution 5-megapixel imager and a 5x optical zoom lens in a durable aluminum alloy case that's not much larger than a pack of cigarettes. It's loaded with advanced exposure modes (aperture or shutter priority, manual, panorama, 3-D image, AE bracketing, time-lapse, color filters) for those times when you feel the need to take complete control of the creative process. The Program AE mode allows anyone to take great pictures with the same ease as an automatic Point-n-Shoot camera. And with the power of a 5x optical zoom lens you're never too far away from the action, just press the Tele button and zoom! With all these high-end features the Optio 550 is reasonably priced at around $600 (as of May 2003.)
Don't let the small size fool you, this is a very responsive camera. It takes about five seconds to capture the first shot after pressing the power button, most of that time is required to extend the lens. Shot to shot time in single exposure mode is about three seconds without the flash or five seconds with the flash. If you need to grab several shots in sequence then switch into continuous mode and capture 5 frames in about 3.5 seconds (the actual speed is dependant on the shutter speed of course.) Playback operations are also robust. You can browse from picture to picture with only a one second delay. It takes about three seconds to zoom-in but you go directly to 8x magnification and then zoom back out as desired. You can also capture QuickTime 15fps motion video at 320 x 240 resolution with sound for up to 600 seconds depending on the capacity of your SD card. As with most cameras that capture video plus sound - you can't use the zoom during recording nor can you preset it beforehand, the focal length is fixed when in movie mode.
Overall the image quality is very good. The lens produces sharp images and exhibits very little barrel distortion in full wide angle and also a small amount of pin cushioning at full telephoto. For the focal length covered this is a very good optic with very little distortion. We saw almost no occurrences of chromatic aberration, also known as the "purple fringe" effect. This can happen when you have darker objects set against a brilliantly lit background or open sky. The autofocus is fairly quick in average lighting conditions. There will be times when you'll want to use the Spot-AF as the camera can focus on something behind your subject if it has more contrast. This camera (and all cameras) could benefit greatly from an AF-assist lamp as it will fail to focus in lower light levels. When shooting outdoor scenics you need to switch to center-weighted metering to avoid underexposed foreground subjects if there's a lot of bright sky in the frame. Image saturation and contrast can be adjusted to suit your taste but it can often be difficult to judge on the small LCD screen, especially when you're out in the bright light.
The overall fit-n-finish of the camera is excellent and feels "solid" in your hand yet it's surprisingly light in weight. The ergonomics are good, controls are easy to operate and clearly labeled as to their functions. We were surprised to find a plastic tripod socket on the bottom of the camera. The optical viewfinder is equipped with dioptric adjustment and has a fairly wide viewpoint. Left-eyed shooters will find their nose in the color LCD but it's easy to clean thanks to its fingerprint resistive coating. The camera is powered by a proprietary lithium-ion battery pack that is charged out of the camera with the supplied AC charger. The small battery packs enough power for an average day's shooting if you use the color LCD sparingly. As always we recommend the purchase of a second battery or your picture taking is over when the battery goes dead. And you should consider the purchase of a larger SD card too. The camera ships with a rather wimpy 16MB card and this doesn't go very far unless you're shooting in the lowest resolution.
With all things considered, especially the price, we feel the Optio 550 is an excellent value for the high-end digicam consumer. Five megapixels gives you more than enough image resolution to make 13 x 19" (or larger) size prints. If you don't need that much resolution but still want a pocket-size camera then take a look at the Pentax Optio S with three megapixels and a 3x zoom.
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