High-resolution digital cameras are becoming increasingly affordable. The Kodak EasyShare M550, for example, crams in 12.3 megapixels for just £80 or thereabouts. But pixel power isn't everything, so does the M550 have what it takes to stand out from the crowd?
The M550 certainly doesn't stand out in terms of its appearance. It's not ugly, but we've seen its brushed-metal effect and chrome trim a hundred times before. Its straight edges and diagonal lines make it look slightly unfashionable too.
The camera is conveniently small and light. A glossy, 2.7-inch LCD display occupies much of the rear, and the camera's ports and slots are covered by hatches to keep out dust and debris. Around a dozen buttons pepper the surface of camera, including the 'share' button, which allows you to distribute your photos on your social networks of choice.
The share button is a simple feature that's just shy of being a gimmick. You have to connect the camera to a PC, install some software and configure your social-networking or email settings before you can upload photos online. After that, uploading images is pretty much a one-button process.
Show us your specs
The M550's specs are roughly on a par with what we'd expect at this price. Disappointingly, however, the camera can't make use of its sensor's high pixel count when it comes to shooting video. There's a movie mode but the top resolution is only 640x480 pixels, compared with the high-definition video offered by many of the M550's competitors.
On the other hand, the M550's 5x optical zoom length is slightly above average. The wide (28mm equivalent) lens is good for group shots too.
The camera's features all lean towards ease of use and automatic shooting. The default 'smart capture' mode does everything it can to identify and adjust the camera to various shooting environments, without you having to lift a finger. Face-recognition and face-detection features are also present, and you can pre-tag up to 20 friends and family members.
In practice, some of the automated functions can react with slightly less speed than you might expect. Switch from a nearby subject to a distant one, for example, and the camera's autofocus will whirr away for a good couple of seconds before you can press the shutter button down fully.
The smart-capture mode limits your manual control to virtually nil. If you want to experiment, you can always select an alternative mode. The program mode, for example, offers a few more menu options, and there are some scene modes to choose from for specific shooting situations. Overall, however, the M550 is best employed as a basic point-and-shoot snapper.
In smart-capture mode, the camera's performance and image quality are about average. In natural light, the M550 has a tendency to make colours look too heavy and over-saturated. Areas of contrast display noticeable fringing too, especially when you crop in or view your photos at 100 per cent. With pictures taken at the wide end of the zoom, you may also notice some distortion around the outer edges of the image.
Detail, on the other hand, is pretty good. Flesh tones look natural and, overall, photos don't suffer from the over-processed look that some budget cameras are guilty of producing. The camera's low-light performance isn't especially strong, however -- you'll start seeing plenty of noise as the ISO setting rises.
The Kodak EasyShare M550 is perfectly decent for the price, but it certainly won't blow you away. It's also rendered somewhat irrelevant by Kodak's own EasyShare M575. The M575 offers a 14-megapixel sensor, a better lens and a few more features, including 720p video recording, for only about £10 more. Deciding between the two is really a no-brainer.
Edited by Charles Kloet