Last year, Olympus released the SP-550 UZ, a 7-megapixel digital camera with an impressive 18x zoom lens. We loved its lens' long reach and wide angle, and appreciated its great body design. Unfortunately, the camera was plagued with performance and picture quality issues.
Now Olympus offers the SP-560 UZ, a £200, 8-megapixel follow-up. It carries over both good and bad aspects of last year's camera, but overall presents an improvement.
Body design was one of our favourite aspects of the SP-550 UZ, so we were pleased to see that the new version looks and feels almost identical. Every design aspect is carried over, from the pop-up flash to the comfortably large, flat buttons. It even weighs nearly the same, standing at a hefty but manageable 365g with four AA batteries and an xD memory card.
A whopping big lens stands out as the SP-560 UZ's most prominent feature, just like its predecessor. The 27-486mm-equivalent lens is slightly wider and shorter than the SP-550 UZ's 28-504mm-equivalent lens, but still offers the same f/2.8-4.5 range and 18x optical zoom. Sensor-shift image stabilisation helps reduce camera shake, a vital feature when pushing the camera to its full zoom without a tripod to stabilise it.
Like most superzooms, the SP-560 UZ targets experienced users, and so it's packed full of useful, advanced features. An electronic viewfinder offers a great alternative to the camera's 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen for framing shots, especially when shooting in direct sunlight.
The camera toggles between EVF and LCD screen, so you can't have both running at once. However, when shooting with the EVF, pictures still appear on the LCD screen by default, so you have to take your face away from the viewfinder to review what you just shot. The SP-560 UZ also includes a full selection of exposure controls, including program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual shooting modes.
While it didn't come loaded on our review sample, version 3.1 of the SP-560 UZ firmware adds support for Olympus wireless flash units. If you install the optional firmware upgrade through the included Olympus Master 2 software (instructions can be found ), the camera can be set to function on one of four different channels to wirelessly control Olympus' FL-50R or FL-36R flash units. This is the first time we've seen this feature on a non-dSLR camera, and it can be useful for users who want to set up a small studio.
In our tests, the SP-560 UZ far surpassed its slow predecessor but otherwise showed middling performance. It's responsive enough to shoot without much trouble, but it feels sluggish at times. After a 2.4-second wait from power-on to first shot, the camera could record a new JPEG every 2.1 seconds with the onboard flash turned off. With the flash enabled, that wait bumped up to 2.5 seconds between shots.
Raw shooting was quite slow, capturing a single uncompressed picture every 13.5 seconds, though that's not abnormal for a non-dSLR. Raw shooting is a welcome feature on any non-dSLR camera, but the extra long shot-to-shot time definitely limits its usefulness. The shutter lagged a slightly sluggish 0.6 seconds with our high-contrast target, and 1.5 seconds with our low-contrast target.
In burst mode, the camera captured 11 full-resolution JPEGs in 9.7 seconds for an average rate of 1.1 frames per second. The camera also features a high-speed burst mode that can shoot 15 still photos a second, though it can only record at 1280x960 pixels or lower resolution, and doesn't refocus between shots.