With its ice-blue indicator lights and included flying-saucer-shaped dock, the 5-megapixel Kodak EasyShare V550 brings some much-needed style to Kodak's line of point-and-shoot cameras. Equipped with friendly features, the V550 will appeal to those who want portability and simplicity wrapped in an attractive package.
This model costs only $50 more than the EasyShare V530, its slightly smaller but technically identical sibling, which is available in red and pink as well as the V550's black and silver. It also offers a larger 2.5-inch LCD (as opposed to the V530's 2-inch display) and an optical viewfinder. Although the viewfinder is too small and crops your view too tightly to be really useful, we think the extra $50 is worth it for the larger LCD. Dressed in basic black or sleek silver, the ultracompact and lightweight Kodak EasyShare V550 makes an attractive companion for any picture-taking occasion. Overall, Kodak has done a good job of maintaining the camera's sleek design without compromising ease of use, especially considering that the camera sports a huge 2.5-inch LCD. However, by necessity, its control buttons are tiny and will present a challenge for people with large hands.
The S-shaped curves that lie flush with the top surface of the camera may look like static design elements, but they are actually controls for accessing the camera's shooting modes: Auto, Portrait, Scenes, and Video. Press one of the icons surrounded by the S-curve, and an ice-blue light illuminates your selection. In the case of scene modes, a menu appears on the LCD, from which you can choose among a wide range of shooting options. However, once you select a scene mode, you have to press either Auto or Portrait, then once again on Scene to get back into the menu.
Along the top, you'll also find the power button, the flash control, and the shutter release. Since most cameras provide access flash settings through a four-way controller, it took us a while to remember that this one puts them on the top of the camera.
A bright and usable 2.5-inch LCD occupies most of the EasyShare V550's rear real estate. A supertiny optical viewfinder resides in the upper-left corner, but it looks more like a control button than a viewfinder. No matter: the LCD works pretty well under most lighting conditions, so chances are you won't want to use the optical viewfinder.
The delete, menu, review, and share buttons are aligned on the left side of the LCD, while the zoom lever and the square four-way controller are on the right. You press the up arrow on the controller for display options, the bottom for macro and landscape focus modes, and the left and right buttons for exposure compensation. There's a center Set button, too; by using it, you'll quickly find out if this camera is too small for your hand. One cool addition is a tiny switch on the outer right side of the camera that selects between Auto and Favorites modes.
Between Kodak's clear and understandable menus, onscreen scene-mode descriptions, EasyShare software, and included Photo Frame Dock 2, the EasyShare V550 is quite easy to use. The Photo Frame Dock 2, when combined with the camera and its bright blue lights, looks very cool and almost Roswellian. But even if you're not a UFO believer, the Dock will snazz up your desktop. The Kodak EasyShare V550 is clearly aimed at make-it-easy-please point-and-shooters. It offers a long list of scene modes ranging from the standard Portrait and Landscape to Text, Candlelight, and even a custom mode for saving your own settings. Well-written scene-mode descriptions that appear on the LCD helpfully explain how the camera will adjust settings; for example, when you select the Manner/Museum scene mode, you'll find out that the camera will turn the flash and sound off. This way, you can decide whether a given mode will indeed work for your current shooting conditions.
In addition to scene modes, the EasyShare V550 offers control over color (High, Natural, Low, Black And White, and Sepia), sharpness (High, Normal, Low), and exposure metering (Multiweighted, Center-Weighted, Spot), as well as multiweighted, center-weighted, continuous, and single autofocus. There's a long-exposure setting with nine options ranging from 0.5 to 8 seconds, but other than this feature and the scene modes, you get no control over shutter speed and aperture.
With a focal-length range of 36mm to 108mm (35mm-camera equivalent), the 3X Schneider-Kreuznach C-Variogon lens offers a good compromise between wide angle and telephoto, so you won't feel cramped when shooting in enclosed areas. The lens is relatively fast, too--f/2.8 at wide angle--although we noticed some distortion at both extremes.
As is typical of Kodak consumer cameras, the EasyShare V550 has no separate compression option. You choose resolution only by megapixels: 5, 4.4 (3:2 ratio), 4, 3.1, and 1.8. The camera doesn't come with a media card, and the internal memory holds only 17 high-resolution images, so you'll need to add a high-capacity SD or MMC card to your shopping list.
Although the camera has a live histogram display, the LCD does not show shutter-speed and aperture settings. If the EasyShare V550 did provide this information, we'd know whether we wanted to manually increase the ISO to gain a faster shutter speed. The camera's approach to ISO settings is a little tricky: it limits automatic ISO to between 80 and 160, which in some ways is a good thing--these settings keep visual noise under control. You can manually set the ISO as high as 800, but that's available only at the lowest (1.8-megapixel) quality setting. However, in QuickView, the camera provides a color-coded onscreen blur warning to indicate the most appropriate picture size for the sharpness of the image. As long as you understand the color coding (explained in the manual), this can be a very helpful feature.
With the EasyShare V550, you can take up to 80 continuous minutes of MPEG-4 video with sound. The zoom operates in video mode, although it's just barely audible on the soundtrack. The V550 also has image stabilization that is of some, although minimal, help for shaky footage. You can even print thumbnails and snapshots from video clips. And of course the EasyShare system seamlessly integrates transferring pictures and storing, sorting, and preparing images for e-mail. With only a few exceptions, the Kodak EasyShare V550 performed at or above the standards set by its competitors. Start-up to first shot took about 1.5 seconds, and autofocus was fast even under low-light conditions. Continuous autofocus worked reasonably quickly, although we had better accuracy with the single-autofocus option.
Continuous-shooting speed was impressive at almost 3 frames per second (fps) at high resolution and 3.5fps at low resolution, with a maximum of five shots regardless of resolution. But the LCD goes black in continuous-shooting mode, so you have to rely on the tiny and inaccurate optical viewfinder.
Although the V550 clocked only a 2.26-second wait time between photos when shooting with a flash (2.17 seconds without flash), the buffer would occasionally choke. In those cases, the LCD would remain black, and the shot-to-shot time would increase by a couple of seconds.
During extended use with the LCD on, the camera became warm to the touch, although the heat caused no problems besides discomfort. But the LCD was quite usable under most lighting conditions--even bright sunlight--and gained up nicely, albeit with sepia tones, in low light.
The built-in flash provided generally even coverage, although its reach was limited to 10.5 feet at wide angle and only 7.2 feet at telephoto. The Kodak EasyShare V550 delivers the vivid color that most consumers crave and, for the most part, does so correctly, too. It accurately and smoothly reproduced even the changing oranges and yellows on a ripening tomato. Some test shots, however, displayed exceptionally high contrast, which affected color reproduction. In one high-contrast test scene, greens in bright sunlight looked blown out and almost Day-Glo, while those in the shadows looked more pleasing.
Most of our test shots came out relatively sharp, but the EasyShare V550 didn't always deliver the crispness we've seen from some competitors. Details, regardless of focal length, were visible but not as well defined as we had hoped.
While the camera has only preset white-balance options, they were usually more than adequate for moving between lighting conditions. The flash proved a little too powerful for some close-ups and for use as a fill, resulting in clipped highlights. Overall, however, we found it sufficient for most situations.
Image noise remained at bay at lower ISO settings but got very nasty at ISO 800, rendering images generally unusable. High-contrast edges showed some purple fringing, but the problem was not excessive.