Last year, Olympus released the SP-550UZ, 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-560UZ, an 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 favorite aspects of the SP-550UZ, 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 16.4 ounces with four AA batteries and an xD memory card.
A whopping big lens stands out as the SP-560UZ's most prominent feature, just like its predecessor. The 27-to-486mm-equivalent lens is slightly wider and shorter than the SP-550UZ's 28-to-504mm-equivalent lens, but still offers the same f/2.8-4.5 range and 18x optical zoom. I could easily frame the spire of the Empire State Building from Hoboken, N.J., thanks to the camera's long reach. Sensor-shift image stabilization helps reduce camera shake, a vital feature when pushing the camera to its full zoom without a tripod to stabilize it.
Unfortunately, the SP-560UZ's biggest feature is also one of its greatest weaknesses. While its lens is long and wide, it simply isn't very sharp. Regardless of the lens position and focus, pictures taken on the SP-560UZ generally look soft. Fine details, like text focused upon from a great distance, can appear fuzzy regardless of focus, shutter speed, or ISO sensitivity. Beyond the softness, significant noise further hurts the camera's pictures. Notable grain appears at ISO 200, and gets significantly worse as sensitivity gets higher. At ISO 400 and higher, noise consumes fine details, rendering textures muddled.
Like most superzooms, the SP-560UZ targets experienced users, and so it is packed full of useful, advanced features. An electronic viewfinder offers a great alternative to the camera's 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 2.5-inch LCD screen by default, so you have to take your face away from the viewfinder to review what you just shot. The SP-560UZ 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-560UZ 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 on Olympus' support site), 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-SLR camera, and it can be useful for users who want to set up a small studio.