The Kodak EasyShare V550 -- Digicam design from a new perspective
Kodak says women buy more than half of all electronics products sold in the United States. This simple piece of information led Kodak's marketing folks to re-evaluate just exactly who their "typical consumers" really were. Women want digital cameras (according to Kodak) that provide consistently excellent still images and decent video, fast intuitive performance, and no nonsense ease of use. In a clever corporate nod to the gentler gender's inborn sense of style and innate desire for order and simplicity Kodak built the classy little V550 to precisely meet those criteria.
The V550 is a very well-designed, stylish, ultra-compact, and surprisingly capable five-megapixel digicam. The nifty looking (flat, thin, retro black and chrome) V550 makes it easy for anyone and everyone to take great pictures and it's small enough to be slipped into the back pocket of a pair of designer jeans or dropped into a chic little clutch. Ergonomics are amazingly good for such a tiny camera with logically placed controls and one of the best user interfaces of any ultra-compact digital camera currently available. The V550 not only looks good, it is a genuinely capable digital camera that produces consistently super images by providing users with a well thought out array of easy to access picture perfecting tweaks and adjustments.
NUTS & BOLTS
The V550's zooming optical viewfinder shows about 80 percent of the image frame. It is so tiny that it falls into the "super squinty" category with no diopter adjustment for eyeglasses wearers. The LCD screen (which shows almost 100 percent of the image frame) is more accurate for framing and composition than the optical viewfinder, but full time LCD use will quickly drain the V550's puny battery.
The V550's hi-res (230,000 pixels) 2.5-inch LCD screen is super bright, fluid, and color accurate. The LCD "gains up" (brightens automatically) in dim light and it can even be used outdoors in bright light, unlike most of its competitors. The V550's LCD screen provides a full info exposure/status readout and there's a realtime histogram for checking over/under exposure. When the easily accessed Exposure Compensation mode is activated the LCD screen previews the effect by lightening or darkening in reaction to the degree of plus or minus exposure the user has dialed in.
When the camera is powered up the lens extends from the body and when it is powered down the zoom retracts into the camera. If Kodak's next generation Color Science Processor is the brain of the V550, then the f2.8-4.8/36-106mm (35mm equivalent) all glass Schneider Variogon optical zoom lens is the cameras heart. Generally, P&S digicam lenses are pretty bad (as lenses get smaller and more complex they become more prone to imperfections, aberrations, and distortion), but the Varigon design has been around for a long time and it has repeatedly proven its resolving superiority. Kodak adds three Aspheric elements to the formula, which no doubt improves (slightly) on the mighty Variogon's legendary optical performance.
The V550's zoom shows slightly above average chromatic aberration (purple fringing) which is especially obvious in highlight color transition zones. Barrel distortion is visible, but not troubling, at the wide-angle end of the zoom. The V550's Variogon shows no visible pin-cushion distortion at the telephoto end of the zoom range. What is truly amazing is the native resolution of this optic, it is sharp as a tack from corner to corner. Most digicam zooms tend to be sharp in the center and soft in the corners, which is the case for the majority of the V550's competition.
Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 2 inches (at the wide angle zoom setting). Macro images are tack sharp with good contrast and excellent color.
This macro dragonfly shot was made in Macro Mode with the flash disabled (during morning "golden light") at the small swampy area just below the Civil War section of Cave Hill Cemetery.
The optical viewfinder is not accurate enough for precise close-up work (no parallax compensation) but the LCD screen works beautifully in macro mode. Flash coverage is OK, but (like most micro-cams) the top and center of the image will tend to be a bit washed out when the flash is used up close.
The V550's TTL multi zone/center zone contrast detection AF system is very fast and consistently accurate. Image capture with pre-focus is essentially real time and from scratch the delay is less than a second. The V550's AF system works hand in glove with the superb Schneider zoom and the Color Science processor to deliver consistently sharp, color correct, and properly exposed images.
The V550's built-in multi mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, and off) flash is controlled by a small top deck button conveniently located between the shutter release and the on/off button. Flash operation is simple, but effective. If the V550 determines it needs flash, the flash will fire, automatically. If the flash isn't needed it can be easily turned off, and if just a little supplemental lighting is needed, users can opt for the fill flash mode. The Red-eye reduction mode is self-explanatory. Maximum flash range is about 8 feet.
The V550's fill flash mode does a very good job of balancing ambient light with supplemental lighting. This Tiger Moth is a bit burnt-out, but flash coverage is remarkably good for a Point & Shoot digicam.
Image File Format(s)
The V550 saves images to SD/MMC media. No starter card is included, but Kodak did build-in 32MB of internal memory, which is nice.
USB 2.0 out, A/V out, and DC in
The V550 draws its juice from a proprietary KODAK KLIC 7001 Li-Ion Digital Camera Battery. The battery is charged in-camera with either the included Photo Frame Dock 2 or the optional Kodak Printer Dock Series 3 - which is not only a battery charger, but also a 4 x 6-inch dye sub snapshot printer.
Kodak claims the V550 has enough juice for 200 exposures (full-time LCD use) but based on my experiences with the camera, that number is insanely optimistic --- the best I could do was 79 images before the battery went belly up.
The V550 is a surprisingly good digital camera, so the short battery life should not be a deal breaker for the target audience, nor should it discourage other (read male) potential buyers. Just bite the bullet and buy a back-up battery.
Kodak's product development folks built an auto exposure camera that does more than just average out exposure information (which makes for mediocre images) it consistently creates better than average pictures. Arrayed along the camera's top deck are four Mode buttons (Automatic, Portrait, Scene, and Video). In Auto mode users can select Macro Mode, increase or decrease exposure compensation, review/delete captured images, and enable or disable the built-in flash easily and quickly, all without resorting to the menu. Portrait mode is self-explanatory, as is the video mode. Select Scene mode and the V550 automatically optimizes all exposure parameters for Sports, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait, Night Landscape, Snow, Beach, Text, Fireworks, Flower, Museum, Self Portrait, Party, Children, Backlight, Panning, Candlelight, and Sunset scenes. There is also a Custom Scene mode (users choose the exposure parameters).
The V550 allows users to capture video clips (up to the capacity of the SD card installed) at 640X480 @ 30fps. The Schneider zoom can be used during video capture (but lens motor noise will be recorded) and the V550's digital image stabilization (which I didn't try) helps nullify camera shake during filming.
TTL Auto, only
TTL auto, daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, and open shade
The V550's Auto WB is the most accurate that I've seen in any P&S digicam to date, it will easily handle ninety-five per cent of the lighting situations most typical users are likely to encounter.
TTL Auto (80 160) and settings for 80, 100, 200, 400, and 800 (only at 1.8MP) ISO equivalent.
ISO 400 [larger]
The V550's TTL Auto ISO sensitivity setting read this 1966 Shelby GT350 Mustang badge at ISO 160. There is no apparent difference between ISO 80 and ISO 100 images and ISO 200 is also quite good. ISO 400 does show some very minor loss of detail, but pattern noise is remarkably well controlled.
CONTROLS, DESIGN, & ERGONOMICS
The V550 is a stylish ultra compact point & shoot digicam that is smaller and thinner than a deck of playing cards. All controls are logically and easily accessed and camera operation is simple and quickly becomes intuitive. The V550 is a great choice for anyone who wants a camera that can be taken along everywhere and used in just about any above water environment.
EasyShare Dock 2, KLIC 7001 lithium-ion battery, USB and A/V cables, wrist strap, re software CD, and a custom dock insert
Kodak's EasyShare Printer Dock Series 3 (for 4X6 inch prints -- with or without a computer).
V550 purchasers won't have to trade image quality for convenience and ease of use; this camera's images are consistently excellent. Contributing factors, in the V550's enhanced performance, are the superb Schneider zoom, the exceptionally well-designed user interface, and the efficacy of Kodak's Color Science processor. Color is bright, vibrant, accurate, and well saturated -- without being garish. Images show exceptional sharpness from edge to edge. Contrast is balanced and shadow and highlight detail are both beautifully rendered.
The colors in this image are bold, bright, and accurate -- just exactly as I saw them.
The V550 is very quick, noticeably faster than most of its competition. The boot-up cycle (less than 2 seconds), shot to shot times (1-2 seconds), and write to card times are all shorter than average. AF lag (with pre-focus) is essentially real time and less than half a second from scratch.
Shutter lag should not be a problem, even when shooting rapidly unfolding action or trying to keep up with infants, toddlers, and eight year old daredevil skateboarders.
A Few Concerns
The V550 is a bit pricey at four hundred bucks, but I suspect the price will stabilize at around $340.00 - $350.00 pretty quickly. Shorter than average battery life could be a problem for heavy shooters, but nothing that can't be fixed with the purchase of a back-up battery. Like most compact digicams, the V550 has a weak flash, which could cause some heartburn for those looking for a good bar/party/indoor portrait camera. With tiny cameras it is not possible to physically separate the flash and the lens sufficiently to avoid, essentially, having them on the same plane and that means the V550 (like all micro-cams) has red-eye problems.
The most important question facing any micro-cam purchaser is how well did the designers balance features and performance with tiny size. The answer, in this case, is very well indeed. The V550's target audience will love this camera. It's an excellent alternative to Canon's nifty little SD400, a good choice for beginning photographers looking for a camera that can grow with them as their image making skills evolve, and a practical selection for family shutterbugs, space/weight conscious travelers, and extreme sports aficionados who value style, compact size, super fast operation, and point & shoot ease of use. More advanced photographers will appreciate the V550's versatility and amazingly well thought out user interface.
Pros: outstanding Schneider Variogon 3X zoom, hi-res 2.5" LCD screen, and excellent image quality
Cons: pricey, short battery life, weak flash
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