Ok, so the 18x zoom on the Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd may not be king of the hill anymore – what with Olympus unceremoniously knocking it off the top of the heap with their 20x SP-570. Still, even with ultrazooms enjoying a resurgence of manufacturer interest and consumer excitement of late – meaning lots of great new models to choose from – it's hard not to come away impressed by what Fuji's latest 10 megapixel offering brings to the table.
Some cameras just feel instantly familiar, and for me at least, the S8100fd is that camera. With a large, pronounced hand-grip, the S8100fd strikes a nice balance: smaller than even the smallest DSLRs, but with all of the ergonomic niceness of a good interchangeable-lens camera.
I would gladly trade the face detection and image stabilization dedicated buttons on the top deck for white balance and ISO controls, but otherwise the layout works well.
We came away unimpressed with Fuji's other new mid-priced ultrazoom, the ultra-small S1000fd, but some early shooting with the S8100fd suggests that these cameras could hardly be much more "night and day." Where the S1000 lagged behind, the S8100 seems quick and responsive. Where the smaller S model suffered some AF inconsistencies, initial testing shows its larger brother to be rock solid. Even the S1000fd's voracious AA appetite seems to be somewhat curbed, though it will take more shooting to know for sure how they stack up in this regard. Plus, the S8100fd sports sensor-shift image stabilization as well – a feature that should help the larger camera's "street cred" with serious shooters.
Of course, color and processing are classic Fuji, with lots of saturation and a slightly oversharp but very printable image look.
With all that the S8100fd does right from an ergonomics as well as a features standpoint, after a few days of shooting with the camera I've also come to see some of its limitations. The five-way controller feels a little flimsy, and a little small for those with larger fingers, and the S8100fd's menu-based interface is typical Fuji – it's a bit illogical in the way items are subdivided, but once you adapt to where things are housed shooting with the S8100 is no trouble.
Likewise, having P/A/S/M modes is a fantastic inclusion that gives the S8100fd the kind of power as a photographic tool that serious users will expect, but as is often the case with ultrazooms, the control arrangement in manual exposure modes leaves something to be desired. With its DSLR-like form factor, the addition of a small thumbwheel for controlling aperture and shutter speed seems like an obvious choice.
Beyond this, initial impressions of the Fuji's performance are overwhelmingly to the positive: auto focus feels snappy and responsive, and seems to work well across the zoom range and in low light. Of course, we'll be conducting our usual performance and image quality evaluations over the next week to get some more specifics on how the S8100fd stacks up; check back in for the whole story in our full review next week.