Saturday, April 2, 2011

F550EXR – It’s here! It’s here! Let the bells ring and the children sing, ‘cause it’s here. Review Part 1.

I wonder how many of you picked up on the reference implicit in the title … think Bugs Bunny when the lamp is rubbed and the big genie pops out.

Anyway, yes … Steve, one of my newer readers mentioned to me last night that the Nepean store showed one in stock. I called this morning and asked if it was spoken for and she said no, so I reserved it. Then she said it wasn’t actually in stock but should be there in today’s shipment.

Well, she called me at noon and I popped over later on to acquire it. Awesome. First thing I noticed is that Fuji have cut the size of the box by about 50%. So it’s really compact now. Everything fits though, so who cares.

Initial Impressions

The family looks pretty good together. The 550 looks the best of all in my opinion, but maybe that’s because it is finally stealthy. I appreciate that in a compact.

The bodies of these two are pretty close to identical. The masculine looking GPS bump is pretty cool, but they are otherwise quite similar. The LCD looks much better in my opinion though, as the fonts have all changed and the menus are better presented. They just seem clearer to me.

The mode dial requires about twice the pressure of that on the F300EXR, which will help prevent all the accidental mode switching, and I get a lot of that. The connectors are the same, although the HDMI connector is much larger on the F550EXR, I assume they switched out the micro for a mini. A nice touch.

Now, let’s move on to some of the burning questions that people have been asking …

How is the write speed?

Much better than I expected. The F300EXR flashes its write light for almost 4 seconds when shooting jpeg fine. The F550EXR for only 2 seconds, and that’s with files that are 50% larger. Go Fuji! RAW averages 5 seconds to write. But here’s the unbelievable thing, the light only stays on an average of 3.5 seconds while writing RAW+jpeg! WTF? Anyway, RAW+jpeg is essentially the same speed as jpeg on the F300EXR. Wicked.

How long are movie clips?

The crappy motion jpeg codec on the older F series cams made for 11 minutes clips, an extremely inconvenient clip length that made these rotten concert cameras. Well, the F550EXR sets the maximum clip length at 30 minutes for both levels of HD. It’s a completely arbitrary number, but that’s Fuji firmware people for you. At least it’s a reasonably convenient number. Note that the Panasonic ZS series with their AVCHD codecs are able to record more than two hours in one shot. Fuji still has a thing or two to learn from the Panny firmware engineers.

Does RAW look better than jpeg?

Early results (quick shot this evening) look promising. I shot a squirrel wandering about my neighbor’s driveway this evening at 400 ISO and full zoom. Since it was black, it is difficult to expect any kind of visible texture in the fur. Yet the RAW brought some out. Quite a bit in fact.

I’m sure you will agree that this is a decent performance for a compact at 400 ISO in the late evening. The jpeg is ok, but the smearing is clear once you see the RAW next to it.

I blew out the white stones in Silkypix though, as I am not familiar with it’s interface. It feels really cumbersome next to ACR, but c’est la vie I suppose …

Please tell me that the flash stays down when not in use.

Sorry, nope.

Update: Bill reminded me that the flash stays down when pushed back down, unlike that on the F300EXR. So that’s a major improvement for those who hate the flash staying up.

Is the AF is good as the F300EXR?

Sad to say, it does not do quite as well as the F300EXR in my torture test. In this test, I try to focus from about 10 feet on a twisted pair of Christmas light wire with a bulb. Neither camera can focus on this wire with a house in the distant background. The contrast is insufficient.

The F300EXR is able to get the wire, though, when I switch from center to multi focus mode. It sees the wire almost every time. The F550EXR cannot see it at all. And even when the contrast is high, it finds great difficulty, taking its sweet time to finally latch on. Then I can refocus on the part of the wire that is in front of the house. The following sequence tells the story.

And last, but not least, how is the detail when compared with the F300EXR?

Well, here we are in for a bit of a treat. You must click through to see the following image full sized crops.

These crops are not normalized, as I wanted to document first impressions in this article. We’ll get to the various ISO ladders and such over the weekend.

Regarding the top pair of crops at full resolution, I see slightly better edge integrity from the 550. But in the background I think I see slightly more smoothing too. I expect we have a tie here, but with the 550 files having 50% more resolution to start with, that’s a pretty big win. We’ll know more once I shoot some normalized ISO ladders, but for now things look somewhat promising at full res.

At half res, things look very promising. The foreground branches from the Yellow-Twig Dogwood look much better at 8mp then they do at 6mp from the 300 in my opinion. This camera shows real promise. However, again I see the background fuzziness is a big stronger in the 550 image. So it may again be a wash. Still, I’ll take foreground detail over background detail any day. And remember … I have not brought RAW to the contest here … the ISO ladders will probably look like knives in a gun fight once we really get going with RAW and jpeg.

Initial Summary

So … my first impressions are very positive.

  • Some improvements to the body.
  • Menus much nicer.
  • RAW shows real promise.
  • The video clips are a useful length.
  • The write times are terrific.
  • The flash never bothered me in the first place.
  • The AF is twitchy but I find that torture test never comes up in real life. Still, it bears further testing.
  • The image quality does not appear to have suffered against the F300. At least at 400 ISO. And with so much more resolution, things are looking good …

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