Fujifilm's new S5500 looks a lot like the old S602 Pro Zoom that stalked the winner's enclosure in the mid-range compact section for some time; and more like the more recent S5000 which it replaces.

Yet while Fuji has stuck with this tried and tested chunky handgrip styling, the company has taken a rather strange deviation with this camera's innards, opting against including its popular Super CCD, which allows an interpolated resolution of double what it says on the tin.

Whether or not you accept that in-camera interpolation actually makes a better job than Photoshop (particularly with the interpolation advances in the latest version), it was always going to be a popular option with users who didn't want the hassle of going down that road, so its omission is an odd one, especially as the S7000 in the same range comes with Super CCD (but the cheaper S3500 doesn't).

Still, we're all grown-up enough to realise megapixels alone do not a decent image make, and four is adequate for most users, especially those people prepared to deviate from received wisdom that thou shalt print at 300ppi. Like all others in the S range, the 5500 has a plastic exterior rather than magnesium-alloy, but it's the resilient type that feels like it could take a serious bashing or five.

The camera fits delightfully into the right-hand grip, and balances well, though the contours on its left side don't give the other hand such a comfy ride. Layout is all pretty much as per the norm for Fuji, with the exception of a new LCD brightening button, which adds a bit of a brightness boost that proves quite useful in low-light conditions.

There's also a dedicated button for auto/manual focus toggle with a lock switch to prevent accidental movement; hardly an essential feature really - Fuij would have been more sensible to include the missing autoexposure lock button. The camera locks the exposure with the focus at a half press of the shutter, which renders both focus and AE lock a bit useless really.

Lock out of the frame for focus and you could end up with the wrong exposure; lock out of the frame for exposure and you could end up with the wrong focus. The only way around this problem is to use manual focus, or manual exposure mode... no good for the serious user.

Camera features

Feature-wise everything else is pretty much present and correct: there's 3fps continuous shooting (though only for three frames); AF spot, centre and multi modes; RAW file recording option; manual white balance, that mammoth 37-370mm lens, and everything else we've come to expect. No omissions at all really other than the dedicated AEL button.

The menu system is split into two, with the majority of features in the main menu, and three others accessed via the function button - quality setting, ISO rating and effects options. A good idea for the first two but not for the latter because something like metering or white balance better deserves the priority access.

The menus are responsive, and deletion times quick. The same goes for playback scrolling, which happens in just a fraction short of instantaneous. Magnifi cation is also nippy, both for zoom and scrolling about the image, and a tap of the display button cycles you through to nine image thumbnails. What you don't get in playback mode is the option of blinking highlights or histograms, which more experienced users are likely to miss.

What a performance

Performance elsewhere is pretty impressive. Fuji claims a shutter lag of just 0.05 seconds, and initial tests show that it's not far off, making the 5500 one of the fastest compacts on the market. AF lock speed is well above average too (and the AF assist helps heaps in low-light), though start-up is too slack at a touch over five seconds. The auto white balance system successfully neutralised tungsten and fluorescent light, but it was prone to slight deviations with daylight (a little cool, then a little warm when conditions hadn't changed) but the metering system did the business in all those areas it should.

The news is less positive where image quality is concerned. The CCD produced noise even at the lowest ISO 64 setting, and things get worse as you turn up the ISO volume. Images shouldn't look that muggy at ISO 64 - there's lots of visible monochromatic noise, and this is joined by heaps of colour noise at ISO 200 and above. There's purple fringing going on at areas of high contrast, which points to evidence of blooming and chromatic aberration lens.

Unfortunately, the Finepix S5500 is a camera whose results just don't match its performance. Matthew Henry