(CNET.com) -- One of the best reasons to consider a megazoom is the fact that you get a big zoom range in a small package, so you don't have to carry around huge SLR lenses and, more importantly, you don't have to pay the huge prices for those SLR lenses.
Fujifilm's FinePix S8000fd sports an 18x optical zoom lens that covers a 35mm-equivalent range of 27mm-to-486mm with a maximum aperture range of f/2.8-to-f/4.5.
Given that a lot of megazooms start around a not-so-wide 36mm with their zooms, this camera's lens should make group portraits or big landscapes easier to frame.
With its well-sculpted, rubberized grip and another nicely contoured and rubberized area for your thumb, the S8000fd is more comfortable to hold than some megazooms. However, the F button, which leads you to the FinePix menu that lets you change ISO, image quality/size, and color mode settings, is located too close to where your thumb goes, and I accidentally pressed it a few times during my field tests.
Other than that, the buttons are placed well. The only button not on the right hand side of the camera is the flash button, which is logically placed on the left side of the flash itself.
Close scrutiny shows that the FinePix S8000fd has a lot in common with Olympus' SP-550 UZ. Both use 1/2.35-inch CCD sensors that are a touch smaller than the 1/2.5-inch sensor in Panasonic's 18x megazoom Lumix DMC-FZ18.
Also, both have the same zoom range, since they have identically-spec'ed lenses, and both include sensor-shift image stabilization. Their bodies are very similar in layout, though the Olympus is a touch smaller and has a nice grip around the barrel of the lens, but its main grip isn't as nicely shaped as this Fuji's grip.
The biggest difference between the two is that the SP550UZ is a 7.1-megapixel camera, while the S8000fd has an 8-megapixel CCD.
The S8000fd includes most of the features you'd expect to find in a megazoom. The two biggest omissions are a hotshoe and RAW capture. As mentioned above, the S8000fd includes sensor-shift image stabilization in contrast to the DMC-FZ18's optical image stabilization.
While sensor-shift IS has a reputation of being inferior to optical IS, I got impressive results from the S8000fd. In my field tests, I was able to capture a sharp image shooting at 1/150 second and the lens zoomed all the way to its 486mm limit. Without image stabilization, I would have had to shoot at 1/500 second to get those results. Fuji also includes an ISO-boost mode that they also refer to as an IS mode. However, as always, higher ISOs bring with them more noise and less sharpness.
As has become the trend, the S8000fd includes face detection, but this camera uses Fuji's original algorithms rather than the newer system incorporated into its little sister, the FinePix F50fd. Still, it does a good job of finding faces in your shots and tends to lose track of the faces if it can't find both eyes, while the newer version can find faces even if they are in profile. Once the camera finds the faces, it uses them to help determine focus and exposure so the camera won't make a mistake and focus on something in the background instead of Grandma's lovely smile.
Control freaks will appreciate the S8000fd's manual exposure controls, which give you up to 10 choices for apertures spanning f/2.8 through f/8 and 40 shutter speeds ranging from 4 seconds to 1/2000 second. The interface for those controls could be better, though. Rather than including any thumb or finger wheels, you have to press the exposure compensation button and then use the control pad to set aperture and/or shutter speed. One, or even better two, wheels would make the process a lot smoother of an experience. Still, it's nice to see manual exposure controls with this many choices, since some only include two or three choices for apertures.
While not as slow between shots as the Olympus SP550UZ, the S8000fd is far from a speed demon and can't even nearly keep up with the SP550UZ's burst rate. The camera took 3.1 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took 2.6 seconds between shots with the flash turned off and 2.9 seconds with the flash turned on. Shutter lag proved slightly sluggish, measuring 0.8 second in our high contrast test and 2 seconds in our low contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. In our continuous shooting test, we were able to capture 8.1-megapixel images at a dismal average rate of 0.5 frame per second.
Image quality could also have been better and ends up about on par with the Olympus. While colors look accurate and the camera's automatic white balance does a fine job of serving up neutral colors in all sorts of lighting conditions, images are not as sharp as we would have liked. We saw very little colored fringing and even then only under the most extreme circumstances. In some cases, the camera tended to underexpose a little when using the Average metering mode, which uses the entire scene to determine exposure.
Noise is not the S8000fd's strong suit. I saw some noise even at the camera's lowest ISO setting of ISO 64, though you probably won't notice noise in prints until you reach ISO 200. Even then, artifacts should be minimal, and Fuji's noise-reduction algorithms don't degrade sharpness appreciably until ISO 400. However, prints should still be very usable at that sensitivity.
By ISO 800, images lose a lot of their sharpness, along with a noticeable amount of shadow detail. ISO 1,600 images become heavily blurred and have a very granular look with off-color and white speckles covering the images. Fuji includes ISO 3,200 and ISO 6,400 at a reduced resolution of 4 megapixels. This does help keep noise from becoming much worse than it is at ISO 1,600. However, I didn't see any advantage, either. I'd stay below ISO 800 when shooting with the S8000fd whenever possible and don't recommend shooting at ISO 1,600 or above at all.
If forced to choose between the S8000fd and the SP550UZ, I'd probably go with the Fuji, but only based on its faster performance. Of the trio of 18x zooms, the Panasonic DMC-FZ18 -- if not live yet, the review should be posted within a week -- looks to be the best option, though it, too, has its problems. E-mail to a friend
© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.