Canon A550 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Canon PowerShot A550
Resolution: 7.10 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/2.5"
Lens: 4.00x zoom
(35-140mm eq.)
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
ISO: 80-800
Shutter: 15-1/2000
Max Aperture: 2.6
Dimensions: 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in.
(91 x 64 x 43 mm)
Weight: 5.6 oz (160 g)
MSRP: $200
Availability: 02/2007
Manufacturer: Canon
7.10
Megapixels
4.00x zoom
1/2.5"
size sensor
image of Canon PowerShot A550
Front side of Canon PowerShot A550 digital camera Back side of Canon PowerShot A550 digital camera Top side of Canon PowerShot A550 digital camera Left side of Canon PowerShot A550 digital camera Right side of Canon PowerShot A550 digital camera

Canon PowerShot A550 Overview

by Al Gordon
and Shawn Barnett
Review Date: 04/17/07

The Canon PowerShot A550, introduced January 18, 2007, falls within the point-and-shoot category. While not as compact or stylish as the PowerShot ELPH cameras, the A550 represents a solid value in photographic quality and performance, offering photographers a number of distinct advantages. The suggested retail price of the Canon PowerShot A550 is $199.99, some $50 less than its predecessor, the A530.

Key upgrades over the Canon A550's predecessor start with its higher resolution image sensor: 7.1 megapixels, up from 5 megapixels. The 2-inch LCD screen also edges out its 1.8-inch forerunner. To accommodate the larger file sizes generated by the greater resolution, the A550 is compatible with SDHC memory cards. The A550 is also more energy efficient. With rechargeable AA NiMH batteries, you can take up to 1,400 shots with the LCD off. That's a whopping 400 shots more than the Canon PowerShot A530!

The A550’s 4x zoom lens with a 35-140mm 35mm equivalency is a very attractive feature, easily besting the more common 3x zoom. And while many people prefer to simply leave the camera dial permanently on AUTO, this camera’s easy-to-set scene modes can help you shoot better.

With its high quality imaging, competent feature set, and under $200 price point, the Canon PowerShot A550 can more easily meet the needs of a very wide audience of photographers. For pros and advanced amateurs, it’s nice to have a pocket-sized alternative to a more bulky digital SLR. The price makes this camera an attractive entry for anyone who has been thinking about going digital. As a gift for teens, the Canon PowerShot A550 costs less than a standard Apple iPod. As I’ll describe below, the camera is not only easy to use, but highly intuitive.

 

Canon PowerShot A550 User Report

I find it amazing that camera manufacturers like Canon can improve on image quality and performance while adding features and still sell a camera for less than the model it replaces. The Automobile industry should take note. It's clear that despite the low price, Canon's PowerShot A550 can fulfill most of your wishes without breaking the bank.

Interface. I prefer to keep things simple. So does the A550. Most people could learn to love the Canon PowerShot A550 without ever moving the dial from its green AUTO position. Just point and shoot, and the A550 will most often give you great results.

With a turn to M (manual) more options open up to you. Just press the Function button on the back to access options like EV adjustments, White balance settings, Color modes, Metering modes, and resolution and compression settings. You can also access more of the flash modes in this version of Manual mode, though you can't actually set the shutter speed or aperture.

Top controls: Power, mode dial, zoom controls and shutter. A tried-and-true control interface.

If you'd like to bias the camera for a certain shooting situation, just turn the dial to one of the icons, like Portrait, Landscape, or Kids&Pets. These modes have been set up to pick settings that will make shooting in these situations easy. Set it to SCN on the dial to access five more Scene modes. About the only shooting mode that seemed to be missing was a stitch-assist mode to help in creating panoramic photographs, a feature that was available on the PowerShot A530. Face Detection, available on the A570 IS, is not available here either. Another notable feature missing is the once-novel, but now trite MyCamera menu, where you could set special sound effects to go with different actions. But a howling wolf for the Self Timer mode? That probably earned more grimaces than smiles, so I won't miss it.

Power it up. Start-up was quick, ready in 1.3 seconds according to our lab results. There's plenty of lag time between shots, at least the same 1.3 seconds as the startup delay, and a full discharge of the flash takes that lag time out to 10 seconds while the flash recharges. That's quite a bit higher than average. It does take a second for the lens to come out, but it's faster than past models. The zoom was reasonably fast, about right for this kind of camera.

Function menu: Allows you to make quick adjustments via the LCD.

As much as I like an optical finder, I used the Canon A550's LCD screen exclusively to frame shots. Since most settings are made via the Function menu and Main menu displayed on the LCD, it's easier to switch between adjusting settings and framing, rather than continuously taking the camera from my eye to make a change.

The Canon A550 offers an 86,000 pixel, 2.0-inch LCD. While larger than its predecessor, it’s noticeably smaller than many of the 2.5-inch and larger LCD screens on compact point-and-shoot cameras. While that's fairly low resolution, the screen is small enough that it's not noticeable. The screen seemed a bit washed out in bright sunlight but wasn't totally unusable.

9-point AiAF. Like all Canon digicams, the A550 uses Canon's excellent and fast 9-point AF. The camera looks at the scene and selects from nine areas of the frame to find what it thinks are the most important points. If you don't like its first selection, just half-press the shutter again and it will most often recalculate its selection. It's a great way to shoot, and is the default in the automatic modes.

Grid and mask: Turning on the grid helps you frame your shots, and the mask shows you how your shots will look printed on 4x6 paper.

I like to keep a grid display on the LCD screen to aid in composition and alignment. I use a grid in my 35mm SLR, too. It was easy enough to turn on the A550's grid just playing with the menu; you can even turn on a 3:2 mask to show what a 4x6 inch print will look like.

The optical viewfinder isn't terribly accurate, but it does help to compose in bright sunlight. Two LEDs are right next to the viewfinder, a feature once used in Canon's old SureShot line and the ELPH series as well. The upper LED blinks green during startup, image recording and image transfer but glows solid green when the camera is ready to shoot or connected properly to a computer. When you depress the shutter release partway the same LED blinks to tell you the flash is charging, and glows orange when the flash is charged and ready to fire. If the flash is set to off, the orange LED also serves as a warning that light is too low for a sharp photo. The lower yellow indicator lamp confirms focus in the macro mode setting.

Battery/Card door: Under the battery door, you'll find the battery compartment, the SD card slot, and the backup battery sled.

The A550 is powered by a pair of AA batteries, which is great because you can power up around the world without worry. This outweighs the A550's bulkiness in comparison to some of Canon's Digital ELPH cameras; and there are folks who will buy nothing but AA-powered cameras. I used the LCD continuously instead of the smallish optical viewfinder, but rarely had to change a set of batteries during a full day of shooting. As a fringe benefit, the bulge for the AA batteries gives the A550 a nice little grip.

It took me a few days of shooting with the Canon PowerShot A550 to find the settings that let this point-and-shoot perform like a high-end camera. And the truth is, with 7.1 megapixel resolution, the A550's printed output looks like it could have come from a high-end camera.

ISO 800. High ISO isn't as high as some other similar cameras, but the results are very good. You can get away with printing an 11x14 from the A550, and it looks darn good. You can see some color noise at that size, but contrast and vibrance are very good still. Print at 8x10, and you won't notice that it's an ISO 800 shot unless you get out the loupe (a loupe is a magnifier; if anyone gets out a loupe, remind them what you paid for this fine little shooter). Even the skin tones look good from our indoor shot, once proper white balance is set.

Speaking of white balance, while Auto wasn't perfect with our indoor test target, it was darn close. As is often the case, Manual white balance was better.

Overall, images from the Canon A550 are excellent at all ISO settings, keeping with tradition for the A-series.

Appraisal. The Canon PowerShot A550 is a great basic digital camera whose images will make you feel like a pro. Canon's interface has evolved to a point of excellence, as well, with most of the features you'll find on Canon's more expensive digicams. The A550 is still a little slow, but in most measures it's faster than last year's A520 and A530. We love the 7.1 megapixel sensor, which delivers amazing images for the money; you might think they're amazing for even more money. We'd have to agree with you.

If you have just a little more money, you might consider the A570 IS, which gives you even more high-end features from the ELPH series in about the same form factor. But if you just want to keep it simple, the A550 is an excellent, can't-lose proposition.

 

Basic Features

  • 7.1-megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as large as 3,072 x 2,304 pixels
  • 2.0-inch color LCD monitor
  • Real-image optical viewfinder
  • 4x 5.8-23.2mm lens (equivalent to 35-140mm zoom on a 35mm camera)
  • 4.0x digital zoom
  • AiAF 9-zone autofocus and a single zone autofocus mode
  • AF Assist light for low-light focusing
  • Automatic modes plus a long shutter setting, as well as 10 preset Scene modes
  • Exposure compensation +/- 2EV in 1/3 step increments
  • Shutter speed range from 1/2,000 to 15 seconds, depending on aperture
  • Built-in flash with three operating modes plus red-eye reduction
  • SDHC/SD/MMC memory storage
  • Power supplied by two AA batteries or optional AC adapter

 

Special Features

  • 30fps 640x480 Movie mode (with sound); up to 60fps at 320x240
  • Still frame sound caption recording
  • Continuous Shooting on Manual and Scene Modes
  • Menu-set variable delay Self-Timer mode
  • Creative Effects menu
  • Auto White balance plus five preset white balance modes and custom white balance setting capability
  • Auto ISO adjustment with five ISO equivalents up to ISO 800 plus a HI ISO setting to boost sensitivity in low light shooting
  • Evaluative, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering options when shooting in manual mode
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) compatibility
  • USB cable for connection to a computer (driver software included)

 

In the Box

The Canon PowerShot A550 box includes the following items:

  • Canon PowerShot A550 camera
  • Wrist strap WS-800
  • Two AA-type alkaline batteries
  • USB cable IFC-400PCU
  • AV cable AVC-DC300
  • 16MB MMC memory card MMC-16
  • Software CD
  • Instruction manuals, software guide, and registration kit

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Larger capacity SDHC/SD card. (At least 512MB recommended, 1-2GB would be better.)
  • Spare set of rechargeable AA batteries and a charger
  • AC adapter kit
  • Soft case
  • High Power Flash HF-DC1

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • High resolution with excellent image quality
  • 4x zoom lens is longer than most in the category and offers excellent coverage
  • Very good exposure accuracy
  • Easy-setting scene modes
  • Custom white balance
  • Better-than-average exposure accuracy
  • Generally low distortion
  • Intuitive user interface
  • 2-inch LCD
  • Macro mode captures a very small area
  • Good low light capability
  • Comfortable handling
  • Accepts AA batteries and provides good battery life
  • Movie mode with sound up to 30fps at 640x480
  • High ISO performance is very good
  • ISO 80 prints are great up to 13x19; ISO 800 prints are quite good at 8x10
  • No manual control of aperture or shutter speed
  • Slow flash recycle (10 seconds!)
  • Non-articulating LCD makes it harder to take low level or above the crowd shots
  • Limited override functions in AUTO and Scene modes
  • No brightness adjustment for the LCD; sometimes looks washed out in bright light, but not totally obscured
  • No battery terminal indicators in plain view
  • Too easy to accidentally change the ISO setting
  • No lock or detent on AUTO mode to prevent accidental change

 

As we've come to expect from Canon's A-series, the PowerShot A550 is a great little digicam. Fairly frill-free, the Canon A550 still takes great shots with its 7-megapixel sensor. It has a satisfying 4x zoom, and is quite easy to use. The A550's no-nonsense mode dial is backed up by a simple Function menu; and though you can dig deeper with the main menu, you'll find fewer settings there than on other Canon models. In my opinion, less is more when it comes to a camera meant for the mass-market. More options will only confuse and invite error. Still, the A550 can make 640x480 movies at 30 frames per second, so it's ready to do anything most consumer buyers will need; and everything it does is above par for the category. The A550's 9-point AiAF autofocus system is excellent for candid shooting, and its high ISO functions are actually useful, turning out images that make excellent 8x10 prints. Its 7-megapixel sensor makes pictures that can be printed at 13x19 inches, quite an achievement at this price point. Though it doesn't have the biggest LCD, it still has an optical viewfinder. Priced at under $200, the Canon PowerShot A550 is a real bargain. The only reason we didn't make it a Dave's Pick is because the Canon A560 offers a bigger LCD and Face Detection autofocus for only $15-20 more (at typical street prices), making the A560 a better choice in our opinion.

 

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