Cameras

Canon PowerShot A550 Digital Camera Review

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Testing / Performance

**Color ***(9.58) *

Canon digital cameras have typically performed well in this test, so we had high expectations for the A550. We ran the Canon A550 through the same regimen as all other digital cameras that come through our lab and review process. Using optimal studio lighting, we photographed the GretagMacbeth color chart at ISO 80.

After some experimentation, the picture with the most realistic colors came from a shot using a -1 exposure compensation setting in spot metering mode. Imatest software analyzed the shots from the color test. The program compared the colors from the PowerShot to those of the original GretagMacbeth chart. The chart below, modified by Imatest, shows the ideal colors as vertical rectangles, the camera’s colors as the outer portion of the squares, and the luminance corrected ideal color in the central portion of the squares.

A550-ColorCH.jpg

Below is another chart that shows the degree of error in colors. The squares represent the ideal colors of the chart and the circles represent the colors produced by the Canon PowerShot A550.  

The most inaccurate colors are the warmer reds, but most colors are closely tethered to where they ought to be. The mean color error was a low 6.26 resulting in an excellent 9.58 overall color score. The saturation is close to perfect at 105.3 percent. This is right on with other PowerShot digital cameras.  

White Balance ***(8.52)*

***Auto (8.27) *

We pitted the automatic white balance setting against all the presets and most of the time, the automatic setting came out more accurate. This is a bit surprising since the all-purpose settings don’t always serve all purposes. The auto white balance setting was more accurate than all of the presets except in tungsten light, when the preset performed far better. Overall, the automatic white balance setting is far more reliable than many competing models and recommended for use except when indoors under tungsten lights.

*Preset (8.76)

*As stated previously, the automatic setting is quite reliable except in tungsten lighting where the preset mode performs more accurately. The only other area where the camera struggled was in the shade, where both the automatic and preset white balance settings cast an unnatural blue tint.

**Still Life Sequences

**Below are two still life sequences shot with the A550 across its ISO range.

*Click on any of the thumbnails below to view the full resolution images. *

**Resolution ***(5.83) *

The Canon PowerShot A550 outdoes its predecessors with more resolution packed onto its 1/2.5-inch image sensor. It advertises 7.1 megapixels. We tested its effectiveness by photographing an industry standard resolution chart at various focal lengths and apertures. Imatest imaging software analyzed all of the images and selected the sharpest shot, snapped at 18mm and f/5 and using the lowest ISO 80 setting.

A550-ResCH-sm.jpg


Click to view high-resolution image

Imatest output resolution results in terms of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), a unit that describes how many alternating black and white lines of equal thickness could fit across the frame without blurring. The Canon A550 can resolve 1609 lw/ph horizontally with 7 percent oversharpening and 1697 lw/ph vertically with 6.95 percent undersharpening. These results are decent especially for a compact digital camera in this price range.

Noise – Auto ISO*(1.40)

*Most users of this digital camera will likely opt for the automatic ISO setting, but they should reconsider. We set the camera to automatically choose a sensitivity and it selected ISO 200, which was more than what was necessary under the bright lights of the studio. Way too much noise was present at the camera's ISO 200 setting, resulting in an awful 1.4 auto ISO noise score.

**Noise – Manual ISO ***(3.81) *

For this test, we photographed the color chart at the available manual ISO settings from 80 to 800 and analyzed the images for noise. Below is a chart showing just how much noise resides at each setting. The ISO settings are on the horizontal axis and the percentage of the image marred by noise is on the vertical axis.

CanonA550-Noise-GR.jpg

The Canon PowerShot A550 has a bit less noise than its predecessors and an extra ISO stop too. The noise jumps leaps and bounds from one ISO setting to the next, so users should try to keep it as low as possible to snap clean pictures. After analyzing the data and putting the results into a regression analysis, the overall manual ISO noise score came out to 3.81. This certainly isn’t great, but it is better than the automatic setting and is typical of budget digital cameras.

Low Light* (5.62)

*Because candlelight weddings are in style and restaurants dim the lights to enhance ambience, photographers need to know how their cameras will react when the lighting is less than ideal. We dimmed the lights in our studio to simulate a softly lit room with two shaded lamps (60 lux) and a darker room with only a single 40-watt bulb (30 lux). We also tested the Canon PowerShot A550 at 15 and 5 lux to see how the image sensor would react.

Illumination remained fairly constant and color accuracy remained remarkably in tact. At the darkest 5 lux, the mean color error only slipped to 6.64 which is still better than most cameras in perfect lighting. The Canon A550 performed very well in our low light test at its higher ISO settings.

**Dynamic Range ***(5.36)

*We tested how well the Canon PowerShot A550 could handle bright and dark areas in the same image by photographing a backlit Stouffer test target film. There is a row of rectangles on the film that range from bright to dark and represent about 13 exposure values, which is more than most digital cameras can accurately represent at once.

We uploaded the A550’s images of this chart into Imatest, which determined how many exposure values the camera can record at once. The chart below shows the exposure values on the vertical axis and the manual ISO settings - which affect the dynamic range - on the horizontal axis. There are two levels of quality plotted. The high quality measures steps of range with a tenth a stop of noise, while the low quality measures steps with up to a full stop of noise.

CanonA550-DynRange-GR.jpg

At the lowest ISO settings, the Canon A550 captured about 8 exposure values, but there is a major drop in dynamic range from ISO 200 to 400. This performance is mediocre when compared to similar budget digital cameras. What should users learn from this? If shooting in a high contrast scene, it's best to try to keep the ISO above 200.

**Speed/Timing

***Startup to First Shot (8.2)

*Canon has improved its digital cameras in this area. The Canon A520 took nearly 3 seconds to start up, but the new A550 takes only 1.8 seconds to start up and take its first picture. This is great for a budget digital camera, but it still isn’t close to the world’s fastest.

*Shot-to-Shot (9.4)

*The Canon PowerShot A550 has a decent burst mode when compared to other digital cameras in this price range. This camera took a picture every 0.6 seconds and did so up to the memory card’s capacity: 250 shots in this case. The shots are processed immediately too, so there is no waiting at the end of a burst to start another batch of pictures like on most other digital cameras.

*Shutter-to-shot (8.2)

*The old A520 took 0.71 seconds to take a picture, so there is some improvement on the new model. Still, the 0.4-second shutter lag is disappointing to users who try to snap candid pictures and end up with turned heads and closed eyes.

*Processing (8.4)

*Pictures are processed immediately during the burst. In the continuous shooting mode, the camera takes a shot every 0.6 seconds and stores it in that time too.

Video Performance* (3.91)

Bright Indoor Light (3000 lux)

*We recorded a few videos of test charts in our studio using the auto settings and uploaded them to Imatest, which analyzed it just as it does still pictures. The results were a bit disturbing. In the bright lights of the studio, the colors were horribly erroneous with a tragic mean color error of 23. Not only are the colors completely off but the saturation compounds at 132.9 percent. The amount of noise present isn’t impressive either at 0.5425 percent of the image.

*Low Light (30 lux)

*Using the same settings, the mean color error surprisingly returns within normal range in low light. The mean color error of 9.08 is only a bit worse than the still image’s performance in comparable light. Colors are undersaturated at 82.47 percent. As with most cameras in low light, the amount of noise in the video increased to 2.335 percent of the image.

*Resolution

*We recorded a 640 x 480-pixel video of a resolution chart and uploaded it to Imatest, which outputs results in the same line widths per picture height (lw/ph) unit used in our still image resolution test. Horizontally, the Canon A550 resolved 251 lw/ph with 19.1 percent undersharpening. Vertically, it resolved 340 lw/ph with 10.6 percent oversharpening. These numbers are typical of compact digital cameras’ movie modes.

100% Crops

*Outdoor Motion

*We went outside to get some fresh air and toted the Canon PowerShot A550 out for a few 'real world' videos. We recorded a few clips of moving cars, dogs, strollers, and the hustle and bustle of the city streets and observed a few things. The video retained good contrast, but the edges of the frame were softer than the center. Moving subjects stuttered a bit too even though the camera records 30 fps. Still, the Canon A550 performed better than most digital cameras in this area.

Components

**Viewfinder ***(3.5)*

CanonA550_vf.jpg
Like other Canon A-series cameras, the A550 has an optical viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. Unfortunately, it doesn’t see exactly what the lens sees. It isn’t very accurate – this is the case with most digital cameras' optical viewfinders. When the lens is zoomed out, the viewfinder centers subjects just fine, but the final image will show a larger area. This can be fixed, and users can crop the picture later. The situation is bad when the lens and viewfinder zoom in though. The optical viewfinder can only see about one-fourth of what is actually recorded, and it favors the top portion of the frame.

The optical viewfinder really shouldn’t be used unless the batteries are dying, and power needs to be stretched for a few more photos. If it must be used, I’d recommend shooting all photos at the widest focal length and cropping them later.

LCD Screen*(4.0)*

CanonA550_lcd_off.jpg
The Canon PowerShot A550 has a 2-inch low-temperature polycrystalline silicon LCD screen that isn’t as big as competing models, but it's bigger than the A530’s 1.8-inch display. The LCD is framed in black and looks like it has room to grow, but perhaps the small size keeps the camera affordable. Unlike the optical viewfinder, the LCD’s live preview has 100 percent accuracy, so it shows exactly what the final image will look like.

The LCD resolution isn’t very good at only 86,000 pixels. It must be viewed straight on or else it looks like the screen goes dark. It also sometimes catches glare if shooting outside in bright light or other harsh lighting. There is no way to change the brightness on the screen and no automatic gain to help either. The display info on the LCD can be hidden so that all users see is the image. The screen can also be turned off with the Disp. button. In the shooting menu, users can add grid lines or a "3:2 Guide" that shadows the top and bottom of the frame to the proper format (it doesn’t record this though).

Overall, the LCD screen is not high quality, but it does better than its predecessor and is one way Canon can manufacture the A550 cheaply.

Flash*(6.25)*

A550_flash.jpg
The built-in flash unit on this model looks absolutely huge compared to other similar digital cameras on the market. Most cameras have a thinner flash, but the Canon A550 has a tall and wide flash that is about three times the size of the optical viewfinder next to it. The size of flash doesn’t translate to more power though. The A550’s fat flash reaches 11 feet at best (when the lens is zoomed out). When the lens is zoomed in on subjects, the flash range shortens to 7.2 feet. In the macro mode, the flash is effective from 1-1.5 feet but looks too bright most of the time. There is no flash compensation to adjust the power of the flash.

The following modes are available: Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, Auto with Slow Sync, On, On with Red-Eye Reduction, On with Slow Sync, and Off. The basic auto, on, and off modes can be found easily by pushing the right side of the multi-selector. The red-eye reduction and slow sync modes can be activated by entering the recording menu. The Canon PowerShot A550 is compatible with an accessory flash that reaches about 30 feet, but it looks strange next to the A550 because it is about half the size of the camera. Still, users who frequently shoot at night or in dark environments may consider purchasing the Canon PowerShot HF-DC1. It costs half as much as the A550 though.

The A550’s flash doesn’t reach incredibly far, but it provides good results within its range. The automatic flash setting seemed to work just fine. It wasn’t trigger-happy like some digital cameras’ auto flash settings are. Pictures taken using the flash didn’t look completely natural but weren’t spotty either. The coverage looks even, which is more than what can be said of most budget cameras’ flashes.

Zoom Lens*(7.25)*

CanonA550_lens.jpg
The A550 has the same 4x optical zoom lens as the PowerShot A530. It measures 5.8-23.2mm (equivalent to 35-140mm in 35mm format) and has a wide max aperture of f/2.6. It is controlled by a thick ring that surrounds the shutter release button and has a sharp nub on the front where the index finger can grip and twist it. The sharp nub isn’t very comfortable. When twisted one way or another, it allows users to stop at seven focal length throughout the 4x range. There is no on-screen indicator to show how far into the zoom range users are, which is disappointing. Another disappointing fact about the lens is that it backfires a little. When users let go of the ring, the zoom does a little dance before settling on a certain focal length. This can be frustrating, and it takes a tiny bit more time than it should. The lens makes some electronic noise – nothing that would stop the show but enough to attract a few glances.

The lens extends about an inch and a half from the front of the body in two segments. If users don’t touch the buttons on the camera for 1 minute, the lens retracts into the camera body. This power-saving feature can be turned off in the setup menu.

Overall, the 4x length of the lens is better than the typical 3x length on budget models and the f/2.6 max aperture will give users an edge in low light, but the overall quality of the optics aren’t very good. The mechanical noise makes it sound cheap, and the barrel distortion visible in the macro mode makes it look cheap.

Design / Layout

**Model Design / Appearance ***(6.5)*

The Canon PowerShot A550 doesn’t try to push any traditional design boundaries with its chunky and contoured matte silver colored body. It has a substantial hand grip and protruding lens – both features are more functional than attractive. The A550 looks very similar to its A-series predecessors with the chunky design, button layout, enlarged mode dial, and standard looks, though it lacks the rotating LCD screen. The A550 is constructed of a light plastic material that gives it a cheap feel. On the store shelf, eyes will probably scan right over it to something flashier from Canon’s SD-series. But when funds are low, eyes will likely scan the price tags and perhaps land on the A550.

**Size / Portability ***(5.5)*

The Canon A550 is slightly shorter than its predecessor, the A530, but it is otherwise the same. It measures 3.59 inches across the back, 2.52 inches tall, and 1.7 inches on the right side where the thick hand grip is. When the camera is turned on, the lens sticks out, adding another 1.5 inches to the front. This chunky design is good for handling, but it's bad for portability since it is much too thick for a pocket. It isn’t even close to SLR-size though, so it could be put into a purse or coat pocket without much trouble. It would probably be best to purchase a small carrying case to protect the finish and display screen while transporting. The A550 weighs 5.64 ounces, so dangling it from your wrist for a long period of time may not be too comfortable.

Handling Ability*(7.0)*

Portability may not be the Canon PowerShot A550’s strong point but handling may be. The hand grip provides a comfortable rest for the right hand, and the left hand can even grip without getting in the way of the lens. There is a thick ridge around the foundation of the lens that keeps fingers from pushing any farther. There isn’t much of a thumb grip on the back, but users can easily balance the digital camera with the right hand while pushing the buttons on the back.

CanonA550_handling_front.jpg

Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(7.0)*

A550_buttons.jpg
The size and placement of the controls also ease handling . The buttons are large and spaced apart enough to prevent double activation. The mode dial is about the size of a nickel and seems quite large. It protrudes from the back of the camera body and has ridges that add texture, making it easier to grip and rotate. The mode dial on the unit we reviewed was very stiff. It took a good tug with the thumbnail to get it to go anywhere.

The A550’s mode dial has been modified from its predecessor, the A530. The older model had program and panorama stitch positions on the mode dial. The new A550 replaces those with the Kids & Pets and Indoor/Party scene modes. Both cameras have the same layout with the shutter release button placed at the tip of the hand grip. The button is surrounded by a thick zoom ring, which has a sharp nub to turn it that is not very comfortable. Overall, the buttons are decent, but the mode dial is too stiff and the multiselector requires too much force to scroll around.

Menu*(7.0)*

The outer design of the Canon PowerShot A550 hasn’t undergone any major renovations and neither has the interior. The menu system is split so that the frequently used features can be accessed by pushing the central Func./Set button.

This menu has a nice live preview, but the remainder of the menu system is trapped in a claustrophobic gray background. It has the look of other Canon menus. There are colored tabs at the top and lists of options in white and black text. Most Canons have two recording tabs, a setup tab, and a tab with options to customize the camera. The A550 has only two tabs though: one for recording and one for setup. The recording menu is as follows.

canon_a550_camera1.gif

Some of the Canon menus repeat the options from the Func./Set menu, but this camera does not. There are certain places to find certain features, so white balance will always and only be in the Func./Set menu for instance. The Setup menu follows.

canon_a550_setup1.gif

These menus are quite basic when compared to other PowerShot digital cameras that have more features and manual controls. A550 users won’t wander through these menus too much though. Overall, the menus are intuitive and simple to navigate around. The menus’ only drawback is the stiff multi-selector that requires a little more force to rotate than it should.

**Ease of Use ***(7.0)*

The Canon A550 promises to be easier to use – not like its predecessor was difficult to figure out. Improvements include a mode dial with more useful scene modes, a sharper edge for a more secure left hand grip, and a trimmed menu system that cuts duplicate locations for settings. The easy just got easier.

Modes

**Auto Mode ***(7.5)*

The Auto mode is denoted by a green label on the dial. When in Auto mode, the recording menu is still available, but the Func./Set menu is shortened to allow changes only to image size and compression.

Many of the multiselector’s functions are still accessible too. The ISO options include auto and high ISO auto; the flash can be turned off or to an auto setting; the self-timer can be activated; and the macro mode enabled. Overall, the Auto mode it is very easy to use and seemed to produce decent pictures in a variety of situations.

**Movie Mode ***(7.0)*

The Canon PowerShot A550’s mode dial provides direct access to the movie mode, which gives users a lot of flexibility. While in the movie mode, the white balance and color mode can be changed along with the resolution and frame rate.

The A550’s movies are much, much better in terms of quality when compared to its predecessor. Movies record at 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 pixels with frame rates of 30 or 15 fps. The camera’s published specs claim that there is a fast frame rate movie mode, but that was not to be found on the reviewed model. It’s just as well; it wasn’t very useful on the pricier cameras anyway. The frame rate is still better than the camera’s predecessor, the A530, which had a lousy 10 fps at the full 640 x 480 pixels.

The Canon A550 can record up to 1 GB of footage at a time. Colors look decent and subjects look realistic. The quality is decent until the zoom in employed. There is no optical zoom available – only digital zoom, which degrades the image quality.

Movies can be played back normally or at five slow motion speeds, which could be entertaining for the kids. There is no movie editing available, but users can stop and rewind and fast-forward through clips with the multiselector. The volume can also be changed while viewing. The audio is surprisingly good for a budget digital camera; the large snowflake-shaped speaker on the back helps.

Overall, the movie mode is quite good for a digital camera in this price range. It won’t replace a camcorder, but it will take great short videos.

To see how the A550 performed in movie mode, refer to the Testing/Performance section of the review.

*

*
Drive / Burst Mode***(6.0)*

There is something of a burst mode available. It isn’t all that impressive, but it beats out some of its competitors. The bottom of the multiselector activates the continuous shooting mode, which can snap 1.7 frames per second. The A550 can take 10 pictures at this speed before it sputters. It still keeps taking pictures, but the rate slows to about 1 picture per second. Also available is a self-timer that can be set to delay for 2 or 10 seconds or customized to delay for 0-30 seconds and snap 1-10 shots after that delay. The self-timer indicates when it is taking the picture by flashing the orange LED on the front of the camera. Overall, the burst mode is decent for being a budget model.

canon_a550_drive1.gif

Playback Mode*(6.5)*

With a poor 86k resolution on the 2-inch LCD screen, the playback mode certainly isn’t anything special. Pictures don’t look very good with this resolution; edges look like stair steps and faces look like piles of colored blocks.

There are several ways to view images. When users enter the playback mode via the designated button, individual photos appear and can be scrolled through using the multiselector. Pushing the telephoto end of the zoom ring switches the view to nine thumbnail images. Pushing the wide end of the ring magnifies a selected image 2-10x.

Pushing the top portion of the multiselector cycles through a few options: users can jump to every 10th image, every 100th image, to a certain shot date, or to movies and folders. The jump function is convenient if searching through a large capacity memory card; it’d be nice if the deletion feature was that helpful.

Users can erase all images through the playback menu or can erase one at a time with a push of the multiselector’s bottom. Other than formatting the memory card, there is no specific option to scroll through and delete images in batches, which comes in handy when there are lots of photos on a memory card that have been tagged. The following menu appears in the playback mode.

canon_a550_playback1.gif

The print menu is a tabbed sub-menu from this interface. Its contents will be discussed in the Direct Printing portion of this review.

Of note is the camera’s ability to automatically rotate images (this can be switched off in the setup menu) in the playback mode. This is especially helpful during slide shows, when users don’t want to have to manually rotate every image.

Movies can be played back normally or in slow motion. The volume and playback rate (there are 5 different speeds) can be changed while viewing. There is no movie editing available on this model while pricier A-series models offer the option to cut videos.

Overall, the screen size and resolution aren’t the best, and the menu options are extremely basic. There are a few great features such as the "jump" function that eases navigation of lots of photos but other functions like deletion are still a pain to use.

**Custom Image Presets ***(7.5)*

The Canon PowerShot A550 has many of the same custom image presets as the A530, but they’re in different places. Most of the scene modes are tucked away in a menu on the older A530. As part of its mission to enhance ease of use, the Canon redesigned the PowerShot A550’s mode dial with more scene modes plastered directly on it. There are 5 scene modes located directly on the mode dial and 5 more in the "SCN" position of the dial. Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, and Indoor/Party are on the dial. The "SCN" menu includes the following: Night Scene, Foliage, Snow, Beach, and Fireworks. This layout does indeed make it easier to access frequently-used scene modes.

I didn’t ordinarily use presets like Fireworks and Beach much, but the Kids & Pets and Indoor/Party modes came in handy. The Kids & Pets scene mode is geared for brightly lit playtime in the backyard, so using it indoors caused a few blurred hands and legs. The Portrait and Landscape modes produced nice shots too.

Control Options

Manual Control Options

Other A-series cameras offer more in this area. The Canon A550 keeps things simple and offers only enough manual control options to point and shoot. There are a few controls available in the Func./Set menu complete with a live view, but nothing extensive.

Focus

Auto Focus*(7.5)*

Pricier PowerShot digital cameras now have face detection technology that can automatically find and focus on faces. The A550 does not have this functionality because it has Canon’s older Digic II image processor. Still, this model has AiAF that is a type of all-in-one auto focus mode. It focuses on subjects anywhere in the frame and displays green boxes around its focus areas. This through-the-lens system is fairly quick and quiet.

If the flash is enabled, it takes the camera a bit longer to focus. Normally, the lens can focus from 1.5 feet to infinity. The macro mode can shoot as close as 2 inches and as far as 1.5 feet. The Canon PowerShot A550 has a bright orange auto focus assist beam that really hurts the subjects’ eyes (Try not to blink!). The auto focus assist beam helps the camera focus in low light and takes longer than normal, but still focuses much of the time. The odds are much better that pictures will be focused in optimal lighting.

Manual Focus*(0.0)*

This feature is not available on this digital camera.

**ISO ***(7.0)*

The Canon A550 has manual ISO options of 80, 100, 200, 400, and 800 in full resolution. It also has an auto mode and a special "High ISO Auto" mode specifically for point-and-shooters who know they should hike up the sensitivity when photographing in low light but don’t know which setting to use. The ISO can be changed by pushing the top portion of the multiselector.

canon_a550_iso1.gif

White Balance* (7.5)*

The following white balance choices are accessible through the Func./Set menu: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and Custom. A big live preview makes it easy for beginners to choose which setting to use. Although digital camera novices may never use it, the Custom feature is quite easy to use. An on-screen prompt directs users to push the Menu button to "evaluate white balance," and shows a tiny box in the center of the frame where it measures from.

canon_a550_wb1.gif

*To view the A550's white balance performance, refer to the Testing/Performance portion of the review


Exposure***(7.0)*

Exposure settings can’t be manually changed, but the exposure compensation can be moved up and down a +/- 2 scale in one-third increments. This scale can be found in the same menu as the white balance, accessed by pressing the Func./Set button.

canon_a550_exposure1.gif

Metering*(7.0)*

The A550 has the three standard digital camera metering options: Evaluative, Center-weighted Average, and Spot. Some budget models eliminate these options and add scene modes like Backlight (spot metering) instead. The LCD screen doesn’t display brackets to show where the meter reading is taken, but the included specs claim that the spot metering mode sticks to the very center.

Shutter Speed*(0.0)*

Although not manually adjustable, the Canon PowerShot A550 has shutter speeds ranging from 15-1/2000th of a second.

Aperture*(0.0)*

The Canon PowerShot A550 has the same 4x optical zoom lens that was included on the A530. It also has the same 2-step aperture system. When users pan around a scene with light and dark areas, the aperture can be heard clicking open and closed. To its credit, the camera has a relatively wide f/2.6 maximum aperture. It moves from that to f/5.5 though.

Image Parameters

Picture Quality / Size Options*(7.5)*

The Canon A550 has a host of image sizes and compressions available from the Func./Set menu. SuperFine, Fine, and Normal compression JPEGs can be made from these sizes: Large (3072 x 2304), Widescreen (3072 x 1728), Medium 1 (2592 x 1944), Medium 2 (2048 x 1536), Medium 3 (1600 x 1200), Postcard (1600 x 1200), and Small (640 x 480). There are a few interesting facts about this list. The Postcard size is a quick referral to the Normal compression of the Medium 3 image size. The Widescreen size is new on this model; it wasn’t included on the A530. Perhaps most importantly, there is no 3:2-formatted image size. There is a "3:2 Guide" that can be turned on and off in the recording menu, but this only shadows parts of the frame and doesn’t record files as that size. This may not bother too many consumers, but those who print 4 x 6-inch prints regularly and appreciate nicely cropped images will be annoyed by having to crop every picture in a photo editing program.

canon_a550_size1.gif

Picture Effects Mode*(7.75)*

Most other Canon digital cameras have a My Colors mode that accessible through both the recording and playback modes. The A550, however, has a shortened My Colors list, and they can only be activated in the recording mode. From the Func./Set menu, users can get a live view of the following options: Off, Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, and Custom Color. Most other Canons have more color filters, but this model provides only the basics. Still, it has a "custom color" mode that allows users to adjust contrast, saturation, and sharpness on +/- 2 full-step scales. This feature is quite advanced for an entry-level point-and-shoot.

Connectivity / Extras

Connectivity

Software*(6.5)*

The Canon A550 comes with the Canon Solution Disk version 30.0 that includes software compatible with both Windows and Macintosh systems. For Macs, the following programs are included: ImageBrowser 5.8, PhotoStitch 3.1, and EOS Utility 1.1. For Windows: ZoomBrowser EX 5.8, PhotoStitch 3.1, Camera TWAIN Driver 6.6, and EOS Utility 1.1. QuickTime 7 can also be installed from the disk.

I checked out the Windows-compatible programs. ZoomBrowser EX has three viewing modes – zoom, scroll, and preview – that allow users to look, select, comment, and rate images. Once users select an image file, another window appears with printing and editing choices along with a larger view.

a550previewmode.jpg

File info can be shown or hidden, and pictures can be rated just like on the previous window. The following editing options are available: red-eye correction, auto adjustment, color/brightness adjustment (contrast, saturation, brightness), sharpness, trim, and insert text. Movies can be played back but not edited in the ZoomBrowser EX software.

a550zoommode.jpg

There is a quick link to home printing devices but no connection to an online printing web site. Some software programs, such as those released with Kodak and HP digital cameras, sync with web sites and allow users to more easily upload to online galleries. Canon doesn’t offer that, but it does have an Internet tab in its menu that lets users email JPEG files (not movies), using a quick step-by-step process that sizes and sends.

a550edit.jpg

Photostitch 3.1 opens, but it doesn’t automatically sync with computer files. Users must manually open the pictures they want stitched together, then line them up in order. The program has trouble with pictures taken with different focal lengths, but it can still merge files – although they may not look great. The results don’t look very professional, but most users probably won’t ever open this program.

photostitch.jpg

Overall, the software package is decent; the ZoomBrowser EX software is all users will need to view, organize, and edit.

CanonA550_ports.jpg
Jacks, ports, plugs*(6.25)*

A cover on the left side of the camera body opens to reveal three separate ports. The top port is for the A/V cable; this function can be set to NTSC or PAL standards in the setup menu. The central port is a USB 2.0 hi-speed mini-B jack. The bottom port connects with the 3.15v optional power adaptor. The cover seems to snap in quite well, especially for being made of rubber material. I wouldn’t dip the camera in water or anything, but it seems effective at keeping dirt out.

Direct Print Options*(7.0)*

In the playback mode, there is a sub-menu that leads to the printing options. An entire print order can be made in the A550, and it can be transferred to a PictBridge printer via a USB cable. There is a menu that can send the pictures to a printer, or users can push the designated button with an LED in its center.

Like other PowerShot digital cameras, the Canon A550 can sync with Canon CP and Selphy photo printers and create passport-sized pictures and even index prints from movies. Still, the camera can transfer photos to any other PictBridge printer just as easily.

Battery*(6.25)*

The space below the hand grip is reserved for the battery and memory card compartment. It has a lock that must be slid one direction while sliding the entire panel another direction. This is somewhat complicated, but that’s only because Canon doesn’t want to make it too easy for the batteries to pop out while snapping pictures. Putting batteries into the camera can be complicated too; there is no label to show which direction to load the batteries, so users have to pay attention to the leads. The A550 runs on two AA batteries and comes with an alkaline set. This will get users about 140 pictures. For better battery life, rechargeable NiMH AAs can be used; they will get 500 shots per charge. The rechargeable batteries will be well worth the price; otherwise, users will be purchasing AAs very frequently.

*Memory (3.25)

*The Canon PowerShot A550 does not have built-in memory, but it comes with a 16 MB MMC card in the package. This card can fit only four full-resolution pictures on it, so users will want to purchase more memory. The A550 accepts SD, SDHC, and MMC cards.

Other features (2.0) 

Sound Memo – This is available from the playback menu. It allows users to attach up to 60 seconds of monaural audio to each image file.

Overall Impressions

**Value ***(7.0)*

The Canon PowerShot A550 is a basic digital camera with few fabulous features, but its price tag remains very reasonable at $199. This is fairly priced, judging from the prices of similar models. There is heated competition in the budget digital camera market as decent technology that was once available on expensive cameras depreciates in value and is included on cheaper models. The A550 is a decent camera, but there are still other models that have better combinations of features.

Comparisons

Canon PowerShot A530 – The A530 and A550’s bodies are very similar, with the A530 measuring only a tenth of an inch taller. The edges on this model aren’t as sharp either. The Canon A530 has the same 4x optical zoom lens and a smaller 1.8-inch, 77,000-pixel LCD screen. The 5-megapixel model has similar automated modes but includes panorama stitch, color accent, and color swap modes that were omitted on the newer camera. Both models have Digic II image processors and the same few manual controls. The A530’s movie mode isn’t very impressive. It records 640 x 480-pixel video at 10 fps, and 320 x 240-pixel video at 20 fps. This entry-level model sells for about $50 less than the A550.

Fujifilm FinePix A800 – This digital camera isn’t very attractive, but it fits into the same budget category with its $179 retail price. The A800 has an 8.3-megapixel Super CCD and a 2.5-inch LCD screen with better resolution of 115,000 pixels. The 3x optical zoom lens isn’t as nice as the one on the Canon, but it's still functional nonetheless. The body has a mode dial like the Canon, and it also uses a menu interface that incorporates icons and text. The Fuji A800 has 19 recording modes and a movie mode that isn’t as impressive. It records 320 x 240-pixel video at 30 fps. It doesn’t have an optical viewfinder and runs on AA batteries. It accepts both SD and xD-Picture memory cards.

  • Nikon Coolpix L5* – Coming with the same 7.2-megapixel resolution, the Nikon L5 has a similar chunky shape but a longer 5x optical zoom lens. The lens has a vibration reduction system, which shifts the lens elements to keep blur to a minimum. The L5’s LCD screen is larger at 2.5 inches, but its resolution isn’t much better at 115,000 pixels. It has 15 scene modes, including four on the mode dial that have framing assists. It produces similarly sized movies to the Canon A550, but it doesn’t give users the option to change the white balance or have something similar to the PowerShot’s color modes. The Nikon Coolpix L5 packs in technology that automatically fixes red-eye, improves harsh lighting, and attempts to focus on faces. Its flash reaches farther at 18 feet, but its burst mode stumbles along at 0.7 fps. Both digital cameras run on AA batteries, with the Nikon L5 getting 150 shots per charge on alkaline batteries and 250 shots with a rechargeable EN-MH1 pack. The 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.8-inch Nikon Coolpix L5 retails for $249, but can be found for around $50 less online.

Pentax Optio E30 – With the same resolution and similar features, the E30 costs $149, which is $50 than the A550.The 7.1-megapixel digital camera has a similar plain appearance, but it is skinnier. This makes it easier to stash in a coat pocket – although it’s not very skinny at 1.4 inches – but this also makes it look way too much like a bar of soap. The camera has a 3x optical zoom lens and a 2.4-inch LCD screen with 110,000 pixels. It has 15 scene modes that can be found in a colorful graphic menu, and there is no mode dial or optical viewfinder. The Pentax E30 comes with a Green Mode that automates everything and provides an excessively simple menu to change items such as image size. A movie mode is also available that can shoot 640 x 480 pixels at 28 fps. There are some effects like resizing, trimming, and borders available for still images. The Pentax Optio E30 runs on AA batteries, is compatible with SD cards, and can sync with ImageLink printers as well as PictBridge.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55 – With 7.2 megapixels and a $199 price tag, this camera has some major similarities. It aims to be trendier than the average budget model though. Its body measures less than an inch thick, and it comes in four colors including pink and blue. Its lens is shorter with only 3x power, but it has a larger 2.5-inch LCD screen with 115,000 pixels. There are only 7 scene modes and shutter speeds that don’t slow much more than a second, but the Sony W55 offers a few more manual controls like auto focus modes and an ISO range that extends to 1000. This Cyber-shot has an optical viewfinder, much like the one on the Canon A550. The Sony model runs on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that gets 380 shots per charge. This is impressive, as is the 56 MB of built-in memory. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55 is compatible with Memory Stick Duo and Duo Pro cards and can only record decent 30 fps videos when the Pro card is used.

Who It’s For

Point-and-Shooters – This digital camera is built for beginners who are either buying for the first time or moving up from an earlier entry-level. Ease of use is key on the A550.

Budget Consumers – At $199, the Canon A550 attracts photographers who want to take pictures but don’t want to break the bank and don’t care much for manual controls.

Gadget Freaks – There isn’t a single feature on the A550 that is unique or even mildly interesting to this audience.

Manual Control Freaks – This PowerShot doesn’t have many manual controls. These freaks will have to move up in the A-series to get a camera equipped with all the right stuff.

Pros/Serious Hobbyists – The Canon PowerShot A550 won’t be considered by these photographers.

Conclusion

Conclusion

With a $199 price tag, amazing performance can’t be expected from the A550. It does, however, meet the basic requirements of an adequate digital camera. It can take a picture when you want, where you want, and how you want. It doesn’t have much shutter lag, has a 4x optical zoom lens to get closer to subjects, a decent burst mode for action sequences, and is small enough to be toted around.

Sure, the A550 has its drawbacks – but most seem to be connected to the price tag. The poor LCD resolution and boring design are shortcuts Canon took to be able to provide a standard digital camera for $199. With that in mind, the PowerShot A550’s pictures aren’t going to blow anyone away, but it will serve basic point-and-shooters just fine.

Sample Photos

Sample photos

*Click on the thumbnails below to view the full resolution images. *

Specs / Ratings

**Specs Table

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