Canon Powershot A550 Review
Following in the tradition of Canon's very popular and affordable "A" series of PowerShot models, the A550 is the 2007 upgrade of the A530 of last year. While including many of the same features like a stylish and durable body, high-quality VGA size movie mode and 4x optical zoom lens, this new model increases resolution to 7-megapixels, adds a larger higher resolution 2.0-inch LCD display as well as longer battery life. This is a point-n-shoot model with plenty of fully automatic exposure modes that helps users capture great photos in a variety of different shooting situations. There's also Manual mode, which is also an automatic exposure mode, however, it allows users to control the white balance, ISO sensitivity, Metering and etc.
The A550 is almost identical to its predecessor, with the same stylish and durable polycarbonate body. While the A550 is "compact" and has the ability to be tucked away in almost any size handbag or purse, it is large enough to offer a very comfortable feel in your hands. The enlarged hand grip makes one handed shooting a snap! The onscreen menu system was very easy to navigate and allowed for quick changes to camera settings; especially the FUNCtion shortcut menu. The various controls are well placed and functional, all within the reach of either your thumb or index finger.
Even though the 2.0-inch LCD display on this model is not quite as large as most consumer compacts these days (offering 2.5-inch or larger), the A550's LCD is a high-quality screen and was a pleasure to use. Outdoors, it was bright and clear, with only a few angles in which the sun was reflected, making it difficult to see. In low lighting conditions, the display "gains up" nicely, allowing you to see your subject for framing. I was also glad to see that the optical viewfinder still remains. While almost everyone uses the LCD 100% of the time, this viewfinder comes in handy when trying to conserve battery life, or when following moving subjects, where the LCD goes blank. Just remember, the optical viewfinder only covers about 80-85% of the frame, so you'll always capture more than you see.
Another feature that adds versatility over you're typical consumer point-n-shoot, is the Canon 4x optical zoom. This lens offers a broader field of view than the 3x zoom found on most models, which will help when composing your shots. While 1x doesn't seem like much, you'll notice that you'll be able to bring your distant subjects up closer and better fill the frame when shooting portraits. The 35mm-equivalent zoom range is approx. 35 - 140mm, favoring the telephoto end. I found there to be no problem providing an adequate field of view for interior group portraits or landscape shots. The telephoto end of the zoom range works great for close-up portraits, and will help bring those distant subjects closer. Overall, I found they produced sharp results throughout the zoom range, with average barrel distortion at full wide angle but virtually no pincushioning at the telephoto end. Chromatic aberrations (purple fringing around brightly lit subjects) are also well controlled, with only a slight traces of purple fringing present in high contrast areas.
The A550 is quite the performer, as long as you're not using the flash. From power up to first image was captured measured just 1.5 seconds, and waking the camera from sleep mode to image capture took less than a second. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, and only 2/10 of a second including autofocus. When using single drive mode to shoot a sequence of images, the shot to shot delay averaged approx. 1.3 seconds without the flash, but increases dramatically to between 4 - 6 seconds when using the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life.
You can also choose the continuous (burst) mode, that Canon claims can capture images at a rate of 1.5fps. Which I found to be a bit more impressive than their claim, capturing 10 images in 4.9 seconds; a frame rate of approx 2.0 fps. This means you will have no problems when taking burst sequences at your kid's sporting events. And thanks to the inclusion of an optical viewfinder, you won't have to deal with the LCD briefly displaying the last image captured, which makes it difficult to follow moving subjects. All tests were done using a PQI High-speed (150x) 4GB SD card, Large/SuperFine image quality, Manual mode, review off, flash off, and all other settings at default, unless noted otherwise. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
The image quality of the 7-megapixel Large/SuperFine images is impressive, especially when you consider this camera's affordable price tag. Outdoors, our sample images were sharp and well exposed, with pleasing color saturation. There was a bit of edge softness on several of our photos, however, this is a common issue with consumer models. Imager noise is an issue we touch with just about every model we test, and the A550 showed very little, when using ISO 80 - 200. As with all cameras, as the ISO sensitivity is increased, so does the noise. While noise is very noticeable at ISO 400 and 800, I still feel the usefulness of these higher sensitivity settings is much more important than the negative effects, especially when using the flash is out of the question. While you might be able to see this in your larger prints, like and 8x10", your typical 4x6" prints will still be usable.
Our portrait, or people photos, turned out good with natural skin tones. Indoors, you'll have to work with the limited flash range of about 11.5 feet, which is sufficient for most interior shooting. Just don't expect to illuminate far away subjects in large open rooms. This is a Light-guide zoom flash that actually changes the angle of the flash (internally) as the focal length changes, which is not only pretty cool, but also helps reduce effects like red-eye. I found the A550 does well when shooting close up portraits from about 5 or 6 feet away, or when shooting small group shots in mid sized rooms. If you need even more flash power, this model is compatible with the optional Canon HF-DC1 flash unit, which can deliver illumination for up to approximately 30 feet!
The A550's movie function allows you to choose from several modes (Standard, Compact (160x120), Fast Frame rate), as well as resolutions of 640x480 or 320x240. The frame rate when using standard mode is selectable between 30 and 15fps. Compact mode is great for sending clips via email, where files sizes are critical. Overall, I found our videos were nice, with good exposure and minimal compression artifacts. Just be sure you have a large SD card, the 640x480 30fps mode consumes about 1.9MB per second!
Canon claims that AA alkaline batteries will allow you to capture approx. 140 shots (LCD on) or 540 minutes of continuous playback time. We highly recommend the use of NiMH cells, and according to Canon, they will allow you to shoot approx. 500 shots (LCD on) or 660 minutes of continuous playback time (the mAh rating of these cells was not specified.) While battery life was good, I didn't see numbers as high as Canon's claims. Using a single set of 2700 mAh cells, I was only able to capture about 90 shots and several movie clips as well as conduct many of our other tests, using the LCD 100% of the time, before having to swap in a fresh set. However, cold weather really takes a toll on AA-type cells, and this could have been a big factor with our battery life results.
Bottom line - Canon's PowerShot A550 has a lot to offer. With robust performance, great image quality, easy to use exposure modes, 7-megapixels of resolution, a 4x optical zoom lens, and great ergonomics, the A550 is sure to be a very popular model for 2007. The A550 won't hurt the pocket book either, with a "sweet" price tag of US$199 or less! If you don't need 7-megapixels, but like many of the features of this model, be sure to check out our review of its "little brother" the 5-megapixel PowerShot A460.
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