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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot A550  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 25, 2007
Last Updated: December 21, 2007

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The PowerShot A550 ($199) is one of the entry-level cameras Canon's A-series. Replacing the PowerShot A530 from last year, the A550 adds a larger LCD (2.0" vs 1.8") and, naturally, more Megapixels. Other features on the camera include a 4X optical zoom lens, point-and-shoot operation, a VGA movie mode, and support for SDHC memory cards.

If you're confused about all the A-series models out there, you're not alone. Hopefully the chart below will help clear things up for you:

Feature PS A550 PS A560 PS A570 IS PS A630 PS A640 PS A710 IS
Street price
(at time of posting)
$184 $229 $269 $235 $328 $284
Resolution 7.1 MP 7.1 MP 7.1 MP 8.0 MP 10.0 MP 7.1 MP
Optical zoom 4X 4X 4X 4X 4X 6X
Lens max. aperture F2.6 - F5.5 F2.6 - F5.5 F2.6 - F5.5 F2.8 - F4.1 F2.8 - F4.1 F2.8 - F4.8
Focal length (35 mm equiv.) 35 - 140 mm 35 - 140 mm 35 - 140 mm 35 - 140 mm 35 - 140 mm 35 - 210 mm
Image stabilization No No Yes No No Yes
Image processor DIGIC II DIGIC III DIGIC III DIGIC II DIGIC II DIGIC II
LCD size 2.0" 2.5" 2.5" 2.5" 2.5" 2.5"
LCD resolution 86,000 115,000 115,000 115,000 115,000 115,000
Rotating LCD No No No Yes Yes No
Manual controls No No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Face detection No Yes Yes No No No
Movie mode file size limit 1GB 4GB 4GB 1GB 1GB 1GB
Supports conversion lenses No No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Supports underwater case No No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Supports Remote Capture No No No No Yes No
Battery used AA (2) AA (2) AA (2) AA (4) AA (4) AA (2)
Battery life with 2500 mAh batteries (CIPA standard) 550 shots 500 shots 400 shots 500 shots 500 shots 360 shots

I hope that helped, at least a little bit!

Ready to learn about one of Canon's latest budget digicams? Keep reading -- our review starts right now!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot A550 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 7.1 effective Megapixel PowerShot A550 camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital memory card
  • Two AA alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solution
  • 31 page basic manual + 115 page advanced manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 16MB memory card along with the A550, which is quite small for a 7MP camera (it holds just four photos at the highest quality setting). So, unless you already have one sitting around, you'll need to buy yourself a larger memory card. The A550 supports Secure Digital, MultiMedia, and the new SDHC memory card formats. I'd recommend picking up a 512MB card along with the camera. Buying a high speed card (50X or higher) is a good idea, as it does impact camera performance.

Like its predecessor (along with most of the other A-series cameras) the A550 uses two AA batteries. The alkalines that come in the box will quickly find their way into the trash, so you'll want to pick up a four pack of NiMH rechargeables plus a fast charger right away. Once you've got those installed, here's what kind of battery life you'll get out of the camera:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon PowerShot A530/A540 360 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Canon PowerShot A550 550 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Canon PowerShot A560 500 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Canon PowerShot A570 IS 400 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
GE A730 400 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare C703 250 shots 2 x 2100 mAh NiMH
Nikon Coolpix L10 300 shots 2 x 2000 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS70 460 shots 2 x Unknown NiMH
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W35 380 shots NP-BG1

** Number not obtained using the CIPA standard

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

Well, there were a bunch of other cameras I wanted to list up there, but their respective manufacturers don't provide the needed information (this means you Fuji, Olympus, Pentax, and Samsung). Despite that, I think it's a safe bet that the PowerShot A550's battery life is well above average. It's almost quite a bit higher than it was on the A550's predecessor, the A530.

As you may know, I'm a big fan of cameras that use AA batteries. They're cheaper than their proprietary counterparts, and you can buy off-the-shelf batteries when your rechargeables die.

As you can see, there's a built-in lens cover on the A550, so there's no clumsy lens cap to worry about.

Unlike the more expensive models in the A-series, the PowerShot A550 is pretty light on accessories. You can buy an external slave flash (priced from $91), which attaches to the tripod mount, and fires when the onboard flash does. You can also pick up an AC adapter (priced from $32), or a battery/charger combo kit (priced from $38). And that's about it!


ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 30 of their Digital Camera Solution software package with the PowerShot A550. The main applications are the ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser "twins" that come with all PowerShot models. ImageBrowser is for the Mac, while ZoomBrowser is for Windows PCs. The Mac version is not Universal, so it doesn't run as fast as it could on Intel-based Macs.

After you download photos via the CameraWindow application, you'll end up with the screen above, which has a standard-issue thumbnail view. Photos can be organized, printed, and e-mailed from this screen.

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve.


ImageBrowser - MovieEdit Task (Mac OS X)

The MovieEdit task lets you take your movie clips, add effects and transitions, and then save the results as a single movie.


PhotoStitch (Mac OS X)

A separate program called PhotoStitch can, well, stitch together separate photos into one giant panorama.The interface is simple, the process takes minutes, and the results are impressive, as you can see. Do note that while the A550 doesn't have the Stitch Assist feature built into it, you can still take panoramas: just line up your photos side by side (use a tripod for best results) with plenty of overlap, and you should be able to get images like you see above.

The A550's documentation comes in several parts. You get a basic manual to get you up and running, and an advanced manual for more complex camera features. There's also a separate manual for the bundled software. While the manuals aren't what I'd call pleasure reading, they will answer any question that may come up about the camera.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot A550 is a compact (but not tiny) camera made of plastic. Unlike some other entry-level cameras, Canon uses high grade plastics on the A550, giving it a solid feel in the hand. The only exception to this is the very flimsy door over the battery/memory card compartment, which feels like it could snap in two at any moment. There's a decent-sized grip for your right hand, though I found my thumb sitting right on top of the Print/Share button when I was holding the camera.

Now, here's a look at how the A550 compares with some of the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A530 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 15.3 cu in. 170 g
Canon PowerShot A550 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 15.3 cu in. 160 g
Canon PowerShot A560 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 15.3 cu in. 165 g
Canon PowerShot A570 IS 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.7 in. 14.9 cu in. 175 g
Canon PowerShot A630 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.9 in. 21.2 cu in. 245 g
Canon PowerShot A710 IS 3.8 x 2.6 x 1.6 in. 15.8 cu in. 210 g
Fujifilm FinePix A820 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 11.9 cu in. 155 g
GE A730 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.1 in. 9.8 cu in. 120 g
HP Photosmart M437 3.8 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 11.4 cu in. 180 g
Kodak EasyShare C703 3.6 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 10.8 cu in. 145 g
Nikon Coolpix L10 3.5 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 8.4 cu in. 115 g
Olympus FE-210 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 10.5 cu in. 122 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS70 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 10.7 cu in. 135 g
Pentax Optio E30 3.7 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 12.4 cu in. 139 g
Samsung S730 4.0 x 2.5 x 1.0 in. 10 cu in. 136 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W35 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 118 g

Yes, a lengthy list, I know. First, compared to the "old" PowerShot A530, the A550 is the same size, only lighter. It's around the same size as the other A-series models, save for the chunky A630, which is larger due to its rotating LCD. In the group as a whole, the A550 is a bit larger and heavier than average. While it's not going to fit in your jeans pocket, the camera is small and light enough to fit in a jacket pocket or purse.

Let's begin our tour of the camera beginning, as always, with the front.

The PowerShot A550 has the same F2.6-5.5, 4X optical zoom lens as the A530 and A540 before it. This lens has a focal range of 5.8 - 23.2 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm. The lens is not threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported (you'll have to set up to the A570 IS for that).

To the upper-right of the lens is the A550's built-in flash. It has a working range of 0.45 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.45 - 2.2 m at telephoto, which is average. While you can't attach an external flash (that integrates) directly to the A550, you can use the Canon slave flash that I described earlier. This fires when the onboard flash does, giving you much greater flash range and less of a chance of redeye.

To the left of the flash is the optical viewfinder, with the AF-assist/self-timer lamp to the left of that. The AF-assist lamp is used as a focusing aid in low light situations.

The last thing to see here is the microphone, which is to the upper-left of the lens.

Being an entry-level camera, it should come as no surprise that the A550's LCD specs are less than impressive. It's small (2.0 inches) and low resolution (86,000 pixels), which comes a bit of a shock to a reviewer who is used to better screens. As you'd expect, images on the screen aren't terribly sharp, but it's still passable. If you want a higher res screen, then you'll have to step up to the A560. Outdoor LCD visibility was about average, while low light viewing was very good, as the screen brightens automatically in those situations.

Above the LCD is the A550's optical viewfinder. It's nice to see that Canon hasn't axed this useful feature like many other manufacturers have. The viewfinder is good sized, and its placement should keep your nose off of the LCD. The viewfinder does lack a diopter correction feature, though, which would be used to focus what you're looking at.

Moving over to the upper-right of the photo, we find the speaker, with the playback/record and Print/Share buttons below that.

When you're connected to a computer or printer, the blue light on the Print/Share button will light up. If it's a computer you're connected to, you can transfer images (in various ways) and even set the desktop background of your PC, right from the camera. If you're connected to a PictBridge-enabled printer, the button is used to start printing (you can set the print settings using the menus).

Below those buttons is the four-way controller, which you'll use for menu navigation as well as:

  • Up - ISO (Auto, Hi Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800) + Jump (quickly move ahead in playback mode)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous, self-timer) + Delete photo
  • Left - Macro (on/off)
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, on, off)
  • Center - Function / Set

Like all of Canon's cameras these days, the PowerShot A550 can shoot continuously until your memory card fills up -- assuming that you're using a high speed card. The A550 shoots at a respectable 1.7 frames/second, with the LCD keeping up with the action fairly well.


Function menu

By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu. This menu has the following options:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode (1 - 15 sec) - option must be turned on in the record menu first
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - see below
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, custom color) - see below
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

As with all of Canon's recent cameras, there are two Auto ISO modes to choose from on the PowerShot A550. The difference is that the High ISO Auto mode will boost the sensitivity higher than the regular Auto mode. This lets you use a faster shutter speed, which will result in sharper photos. The catch is that your photos will be noisier. I'll have more on the camera's ISO performance later in the review.

The A550 has a custom white balance mode, which lets you use a white or gray card for perfect color in any lighting. This will come in handy when you're shooting in unusual lighting condition, like I do in many of the test shots later in the review. This, along with the long shutter speed option, are the only manual controls on the camera.

The PowerShot A550 has a stripped down version of Canon's My Colors features. You can make your colors more vivid or neutral, take a picture in black and white or sepia, or manually adjust the sharpness/contrast/saturation. The fun (for a while) color swap and color accent options are not available on this camera.

Below the four-way controller are two more buttons. The display button toggles what is shown on the LCD, and it can also turn the thing off entirely. The menu button does just as it sounds.

Let's move on to the top of the camera now. First up is the power button, which has the mode dial next to it. The options on the mode dial include:

Option Function
Manual mode Point-and-shoot, but with full menu access
Auto mode Fully automatic, most camera settings locked up
Stitch Assist Helps you line up photos for later stitching into panoramas
Portrait These are all scene modes. You choose the situation and the camera uses the proper settings.
Landscape
Night snapshot
Kids & Pets
Indoor
Special Scene mode More scene modes, including night scene, foliage, snow, beach, and fireworks.
Movie mode More on this later

As you can see, this is a point-and-shoot camera, with no real manual exposure controls (save for that long shutter speed option). If you want full manual control, you'll want to consider the PowerShot A570 IS.

The only other thing to see on the top of the camera is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.6 seconds. I counted eight steps in the A550's 4X zoom range. One annoying thing about this camera is that there's no indication on the LCD of the current zoom setting.

On this side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are protected by a rubber cover. The ports include A/V out, USB, and DC-in (for the optional AC adapter). Like all of Canon's cameras, the A550 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

There's nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The lens is at full telephoto here.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find the battery and memory card compartment plus a plastic tripod mount (boo!). The door covering the battery/memory compartment is pretty flimsy, so be careful. You should be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

Using the Canon PowerShot A550

Record Mode

It takes 1.1 seconds for the A550 to extend its lens and "boot up" before you can start taking photos. That's pretty snappy.


No histograms here (and none expected)

Focus speeds were pretty snappy on the A550. Typically it took between 0.1 and 0.3 seconds for the camera to lock focus, with only slightly longer delays at the telephoto end of the lens. Low light focusing was accurate and fairly quick, thanks to the camera's AF-assist lamp.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it can occur.

Shot-to-shot speeds were excellent, with a delay of about one second between shots.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing "down" on the four-way controller.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 16MB card
(included)
# images on 512MB card (optional)
Large
3072 x 2304
Superfine 3.0 MB 4 156
Fine 1.9 MB 7 251
Normal 902 KB 16 520
Wide (16:9)
3072 x 1728
Superfine 2.3 MB 6 207
Fine 1.4 MB 10 335
Normal 678 KB 21 686
Middle 1
2592 x 1944
Superfine 2.4 MB 5 190
Fine 1.5 MB 10 339
Normal 695 KB 21 671
Middle 2
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 9 295
Fine 893 KB 16 529
Normal 445 KB 33 1041
Middle 3
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 26 471
Fine 558 KB 50 839
Normal 278 KB 56 1590
Small
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 56 1777
Fine 150 KB 88 2747
Normal 84 KB 138 4317

There's one more image size on the A550 that I didn't list in that chart, and it's called postcard. If you want to print the date on your photo then you must use postcard mode!

The A550 doesn't support the RAW or TIFF image formats, nor would I expect it to.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The A550 uses a scaled-down version of the standard Canon menu system. There aren't too many options, so it's pretty easy to use. Here's the full list of record menu options:

  • AiAF (on/off) - either nine-point or center-point autofocus
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 1.5X, 1.9X, Standard) - see below
  • Slow synchro (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Self-timer (2 or 10 sec, custom) - the latter lets you choose the number of shots (up to ten) and the delay (1 - 30 seconds) before a photo is taken
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Display overlay (Off, gridlines, 3:2 guide, both)
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the data on your photo -- in postcard mode only!

The A550 supports Canon's "new" digital zoom feature. Canon calls the 1.5X and 1.9X options a "digital tele-converter" -- it's basically just fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera. The A550's Safety Zoom feature warns you when you pass the point where image quality is degraded. When you're shooting at the highest resolution that starts as soon as digital zoom kicks in, but if you're using a lower resolution you can use it for a little while before that happens (e.g. you can go up to 7.7X total zoom at the M3 resolution).

The custom self-timer is a nice feature -- and still exclusive to Canon as far as I know. I wish more cameras had it.

The setup tab in the menu has the following items:

  • Mute (on/off) - turns off all the beeps
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Startup image (on/off)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly) - this new features will automatically create new folders on the memory card at set intervals
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch to playback mode
  • Language (way too many to list)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print Method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all - back to defaults

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The PowerShot A550 did a great job with our macro test shot. The colors look nice and saturated, and the subject has the "smooth" look that has become a trademark of recent Canon cameras. The one "real" manual control the A550 has came in really handy here, and that's custom white balance. If you shoot under mixed or unusual lighting (like I do in my studio) then this feature is a must.

In macro mode, you can get as close to your subject as 5 cm at wide-angle and 33 cm at telephoto -- both fairly average numbers.

The night shot turned out fairly well, though in retrospect I should've exposed it for a little longer. To take long exposures like this you'll need to turn on the "long shutter" feature, which lets you manually select a shutter speed between 1 and 15 seconds. The buildings in the photo are fairly sharp, though there is a bit of noise at ISO 80. Purple fringing was not an issue.

There are two ISO tests in this review. The first one uses the night scene above, so you can see how noise levels look at high ISOs in low light. Since I can't select shutter speeds faster than 1 second, the test stops at ISO 400 instead of ISO 800.


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400

Not surprisingly, there's just a minor difference between the ISO 80 and 100 shots. At ISO 200 we see more noise, with a noticeable loss in detail. The whole image looks pretty "staticky" at ISO 400, with very little detail remaining, so I wouldn't go use this setting (or ISO 800 for that matter) unless you're absolutely desperate.

In a moment you'll see that the PowerShot A550 does a lot better in the noise department in better lighting.

There's mild to moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot A550's lens. If you want to see what this does in the real world, look no further than the building on the right of this picture. While the lens doesn't have much trouble with vignetting (dark corners), you will encounter some blurry corners in your real world photos (example).

Yes, there's quite a bit of red in those sleepy eyes. The A-series cameras have always had a redeye problem... and there's finally a solution -- though not on the A550. If you buy one of the DIGIC III equipped cameras (meaning the A560 or A570 IS), there is a redeye reduction tool that gets rid of this annoyance once and for all. I know it because I tried it myself!

And now it's time for ISO test number two, which is shot in my "studio". You can compare this test with those in other reviews on this site. While the crops below give you a quick view of the differences at the various ISO sensitivities, it's a good idea to view the full-size images as well. And with that...


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

The images are all very clean through ISO 200 -- you should have no problem making large-sized prints at any of those settings. At ISO 400 we pick up some grain, though a small or midsize print is still a definite possibility. ISO 800 is even worse, so I'd save this for desperation only. It's worth noting that Canon doesn't apply a lot of noise reduction to their images, which leaves a lot of grain in the image, but there's less detail loss and "smudging" from NR.

Overall I was very happy with the photos produced by the PowerShot A550. They were generally well-exposed (though the camera occasionally blows out the highlights) with pleasing, saturated colors. Sharpness is right where it should be -- not soft, but not too sharp either. Noise levels are low considering the resolution of the camera, and mostly confined to shadow areas of your photos. Purple fringing was not a problem.

As always, I invite you now to look at our photo gallery. There you can view over a dozen photos, and I encourage you to print a few if you can. Then you should be able to decide if the A550's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The A550's movie mode is unchanged since the A530 and A540. You can record VGA video (with sound) at 30 frames/second until either the memory card fills up, or the movie file size reaches 1GB (which takes just eight minutes). If you want to record longer movies, then I strongly recommend that you look at the PowerShot A560, which costs a mere $30 more, and can record four times as much continuous video as this camera. A high speed memory card is required for recording movies at this setting.

Another way to get longer movies is to either lower the resolution or the frame rate. Two other resolution choices are available: 320 x 240 and 160 x 120. For the 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 sizes you can choose from 30 or 15 frames/second, while the 160 x 120 size is fixed at 15 fps (with a 3 minute recording limit as well).

There's also a "Fast Frame Rate" mode available, which lets you record up to 1 minute of 320 x 240 video at a whopping 60 frames/second. This is great for videos of fast moving subjects.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

I've got a different sample movie in this review for a change of pace. While the cinematography isn't great (I didn't exactly have floor seats), it's more of a real world video than a train arriving at the station. Enjoy:


Click to play movie (17.9 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The A550 has a pretty standard playback mode. Features slideshows, image protection, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. When you're zoomed in you can press the Func/Set button and then move from photo to photo at the same magnification setting. The A550 also has a separate print menu lets you tag photos for printing to a PictBridge-enabled photo printer.

While you an rotate a photo on the camera, there's no way to resize or crop them.

The default view in playback mode doesn't show much information about a photo. If you hit the display button you'll get a lot more, though, including a histogram.

The A550 moves between images almost instantly. Like most of Canon's recent cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot A550 is a very good entry-level digital camera, and one that I can recommend easily. I'm going to do something a little unusual, though: I'm going to recommend that you pay $30 more for its big brother, the PowerShot A560. Why? For the speed and improved photo quality of the DIGIC III processor, a larger/sharper LCD, longer movie record times, and a tool that ends the annoying redeye problem that has plagued the A-series cameras for some time. Whichever camera you end up choosing, you'll get a well designed body, good photo quality, and plenty of point-and-shoot features (with a few manual controls thrown in for good measure).

The PowerShot A550 is a compact (but not tiny) camera with a 7.1 Megapixel CCD and a 4X optical zoom lens. While the body is made entirely of plastic, it doesn't feel "cheap" like some of the competition. The exception to this is the door over the battery/memory card compartment, which is especially flimsy. The A550 has a small, low resolution LCD display (2-inch with 86k pixels). It's not great, and all the more reason to upgrade to the A560. Outdoor visibility is average, while low light viewing was very good. Unlike many cameras in its class, the A550 still has an optical viewfinder.

The A550 is a point-and-shoot camera with just a few manual controls. You've got numerous scene modes, plus a regular automatic mode for everyday shooting. While there's a manual mode, all it does is unlock all the menu items. As far as manual controls go, all you can adjust are slow shutter speeds and custom white balance, with the latter being especially useful. For full manual controls you'll have to step up to the A570 IS, which costs about $80 more. The A550 has the same movie mode as its predecessors, allowing you to record video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until you hit the 1GB file size limit (which takes eight minutes). If you want longer movies at this setting then -- guess what -- spend the extra dough on the A560.

Camera performance was very good. The A550 is ready to start taking pictures in a little over a second after you turn it on. Focus speeds were snappy (though not class-leading by any means), and shutter lag was minimal. You will wait about one second between shots. The camera focused accurately in low light, thanks to its AF-assist lamp. Like Canon's other DIGIC II based cameras, the A550's continuous shooting mode will keep snappy away until your memory card is full -- at 1.7 frames/second. Battery life was also impressive, with the best numbers in its class (and using just two batteries).

Photo quality was also good. The PowerShot A550 took well-exposed photos (most of the time) with accurate and saturated colors, pleasing sharpness, and minimal purple fringing. Noise levels are low through ISO 400 in good light, though I'd stop at ISO 200 in low light conditions. You may experience some blurring in the corners of the frame of your photos, though, especially at wide-angle. And finally, the A550 has the same redeye problem that plagues all of Canon's A-series cameras. If you get either the A560 or the A570 IS, there is a tool in playback mode that gets rid of it, so there's that upgrade message again.

I pretty much snuck in all my complaints about the A550 in the preceding paragraphs. If you want a compact, easy to use camera with a little more zoom than usual, then I'd definitely recommend that you take a look at the PowerShot A550. If you want an even better camera (for reasons I just described), spend the $30 and upgrade to the PowerShot A560 -- you'll thank me for it.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, noise levels low through ISO 400 (in good light)
  • Well built (for the most part) for the price
  • Very good performance
  • LCD visible in low light
  • Some manual controls
  • AF-assist lamp, good low light focusing
  • Good movie and continuous shooting modes (though see issue below)
  • Impressive software bundle
  • Uses AA batteries; great battery life
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Some corner blurriness
  • Redeye remains a problem
  • Small, low resolution LCD
  • Can only record about 8 minutes of VGA video due to 1GB file size limit
  • Flimsy door over memory card / battery compartment; plastic tripod mount
  • Small memory card included

Other cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot A560 and A570 IS, Fuji FinePix A820, GE A730, HP Photosmart M437, Kodak EasyShare C703, Nikon Coolpix L10, Olympus FE-210, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS70, Pentax Optio E30, Samsung S730, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W35.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot A550 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read more about the PowerShot A550 at CNET, Pocket-lint, and PC Magazine.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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