Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH
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The Canon PowerShot SD550 ($500) is an update to the popular SD500, which was released just seven months ago (click here to read our review). There's one big change on the SD550 when compared to its predecessor, plus a few smaller ones as well. Here's what's new on the SD550:
Most of those aren't very exciting, and to be honest I don't know why Canon couldn't put the larger screen on the thing in the first place. Anyhow, other features on the SD550 that haven't changed include its 7.1 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, VGA movie mode, and unlimited burst mode.
Before we go on, two notes about this review. First, the SD550 is also known as the IXUS 750 in some countries. Second, since the camera is so similar to the SD500, I'll be reusing most of that review here to save time.
If you're ready to learn more about the SD550 then I'm here to tell you. Read on!
What's in the Box?
The PowerShot SD550 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Canon includes a 32MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card along with the SD550, which holds a grand total of nine photos at the highest image quality setting. That's not great at all, so consider a larger memory card a must. I'd suggest a 512MB high speed SD card as a good starting point. Yes, the camera takes advantage of high speed memory cards, so it's worth spending the extra bucks for one.
The SD550 uses the same NB-3L lithium-ion rechargeable battery as its predecessor. Due to the larger LCD display on the camera, battery life numbers have dropped bit. Here's how the SD550 compares to other cameras in this class:
As you can see, the SD550's battery life is pretty average -- there are cameras that do a lot better in this area.
My usual complaints about proprietary batteries like the one used by the SD550 apply here. They're expensive ($44 a pop), and you can't put in a set of alkalines to get you through the rest of the day like you could with an AA-based camera. Then again, you'd be hard pressed to find an ultra-thin camera that uses AAs.
When it's time to recharge, just drop the battery into the included charger. This is my favorite style of charger -- it plugs right into the wall. It takes about 95 minutes to fully charge the battery.
As is the case with all ultra-compact cameras, there's a built-in lens cover on the SD550, so there's no clunky lens cap to worry about.
There are a couple of accessories for the SD550 worth mentioning. The most interesting is the WP-DC80 waterproof case ($180), which lets you take the ELPH up to 40 meters underwater. Another cool accessory is the HF-DC1 external slave flash, which gives you more flash power and less redeye than the built-in flash. Other accessories include an AC adapter and a soft case.
ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)
Canon includes version 25 of their very good Digital Camera Solutions software with the PowerShot SD550. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows)/ImageBrowser (for Mac), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows. Zoom/ImageBrowser can be used for downloading images from your camera, basic editing of your photos, and photo printing.
ArcSoft PhotoStudio 4.3 for Mac OS X
Also included is ArcSoft PhotoStudio (v 4.3 for Mac, v5.5 for Windows), which is kind of like a "light" version of Adobe Photoshop. It's not bad, though I miss all the bells and whistles of the newer PhotoImpression software that's available these days (which Canon used to include).
Canon has retooled their manuals a bit with the SD550. There's a basic manual which will get you up and shooting quickly. For more details you can open up the advanced manual, which should answer any question you might have. There are also separate manuals for the software and direct printing (PictBridge). While the manuals are complete, they could be a little more user friendly.
Look and Feel
The PowerShot SD550 looks exactly like the SD500, save for its slightly different body color. The "perpetual curve" design of the camera is eye-catching, and much more attractive than the boxy shape of many cameras in this class. The camera is made mostly of metal, and it feels quite solid for the most part. It's easy to hold and operate with one hand.
Here's a look at how the SD550 compares with some of the competition in terms of size and weight:
I have two comments on the above chart. Number one is that yes, the SD550 isn't the smallest camera in this class -- not even close. However, it's still quite compact, and it'll fit in any pocket with ease. My second comment is just to point out that the SD550 is slightly thicker than its predecessor due to its larger LCD display.
Enough of that, let's start our tour of the camera now!
The PowerShot SD550 has the same F2.8-4.9, 3X zoom lens as the SD500. The focal length is 7.7 - 23.1 mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 111 mm. Like the other SD series cameras, the SD550 doesn't support conversion lenses.
To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's built-in flash. The SD550 has a very powerful flash for a compact camera, with a working range of 0.5 - 5.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 3.0 m at telephoto. For even more flash power (and less redeye) you can use the external slave flash that I mentioned in the previous section.
To the left of the flash is the optical viewfinder. The item to the left of that is the AF-assist lamp, which doubles as the self-timer lamp. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations.
The only other item to mention on the front of the camera is the microphone, located just to the upper-left of the lens.
The biggest new feature on the SD550 (pun intended) is its new 2.5" LCD display. It's big and bright, and motion is fluid. One thing that didn't go up along with the screen size was the screen resolution: it's still 115,000 pixels -- same as before. You can tell that the resolution isn't as high as it could be when you're viewing pictures on the screen, but I never found this to be a problem. The SD550 does a great job in low light, brightening quite a bit so you can see what you're looking at.
While most cameras with a huge LCD don't have an optical viewfinder, those clever Canon engineers managed to fit one in just above the screen. Yes, it's a bit small, but something's better than nothing, right? As you can see, there's no diopter correction knob, which is used to focus what you're looking at through the viewfinder.
At the upper-right corner of the photo is the mode dial. The options on the mode dial include playback, record, manual record, scene, and movie mode. The manual mode isn't really that manual -- it just unlocks all the menu options on the camera. I'll list all the scene modes a little later in the review.
Direct Transfer menu
Below the mode dial is the Print/Share button. When connected to a PictBridge-enabled photo printer, you can make prints right from the camera. If you hook into a Windows PC, you'll be able to transfer photos and even select your computer's desktop picture, all right from the camera.
Below that is the four-way controller, which has been reworked a bit since the SD500. In addition to its menu navigation duties, the four-way controller also adjusts:
The PowerShot SD550 has the same unlimited burst mode as the other cameras in the SD series. With a high speed memory card you can keep taking pictures at 1.9 frames/second (per my testing) until the memory card is full. There's a very brief freeze on the LCD between shots, but you still should be able to follow a moving subject.
By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu (now with a little animation). This menu has the following options:
The only real manual controls on the SD550 are for white balance and shutter speed. The custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card as a reference, for perfect color in any lighting. The long shutter speed feature lets you manually choose a speed range from 1 - 15 seconds -- great for long exposures. The SD550 still needs some kind of action scene mode.
The photo effect lets you change the color or sharpness of your image instantly, and you can use it for stills or movies. The Stitch Assist feature helps you compose panoramic photos (the bundled software does most of the heavy lifting here).
Using the My Colors "Color Swap" feature
If you've read the SD400 or SD500 reviews then you know about the My Colors feature. Since the feature hasn't changed since then, I'm going to use my examples from those reviews.
There are two things to note before I tell you about these features. First, you can choose to save the original, unaltered image if you desire (probably a good idea). Second, using the flash or changing the white balance or metering is going to prevent this feature from working properly.
|Normal shot||Color accent using the green color on The Body Shop sign
(Example from the SD500)
The color accent feature will turn your image to black and white, except for the color which you've selected (see above). To select the color you point the camera at the color you want to sample and then press the four-way controller. You can fine tune the selected color by pressing up/down on the four-way controller, but it didn't make a huge different in my testing. For this option as well as the next two, the camera gives you a preview of what it's about to do before you take the photo.
You can see what I did here using the Color Swap feature (example from the SD400)
The color swap feature does just as it sounds: you can exchange one color for another. Want to see how your car looks in red? Well, select your car's color first and then find something red, and the rest is history.
The custom color feature lets you adjust the color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones from -2 to +2 in 1-step increments.
The final buttons on the back of the camera are Display (turns the LCD on and off and toggles what is shown on the screen) and Menu (which does just as it sounds).
Up on top of the SD550 you'll find the speaker, power button, shutter release, and zoom controller. The zoom controller, which is wrapped around the shutter release, moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.3 seconds. I counted seven steps throughout the zoom range, which isn't too many.
Nothing to see here.
On the other side of the camera you'll find the I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. They include A/V out and USB. The SD550, like its predecessor, supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The battery and memory card slots are protected by a plastic door of decent quality. As you can see from the photo, you won't be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.
The included NB-3L battery is shown at right.
Using the Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH
It takes the SD550 just 0.9 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can take pictures. That's very fast for a camera with an extending lens!
No live histogram to be found
While not class-leading, the SD550 focuses quickly in most situations. Typical focus times are around 0.3 - 0.5 seconds, and a bit longer if the camera has to "hunt" for focus. Low light focusing was good 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 speed was also excellent on the SD550, with a delay of about a second before you can take another picture, assuming you've turned the post-shot review feature off.
You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button (the "down" key on the four-way controller).
Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera:
As you can see, a larger memory card is a wise investment if you buy the SD550. I should also mention that there is a special "postcard" resolution (1600 x 1200) which is what you'll need to use if you want to print the date on your photos. You cannot do it at any other resolution.
Not surprisingly, there's no RAW or TIFF support on this camera.
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 SD550 has the same new style menu system as the other cameras in the SD series. Note that some menu options are not available while in the automatic shooting mode. With that in mind, here's what's in the record menu:
The custom self-timer option is new. Instead of just 2 or 10 seconds, now you can have the camera take up to 10 shots automatically, with a delay ranging from 1 to 30 seconds before the photo is taken.
There is also a setup menu on the SD550, so let's take a look at that now. Here's what you'll find in the setup menu:
An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well, if you desire. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.
Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.
The SD550 did a very nice job with our macro test subject. I wish there was some control over aperture on the camera, as this would eliminate the "blurry nose" problem you see here. Colors are nice and saturated, and the whole image is nice and smooth (grain free).
There are two macro modes on the camera. In regular macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 5 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto. A digital macro feature locks the zoom and wide-angle and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer, though this will reduce the quality of the image -- the 5 cm minimum distance remains.
The PowerShot SD550 did a nice job with the night scene as well. The camera took in plenty of light, thanks to its manual shutter speed controls (at least in the slow direction). The buildings are all nice and sharp and purple fringing levels are low. Being a 7 Megapixel camera with a tiny sensor you'll find that noise levels are a bit higher than normal.
Speaking of noise, let's take that same scene and see how increasing the ISO sensitivity affects noise levels:
ISO 100 is just a bit noisier than ISO 50. At ISO 200 details are disappearing, and things look pretty nasty at ISO 400. Even after running the ISO 400 photo through NeatImage I'm not sure that you'll get much of a print out of it.
There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the SD550's 3X zoom lens. There's a bit of corner softness as well, and you'll see a bit of this in your real world photos as well. Vignetting (dark corners) was not a problem.
As was the case with the SD500 before it, redeye is a problem on the PowerShot SD550. While your results may vary, you can expect to deal with this annoyance at least part of the time.
Photo quality is just like it was on the SD500: very good. Images are well exposed, with accurate color and low purple fringing. For the most part images have a "smooth" look to them, but they're still plenty sharp. As I said in the night shot section, noise levels are a little above average, but they're not high enough to be of concern, unless you're making very large prints.
Don't just take my word for it, though. Have a look at our extensive photo gallery, and print the photos as if they were your own. Then decide if the SD550's photo quality meets your expectations!
The SD550 has the same very nice movie mode as its predecessor. 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). A high speed memory card is required for this movie mode.
For longer movies you can 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 unique "Fast Frame Rate" mode, 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.
The My Colors and Photo Effects features mentioned earlier can be used in movie mode as well. A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip.
You cannot use the zoom lens during filming (it will be locked when you start filming). You can, however, use the digital zoom without a major loss in quality.
Since it was a problem with some SD500's, I listened for any "whine" in the sound track of movies recorded on the SD550. In a totally silent room there is a bit of a whine, which I suppose could irritate some people. When I took more realistic movies I did not hear anything unusual.
Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.
I've got a great sample movie for you this time. Enjoy!
Click to play movie (12.1 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
At first glance the SD550's playback mode looks just like the one on the SD500, but upon further inspection there are some new bells and whistles as well. Basic features are the same: image protection and rotation, DPOF print marking, sound memos (60 secs), and thumbnail mode are all here.
The zoom and scroll feature is here too. This lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It's nice and fast thanks to the camera's DIGIC II processor.
Canon has managed to slip in a few new features into playback mode and they're mainly cosmetic. For starters, the thumbnail view now enlarges the selected photo a bit (see above), which is very handy in my opinion. Canon has also added a fancy "fade" transition as you move from photo to photo (see this sample movie for an example).
The final crazy feature must've been one of those "well, we have some spare time, let's do something cool" items. As you can see in the photos above, when you rotate the camera into the vertical position, the image being displayed gets rotated too. Canon's using the same orientation sensors that automatically rotate photos for you to do this trick.
By default, the SD550 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram. This screen has switched around a bit since I reviewed the SD500.
The camera rockets through photos in playback mode. It moves from one to the next instantly, now with a fancy new transition!
How Does it Compare?
With the PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH, Canon has taken a great camera and made it even better. While current SD500 owners need not rush out and buy it, those of you looking for a compact and very capable point-and-shoot camera should take a close look at the SD550.
The PowerShot SD550 (also known as the IXUS 750) is a compact (but not tiny) and very stylish metal camera. Its perpetual curve design and large LCD display will catch the eyes of those around you. That large LCD display (2.5") is one of the new features on the camera, and while it's big in size, the resolution could be better. One nice thing about it is that it works very well in low light situations, unlike most screens. And, unlike most of the competition, Canon has managed to keep an optical viewfinder on the camera. The SD550 has a pretty standard 3X zoom lens, and it doesn't support any conversion lenses, nor would I expect it to.
The SD550 packs quite a few features in its compact body, though it's a bit short on manual controls (the only ones are for white balance and slow shutter speeds). On the front of the camera you'll find a very powerful flash and an AF-assist lamp, which gives the camera good low light focusing performance. Inside the camera you'll find a snappy and easy-to-use interface with features like "My Colors", which lets you swap or highlight colors, among other things. Other features included an unlimited continuous shooting mode and the ability to record movies at 640 x 480 at 30 frames/second. The only problem with the movie mode is that the 1GB file size limit is reached in just eight minutes -- perhaps it's time for Canon to consider another codec so movies can be longer?
Camera performance is excellent in almost all areas. The camera starts up quickly and shoots and plays back your photos almost instantly. Autofocus speeds aren't as fast as, say, the Panasonic FX9, but it's still good. The SD550 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast transferring of photos to your Mac or PC. One area in which the camera falls short is in terms of battery life: while it's not terrible, the SD550 is quickly being passed by the competition.
Photo quality is very good on the SD550. Images are sharp, with accurate color and low purple fringing. Noise levels are a bit above average (given that this is a 7 Megapixel camera with a tiny sensor) and can be quite nasty at high ISOs. As is the case with most cameras, redeye is a problem on the SD550.
There really isn't much else to complain about. About the only thing I can come up with is the fact that you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod. Overall though, the SD550 is a heck of a compact point-and-shoot, and it gets my recommendation.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other cameras in this class worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SD450 (thinner, 5MP version of the SD550), Casio Exilim EZ-Z750, Fuji FinePix F10 and Z1, HP Photosmart R817, Kodak EasyShare V550, Konica Minolta DiMAGE X1, NIkon Coolpix S3, Olympus Stylus 600 and 800, Pentax Optio S6, Samsung Digimax i5, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T5.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD550 and its competitors before you buy!
Photo GallerySee how the photos turned out in our gallery!
Want another opinion?
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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