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Canon PowerShot A550 - Digital Camera Review
Review Date: 06/05/2007
Rating: Recommended
Author: Stephen Waller
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Introduction: Announced in January 2007, the Canon PowerShot A550 is a compact 7.1 megapixel digital camera with a 4x optical zoom lens, 2.0" (86,000 pixel) LCD screen and an optical viewfinder. The camera has the ability to take photos up to ISO 800. The 4x optical zoom lens is equivalent to 35-140mm on a 35mm camera. The Canon PowerShot A550 is available from around £110, this makes it good value for money for a digital camera with good image quality. The camera is enclosed in a sturdy plastic body and available in silver only. The A550 can record video at 30fps VGA (640x480) or 60fps QVGA (320x240) with sound till the memory card is full. The body measures approx. 91(W) X 64 (H) X 43(D) mm , and weighs approx. 160g excluding battery and memory card. This is Canon's replacement to the A530. The A550s new features are: higher resolution 7.1 megapixels image sensor, up from 5 megapixels, a 2-inch LCD screen, SDHC memory card compatibility and greater energy efficiently using AA batteries.

Canon have this to say about the camera:

"The PowerShot A550 features ISO 800 for flash-free shooting indoors and in other low light situations. With 7.1 Megapixels and a 4x optical zoom, this compact performer offers a lot of camera for your money."

You can find more information on their website.

The Camera: a visual tour: (Photos of the camera taken with the Panasonic Lumix FX30)


Front: Camera off


Front / side view: camera on: microphone, focus-assist lamp, optical viewfinder, flash, 4x optical zoom lens.


Back: Optical viewfinder, 2" screen, speaker, play/photo mode button, print, 4-way controller with quick access to ISO, macro, flash, continuous / self timer, with Func / Set button in the middle, display, and menu button below.


Top: On / off, mode dial, shutter release, zoom control, strap loop.


Bottom: battery / memory compartment, plastic tripod mount.

Size Comparison: Compared to a Pentax 35mm camera - a medium/compact sized 35mm camera.


Size comparison.


Size comparison.


Size comparison, compared to the 8 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix F40fd.


Size comparison, compared to the ultra compact Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX30.


Size comparison, compared to the Fujifilm FinePix F20.

Specifications / Features:

  • Popular Special Scene modes on the mode dial
  • 7.1 Megapixels
  • 4x optical zoom
  • DIGIC II, iSAPS and 9-point AiAF
  • 2.0" LCD screen
  • 13 shooting modes and My Colours
  • High-speed ISO 800
  • VGA movies with sound
  • PictBridge and Print/Share button
  • Powered by AA batteries

Box Contents:

  • Digital Camera
  • 2xAA Alkaline batteries
  • Wrist strap
  • A/V Cable for Canon A550
  • USB Cable (mini-B)
  • Quick guide manual
  • CD-ROM
  • 16Mb SD card

Average box contents - Purchase of a pouch is recommended to protect the camera. The camera connects directly via a usb cable and has a separate cable which allows output to a television via A/V sockets.

Battery usage: Battery life is good. I have been able to take over 250 photos using 2500MAh NiMh AA batteries between recharging.  This is less than the guide of 550 for 2500 MAh NiMh batteries, but this will always depend on usage, such as the amount of time spent reviewing. As AA batteries are widely available and relatively cheap, carrying a set of back-ups makes sense to avoid missing photo opportunities due to lack of power.

Camera Operation and Options: The power button switches the camera on ready for taking photographs, and the review button will also switch on the camera for reviewing the pictures you have taken. The mode dial has manual, auto, portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids and pets, indoor, scene, and movie modes.  Within the scene mode, by using the 'set' button, you can select from night scene, foliage, snow, beach, and fireworks. When using the manual option, as well as ISO, it is possible to set contrast, vivid, neutral, sepia, black and white as well as white balance. In playback photos can be shown by 9 thumbnails which can be scrolled through a screen at a time. You can also go from image to image whilst zooming.  The 'disp' button toggles through display options.

Photo mode/menus: The function button brings up the screen as shown on the right below:

Photo mode Function Menu

Screen / LCD display in photo mode: (shown on the left) The screen has a resolution of 86,000 pixels and updates smoothly - the colours appear accurate for reviewing photos. There is a live and review histogram available by pressing the 'disp' button; the screen is clear and the text and menus are easy to read.  

Viewfinder: The optical viewfinder is useful in bright daylight, but not very accurate for closer shots.

Photo menu Setup Menu

Shooting Options: on dial: manual, auto, portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids and pets, indoor, scene. Within scene: night scene, foliage, snow, beach, and fireworks. Manual: EV compensation, ISO, White balance, colour modes. Auto: ISO auto or ISO high. Other presets: ISO auto, EV compensation.

The 4 way quick control on the back, gives access to Macro, Flash setting, Single, Multi shop, or timed, and ISO in manual mode. As well as the above options, resolution and quality is selected using the 'Function / set' button.  Flash is not available on 'fireworks' scene setting. Though EV can be set in all presets apart from Auto, this information is lost when you change mode. On the other hand, in manual mode, setting are retained between sessions.

Setup menu: The setup menu allows you to select AiAF, digital zoom, metering, date and time, sound, volumes, format SD card, startup options, and others

Playback (Review) mode options:

Playback mode Playback menu

Playback mode: Accessed by pressing 'play / review' button (if camera off, switches it on) .Scrolling through the photos is quite fast. The zoom is quick and allows switching between images after pressing the 'set' button while still zoomed in. By pressing the 'disp' button, further information is displayed about the image as well as a histogram. You can erase, protect (lock) and add voice memo.

Picture Size / Quality: A 16Mb SD card is provided with the camera. The chart below is a guide as to how many images this will store.

Mode
Number of recorded pixels:
Superfine:
Fine:
Normal:
L
3072X2304
4
7
16
M1
2592X1944
5
10
21
M2
2048X1536
9
16
33
M3
1600X1200
14
26
50
S
640X480
56
88
138
Postcard
1600X1200
N/A
26
N/A
Widescreen
3072X1728
6
10
21
VGA 30fps
640x480
7 seconds
QVGA 60fps
320x240
7 seconds

As shown in the table above, higher quality images take a large amount of memory, and you can't fit very many photos on a 16Mb SD card, so a high capacity card is definitely recommended. There are a good number of choices regarding image size and quality. Note it is not possible to down-sample a fine resolution image to a lower quality or lower size one in-camera.

A large memory card is relatively cheap, and highly recommended, I would recommend at a bare minimum a 256mb memory card, and preferably a 512mb memory card, as these are relatively affordable - the larger the memory card, the more photos you will be able to take. If you are likely to be away from a computer for a long time (such as when going on holiday) then the largest memory card you can afford would definitely be worth investing in. This camera takes SD-Picture Card. Listed below are links to memory cards that will work with the Canon PowerShot A550:

Find the latest prices for SD memory cards at Amazon.co.uk: 256mb: £3, 512mb: £1, 1gb (1000mb): £3, 2gb (2000mb): £8, 4gb (4000mb SDHC): £23 (with USB reader)
Need more help deciding what memory card to buy? Have a look at our guide to digital camera memory cards or our article what size memory card should I buy?

Speed: The camera switches on and can take its first photo in about 1.7 seconds. The camera shutter response at .5 seconds is good - and shot to shot time was quick, at less than 2 seconds (this is going to vary dependant on exposure conditions). Continuous shooting is moderately quick, at roughly 1.5fps at the highest resolution though when using flash can slow to between 5 and 10 seconds between shots (dependant on battery condition). The cameras menus and zooming in seemed responsive. Moving around the different menu options is rapid. Switching on using the 'review' toggle requires the button to be depressed for a couple of seconds before it responds.

Ease of use: The camera is intuitive to use in any mode, but the manual options and features do take a little longer to use to their best advantage. The controls on the back of the camera are easy to use; using symbols common to most cameras.  The menus are responsive and simple to use and the addition of words to accompany the symbols clarifies their function.

Ergonomics and Buttons: (Feel, placement, labels, etc) The camera handles well, and the controls are reasonably sized. The buttons are labeled well (with symbols and / or text).  The compartments and covers seem well positioned and are easy to open.

Image Quality: Here are some real world sample photos taken in various settings, such as Inside, Outside and Macro, to demonstrate the quality of pictures taken and also show different features of the camera. Larger versions of these photos, plus more photos are available in the Canon PowerShot A550 Sample Photo Gallery!

Inside:

Heather and Flower (ISO200) Flash photo (ISO200)

Inside: The camera has good colour however some red-eye is noticable in the Heather and Flower photo, but not in the group photo. The flash is quite bright at its default setting. The camera did a good job at focusing most of the time even in low-light, thanks to the focus assist lamp. Colour is well saturated though in manual mode, white balance, and / or colour preference (eg vivid) is available. Although the camera has a continuous shooting modes, flash will slow things down quite dramatically.

ISO Noise Test: Noise is generally a bad thing - it removes detail, and gives a grainy effect over the image. With digital cameras noise can be a real problem as digital camera noise is often made out of blue, red or green dots. As the ISO setting increases, pictures tend to have more noise. Noise is most noticeable in dark areas of photos. The camera has an Automatic mode for ISO levels, and manual ISO settings (ISO: 80, 100, 200, 400, 800).

Below you'll find the noise test image, plus actual pixel crops from the image taken at different ISO settings, compared with the 7 megapixel Panasonic Lumic DMC-FX30 and the 8 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix F40fd.

Panasonic Lumix FX30 (7.2mp) Canon Powershot A550 (7.1mp) Fujifilm FinePix F40fd (8mp)

ISO Noise Test Photos - Flash is off. Canon Powershot A550 in the middle, Panasonic Lumix FX30 on the left, Fujifilm FinePix F40fd on the right. The Panasonic was chosen as a comparison as it has a similar number of megapixels to the Canon Powershot A550, and the Fujifilm was chosen due to the camera's low noise. Any tonal difference is due to automatic white balance or metering differences.

Panasonic Lumix FX30 (7.2mp) Canon A550 (7.1mp) Fujifilm FinePix F40fd (8mp)
   
ISO80 - N/A ISO80 - Actual Pixels ISO80 - N/A
ISO100 - Actual Pixels ISO100 - Actual Pixels ISO100 - Actual Pixels
ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels
ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels
ISO800 - Actual Pixels ISO800 - Actual Pixels ISO800 - Actual Pixels
 
ISO1250 - Actual Pixels ISO1600 - N/A ISO1600 - Actual Pixels
   
ISO3200 - N/A ISO3200 - N/A ISO2000 - Actual Pixels

The Canon Powershot A550 has relatively low noise upto ISO200. ISO400 produces acceptable results, and ISO800 is probably best left unused unless absolutely necessary. Compared with the other two cameras, noise does appear much more noticable, however, when compared to the Panasonix FX30, you can see that the A550 retains more detail even when the ISO setting is increased. However neither the Canon or the Panasonic perform as well as the Fujifilm, which manages to produce low noise images right up to ISO800 with very good detail.

Outside:

Holidary resort, Crete Boats

Outside: The camera has quite rich, saturated colours, with good contrast. There was reasonable detail, with hardly any purple fringing and no apparent vignetting. In general 'normal' quality jpeg artifacts are not easily seen, however areas with strong contrasts benefit from use of the highest quality setting (3mb + images).

Zoom: This camera has a 4x optical zoom lens and a built in 4x digital zoom - in the case of this camera the digital zoom basically takes a smaller area of the photo and enlarges it using software, blurring the image so that it is not pixellated. Generally it's best to avoid using digital zoom as it degrades the quality of the image and, often, better results can be obtained by using a photo package such as Adobe Photoshop. I've included examples below to show what the zoom is capable of.

Wide-angle 10.7x optical telephoto Full 21.4x
Wide-angle (ISO80 1/400-F7.1 Auto Evaluative) 4x Optical zoom (ISO80 1/640 F5.5 Auto Evaluative) Full 16x (ISO80 1/800 F5.5 Auto Evaluative)

Exposure: The photos of the clock tower are slightly over-exposed with detail in the darker areas though slightly too bright in the lighter areas - exposure using 'auto' in other photos was generally similar. Purple fringing is barely noticeable in the wide angle and very little is seen in the 4x optical zoom photo. Vignetting was not noticed in any of the photographs.  It can be useful set the camera to 'manual' so that you can under expose images by adjusting exposure compensation. Also selecting center weighted metering enables the exposure for the area of interest to be set prior to final composition.

Lens noise and zoom: The lens is relatively quiet in operation. The zoom ring around the shutter button gives good control over how you frame your subject though maybe a little sensitive. The digital zoom option is enabled in the menu and allows various preset steps.

Other Image Quality issues: Purple fringing was minimal, but occasionally seen in areas where the sky is next to a dark object. Barreling is noticeable on the wide angle setting.

Macro: the macro mode allows you to be roughly 5cm away from from the subject. You can set white balance manually, should you find the Auto unsatisfactory.

Pulsar Watch Macro (ISO200 1/50 F2.6) Actual Pixels

The custom white balance helps get better colours in the macro mode. Noise is becoming evident at ISO200 in the 'actual pixels' crop though colour is quite good . Using soft contrast in manual mode should extend dynamic range, which can be useful with high contrast subjects.

Video mode: The camera features a high resolution VGA 640 x 480 at 30 fps and QVGA 320 x 240 at 60fps video mode with sound. Video quality was good however this will use memory quickly - a 16 second video recorded at 640 x 480 took nearly 18 megabytes. Digital zoom is available while recording, while optical zoom is available prior to recording.

Conclusion

Image Quality: The sensor, electronics and optics used by Canon can produce good images. However, best results are achieved by tweaking the exposure compensation and white balance in manual mode. Exposure compensation is also available in the scene modes, but not in auto mode (which tends to produce overexposed images). Colours are rich and in a very wide range of situations the camera will take sharp, detailed pictures. Having some manual options does enable a certain amount of creativity. AiAF is a useful feature for portraits and macro shots, but on landscape setting, it tended to focus on close by objects, and was better disabled. This camera is reasonably good in low light situations as long as it is firmly supported. There is a good range of image quality settings to choose from. The camera was generally competent and fast at focusing and in low light, the focus assist lamp did the trick. (7.5/10)

Everything else (the camera as a whole): The camera is sturdy and fairly light and will just about fit into the pocket of a pair of jeans (caution: mode dial may rotate to unexpected setting). There is a reasonably good choice of features and options which it does not take long to become familiar with. The camera speed is generally good, with a fast switch on time, focusing time, shutter response, and continuous shooting modes. The screen size and resolution is good at 2" with 68,000 pixels, and the build quality appears good. The video mode is quite decent at 640 x 480 at 30fps with sound, and fully functioning 4x digital zoom. (7.5/10)

Value for Money: The Canon PowerShot A550 from around £110, is very good value for money. This more fully featured 7.1 megapixel digital camera with a high ISO of 800, and a 4x optical zoom lens compares favourably with the competition, the majority only having a 3x optical zoom lens. Other budget digital cameras with similar specifications are the Fujifilm FinePix F20, Sony Cybershot DSC-W35, Nikon Coolpix L11, Olympus FE-230, Olympus Mju 700, Casio Exilim EX-Z700, and Kodak Easyshare C603, although the majority of these are aimed more at the "point and shoot" market, and none of them feature a 4x optical zoom lens. (9/10) See more digital camera reviews sorted by megapixels here.

Summary: The Canon Powershot A550 7.1 megapixel digital camera with a 4x optical zoom lens and a 2" display is not especially exciting, but it does its job well in a very wide range of situations. The camera has a good range (ISO 80-800) of ISO settings.  It has excellent responsiveness and a good selection of manual options, and is capable of taking good photos. The Canon PowerShot A550 is well worth considering - there are very few digital cameras that offer these options and features at this price.

Canon PowerShot A550 Rating: Recommended (8/10)
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What I like:

  • Sharp screen shows the resulting photos with clarity.
  • Good price
  • Quick and responsive.
  • Useful options in manual mode.
  • Excellent quality images from ISO 80 to 200.
  • Good battery life and they're AA size.
  • Optical Viewfinder.

What I don't like:

  • Auto produces slightly overexposed photos.
  • Highest ISO setting isn't necessarily useful.
  • No panorama assist.
  • AiAF not always reliable

Additional Test Images are viewable in the Canon PowerShot A550 Sample Photo Gallery.

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